There are music artists who make no apologies and then there is Karen “Farenthings” Updike who unabashedly states the following on her current self-titled demo:
“This CD is really gonna be crap. Sincerely, Karen Updike (no relation to John), P.S. I know about the flat note.I was just too lazy to fix it.”.
Clearly someone who doesn’t like to be taken too seriously, the Jackson-based Updike fills the remaining CD space with a rambling of her favorite things including, “mashed sweet smells, sharp pencils, dog heiners (heiner is slang for hiney), and people who like slow going things.” She caps her stream of consciousness by offering the listener a promise that when she gets a Mac, she’ll record something “refreshed” and “change a few things.”
Updike, 30, can now deliver on her promise after receiving an iMac as a holiday gift from her boss, Ernest Feist of Feist Engineering in Monroe. “I know, crazy — I still think I’m dreaming,” says Updike in a phone interview from her office four days after Christmas. The iMac will allow Updike to upgrade her recording software to the popular program Pro-Tools. In contrast, her first recordings were done on a cassette four track when she was 19. “They came out so very bad, but I had fun. (The four-track) was a gift from a boyfriend I was dating at the time who shall remain nameless. It ended badly, like stalker badly. But isn’t that where good songs come from? Ha! After that I played with recording on the computer and had some experiments gone bad.”
Her demo (EP) was recorded at Blue Claw studios in Voorhees, owned by Tom Ackley (www.tomazz.com). Tracks include “Just Like Heaven,” “Silly Boy,” and “For Extra Days” were recorded at Blue Claw. Updike recorded “Paper Universe” herself on a Cakewalk program at home. She recorded “Happy Thoughts” in LA with Josh Rumor of Invengo Records. “He flew me out in October, 2007,” she says, “and we recorded three tracks in three days. I wasn’t crazy about how the other two came out, but I kept “Happy Thoughts” because people seemed to like it. We had a lot of fun and he was trying to get me back there to do more recording, but I really feel uncomfortable with someone taking over my songs, which is why I wanted to try to set something up at home.” Now with her iMac she can.
“This computer gift is such a blessing, my boss has no idea,” Updike says. “All this stuff is so expensive and a lot of musicians are held back I think because they simply don’t have the money to get where they want to be.” Feist’s generosity is not limited to his employees; he is also an active Make a Wish Foundation donor, and at this year’s holiday party, he requested donation gifts to the foundation. Following his example, Updike is continuing the “pay it forward” spirit with her next performance. On Saturday, January 10, she will appear at “An Evening of Abundance & Desire,” a fundraiser at Bistro Soleil in Hightstown to aid the completion of a documentary film about Hurricane Katrina victims, filmed and produced by Hightstown couple Charlie and Maggie Grubbs. The event is sponsored by Desire Street Ministries and Fargo Films and hosted by Soleil chef/owner Jim Hayes, “Abundance & Desire” focuses on the bureaucratic obstacles residents of New Orleans Upper Ninth Ward have faced in restoring their community in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Abundance and Desire refer to actual New Orleans street names.
Charlie Grubbs, who graduated in 1991 from Virginia Commonwealth University with a fine arts degree, is the son of Dorothy Grubbs of Richmond, VA, a retired life insurance secretary, and the late Irvin Grubbs, a former minister turned truck driver. He has worked for several years as a rigging gaffer on major feature films including “Departed,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “Duplicity.” His wife, Maggie, is a personal trainer at Fitness Zone in Hightstown and is the daughter of Barbara Baldwin of Providence, RI, a former executive director of Planned Parenthood, and John Capron of Atlanta, GA, a labor attorney.
“Charlie is the passion behind this project and Mike Hartel is our director,” Maggie says in a phone interview from her home. “Charlie had worked for about four months in New Orleans on a film called ‘Just My Luck’ and built strong connections with his crew, which consisted of local residents and those within the industry from neighboring states. After Katrina his bonds grew stronger, particularly with a man, Charlie Wright, who is my husband’s true inspiration for the documentary and a role model in life. When my husband went down to the Upper Ninth ward (Charlie Wright’s community) to help rebuild, the images would not let him rest. That is when he knew that this community’s story must be told. He then began filming and to date has over 50 hours of footage. This community is an amazing group of people who show a strength that brings hope. We have been funding this project out of pocket but now have run low on resources. This fundraiser will help us finish the documentary so that we can get their story told and help the process of rebuilding.”
She is also immensely grateful for the opportunity to partner with Bistro Soleil. “We could not think of a better venue for our fundraiser. Jim’s place is warm, the food is great, and it is a great environment.” In a press statement, Hayes says, “As I watched the events unfold in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I couldn’t help but want to find some way to help these people get their lives and homes and communities back in order. It’s a shame that they have been mostly forgotten. I approached the company I was working for at the time to take several chefs and a truck loaded with food to help, but the company felt that a monetary donation was the way to help without sending more people into the confusion and chaos of the situation. When I was approached to host this event, I couldn’t accept fast enough. As a business owner in a town that is also trying to improve its image and sense of community, I think it’s important to help a community whose struggle is just rebuild, much less grow an image.”
