Brooklyn alt-country band Karen & the Sorrows play “soaring tributes to lost love and… gentle and charming ballads” (Neville Elder, No Depression). Their debut EP Ocean-Born Mary is a four-part ghost story of “allusive, attractive but distantly menacing songs… Country keeps evolving, and Karen & the Sorrows are taking it to a place it’s never been before, a good and creepy one.” (New York Music Daily) The Sorrows are also hard at work helping to create Brooklyn’s burgeoning queer country scene by co-producing the annual Gay Ole Opry festival and the Queer Country Monthly series at Branded Saloon.
Karen & the Sorrows’ debut EP is a four-part, alt-country song cycle/ghost story. Ocean-Born Mary centers around a misremembered legend from band member Elana Redfield’s childhood in New Hampshire. Mary saved the lives of her shipmates the day she was born by inspiring a pirate captain to pity—instead of his original plan to slaughter everyone aboard. Eighteen years later that pirate came to Henniker, New Hampshire to claim Mary as his wife. But he got a bit more than he bargained for when she refused to let him return to sea and instead sealed him into the walls of the home they both haunt today.
“I’d been writing a lot of songs about letting go,” explains the band’s singer-songwriter Karen Pittelman. “When Elana told me that story, I knew it was time to visit the other side and write an ode to obsessive possession instead.” The band has been performing the EP’s interconnected songs as one piece since they debuted it last winter at Dixon Place. With the help of engineer Charles Burst at Seaside Lounge, they decided to build the entire EP from one live take to capture that energy and flow.
Pittelman was raised on country music but had always resisted it. She was singing in a punk band when it finally caught up with her. After a year of secretly writing country songs and dreaming about the sound of the pedal steel, she took it as fate when her band was booked to share a bill with the Low & the Lonesome—a local country group featuring Redfield on the pedal steel guitar. The two formed the Sorrows in late 2010 and began honing an alt-country sound that combines Pittelman’s high, lilting vocals and intricate melodies with Redfield’s haunting, lonesome guitar work. Together with drummer Tami Johnson and bassist AJ Lewis, the Sorrows know that the best songs are the sad ones. They don’t shy away from a little meanness either, and the band moves easily from elegy to country stomp.
Though she grew up in New York City, far from country’s stronghold, Pittelman’s father was traveling back and forth to Nashville for much of her childhood, shooting commercials with legends like George Jones and the Oak Ridge Boys for his company Heartland Music’s compilation albums. He made sure his daughter soaked it all up, whether she wanted to or not. Meanwhile, her mother was wearing down the grooves in her Jackson Browne and Eagles albums, grounding Pittelman’s songwriting influences firmly in the tradition of seventies country rock.
The Sorrows are also hard at work helping to create Brooklyn’s burgeoning queer country scene. Together with the label Riot Grrrl Ink, they co-produce the Gay Ole Opry, an annual queer country music festival which has featured bands like Mount Moriah and Nervous But Excited. They also host the Queer Country Monthly, consistently packing Prospect Heights’ Branded Saloon with earnest country fans. “When I started playing country, I had to think about what it means to love a culture that doesn’t always love you back,” says Pittelman. “I wondered if there were other people out there who grew up on this sound, but didn’t always feel comfortable in the spaces it was played. I was so happy to discover that I wasn’t the only one!”
AJ Lewis is a lapsed classical bassist who until recently was too neurotic to play much popular music. A first-generation Yankee from Providence, RI, AJ’s earliest memories of music from the country were his great-grandmother’s renderings of spiritual and secular traditional songs from East Texas. Old-time remains AJ’s greatest musical love, especially old timey banjo pickers like Ola Belle Reed, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Lee Sexton, and Clarence Ashley. AJ picked up the banjo himself recently and when not cavorting with the Sorrows, can be found playing with Elana and fiddler Nell Geiser in their band, Good Fences. On bass, AJ’s mostly influenced by 70s southern rock and the country noir soundtracks of David Lynch movies.
Elana Redfield hails from the rocky lowlands of rural New Hampshire. Her musical influences range from the 70’s country-rock of Neil Young, Eagles, and the Pure Prairie League to the 90’s neo-traditional sound of Patty Loveless, Clint Black, and Mark Chesnutt. She is a lover of twang and reverb in all their manifestations, from surf music to spaghetti westerns. After learning the basics of pedal steel from Austin-based musician Bob Hoffnar, Elana knew she had found the perfect instrument. She draws inspiration from such forerunners as Jimmy Day, Lloyd Green and Donna Hammit. Today Elana plays a Fessenden steel guitar and loves the sound of a Fender Twin Reverb.
Karen Pittelman writes songs, poems, essays and non-fiction. She is the author of two books about social change philanthropy, Creating Change Through Family Philanthropy and Classified: How to Stop Hiding Your Privilege and Use It for Social Change from Soft Skull Press, and is a long-time organizer around class privilege and the redistribution of wealth. She used to sing feminist slut rock in the band Royal Pink until her heart got broke so bad she had to switch to country. She’s rooted in the 70s country-rock of musicians like Neil Young, The Eagles, and Jackson Browne, and alt-country bands like The Drive-By Truckers, Magnolia Electric Co, and Whiskeytown. Also, she loves Tom Petty.
Noisemaker and drummer Tami Johnson was given a pair of sticks at the age of eight and has been practicing her rudiments ever since. Her arms slowly grew drumsticks at the end, and she’s played with many bands around the country. Her travels and musical interests landed her in Brooklyn, NY in August of 2001 where she will remain until she finds that gig in the sky that will allow her to just play.