Jen Kearney (Photo by Caroline Alden)

There are many professional musicians out there who defy categorization. Some boldly refuse to be corralled into a certain genre, an approach that undoubtedly has artistic merit, but sometimes has consequences on the commercial side of the business.

Jen Kearney is one of those artists … highly talented, but difficult to classify. Her sound blends musical styles including Soul, R&B, Funk, Rock, Jazz, and Latin, along with impressive vocals and robust songwriting. Think Lake Street Dive meets Tedeschi-Trucks meets Steely Dan.

Kearney has been making music since the 1990s and has shared the stage with Maceo Parker, Los Lobos, Daryl Hall, Mavis Staples, and more. She’s headlining a show Friday, July 1 at Askew in Providence.

The Massachusetts native just released Atlantic, a four-song EP that arose from the ashes of the pandemic, following a couple of years she spent in the UK. I spoke to Kearney last week and learned more about her background.

“I was born in Boston I grew up in Massachusetts,” Kearney shared. “My grandfather was a violinist from Sicily, he just kind of played, he didn’t have any formal lessons or any great education. My uncle on my mom’s side of the family was very musical, and my dad writes limericks for our birthdays, so I maybe got the lyric writing thing from him.”

She attended UMass Lowell for music and then started playing open mic nights and writing songs.

“I lived in London from 2018 to 2020,” she explained. “I had gone on tour in 2017 with a Latin group there called Snowboy and the Latin Section. Snow Boy found my music on CD Baby back in 2006, he was the programmer for the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show on BBC 6. He is this really brilliant Latin star over there, and he decided to cover two of my more Latin-drenched songs on his album and subsequently flew me over there to play with them in 2017.”

“It went so well that I decided to move there in 2018. I got back here in January of 2020 and then the pandemic shut everything down. I took a couple of the songs I had written there and a couple I had written over here, decided to finish them up, and called it Atlantic because we’re across the pond,” Kearney continued.

As mentioned, her music doesn’t easily fit into a specific category.

“It’s been a very eclectic collection of music, which can bring out an eclectic and diverse audience,” she noted. “It depends where I am too, when I play Boston, I notice there’s usually a lot of musicians there, I think we attract them. I haven’t chosen a genre to pigeonhole myself in, not that it’s a bad thing, I just haven’t been able to decide on a style of music that I love enough to just go with. I’m just happy that it’s reaching people, that’s really why I do it, I’m just so happy connecting with them.”

Kearney shared a little about her approach to songwriting.

“I spend time writing almost every day in a sort of journal-ish manner, I read the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, she wrote it in the 90s. It’s sort of this creative block, almost self-help book, Pete Townshend has mentioned it, it seems like a lot of people have read it. It suggests that you write 3 pages of long hand… whatever comes out of your brain in the morning. I’ve been doing that pretty consistently since the ’90s. I have a ton of things that pop up that I can always reference,” she explained.

“’The Magician’ for example, just sort of popped up as a few stanzas on its own. Sometimes it’s not quite that smooth and usually the musical part, I’m just sort of noodling around and practicing, to come up with a chord progression, working on my lyrical ideas, and seeing if the puzzle pieces fit. And/or sometimes I’ll start with the musical part. It’s kind of convoluted … I couldn’t have worked at the Brill building … I always marvel, how did Carole King do this?”

She’s looking forward to the Askew show Friday night. “It’s been a long time since we played Providence, I’m excited to get back down there. Seems like a really booming scene there.”

Ben Shaw and the Maddie McGill Band open the Askew show around 9PM –For more on the show, click here.

For more on Jen Kearney, click here.

Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music and more for What'sUpNewp, Providence Monthly, SO RI, and The Bay. He DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse" Tuesday nights, 6-9 PM on WRIU 90.3 FM.