Singer/songwriter Karen Pernick's low-key style has been described as haunted, melancholic, and darkly poetic. Her two albums, Apartment 12 and Two Kinds of Weather, are filled with telling observations on the human condition, delivered simply in a calm, smoky voice that makes her tales of lives slowly falling to pieces even more devastating. She's played festivals from Seattle's Bumbershoot to Austin's SXSW, as well as folk clubs from coast to coast, picking up a bunch of songwriting awards along the way, but she never intended to become a professional musician. The ten years between Apartment 12 and Two Kinds of Weather are indicative of a woman who is firmly in control of her own life and priorities. "I'm not out for a 200 dates a year kind of career," Pernick says. "I'm interested in a musical path that allows me to stay true to myself. Why did I stop playing (for ten years)? One has to know their own emotional and physical constitution; it takes lot out of you to (be on the road.)" Pernick was born in Oak Park, MI, in 1962 and raised in a family struggling to remain middle class. "My parents lived with my grandmother when I was little, in a middle-class neighborhood in the shadow of Detroit. I remember the riots and the curfew. Even though I was young, I watched Detroit decline and become a ghost town. It was an interesting historical time." Pernick's mother sang and played folk guitar, but she found it slightly embarrassing when her mom would break into "Puff the Magic Dragon" or "Blowing in the Wind." "I have an older and younger brother who aren't particularly musical. I envy kids who have older siblings who spark their musical interest by exposing them to amazing records. The eight-track in our car played the 5th Dimension and the Carpenters; I didn't listen to the Beatles or Dylan." Pernick discovered soul music and singer/songwriters as a teen and loved Carole King, James Taylor, sad songs like Gilbert O'Sullivan's jaunty ode to self-destruction "Alone Again (Naturally)," and the soulful sounds of the Isley Brothers, the Spinners, Dionne Warwick, and Motown. "When I was around 13 my brothers and I went to see Earth, Wind & Fire at Olympia Stadium. We had second-row seats and I remember the sax player was sweating and looking me in the eye and you could feel the power of the drummer. It was my first religious experience -- a lightning bolt in terms of the power of music." Pernick took one set of guitar lessons at eight, and some piano, but didn't have the concentration to play. "When I was about ten, I picked up the guitar in private. I was very shy kid. I was in the B group in chorus in junior high and high school, but I dropped out. I didn't think I was a good singer."
At 19, while attending the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Pernick brought her mother's guitar to school and discovered she enjoyed playing. Although she loved soul music, her friends were playing folk and singer/songwriter-style acoustic music, so she moved in that direction. Friends also introduced her to Dave Siglan, who ran the Ark, one of the longest-running folk clubs in the U.S. He gave her a job and Pernick's years at the Ark gave her a valuable musical education. "I saw Odetta and couldn't believe my ears or how my body felt around someone who had the gift of music that way. Then I saw Ferron and that changed my life. I didn't think I could sing because I didn't have a high pretty voice -- a typical woman's voice. Ferron presented the possibility of being a poet and a different kind of singer. She could growl and whisper and sing in her own voice and it struck me. This is what I'm going to do. And it was a curse, 'cause I didn't know to go about it." After college, Pernick worked at the Ark seven days a week soaking up blues, singer/songwriters, bluegrass bands, Celtic music, and more. Siglan made her the MC and had her introduce acts in an effort to help her get over her stage fright. In the early '90s, she moved to Montana, found a cheap place to live, and started getting serious about her songwriting. She commuted between Montana and Seattle and San Francisco, playing at open-mike nights in the Bay Area and Washington. After a year of long train rides, she moved to Seattle, where she found an open and welcoming musical community. Pernick had written most of the songs that became Apartment 12 in Montana, but thought she'd need a producer to make a real album. "I met Wayne Horvitz and then heard an album he'd produced for Robin Holcomb, which was sonically and musically appealing to me. I called him and asked if he'd listen to a demo tape and he said yes." Horvitz (Bill Frisell, John Zorn) loved Pernick's songs and they produced Apartment 12 together. "I went to play at SXSW right after we finished the album," Pernick recalls. "There was a guy from Shanachie at the concert and he asked me what I was doing." She was planning to release the album on her own label, but Shanachie picked it up. Pernick supported Ferron on a tour of the U.S. and Canada. It was the beginning of the '80s East Coast singer/songwriter explosion, an exciting time to be a performer, and most of the gigs were on the East Coast. "It was hard to afford plane tickets and to play solo," the singer recalls. "Eventually, I stopped playing, except locally, doing house concerts, clubs in Seattle, and maybe a couple of other gigs a year. I worked day jobs, went to poetry workshops to hone my lyrics, and forgot about recording." Then, in 2002, Pernick's world changed radically. "I was asleep and a fire exploded downstairs. It had such force at first I thought it was an earthquake. I opened the bedroom door and saw big flames licking up the walls. I understood why fire is considered an animal." She escaped intact and no one was hurt in the blaze, but it sparked a creative renaissance. "The fire was a catalyst for changes that needed to happen. I was ending a relationship and it was a crazy time; I couldn't imagine one more thing could happen and then my apartment burns down. But those darker moments led to renewal. I had my health and at the basic level I felt protected. I was physically OK and [the fire] put things in perspective." In the aftermath of the fire, the songs for Two Kinds of Weather poured out. "When I'm in the right mood, I sit with guitar or paper and pen and tap the vein. I wait to get quiet enough to find what's floating around. I start with words or music, most often simultaneously, and start mumbling to see what's here. Later, I put the guitar aside and work seriously on the lyrics."
Horvitz returned to produce Two Kinds of Weather, creating both full-band and stripped-down acoustic tracks. "Apartment 12 was more from my head, in my secret emotional language, putting the lens on tiny moments in my life. Weather is painted in broader strokes with more straightforward language. I dropped down into my core, into the belly of things, but it's hard to explain. The experiences that led up to it made me realize I'm human and fallible. Striving for perfection and trying to get everything right, you can lose sight of yourself." The tracks on Two Kinds of Weather are subtle and quiet, keeping Pernick's weary vocals up front, creating a blue, ominous mood that's both wrenching and inspiring. "There is a sadness to my music. You can't be happy and play it, but you have to be true to the sounds you're trying to get your mouth and belly to make. And I want to get better as a writer. Ferron once said about songwriting -- is it honest, does it matter, and do I care? That was her measure of a good song, and it rings true for me." ~ j. poet