Words by:
Photography: Ash Dye

Kara Jackson is musing over what things may be too deep to share with a stranger. “I feel like it’s not normal to actually say how you are when people say, ‘How are you?’”

The Illinois-born singer, songwriter and poet brings this up because, within the first few minutes of our conversation, we’re talking about crying in bathtubs. She smiles, unphased: “Part of why I make music is because I feel frustrated that it’s not normal to bring up crying in a bathtub in everyday conversation,” she says, warmly. “I find myself really confused at why everyone stays so surface-level.”


Jackson’s work goes much deeper. A former US National Youth Poet Laureate, between 2019-20, her work across both spoken-word and song possesses an emotional honesty and lyrical poignancy, with stark lines such as “and isn’t that just love, a will to destruct” (on the quasi-lullaby No fun/party) echoing in your head and inviting you to sit in the rumbling space of your feelings. Although only 23, her knowing, raw-bones vocal and stripped-back acoustic guitar makes her seem a much older soul. “People who listen to my work don’t always realise I’m as young as I am,” she concedes, with a shrug. Her new debut album, Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love?, brings these qualities to the fore with frank disclosures on self-worth, love and dudes being dickheads. Literally, on a track called Dickhead Blues, but also on the gently rollicking Therapy, which opens with one of the most withering putdowns in recent memory: “Every man thinks I’m his fucking mother/ Good for milk and good for supper.

“I think that it’s always been characteristic of me to say things that people don’t want to say, or make people uncomfortable,” the artist explains from her room in Chicago, where sunlight is pouring onto the bare white walls behind her. Yes, this means wry commentary about shitty men, but also moving passages confronting subjects that are widely considered difficult to face. On her debut album, that mainly takes the form of grief. “I’ve buried old and young, I watched them lower a saint/ We’re only waiting our turn, call that living?” she sings in her uniquely disengaged but intoxicating voice on the title track. Jackson was a teenager when her best friend, Maya, passed away, and the experience found her craving the language to articulate something no one around her seemed to want to talk about. She reflects: “I didn’t really receive any instructions on how to grieve.”

And so, in her final year of high school, Jackson turned to the work of feminist cultural critic bell hooks. In her seminal 2000 text All About Love: New Visions, hooks wrote about how essential both loving and grieving are to our existence – how they inform each other, and how expressing the passion of these feelings can feel unwieldy in a society that often tries to avoid sincerity and depth. Such notions are central to understanding Jackson’s work, and her quest to make a space where love and loss sit hand in hand. “If we had more of a culture around grief, and if we had to actually learn about that relationship in a more intentional way in school, how that would open ourselves up to each other in different ways.” She stops herself and laughs. “Not in like a ‘kumbaya, we’re all together’ way – I’m too cynical for that. But I think about how a culture of individualism is challenged by a culture of grief and how that pain ultimately connects us all.”


That sense of connection through sorrow and fear about the state of the world is something you can also pick up on in her poetry – on The World Is About to End and My Grandparents Are in Love, Jackson asks: “When the world ends will it suck the earth of all its love?” But she looks to her elders for assurance amid all the uncertainty. “I’ve always been really interested in the ways in which the past and the people I come from are directly engaging with my present,” she says, “so while I do feel an impending sense of doom, I find a certain optimism in having so many examples of people who have just persisted through a lot of doom themselves.” She points to the experience of Black Americans more broadly, as well as the specifics of her own family. “Sometimes when I’m around my older relatives, I’m reminded of how cyclical everything is. I don’t know if that gives me hope necessarily, or if it just gives me a sense that something will prevail.”

“Words and language are really important to me, so there’s a sense that I’m always doing literary work, whether it’s a song or a poem”

Learning from her elders and peers is integral to Jackson’s creativity. She talks fondly of her upbringing in Oak Park, Illinois, where her family encouraged her love of music. She learned piano and guitar as a child, and mentions influences like Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin in the same breath as Three 6 Mafia, Jim Croce, Brandy and Joanna Newsom. And then, of course, there’s Beyoncé: “I’ve been accused of being Beyhive!” she laughs. “I’m hive-adjacent.” Jackson speaks at length about Beyoncé being a student of Black art, someone who champions versatility on each album and pays homage to lineage, transcending genre; and, in turn, how this inspires her. “A lot of Black artists are complicating genre and forcing us to question what purpose it serves outside of marketing,” Jackson says. “It’s definitely a goal of mine to further that work and do more complicating, especially as it relates to the acoustic and country realms.”

