Hearing Jess Klein in person at one of her shows, you’d never guess this guitar toting singer-songwriter says she was influenced by singers who include Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves, and Smokey Robinson. While her vocal influences may come from the Motown stars of yesterday, her songwriting influences include musicians known for their gift for crafting a good tale – Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello.
Klein, who has been living in Brooklyn the last two years, comes to Concerts at the Crossing at 268 Pennington-Washington Crossing Road in Titusville, on Saturday, November 5.
Her latest album, "Strawberry Lover," for the Massachusetts-based RykoDisc label, has been well-received and follows her debut, "Draw Them Near," released by RykoDisc in 2000. The new album’s title track has received widespread airplay on public and college radio stations around the United States and Canada. The rest of the album is an exhilarating mix of rock and soul that incorporates elements of gospel, blues, and traditional folk song. A third album, "Voices on the Verge," which includes contributions from three other Boston-area singer-songwriters, Erin McKeown, Beth Amsel, and Rose Polenzani, was also released by RykoDisc, in 2003.
"My parents weren’t musicians," Klein says, who was raised in Rochester, "but they were really supportive of me doing anything creative. I took dance lessons, played the clarinet, and wrote fiction."
In the long winters in Rochester – where listening to music is an indoor sport – Klein, an only child, listened to her mother’s record collection. Her mother was a secretary and her father worked in an office.
"I listened to a lot of Motown and old jazz albums," she says, including classic jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. "It wasn’t until later that I got into the singer-songwriter stuff."
She says her first attempts at writing were "short stories about things I’d seen. I had a job in high school as a cashier at a home improvement store, so one of my first stories was a fantasy about what happens when the store closes at night."
Klein, now 32, didn’t start writing her own songs until she was in college. She attended Hamilton College in New York State and spent a semester in Jamaica, where she first picked up the guitar. After college, she headed straight for Boston, where she made a name for herself on the singer-songwriter coffee house scene.
"When I picked up the guitar and started writing it felt like I had found my purpose and my calling. It was a revelatory moment," she says. "I knew I wanted to do this for a living from the day I started writing songs in Jamaica."
Klein says she was inspired by the culture of Jamaica, where everyone seemed to play a guitar or some kind of instrument and where "people were just all going to sing. That got into my mind and heart as a more interesting way of looking at the world."
She says a highlight of her eight years in Boston was a 1999 concert at the Somerville Theater with 10 other singer-songwriters on the bill. "It was my first time at a theater," she says. "I remember getting an encore, so something happened that just really connected me to the audience."
While she is accompanied by some solid studio musicians on her two albums for RykoDisc, Klein says she prefers touring as a solo act. At Concerts at the Crossing, she’ll accompany herself on guitar. Opening act Lelia Broussard, 16, is a Louisiana-raised singer-songwriter who now lives in Philadelphia.
Klein is currently recording a new album for UFO Records that will feature a more stripped-down production – fewer backing musicians. She describes New York City-based UFO Records as a more artists’ friendly record label. "The idea is you deliver a completed album, and you pay for all the recording costs yourself upfront. Then, instead of never seeing a dime from album sales, you get 50 percent of sales, so it doesn’t depend in any way on some person at a record label thinking you’re great."
Asked about the appeal of Springsteen, Klein says she likes the fact that his songs are so strong and that he can perform them in a variety of formats – with a small band, a large band like the E-Street Band, or simply by accompanying himself with guitar and harmonica. "I’ve always paid a lot of attention to what he does, and he’s a real influence. I just love the fact that he can really rock out with a band or just play something solo, and because he’s such a strong songwriter, he’s not confined to a specific way of playing these songs."
Klein has toured throughout the United States, the U.K., and Japan, opening for the likes of 10,000 Maniacs, Jill Sobule, and Luka Bloom. "I’ve been touring solo the last few years and really loving it," Klein says. "People might listen to the album and think, how can this translate into a live performance, but I wrote these songs alone on my acoustic guitar, and I love the connection with the audience I get when performing by myself."
Pressed for some notion of what the audience can expect Saturday night, Klein, who performs traditional and contemporary folk, and touches on blues, jazz balladry and soul music in the course of one of her shows, says: "What’s most important about my music is that passion that’s behind it. There are some more upbeat rock songs and there are some more ballad-oriented and bluesy songs. I’m interested in exploring the passion behind these songs. I feel like that’s the way I can connect with an audience."
Jess Klein, Saturday, November 5, 8 p.m., Concerts at the Crossing, 268 Pennington-Washington Crossing Road (Route 546), Titusville. Opening act Lelia Broussard. Open mic from 7 to 8 p.m. featuring students from the Hopewell Valley School District. $15 in advance; $18 at the door. 609-737-0515 or www.crossingconcerts.com.