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Kara Jackson, celebrated poet, returns to her first love: music

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Kara Jackson is a ferociously talented poet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to the stage, to the mic - Kara Jackson.

(CHEERING)

KELLY: A few years ago, she was named national youth poet laureate at the age of 19, becoming just the third person to hold that title.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARA JACKSON: Blood is not a woman's currency. I face Mother Nature like rent.

KELLY: But before she was a poet, she had a different dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRUMMING)

JACKSON: I feel like I knew I was going to be a musician before anything, or at least I knew I wanted to sing songs.

KELLY: Jackson started playing piano at the age of 5. She and her older brother would make up songs, sing them around the house. Well, she's 23 now, and she is out with her debut album. It is lyrically complex, genre defying and, at times, as you will hear, vulgar. It's called "Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO FUN/PARTY")

JACKSON: (Singing) It's hard to have patience when you're waiting on luck like a postal truck, like a postal truck.

With poetry, I feel like it actually came later 'cause it wasn't really until I was in high school and I joined my spoken word club in my high school that I was really kind of immersed in spoken word and considered it to be an actual career and something that I could do. I don't think I knew that was tangible until I saw, you know, people who looked like me doing it.

KELLY: But it sounds like from early on, you figured out your instrument was going to be your voice, whether you were raising that in song or through spoken poetry. Is that right?

JACKSON: Yeah, definitely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO FUN/PARTY")

JACKSON: (Singing) Searching for a reason, he could only find one. He said, you're just no fun. You're just no fun.

KELLY: So talk me through the process. I saw an interview where you talked about how your process for writing a song is less formal than when you're writing a poem. What's the difference?

JACKSON: I think when I'm approaching a poem, I - 'cause I was really taught to stay away from cliches and not try to be corny.

KELLY: Yeah.

JACKSON: And I appreciate the ways in which songs are not as strict around some of those formalities, and they invite a little bit more corniness. And I think it's sometimes OK to welcome cliches into your work and to contend with them as well. And I think that's kind of also what I mean in terms of, you know, the corniness of songwriting.

KELLY: You do have a song that's sarcastic, I think it's fair to say, about love gone wrong. I'm thinking of "[Expletive] Blues."

JACKSON: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "D******* BLUES")

JACKSON: (Singing) When you're stuck sinking in someone else's lagoon...

KELLY: Tell me about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "D******* BLUES")

JACKSON: (Singing) ...Like a spoon drowns in a stew.

So "[Expletive] Blues" was really born out of people like Fiona Apple and Amy Winehouse, two people who I think were really unique in their approach of taking, you know, a classic form and kind of making it their own and also, you know, making it a little vulgar at times, too. And so I think I was really inspired by, you know, their approach. And I wanted to kind of take a stab at my own form of the blues. But I really consider "[Expletive] Blues" to be one of the weirdest songs that I've written and one of the weirdest songs on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "D******* BLUES")

JACKSON: (Singing) Makes me feel like I don't have a clue.

KELLY: The title of this album is "Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY DOES THE EARTH GIVE US PEOPLE TO LOVE?")

JACKSON: (Singing) Why does the Earth give us people to love?

KELLY: Is there a story behind the album title, behind that song?

JACKSON: I decided that would be the title because of the title track, which came first. So I started writing that song a year after my best friend, Maya, passed away. And at the same time, a really close mentor of mine was diagnosed with the same cancer, essentially. So I was really dealing with those questions, and that question was really born out of that space. And then when I was writing the album, I came back to that song. And so the second half is more in retrospect, and there's kind of more of a sense of reflection from all the years and the time that I've kind of had to adjust to grief and to really grow around it, as some people would say. So I think that there's a sense of kind of looking back and approaching grief in a different way at the end of the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY DOES THE EARTH GIVE US PEOPLE TO LOVE?")

JACKSON: (Singing) We were going to start a band, hijack my folks' minivan, actualize our silly plans, the lifelines written in our hands.

KELLY: You dedicate the album to Maya, to your best friend Maya. Do you still talk to her? Do you sing to her?

JACKSON: Yeah, all the time. I - especially now that it's spring, I feel like, you know, she's all around me all the time. Or I'll hear a really specific song in a grocery store, and I feel like it's confirmation that she really is checking on me. And so I think putting out this album, I've felt her more than ever and think of her, you know, more than ever seeing people listen to the songs as well.

KELLY: Did you find an answer to that question, having sat with it for a while? Why does the Earth give us people to love?

JACKSON: I feel like sometimes I think that I have the answer when I'm immersed in the people around me and I'm hanging out with somebody or I'm with someone I love. And I think if anything, I'm starting to learn that this symbiotic relationship between living and dying and, as an extension, loving and dying is kind of the answer to the question because as much as I feel like I have an answer when I'm around people, I think it's when I can't be around them or when someone's taken from me - that's the moment that I understand why we were brought together at all. So I think maybe that's kind of hitting on the answer to the question. But as the album suggests, you know, there's some parts about dealing with people that are so frustrating, and the state of the world is so precarious sometimes that I lose the answer completely. So I'm definitely still figuring it out.

KELLY: As are we all. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to come talk to us. I can't wait to see what you do next.

JACKSON: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me and thank you for listening.

KELLY: Kara Jackson, musician and former national youth poet laureate. This debut album is "Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREE")

JACKSON: (Singing) Don't you bother me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.