Jeff Klein – All you need is clove
Some singers nurture their pipes by hiring retired opera singers to teach them arias and warm-up exercises. Others swim laps, or run daily, to improve their lung capacity. But not Jeff Klein.
“I’m not a big fan of pretty voices,” says Klein, who cites Tom Waits, Mark Eitzel and Muppet Show pianist Rolf the Dog as the sort of vocalists he prefers. Gruff but lovable. And evocative. “That’s something that I like about my voice,” he adds. “It’s very emotional and it portrays a mood.”
So how does Klein cultivate his distinctive timbre, showcased on his sophomore album Everybody Loves A Winner? By smoking a pack or more a day. And not just any cigarettes, either. His taste in coffin nails runs closer to fans of the Cure and Sylvia Plath than the Marlboro Man — he smokes cloves. “It’s a little bizarre,” he admits. “I always feel like I’m 16, playing Dungeons & Dragons.”
Everybody Loves A Winner (released September 23 on One Little Indian Records) may not cross over into Lord Of The Rings territory, but Klein, 26, does boast an aptitude for role-playing, judging from the graceful way he animates the drunks, two-timing brutes and arsonists that populate the ten-song set. The characters shamble through bleak landscapes, but haunting melodies and impassioned performances by Klein and his supporting cast (including backing vocalist Patty Griffin) keep the proceedings from coming off too grim.
“I’m not trying to paint a pretty picture,” he says. “I’m just expressing things that I see or feel, and I think people can relate to that a little better than the Hollywood ending that most songs portray. That’s why [my music] is hopeful, because I am a sucker, and I do keep trying to trudge on. I would like to believe that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — it’s just a long trip.”
Assisting him on the journey was Nashville singer-songwriter Matthew Ryan. The two became friends while Klein was touring behind his 2000 debut album You’ll Never Get To Heaven If You Break My Heart. When Klein was looking for someone to produce the follow-up, he asked Ryan for suggestions. “And he said, ‘Me,'” recalls Klein. “And I’m like, ‘No, I’m looking for a producer.'”
But Ryan, who had recently been dropped by A&M, dispatched a copy of his self-produced disc Concussion. Klein liked what he heard, both on record and in their conversations. “[Ryan] was feeling a little more anti-establishment, and passionate about music.” Aesthetically, Klein was coming from a similar place. “I wanted to make more of an artistic statement than a shiny record. It worked out really well.”
From the elegant strings of the three-quarter-time elegy “I’m Sorry Sweet Emily” to the crunchy guitars of “California” and “Another Breakdown” (a pair of catchy rockers that reflect Klein’s adolescent love of the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr.), Everybody Loves A Winner is a leap forward from his first album. “I made this decision to stop sucking Satan’s pecker. I gave up trying to make music for other people, and started making it for myself. So there are sounds on it that are braver than on You’ll Never Get To Heaven, and the songs are more consistent.”
“It’s more mature,” Klein concludes. Golly. It takes a brave man to smoke cigarettes favored by disgruntled, art-damaged teens, yet still apply the M word to his art. “Don’t get me wrong,” he clarifies, with a chuckle. “I’m not claiming maturity whatsoever. I’m very immature. I’m a firm believer in the Peter Pan syndrome: The adults are always pirates.”