Indeed, her album is one that allows musical styles to float without form. Jackson’s vocal is unpolished; stark yet rich, deep and mellifluous, weaving tales over twanging guitar, expansive string arrangements, glossy harp and celestial electronics that sometimes veer into discomfiting dissonance. Her music sounds unfixed, meandering, moving.

This unique sonic space is perhaps indebted to what she calls the “organic process” of crafting the record. It started out as guitar and vocal demos which Jackson had been working on for years and, when she felt ready, she brought these to her friends and collaborators (Chicago-based musicians KAINA, Nnamdï, Sen Morimoto). Each week, all still wearing their masks, they would meet and build on the songs, co-producing them with Jackson. “They share a lot of my sensibilities around music, and they’re people I just trust as friends,” she explains. “I feel like us working on it solidified the meaning of the album in real time because it really does sound like a labour of friendship.”

Jackson’s peers have also been an invaluable guiding light in the music industry, helping equip her to navigate a business which she describes as “hell – a demoralising money-hungry machine” (she does not go into specifics, but she seems wise to the generally exploitative practices that can run rife in the arts). Maybe this is partly the reason she’s mindful of how much she shares in her art – she speaks about her mentor, another Chicago-based artist and poet, Jamila Woods, who told her not to give too much of herself away in her work. Jackson says it has made her cognisant of “being deliberate, practising discernment and fiercely protecting the privacy you have.”

“A lot of Black artists are complicating genre and forcing us to question what purpose it serves outside of marketing. It’s definitely a goal of mine to further that work”

It’s why Jackson feels uneasy when words like ‘diaristic’ or ‘confessional’ are used to describe her work. “Words and language are really important to me, so there’s a sense that I’m always doing literary work, whether it’s a song or a poem,” she says. Jackson points to how we mythologise men versus women in this context: men as inventors, writers. “I think of someone like Bob Dylan who is celebrated as this pioneer of lyricism, but someone like Joni Mitchell,” she pauses before adding a quick caveat, “who is also celebrated for lyricism, don’t get me wrong! But when you’re a woman I feel like the emotional side of our work undermines or obscures the literary work we’re doing.”

Her poetry, she explains, is often more rooted in the realities of her family, but she has enjoyed using her debut as a place to invent in the realm of folk music and folklore, learning from and placing herself in the pantheon of the great songwriters that tell unburnished, universal stories to reveal personal truths. “I’m introducing myself to the world,” she says, “But I also am trying to work within the lineage of Joanna Newsom, and these old folk songs that give these narratives that allow us to reflect on our actual, real-life experiences.”


On the album’s sprawling, six-minute title track, Jackson contemplates temporality, religion and pain. The song brings to life her late friend Maya, the dreams they had of starting a band together, dreams of singing together again, all through vocals that sound like a formidable, loving sigh over crescendoing piano and droney strings. “The title is the question that’s leading the work,” she says. “I was coming from a place of losing someone. But also the album is a collection of experiences about dealing with humans.” This means contemplating the good and the bad – the frustrating, annoying interactions, sadness and disappointments, alongside the beauty of true connection. “Sometimes I’m just like,‘Why?!’ when I think about the burden of humanity,” she laughs, “but sometimes I’ll ask that question in a mystical way. I’m mesmerised by the opportunity to know people. I don’t understand why we were put on this earth just to experience each other in these beautiful but also unreal ways.”

It’s this tension that sits at the core of Kara Jackson’s work. It comes back to that initial conversation about creating an open forum to hold ourselves in love and grief, and the strange reality of being alive, even when societal structures turn away from it. “It’s this persistence of just talking about it,” she says, resolutely. “Bringing up loss and grief in an attempt to hopefully get closer to figuring out how we can get along; how we free ourselves.”

Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? is out now via September Recordings