MEGAN JEAN & the KFB, comprised of Jean and her husband, Byrne Klay, have made a serious name for themselves playing an evolving mix of Americana and folk music. Carried by Jean’s powerhouse vocals and Klay’s signature style of banjo and bass playing, they’ve won over audiences across the country and have carried the flag for DIY artists and the do-it-yourself musical lifestyle. Their latest album, Tarantistas, finds the duo exploring bold new musical directions and incorporating a more produced approach to recording, using synths and other out-of-the-box instruments to create an engaging and hauntingly gorgeous soundscape.
We talked with Jean ahead of their show at The Jinx to talk about the album, the problem with the music industry, and what it’s like to be an outspoken artists in the Trump era.
This album is really different from anything you’ve done in the past. Were there specific influences you were pointing to as references?
MJ: Some of these songs are as old as our band itself, so we have everything from 13 to 14-year-old material, to stuff we wrote right before going into the studio. There are a lot of songs from a lot of different periods, so just because of that alone – and also because we're a band that changes instrumentation every couple of years – we had to tackle the issue of having a lot of different styles on the record.
When we were in the earliest stages of preproduction, we knew that we wanted to do a fully-produced album and kind of show people what we could do as instrumentalists, arrangers, and producers. We really wanted to produce this record ourselves. We’d just worked with the studio [The Jam Room in Columbia, SC] on producing someone else’s record, and we’d outgrown the Vaudeville kind of style that we had going for a while. We had to address a lot of longevity issues, like with the washboard. It’s a made up instrument, you can’t play it ergonomically.
We also wanted to make a dance record. That was the theme going through all of the songs. They were written while we were on the road trying to get people to dance, you know? The ones that aren’t explicitly dance songs reference a metaphorical dance of some kind. So then we started drawing on our shared love of disco and dance music in general, and ballet. So going back and forth between disco and ballet was really fun. We found that there’s a lot of the same dynamics between disco and ballet because they’re both meant for bodies to move to.
Our influences going in were, like, Maxwell, Sade, the Bee Gees. Those were like the production notes that we were working off of.
It’s really refreshing to hear that you were listening to the Bee Gees a lot. I wish that more people would recognize the greatness there.
It was so good! You know? They were playing those instruments live. And Chic, that was another big influence on this record. We listened to a lot of Chic.
I could hear a lot of Nile Rogers-era, Let’s Dance Bowie on the record, maybe that's where it comes in?
That one was referenced as well. We had this guy Steve Sanchez play percussion all over the record, and he's a big fan of Latin percussion and Latin dance music. So that was part of it as well. Ray Barretto, that's another one. We listened to Ray Barretto's Acid a lot. And that, of course, is the record he did on acid. It's an amazing record, and a lot of the rhythmic stuff we definitely referenced. "Playground Queen" is a Ray Barretto reference for sure.
That song is, I think, my favorite song on the record.
Mine too! I worked on the backing vocals on that one for a year.
This is an extremely unique record. I can't think of anything else right now that really sounds like it.
That actually got us turned down for radio promo and stuff, because they said it doesn't belong anywhere.
That's just one of those things that goes back to how shitty the industry is right now.
Yeah. When this record was done, we went to a music conference and I was at a radio programmer's panel. The quote we got was, "You need to make more generic music so that radio programmers can agree that it's Americana." It would've broken my heart if I wasn't expecting something like that. You cannot convince me that the best strategy for making long term effecting art is to make it more generic so you can sell records to baby boomers before they die.
We all, as artists, have to stop trying to get famous and start trying to make the best art that we possibly can. I was precluded from industry success by my physical being, because they tell me over and over again that my body’s too big. But, it’s made me work harder as an artist. It’s made me develop in a petri dish aside from their influence, and that’s the reason that there isn’t anything that sounds like this record. Because there couldn’t be if it was successful, you know? My musical idols, they’re out there and they’re still themselves. It doesn’t matter that they’re not industry darlings in their young 20s. It’s just music, and it resonates with people.
The fact that programmers used the word “generic” is laughable, because it’s such a negative word. I guess when they’re thinking strictly business-minded, of course they just want to hear something that’s safe and formulaic.
It’s charts and graphs, and it’s all about that dedicated Billboard Americana chart. They want to define the genre, because that’s how the music knows how to organize itself. Kids don’t listen to genre music anymore. They get all their music from video games and YouTube and music festivals. The industry is still clinging to the genre identification because that’s how baby boomers spend money, and baby boomers spend 10 times what millennials spend on physical music.
So with Americana and in Nashville, they’re really chasing that baby boomer money. But I, as an artist in my early 30s, can’t hang my hat on what people in their 60s and 70s want. I don’t think it’s a good business plan. I had someone from ASCAP tell me that I need to write dumber lyrics because people are stupid. I take pride in my lyrics. I couldn’t believe it. They were offering me wine and stuff – what for, I couldn’t tell you. And all of the sudden they tell me I need to write dumber lyrics. I just looked at them and said, “I don’t think my audience is dumb. I don’t think they’d like my music if they were dumb.” The industry, they talk so callously about the people who support it. They say, “People just want tits and ass, generic songs,” and it’s not true. They want authenticity, and they want something that moves them.
I don’t think there’s anything in history, in terms of being able to have any kind of longevity in music, that supports the industry’s outlook at all. So where does it start as far as changing that business model?
I think that’s a really good question, and I have a bit of a controversial answer. This is the ultimate buyer’s market. You have a ton of people selling something, and the industry gets to buy very little to invest in. They have the pick of the litter, and so it becomes an inherently biased business. What I mean is, it’s a bad investment. Music is a bad investment. You rarely make a return on your investment if you’re not the artist. When you look at the demographics of who has the money to make voluntary bad investments that they are not likely to get any money back on, these are generally older white men.
So when you ask for representation in this industry, you’re asking a bunch of very wealthy, older white men to make their bad investment differently. And it’s never going to happen. So I would argue that you cannot change the music industry. We can only build something adjacent with a better system for representation.
For some reason, there’s this idea that we’re supposed to just entertain people and we can’t speak our minds as artists and use music as a platform. Why is it important to speak up about issues and injustices through music?
The day that I get a note from the IRS saying that being an artist means I don’t have to pay my taxes, is the day that I will stop expressing myself as a citizen of this nation. Yes I’m an artist, but first I’m a citizen. That’s just straight up participation in democracy. But also, I do think that artists and musicians should use their platform in whatever way they feel comfortable with. I know that a lot of musicians aren’t comfortable with using their platform, which is mostly because they’re afraid of the backlash.
They’re also afraid of offending the money, and that speaks to what happens when you have industry involvement in your career. Sometimes the industry people decide it’s not on brand for you to speak out. I think that every artist has a duty to at least ask themselves if they can be affecting a positive change for something that they care about. And if the answer is yes, I do think that they should at least examine that they’ve earned the platform for themselves and therefore can use it any way that they see fit.
Taylor Swift spoke out in favor of a Democratic candidate in Tennessee and the next day, 65,000 people signed up to vote. Now, I don’t have that kind of reach. But I do have some kind of reach. Because I’m a person who practices what I literally preach, I feel like I do have a duty to get involved and lend my voice.