Kara Jackson’s Mournful, Joyful, Unapologetic Guitar-Ass Music

In this Rising interview, the singer-songwriter talks about flying in the face of racism, why it’s good to be petty, and her artfully honest debut album.

On Kara Jackson’s humbly epic song “no fun/party,” she mixes piercing personal reflections with writerly metaphors involving elephant tusks and dancing dragons, all atop her own spare guitar playing. Wistful strings simmer to the surface at points, intensifying the spotlight on Jackson’s plainly heartfelt delivery. It’s the kind of song that makes you instantly stop what you’re doing and pay attention, a disarmingly direct report of one’s loneliest thoughts and feelings. “Every person that I’ve dated/Tells me I’m intimidating,” she sings, plaintively.

But the Jackson I spend time with one February afternoon in her hometown of Oak Park, Illinois—the one who shows me their elementary school and reminisces about the Spoken Word Club and invites me into her parents’ backyard—is the very opposite of intimidating. She is congenial, funny, and bright in dazzling green eyeshadow to match a shimmery two-piece look that makes her pop out from the suburban surroundings. She is a person who’s willing to speak—and sing—frankly about the heavy stuff, like self-doubt and grief, and about the dickheads of the world with the same sharp insight. She cites influences like Nina Simone, Beyoncé, Neil Young, Brandy, Jim Croce, and Charley Pride in equal measure. The 23-year-old’s range is evident through her forthcoming debut full-length, Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love?, an audacious blend of folk and country that finds the one-time National Youth Poet Laureate channeling her precise prose to song.

Oak Park is a familiar destination for both of us; I also grew up here. As we walk around the large village just west of Chicago, we discuss how the place has grappled with a long history of attempts and failures and successes in racial integration and equity. But we also talk about how smaller incidents at our shared Oak Park River Forest High School—seeing racist stickers or white boys playing dress-up in durags—invoked similar responses in us more than 15 years apart. How other people have a way of projecting their insecurities onto us, concocting inaccurate personalities about who we are as Black people. How grief is complex, but should be confronted and examined rather than ignored and denied. 

Instead of bottling up such emotions, Jackson refocuses them in her art. “They want us to be really mad and disappear,” she says. “But I’m petty. I will find ways to be more visible.”

In 2019, Jackson self-released her first EP, A Song for Every Chamber of the Heart, a sparse collection primarily written alone and for the guitar. Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? is an ambitious step forward, one that was nourished with the help of some of Jackson’s Chicago musician friends, including eclectic indie faves NNAMDÏSen Morimoto, and KAINA, all of whom helped Jackson get out of her own head and bring her pain and poignancy to life.

Grief permeates the album, and Jackson is unapologetic about hers. Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? is dedicated to her best friend Maya, a fellow musician who passed away from cancer during high school. Being faced with grief is overwhelming and unnerving, potent and confusing. It can also be isolating. We are often denied room to grieve publicly, and supposed loved ones sometimes lack the words to comfort us. It is in that place of incomprehension and despair that Jackson is most adept at articulating her feelings in song. “I remember having to lay the vocal tracks down and thinking, I don’t know if I’m gonna cry in this session or not,” she recalls. 

Jackson first began writing the album’s title track around the time she graduated from high school, when one of her mentors was dealing with the same cancer as Maya. “I’ve buried old and young/I watched them lower a saint,” she sings over doleful guitar. “We’re only waiting our turn/Call that living?” The song includes devastating memories of Maya that don’t flinch: “At the age of 17/Your knees were weaker than a sheet.” But then, toward the end of the six-minute-plus ode, Jackson dreams of what could have been—about the band they could have started, the harmonies they could have sung—as strings start to swell, holding up her wishful thoughts.

Grief is also a manifestation of love. We grow around grief, change around it, sometimes wither around it, too. But it never goes away, not really. In the end, it confirms that the love was there and real and true. “The name of the album is a real question: Literally, why are we put on this Earth just to love each other? It’s just a really hard thing,” Jackson says. “But I’m so lucky to have the people that I have, and to have loved them as hard as I have.”

Other types of relationships, ones that aren’t as sacred, are also explored on the record. “Like, why did this Earth give us dickheads?” Jackson jokes, referencing the track “dickhead blues.” It’s at once a mantra of self-worth and an airing out of emotional deadbeats, with lines Fiona Apple could appreciate like, “I’m no longer amused by losers/Who find themselves losing me.”

After walking through north Oak Park, we settle down at a table in the backyard of Jackson’s childhood home, located on the corner of a street where cars fly by all day. Although she grew up in the Chicagoland area, Jackson’s roots stem firmly in the South. Alabama, Louisiana, and rural Georgia, to be specific. It is where her father is from, and it is Jackson’s heritage. “I’m proud to come from slaves and from sharecroppers,” she says. “I eat grits every day. I literally had grits this morning. You can’t really go wrong with some grits.” 

She explores and asserts her history within her work. Talking about critics who have deemed her music unapproachable, she says, “A lot of what people are seeing in my work as inaccessible is my Blackness, and the fact that I make music that’s not typically associated with my people. They really don’t like Black women being in places that they don’t think we should be.” 

She’s drawn to the unvarnished truth of country and folk music, genres that are just as historically Black as rock and rap. In this sense, her album is a throughline of musical lineage and legacy, a reclamation. “At the end of the day, you just have to do the things that make you feel very joyful,” Jackson says. “And guitar-ass music just makes me feel very joyful.”