In less than six degrees of separation, Updike became involved in the fundraiser after her husband, Daryl, also a trainer at Fitness World, played her music for Maggie in a spin class. The Grubbs say they were “blown away by her talent” and became instant fans when they heard her songs, which are heavily influenced by Fiona Apple and Tori Amos. The initial track they selected to use in the documentary is an instrumental of “Happy Days,” which is driven by an insistent, frenetic piano riff reminiscent of Amos’ hit “Cornflake Girl.”
“We’re honored to have her working with us — there’s something so captivating about Karen,” says Maggie Grubbs. “We thought it was perfect for the interview sequences. Music is the glue that fuses the theme of the message with the appropriate medium. It simply makes people want to stop and pay attention.”
The filmmakers have plans to seek distribution through film studio and television outlets. They are also considering additional music artists for the soundtrack as well as producing a benefit album. “The gears are turning and the sky’s the limit. This is an ongoing story that we’d like to release as a series. We want to get the trailers out now so people understand what the film’s trying to convey,” says Grubbs.
Updike’s music will remain the cornerstone as she moves ahead promoting her music career. The daughter of Linda Manchester, a former hairdresser, and Ernest Manchester, owner of Manchester Builders, Updike was born in Edison. Her family moved frequently throughout central New Jersey in her childhood. As she glibly explains, “my parents liked to flip houses and my mom would run out of ways to rearrange the furniture, a habit I inherited wholeheartedly. I’m also currently out of ways to rearrange my furniture, so I am ready to move.” Her brother, David, works for the family business. Updike says she shares an offbeat relationship with her twin sister, Lisa Neuberg, of Millstone, and describes her as having “two incredibly squooshably adorable little boys, Noah and Luke. She’s not into music at all and our tastes differ tremendously. She could never replace me at a gig because we don’t look alike, unless I’m in a blonde phase and regularly wearing my glasses. We have similar eyewear and the same amount of limbs so that’s the extent of our ‘in commons.’ But we have nicknames for each other: I’m ‘Fitty,’ she’s ‘Ninny,’ and we laugh hard together. For some reason our favorite thing to do is send E-mails to each other, gobbed up with curses. The ruder we are to each other, the funnier.” The start of her musical career goes back to her audition for the choir at Allentown High School; when she sang the Joe Jackson song, “Be my Number Two” and accompanied herself on piano her teacher asked her if she wrote the song.
Updike’s calendar is regularly booked with live performances including February 8 at the Bitter End in New York City, her favorite venue to date. “It seems to be geared for the singer/songwriter style. The people actually shut up and listen, which is rare at a crowded bar in Jersey.” She also enjoyed her first television appearance in December on Princeton cable access’s “Breezin’ with Bierman,” where she performed back to back tracks, “Sarahband” and “Monday,” one of her preferred new songs.
“I use ‘Monday’ as a metaphor for a person, someone who you love, but they feel like they’re a ‘Monday’ because that’s the most ordinary, hated day. Really, you just want to show them how much you think about them.”
Quoting her own lyrics, Updike laments, “‘Monday, you’ve got a beautiful soul. But you can’t hear it till you close the door. You should know how lovely you are.’”
If gigging and recording weren’t enough, Updike also dedicates time to her expanding craft business, “Farenthings.” The nickname Faren originated when her brother substituted it in a birthday card for Karen. The name took on a life of its own with her family and co-workers at her part-time job at the Prestige Diner in East Windsor. “For some unknown or mental reason, I started to make cinnamon stick replicas of my friends who I worked with. I usually put a dirty diner shirt on a cinnamon stick and made a face on it out of clay and put hair on it. One friend said to me, ‘I dare you to make a website called ‘Farenthings’ and sell your ridiculous ‘things.’ So I went home that night and did it. Nobody ever bought my cinnamon stick people, but eventually I started realizing that I should just sell more artful things.” Popular sell-outs include snowman sand-dollar ornaments painted with the whimsy and charm of a children’s book illustration, handmade journals, and what Updike describes as “grunge cuffs.” “They’re wrist cuffs, but embellished with fabric and buttons, ribbon, hemp, or whatever I have handy. Most of them start off with corduroy, my favorite material, and then I sew them sloppily so they look grungy.” You can visit www.karenupdike.com.
Anyone attending the Bistro Soleil fundraiser on January 10 might have the opportunity to see Updike model the cuffs and purchase a pair.
An Evening of Abundance & Desire, Bistro Soleil, 174 Mercer Street, Hightstown, 609-443-9700. Saturday, January 10, 5 to 11 p.m. Fundraiser with live music by pianist and singer-songwriter Karen Updike to benefit the completion of the documentary “Abundance & Desire,” filmed and produced by Hightstown filmmakers Charlie and Maggie Grubbs. The film documents the struggle to rebuild the Upper Ninth Ward amidst the bureaucracy of government. A trailer of the film will be shown. Guests of honor will include residents of the Upper Ninth Ward, who are featured in the film. Tickets are $30 and are available by E-mailing Maggie Grubbs at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 609-240-2070. Karen Updike is also appearing at Triumph Brewery, Princeton, on Thursday, January 22, and at the All Call Inn in Ewing on Friday, February 13. www.karenupdike.com