Interview | FFS 5 with Karen & the Sorrows’ Karen Pittelman

Photo by Leah James

For her third album, singer-songwriter Karen Pittelman recruited an all-star string band to accompany her, including Rima Fand on fiddle, Ross Martin on guitar, and Cole Quest Rotante on dobro. This time around, Karen & the Sorrows mix their recognizable yet mysterious roots-rock sound with elements plucked from country music’s traditional roots and their polished heyday in the ’90s. The record’s narrative artfully explores human experiences, including romance, grief and what happens when the two intersect. 

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?

I grew up in New York City, and while I’ve lived in a bunch of other places over the years, eventually I had to move back to my hometown because I’m a New Yorker through and through.

I was always writing songs even as a small child, though for a long time I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I remember coming home from nursery school and banging away on my family’s piano, making up a song about how sad I was that this other little boy and little girl rode off on their tricycles without me.

One of my most defining moments came the first time I brought together a bunch of musicians to work on one of the country songs I couldn’t seem to stop writing. I was in a punk band back then, but these country songs just kept coming. Eventually I decided I had to at least try playing one of them and see how it felt. And even though it was a song that came out of a great deal of sadness, when we started playing the music and bringing that song to life, it felt so joyful—so transcendent, honestly—that I knew, in that moment, there was no going back.

As an artist, how do you define success?

Part of it is doing the best I can to be true to what I hear in my head. Part of it is fighting like hell to get the music out there. And part of it is trying to think not only about myself and my own vision, but also about how I am connected to others.

Of course, I wouldn’t mind selling tons of records and playing at the Ryman either! But when it really comes down to it, to me success means that I worked my ass off to make something good, and that I feel proud not only of the music but of the way I brought it into the world.

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

The business of music and music itself are such vastly different things. I struggle with the values of that business side—as I guess you can see from my definition of success, I’m more drawn to building community than I am to building a brand. I want to be a part of an industry that doesn’t just think about politics and diversity on a surface level, but that also thinks about who has the decision-making power, who has control over the resources that allow people to make their music, and who feels welcome in the spaces where the music happens. I know I’m part of a long tradition of musicians (especially in folk music) who have always asked these kinds of questions and tried to build these kinds of welcoming spaces. And sometimes they have even made some big money for the industry while they did it! I’m thinking about Lilith Fair as one example. But even then, these have never been the priorities of the music business itself.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist/band? What do you hope to achieve?

I hope to get the music out there, to help others get their music out there, and to create spaces together where we can share that music and build community. And also to eat pie. The first time we ever played with Sam Gleaves, one of my favorite fellow queer country musicians, in Lexington, Kentucky, he made three different pies for the show. It was amazing. There’s a lot out there in the music industry I don’t have much say over, but playing the best music I can and feeding everyone pie seem like noble goals.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

I need a lot of stillness and silence to tap into the music. Sometimes it feels like it is always already playing, and I just have to be quiet enough to hear it. So it really helps to be alone and to go on long walks. I wrote most of this album while wandering around the streets of Brooklyn, quietly singing to myself like a total weirdo. In particular, there’s a little loop in Prospect Park, through the woods and around a small lake, that was always the perfect place to sing to myself until I could get the song right.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm