Kari Arnett’s State of The Union
“Well,” Kari Arnett thought to herself, “what do I know? I’m only a woman.”
It started as a feeling when Arnett would try and offer songwriting suggestions to her male band counterparts and would get shut down. Maybe my opinion doesn’t matter. Festival organizers would tell her they’ve didn’t want a lot of female artists on their bills. The reason? The music was slower, more sad, and they needed to sell beer. People would rather hear “fun, more upbeat guy bands.”
The combination of experiences frustrated her into writing a song “Only a Woman” that is now the centerpiece of her debut album When The Dust Settles to be released September 20. In the Me Too era it strikes a nerve, almost anthemic in its blistering dry delivery. Set against a hypnotic beat, it’s a front porch sing-along like she did on Concert Window with friend Vicky Emerson –or perhaps a song you’d instinctively turn up as you reach for your radio dial.
When Arnett emerged with her debut EP Midwestern Skyline, she created an intriguing set of songs that defined time and geographic place. Now out of personal turmoil, Arnett has written an edgy album that frames her personal life changes in the context of the tense goings-on in the country.
It begins with the moody and ominous trepidation of “Dark Water” and addresses the soul of the country in “This American Life.” Arnett zeroes in on the dream we’re brought up to believe but the broken promises and inequalities we later learn. Arnett concludes “I’m still believing in this American life” with a weariness that sums up the anxiety of our times. It feels like a state of the union.
On the day she began mastering her debut album, Kari Arnett is sitting outside with me at a pizzeria off Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.
If “This American Life” is an assessment of where we are in the moment, “Blood and Bones,” a song she wrote as an outsider looking in on humanity, feels like a moral call to arms.
“We are all made of blood and bones,” she says in the context of teaching our children and leading by example. “Children grow up and learn to hate, to love, to act accordingly in the world, I guess I wrote it from a perspective of, ‘Hey, watch what you do,’ because the kids of the world see everything, they hear everything, and they mimic what they see hear.”
Arnett’s plea places it in a historical and spiritual context against the backdrop of the country’s sacrifices and ideals. “When will ever learn/we didn’t come come this far to watch the world burn,” she implores. “I hope we will see the light, maybe one day we’ll get it right.” If you get tears in your eyes, it could be because it evokes the feeling that maybe it is different this time –just maybe the country is at a tipping point.
“I would like to hope at the root of it all, that most of us, humanity as a whole, would like to see good in the world, and that we want the best for our future, our children, etc. However it seems like everywhere you turn or read or see on the news, social media, you see really bad things–shootings, people hurting each other, poverty….and I want to remind people that we are all connected. We are all family in a way.”
As the muffled noise of the traffic passes by, Arnett talks about how the album’s title is a reflection of how drastically her life has changed in the past year. “I’ve been digging deep these days,” she says with a laugh, likening recent times to a giant dust cloud swelling up and exploding only to leave her wondering what happens next.
Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. After seven years, she and her husband decided to end their relationship. Arnett, who has become part of the Minneapolis roots community, has announced that she’s moving to Nashville next year. Many of the songs on When The Dust Settles are about starting over. And when Arnett mentions the closing track “When You Were Mine,” she admits it’s hard to listen to because it’s so personal.
But it the song “It’s Only a Woman” I find myself coming back to with its clever vernacular:
“He said, “Girl you better know your place, before I go repeal and replace”
I’m tired of walking alone afraid
And I’m mad as hell in this day and age
That this is where we are today….
But what do I know I’m only a woman”
“I also was assaulted in my early twenties and felt forced into silence,” she reveals, giving more context. “Something I see all too often in the industry and by women as a whole is being afraid to speak out. Because often we get labeled as “difficult” or “hard to work with” or some other label.”
Somewhat reluctantly, Arnett put herself out there to do a self-funding campaign. When an outpouring of funds came in the first day, Arnett says she had the best Valentine’s Day ever as she left for the Folk Alliance with friend and singer Sarah Morris.
A self-described country girl from Wisconsin, Arnett moved to Minnesota in 2014 and instantly loved it.
“I would say there isn’t the biggest Americana scene here,” Arnett reflects on a scene she says is very vibrant. “There is a small group of us. We make sure we keep our community alive. I feel that’s something very special about Minnesota–the community is truly a community.”
As a young girl, she carefully watched her father who played in a country and western band and wrote all of his songs. She fell in love with an eclectic blend of genres. Inspired by seeing PBS specials of Crystal Gayle and Dolly Parton, she said to herself “I want to do that.”
Arnett soon found she had a gift of hearing something and then being able to play it. “Can’t you hear that note?” she reminisces saying to her mother. “And I’d go find it and play it.” To this day Arnett says she has to reach for her voice recorder to put down all of the melodies that come to her.