The Jorgensens: What’s Old is New Again

Cutting through the torrents of music coming from everywhere in 2019, it’s an accomplishment for this married duo to make something that sounds so unique with The Lexington Stretch

The Jorgensens

There are new music releases every day that sound distinctly of their time, fitting for the cultural moment into which they are born. Then there’s the music that gives listeners pause, songs that sound hauntingly familiar and yet like nothing you’ve heard—at least not lately. This is where The Jorgensens come into play.

On their new album The Lexington Stretch, out September 13, the harmonizing duo from St. Paul, Minn., seem to tap into an era long past where they can manipulate the space naturally allotted for any given sound. The album has ties to spirituals, blues, bluegrass and jazz, making it about as American as any collection of songs can be. Most of the album’s 10 tracks are originals, but it does open with a cover of Willie Dixon’s “If the Sea Was Whiskey,” a song Kurt and Brianna Jorgensen make slow and quiet, their bound voices serving as the power source for the rest of the song. For an opening track, it’s quite a statement: It tells the listener so much about who The Jorgensens are as musicians, which styles they appreciate and how they choose to bring these elements together. It appropriately sets the tone for their original pieces, all in that same out-of-time vein, that follow.

Kurt and Brianna weren’t The Jorgensens when they first joined forces to make music in 2014; their personal relationship budded while they were recording Love Wins, their first album together. The influences that drove them were different—Kurt grew up loving the Beatles and established an early admiration for Willie Dixon after discovering Dixon was responsible for some of his most admired Led Zeppelin songs. Meanwhile, Brianna was a devoted fan of female singer/songwriters from the 1990s like Natalie Merchant and Tori Amos but was also curious about the honky-tonk piano style she’d listened to her grandmother and great-grandmother play as a child. This confluence of sounds and styles is what enabled The Lexington Stretch to become the genre-melding mixture it did, dodging any easy classification but somehow standing out as the creation of a noticeably unique and distinctly American musical duo—even if its creators don’t necessarily see it that way.

“I don’t know that we’ve even thought in those terms,” Kurt says regarding female/male duo influences. Joni Mitchell and James Taylor? Carla Thomas and Otis Redding? Surely there had to be some reference point The Jorgensens had in mind while developing their own sound.

“The only one that pops into my mind at this point, just because we enjoy their songwriting and the guitar style, is Fleetwood Mac,” Brianna says. “Lindsey Buckingham has a certain style, with that fingerpicking and those patterns, and Kurt can do that so well.”

“Not really,” Kurt says, the only time during their interview when the two seem to disagree about something. “I think we just happen to be a family that plays music together.”

There is certainly a family thread in The Jorgensens’ music: Kurt and Brianna both had grandmothers who shared music with them, and now they have a son of their own who they’ve already begun making lasting musical memories with. Brianna is quick to recall “Sweet Love,” the eighth track on The Lexington Stretch which she wrote while pregnant and says she looks forward to sharing with their son for years to come. But first, The Jorgensens have an album to usher into the world, which the RNR Globe spoke to them at length about.

 

What drew you into music when you were younger?

Brianna: I watched my grandmother play piano, and also my great-grandmother. They were ragtime blues and honky-tonk piano players. I was completely mesmerized by them when I was young. I actually regret not learning from them. I started taking music lessons like any little kid does, and I still to this day cannot play like them.

Kurt: My great-grandma died when I was about 4, and she left me The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night album. My great-grandma was this tiny woman who couldn’t speak English, and she had a Beatles album. My parents got me a little record player, and that was it. At that moment, when I heard that, I knew that was what I wanted to do.

 

Honky-tonk, ragtime, pop, rock—there’s already a trend of the diverse musical styles that brought you two into music. Did you continue to explore genres as you were growing up, or did you gravitate toward any in particular?

K: I grew up with a lot of music in the house and a lot of crooner’s music. Nat King Cole, some jazz, a lot of big band stuff. My formative years were the ’80s, so it was all rock in those days. But my interests were always toward songs that had some kind of soulful element, whether it was bluesy jazz or soul.

