Album Reviews and
Image © 2000 Cara Jones
Photo credit Mark Robert Halper
click on image to visit Cara's website
Well known to her Japanese audience with over a million albums sold in that region, Cara Jones is an equally well known radio personality. With music at the centre of her life, Cara's vocal training began in her early years. She honed her vocal style through formal training, performing and interestingly through presenting radio shows while attending Harvard University and for another ten years in Japan where she began her solo recording career.
An avid Sarah McLachlan fan, Cara's vocal style is more refined, crystalline and has a unique tenderness, perhaps akin to Kate Bush. Cara's three albums have, to date, only been released in Japan. Her debut albumDifferent Skies (Fall Girl Records (USA) to be reissued in 2000), has seven lushly produced new tracks, a cover of "Those Were The Days" and several remixes. The follow-up Pandora's Box (Teichiku Records (Japan) TECN-25361, 1996) is a collection of nine original vocal-oriented tracks. A cover of Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train" is also included. Cara's latest album Now (Fall Girl Records (USA) FG8051, 2000), with eleven brand new rock style vocal tracks, is her most ambitious work to date. In the run-up to her first American album release scheduled for September 2000, we talked to Cara about her background, influences, songwriting and music. We have incorporated her comments around our reviews of her three albums.
We asked Cara about her background. She told us, "I was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia but can never seem to stay in one place for too long, so when it was time to go to college, I went to Boston. I was positive I wanted to pursue music and only music as my "career", but I still had to major in some academic field in order to graduate from this university I had been lucky enough to get into." Cara went to Harvard—in the university town of Cambridge—outside of central Boston. She continued, "So I messed around for a few years just taking anything that seemed interesting, plannning on declaring a "concentration" in my junior [3rd] year."
As the rest of the story unfolded, a description of her connection with Japan began to emerge, "While I was taking random fascinating courses, I stumbled upon a class called Japanese History: from the Jomon to the Meiji Restoration; it was basically an overview of about two thousand years of the history of that area." She told us, "A well-known translator, my professor was also a complete eccentric who would dress up in the garb of a Buddhist monk on the day he talked about religion. He would scrawl Japanese-looking squiggly things on the blackboard whenever he mentioned a name. And stuff like that." She reflected, "It wasn't until years later that I looked at my notebook and where I had diligently copied down all the squiglies Prof Saunders wrote and realized they were complete gibberish. I asked around and found out he had the worst handwriting of anyone in the field!"
Cara was hooked on the Japanese after that one class. She continued the story, "I started taking Japanese language courses—and when I think about it now, it was probably to decipher the squiglies—that summer at Harvard Summer School. By my junior year I made lists of the courses I'd taken so far. The list included: Criminology, Existentialism, Fine Arts and, since the Japanese list was the longest by one course, I decided to major in Japanese."
After finishing her undergraduate university degree, Cara decided to remain in Cambridge to pursue her masters degree. Recalling the reasons for doing so, she told us, "I was terrified of jumping into music, they offered me a scholarship and I loved the idea of staying in Cambridge—which is incredible—without getting a "real" job." Cara was intent on pursuing a music career. She told us, "I realized I had to start making preparations for my career in music, so instead of jumping head-first into the ever-burgeoning singer-songwriter circle in Cambridge, I took the "academic" route and got jobs in every aspect of the "biz" so I could learn how it worked."
Cara's plans paid off. She said, "I worked at Rounder Records in the promotions department. I started doing the Folk Show every Friday at WHRB—Harvard's commmercial radio station—where I ended up interviewing lots and lots of soon-to-be-famous artists, like Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Cheryl Wheeler, Patty Larkin, and more." She continued to branch out. She said, "I got into promoting and producing concerts in Boston and Cambridge. The final class I took in my own school of music was in band management, where I helped put together and manage a really cool, rootsy band. In fact, we ended up getting David Lindley to produce our demos!"
The final move to Japan came in a simple turn of events linking to her radio station work. She said, "I was at WHRB doing my Friday Folkways show, and the PD called me into his office cause two Japanese radio producers were there and he wanted me to interpret. We ended up hitting it off, and one of them told me if I ever wanted to go to Japan she'd introduce me around. So when the band broke up just short of signing with Atlantic, I did."
