The duo Folk by Association came together a bit more than six years ago, in 2000, quite by accident, says Karen Krajacic, the group’s brunette half. Krajacic, who sings and plays guitar, was performing at a show on the Jersey Shore, and another performer, Jill Unger, struck up a conversation with her.
“She suggested we work together on one song that evening, do it sort of off the cuff, and I said no,” Krajacic says.
Despite that initial rejection, Krajacic soon realized that the two women shared similar musical tastes and styles, and that their voices sounded good harmonizing together. “We realized that the professional chemistry was there, and the next time we were scheduled to play at the same place, we did do a couple of songs.”
The rest is history, as they say. Krajacic and Unger began practicing together, and soon they were formally a duo. “It was an accidental but fortuitous turn of fate. We were both very forthright about how serious we were about music as a profession, and it has been a progression from there, a slow but steady progression,” Krajacic says.
Folk By Association will perform a Sunday morning breakfast series show at Orpha’s Coffeeshop in Skillman on January 21. The duo will also perform at John and Peter’s in New Hope on Sunday, January 28. And they recently performed at the new Coffeehouse Cafe in Pennington.
Both women have extensive backgrounds in folk, or at least the sounds of singer-songwriters. As influences, the duo cites performers such as the Indigo Girls, Simon and Garfunkel, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, and Joni Mitchell, but there are also touches of other genres as well. The group’s second CD, “As We Travel” (available through www.perplexed.net), released in the spring of 2006, is a nine-song disc with production values that represent somewhat of a departure from the band’s live shows. That is to say, the duo added some other voices, including four guest musicians. Krajacic and Unger take a lot of their pride and identity from their harmonies, which are prominent in this disc, as well as slight but definite influences from jazz and world music.
“We are harmony-driven,” says Krajacic. “That is the thing that seems to catch people’s ears. Songwriting-wise, what we do reflects our personalities. Jill is much more laid-back, and I really envy that. What normally happens is that I’ll bring her a song I have written or that I think we could do well, to see if it’ll click for us, and she’ll come up with the harmonies or the accompanying parts.”
The duo’s name comes from a realization that the style it plays is not just folk. “We did not have a name for ourselves the first few months,” Krajacic says. “I like the name because from my perspective, the side of my musical personality was a lot more folk than I ever had a chance to express, but the name also reflects what Jill brought out of me. We are not just folk; we incorporate a lot of different kinds of music. A lot of people tell me that we are kind of hard to place, and that says to me that we are something unique, and that’s good. I do not want to be easily defined.”
Krajacic grew up in Robbinsville. She is of Slavic ancestry — her father, Ely, emigrated from Croatia more than 40 years ago, and her mother, Irene, is locally born of Polish heritage.
Recently, Krajacic went to Croatia and visited the areas from which her family came. “For a year and a half, I tried to learn Croatian,” says Krajacic. “I tried to go the self-taught route — the flash cards, that sort of thing. But I just wasn’t quick enough.”
Despite a brutal civil war that divided and destroyed the country in the 1990s, Croatia is attempting to bring itself back as a tourist destination. And it’s done a pretty good job, according to Krajacic. “It’s so beautiful there. When you go to the populated areas of the coast, you can see the high number of tourists there from many European countries. Driving through the countryside, you can also see a lot of ruins, the shelled-out houses, the things that have not yet been rebuilt.”
It was tough on her father, Krajacic says. “But people are quite positive about the future there. A lot of people say Croatia is the best-kept secret in Europe. It is really an amazing place. If you go, you have to see Dubrovnik, with its walled old city. It’s incredible.”
As she was growing up and attending Notre Dame High in Lawrence, Krajacic was not particularly musical. “I was kind of looking for ways to express myself artistically,” she says. “I tried painting, drawing, learning piano. But it was when I was in college and had friends who played guitar that I really became hooked.”
That was at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA; she graduated in 1997 with a bachelors in sociology. “I immediately became obsessed and transformed myself into a self-taught musician. To my parents’ chagrin, that’s when I decided that I wanted to do something with music.”
It has been a struggle for the Ewing resident to make a living as a musician — Krajacic, 30, has no other job — but she has been willing to put in the work to make the music work. She spends all of her waking hours either practicing, writing, or booking her duo’s gigs around the country. “I have fallen into the role of being the booker and manager and doing whatever promotional stuff. This is what I do on a day-to-day basis,” says Krajacic, who is single with no children. “It’s the most challenging thing I can imagine. I am constantly putting myself in unconventional circumstances, calling people, working out contracts.”
Her efforts have largely paid off. Last year, Krajacic and Unger traveled from New Jersey (Unger lives in Toms River) west to Kansas, Iowa, Texas, and Colorado to play gigs, and they plan to do the same this year.
Believe it or not, performing is still tough for both women. “We are both naturally shy. We had the worst stage fright before we had a lot of experience,” Krajacic says. “Even now it’s tough. But it’s go to work now and do your job and try to enjoy it the best we can.”
Folk by Association, Sunday, January 21, Orpha’s Coffee Shop, Skillman, and Sunday, January 28, 3 p.m., John & Peter’s, 96 South Main Street, New Hope. www.johnandpeters.com or 215-862-5981.