B: My formative years were the 1990s, and female singer/songwriters were so popular, like Natalie Merchant and Sarah McLaughlin, Norah Jones—they were huge. I could play piano, so it just made perfect sense to be a fan of Tori Amos and all those gals. Now it’s shifted; in the last six years, I’ve really dug into more blues and jazz.

 

When you were making this album, were you trying to make music that sounded different from what’s currently popular, or was it a more organic process?

K: With the albums I put out prior to this, I was trying to get this Americana soul sound. As we were going into it, we started adding more horns, so it started changing into this New Orleans feel. About midway through we knew where we were headed. When we record, we don’t use ProTools, we don’t do any editing with the tracks. We have the musicians actually play the tracks all the way through—and it has to be a full performance, not an edited-together piece. I like that, because all the classic music that we all like was done that way. None of it was done all edited together; that’s a lazy, modern way that people make music.

B: We both grew up with different musical influences and we share a lot of the same music loves now. Having different backgrounds and different writing styles, and then we sit together and hash these songs out—I just think it’s hard to reproduce that sound. I don’t think anyone sounds quite like us.

Kurt and Brianna Jorgensen at Kelly’s

Are there any sounds or styles you haven’t yet explored that you’d like to?

K: It’d be fun to work with strings. That’s always an appealing idea. I think we want to do some stuff that’s even more stripped down, too.

 

What was the recording process like for this album?

K: Most of it we wrote while we were recording. When we got about halfway through the process, we started writing songs so that it was cohesive. It took us about two years to figure out which direction this album was going. We were out in California for a while, and you get caught up in the vibe out there. We got home and went for a little tour in Mississippi and Louisiana, and at that point we were like, “This is where we’re headed.”

B: We had the album half done and started completely over.

 

What’s the story behind “St. James Infirmary”?

K: I’d had that one recorded; I did it for fun maybe about three years ago. We would listen to it every once in a while and go, “That’s kind of cool. I don’t know what we’ll ever do with it.” At some point Brianna said, “This should be the sound of the new album.” In the end, it was the right thing to do. It really fits the record. It was fun to do and it’s really fun to perform live.

 

Has “St. James Infirmary” continued to evolve onstage?

K: Yeah, because the song has so much improv in it. It’s a moment to tell a story. It’s dark and moody, and it’s such a slow song. With slow songs, you often worry that you’ll lose the audience, but it’s such a captivating song that it actually draws people in.

B: It’s really dynamic. When he’s playing that song, Kurt can bring the band down to a whisper. You can hear people in the audience breathing; then it just builds and builds.

 

What was it about Willie Dixon’s “If the Sea was Whiskey” that made you want to record a cover?

K: I’ve always wanted to do a Willie Dixon song ever since I found out who he was. I found out who he was the way a lot of little kids do: I saw his name on the Led Zeppelin album, I went a little deeper and saw he wrote a lot of those songs.

We were on the road, and that’s a great time to listen to music. We were listening to Willie Dixon, and “If the Sea was Whiskey” came on. His songs always had good rhythms, but this song had harmonies in it. I was like, “Wow, let’s do a stripped-down version of this and we’ll finally get to do a Willie Dixon song.”

 

Did “Real Women” come from the moment we’re currently in as a society or are its roots more based in the singer/songwriters from the 1990s that Brianna grew up listening to?

B: I think it’s both, but it’s more fueled by our current climate. Being a woman, it’s not about the makeup you wear or the clothing you wear; it’s not a materialistic thing. It’s not necessarily about staying home and being a mom, or anything traditional like that. If you choose that, it’s wonderful. I love being a mom. But there’s so much more; there are no boundaries now for women. For me, not only is that inspiring but it’s exciting to be a woman in this time. There’s always something new. I really feel like women are in this together right now, and I like that community feeling. I wanted to make an anthem for women, but I want men to like it, too.

 

VIDEO: The Jorgensens “Unchained”

Meghan Roos

Meghan Roos is a music journalist living in Southern California. Follow her on Twitter @mroos163.

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