We asked Cara about artists that had influenced her songwriting. She told us, "Growing up, there was no one bigger to me than Janis Ian. I discovered her music a little late, but got straight into the Society's Child album and was hooked. Of course, "At Seventeen" was my anthem." She continued, "I loved all the singer-songwriter music of the 70s and 80s: Carly Simon, James Taylor, Karla Bonoff, and others. I think Shawn Colvin and company are kind of a more modern extension of that."
Different Skies. Cara Jones' debut album was released on an independent Japanese label and was quickly scooped up by enthusiasts there. It actually disappeared from the shelves within a few short months of its 1994 release. A US reissue on Fall Girl Records is planned. Since no copies are available at this time, Cara provided us with a six-track promo of her favourite tracks from the album to review.
It is easy to understand why the album sold out so quickly. People have raved about Cara's voice and if the hit rate on her mp3.com website is any indication, they still do. One is immediately drawn to the crystalline texture of Cara's voice—"a high clear voice that soared rather than sang, as if dancing across the sky," is what Goro Nakagawa wrote. The songwriting and production is equally impressive. Instrumental arrangements are simple yet effective in producing a relaxing sound certain to please easy listening, light rock and folk enthusiasts.
Layers of backing vocals add texture rather than instruments in several of the tracks. In "Far Away" the backing vocals supporting Cara's tender lead actually produce a calling texture often delivered with a low whistle or flute part. Lush keyboards contribute to the lovely arrangement. Arrangements on the title track blend acoustic guitar, keyboard and sax in a sensually sung ballad. The lightly rocking track "Connecticut" illustrates Cara's ability to use her voice as an instrument, effectively contributing to the overall arrangement. The piano bar style ballad "I Thought I Was Over You" is a classic and sensitively sung love song. Cara's vocals continue to soar in the lightly rocking and evocative track "Lover's Lies."
We especially enjoyed the track "New Life" which blends an orchestral style instrumental with extremely lush vocal arrangements. The technical production quality of the track is absolutely superb. A remix of the track is also included on the full length album. Certain to appeal to female vocal enthusiasts, the album is worth a cross country journey—we think it is amust listen.
We learned that Cara began writing songs in her teens. She told us, "they were modeled after the artists I loved, and written on a little classical guitar I had found when cleaning out my best friend's basement, which her mom gave to me as payment." She told us about her initial musical foundations, "I grew up with a grandmother who played piano, and I studied from age 5 to age 10 when I quit in rebellion." Cara told us that she regrets having done so and continued, "After my first album, though, I realized I was better suited to piano than guitar, and so I started taking lessons, and eventually wrote most of the songs on my next two albums on the piano."
Cara has also written material with others. She told us, "My writing collaborations grew out of relationships with band members—they were really natural and fruitful. My first collaborator was the arranger onDifferent Skies, and more recently I write a lot with the guitar player from Pandora's Box." She told us a little bit about the process, "I write the words and music myself most of the time and usually at the same time. Although every once in a while a melody will come that gets crowned with lyrics later, or a poem will beg me to set it to music."
Cara told us about her recent favourites, "Since the early nineties, my new Janis Ian is Sarah McLachlan. I fell in love with the live version of "Drawn to the Rhythm", and have been moved to tears by her ever since." She continued, "I wrote "Heaven's Waiting" on the new album the daySurfacing came out. I got it, rushed it home, played it like 14 times—no joke—and then when I was about to burst, I ran to the piano and "Heaven's Waiting" came out all in one chunk. Someday, I'd love her to hear it."
When asked what she's listening to currently, Cara told us, "I'm listening to several tapes in the car that include Sarah'sFumbling Towared Ecstasy and Surfacing; Crowded House; the musical Rent; a Marianne Williamson tape; and my new album so I can proof the re-mastering." She continued, "My all-time favorite band is Crowded House. I think Neil and Tim Finn's writing is phenomenal, and I love the ever-evolving, but always delicately-defined sound of the production on their albums."
Pandora's Box. Cara had wanted to do an acoustic-pop collection for her debut album but in a compromise with the label that saw Cara more as a dance artist—hence the remixes on the debut—produced a more eclectic and lushly produced sound. With the success of the debut album and a new label, her second album focused on acoustic-pop tracks but also includes a couple with electric guitar and high quality rock production. The album was recorded in Dublin, Ireland where she worked with producer Jimmy Smyth and the Mary Black band. Cara's love for Ireland is evident in the green used in the album cover.Pandora's Box includes tracks that vary from an easy acoustic texture to the more rocking numbers. Vocally, it is even stronger than Different Skies, in style, crystalline quality and production. The album's tracks tend to revolve around the ballad style, gently rocking at times or drifting into folky themes. Although the opening track "Wood and Strings" is very acoustic, its arrangement combines strings to produce a rich sound. "Runaway Train" continues in a similar vein with strings taking on a folky flavour. Vocals soar above the light rock instrumental melody in "Silly Hook." The title track is more ethereal with arrangements swirling around the layers of harmony vocals.
A certain favourite to a broad audience is "Cry In The Distance," a highly accessible tune with a lovely melody, supporting harmonies and rocking instrumental arrangements. The slow and evocative melody of "Heads Or Tails" is carried by Cara's sensual lead and backing vocal work. The romantic love song "I Need Love" is a tender ballad sung over a very light acoustic style arrangement. We found the vocal work on "Yedid Nefesh" and "Just A Dream" very sensual and well complimented by lounge-style instrumental arrangements. With extensive vocalise throughout the former track, the lyrics sound like they are in Hebrew. The West End/Broadway musical-style track "You Are My Sky" concludes the album. The lead vocal part is wonderful, soaring well above the arrangements especially in the crescendos. Cara's second album is a wonderful blend of acoustic and lighter instrumental styles further illustrating her vocal virtuousity. Clearly worth a cross country journey for further exploration we believe it is a—must listen.
Cara has a tremendous and well-trained voice that, while most delicate in her first two albums, is equally refined in her latest project. We asked her to describe how she developed her vocal style. She told us, "I was fortunate that in High School we had a lot of very deep activities for music. I was in all the musical productions—always in the chorus—and in the choir. I was also in a 40-person musical group called Ensemble, in which we received some vocal training. I also did a little community theatre." She continued the story, "After a frustrating attempt at busking in the Cambridge streets—what an art that is, let me tell you—I started taking lessons with renowned vocal therapist Mark Baxter in Boston, and he really helped me get what I wanted out of my voice. If I were still in Boston, I'd be there every week."
Cara finds vocal inspiration in other areas as well. She told us, "I also frequent Kripalu Center for Yoga in the beautiful Berkshire mountains of Massachussetts, where I have taken several rather transformative vocalizing/toning/sounding workshops. My piano teacher, Mark Kelso, is up there too." We found her reflection on radio performance very intriguing. She told us, "I actually think the most helpful thing for me was being on the radio. With your face pressed into a mic, and headphones on, you can really hear exactly what you're doing, and what you're doing wrong. The more I did radio, the more I was able to create the voice I wanted. And I found the same principles applied to singing."
In late 1999 Cara released a three track EP in Japan. Entitled1999 (Morani/Warner (Japan), 1999) the CD contains three tracks from her album Now: "1999," "Better Safe Than Sorry" and an alternative mix of "Stay." The EP was quickly sold out to Cara's loyal fans and copies are no longer available. Artwork from the EP has been incorporated into this online article.
When asked to tell us more about her writing and recording, Cara told us about the people involved in her latest album. "The new albumNow came together effortlessly. New York drummer Steve Holloway introduced me to his friends Philadelphia-based producer/multi-instrumentalist Michael Aharon and engineer / percussionist John Anthony and we all hit it off."
Cara continued, "Michael and John had worked with Steve on several projects by the Irish band Solas, and the two had just started their own studio, having left Sigma Sound—of Philly Soul fame. Bassist Chico Huff was also a friend, and the four of us basically did the record. Michael played almost everything—he's the Jon Brion of Philadelphia—and we co-wrote a few songs too. We worked from March through December of last year and have only just completed mastering the American release." Cara concluded, "It's the album I always wanted to make. Michael and John knew exactly what I wanted, and more importantly, were able to bring out what I never thought possible."
Cara has been fortunate to always work in radio and do other voice-related work. She reflected on it. "I find it the perfect and logical compliment to music—it's still all about expression and meaning through voice and words." She continued, "I have had a really fun career doing voice-overs for commercials. I also do video narration and in fact a few years ago I narrated some promo videos for the upcoming Nagano Olympics. They liked me so much they named be to be the announcer at the awards ceremonies during the games in 1998. That was a definite highlight of my career." Cara has also done voice work for other products. She told us, "I have also done internationally-released Playstation and Sega games includingEinhander, Tekken 3, and the upcoming Shemmue. And a few years ago I started doing the English voice for the car navigation system in certain luxury cars, like the Jaguar and the Mercedes Benz. You know, you tell the car where you want to go and a disembodied voice lets you know how to get there? That's me saying 'make a left-turn at the light'!"
Now. The eleven tracks on Cara's latest album are much more in a traditional rock vein than those on her former albums. Instrumentals blend electric guitar, keyboards, bass and crisp percussion with layers of pop-oriented vocals certain to please a broad range of female vocal enthusiasts.
The difference in the album's sound is evident from the opening track "Spit It Out" where extensive instrumental arrangements, dominated by piano melodies and echoing guitar parts, lead the way. Vocals are heavily layered, especially when compared to the former albums. Layers continue into the slower paced "River High" with it's striking guitar riffs. The short track "Candy Bar" is a very accessible—radio ready—pop tune with a heavily produced instrumental that supports a sensual lead vocal and extensively layered backing harmonies. "See It My Way" is written and performed in a similar, but almost dance-oriented, pop-R&B style.
In contrast to the more heavily rocking numbers, the album features some classic Cara Jones-style vocally intense ballads. Characterised by her sensitively soaring vocal lead and light mainly-acoustic instrumental arrangements, these songs include "Stay" and "Heaven's Waiting." The lounge-style romantic ballad "Settle For Love" is wrenched with emotionally delivered vocals and supported by modern electronic instrumentation.
In between the rocking numbers and ballads are the album's light rock tunes. Structured similarly to "Candy Bar" but instrumentally lighter, these include the tracks "Choose" and "1999." "Better Safe Than Sorry" features a rock and roll-style guitar tune, but Cara's lead vocal has been mixed way up and the track further demonstrates her vocal dexterity. We especially enjoyed "Golden Thread;" a Middle-Eastern musical flavour is achieved by blending exotic sounding instrumentals with traditional and acoustic electric guitar parts and a range of evocative vocal styles, soaring most sensually in the song's chorus.
Cara Jones' latest albumNow was released in Japan some time ago and will be released in the USA in September. The eleven tracks continue to demonstrate her vocal dexterity and an evolution in her music style toward the more pop-oriented end of the spectrum that will be appreciated by a broad audience. Certainly worth a journey, as a result of excellent production quality, vocal performances and instrumental arrangements, it's a—must listen.
Cara told us about her live performances, "In Japan, I have mostly performed in large concert halls, although recently my band has been playing at the Blues Alley Japan club in Meguro, Tokyo. The walls of this cool club are covered in the artwork of Miles Davis, who played there not long before he died. We're playing there again on 10/10/2000."
We asked Cara about the influence of the web on her career. She finds it an incredible resource, "I think we're still at the very most embryonic stages of its development, and most people have only glimpsed its vast potential, but I think it is eventually going to be a medium as important as TV or radio in the promotion of music, and in its introduction to new listeners.
She continued, "I have a page on on mp3.com and get hundreds of hits a day there." The exposure there has been very positive for Cara. She told us, "I am also in the finals of their Women of MP3.com song contest. "Settle For Love," which is the last song onNow, has charted as high as #2 on the AAA/Adult Alternative Charts and #24 on the general Alternative charts with the latter position was between the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Third Eye Blind!!!"
Cara concluded by reflecting on the aims of her official website, "I see that site more as information for those who already know of me. People go there from MP3.com, as well as from the sites of artists I have been musically involved with. I would like to promote it more, though!"
Cara Jones is currently dividing her life between Tokyo, Los Angeles and the Northeast United States. A strong following in Japan and forthcoming US domestic album releases are certain to propel the career of this very talented singer songwriter forward. Cara has a well-trained and professional quality voice; her three albums demonstrate the range, virtuousity and depth of her talent. A voiceover demo available at her website further underscores the point. Although we actually preferred the more unique style of her first two albums, other enthusiasts will likely find her latest album most appealing. Interested readers that want to hear her music should explore Cara's mp3.com website. Certainly one of the top female vocalists whose work has been reviewed at Musical Discoveries, we think our readers will agree that her music is a—must listen!.
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