Despite being well known inside the New Jersey music scene for decades, Karen Mansfield had never released a record of her own until a few months ago. Once a punk rocker with The Bleeding Knees, she has recorded, performed, and shared stages with artists such as Jewel, the Whirling Dervishes, Willie Nile, Mikeal Jorgensen of Wilco, and Erik Paparazzi of Cat Power. Through the years, the Rutgers University graduate has recorded several albums that were never released for one reason or another. Her self-titled debut contains six songs which run through a myriad of influences and sounds like radio stations of the sixties and seventies when the charts weren't so homogenized. It's also well worth the wait.
New Jersey Stage recently spoke with Mansfield about the new release and what took her so long to finally have a record of her own, a record that was expertly produced by Rob Tanico, a long-time member of the Jersey Shore music scene with such bands as Mr. Reality and Highway 9.
The record starts off with a distinctive sixties vibe that reminds me of The Yardbirds.
Rob (Tanico) picked up on that vibe in my music. It's not in every song, but in quite a lot of them. I've never said I have a sixties vibe, but I had one record when I was little. It was a K-Tel record of the British Invasion and it contained The Yardbirds, Cream, and a lot of songs and artists who had that whole sound. I didn't have a lot of records, so I listened to that thing a hundred million times. And when I first started playing guitar, the first songs I wanted to learn were songs like "Bus Stop."
It's funny how you don't realize everything that you're putting in can be an influence. I didn't set out for that to be what my sound is, but Rob obviously isn't the only one who hears it. I've worked with a lot of people and wanted someone to speak for me and pull stuff out of me as far as what the songs needed and Rob was definitely the guy. There are a lot of people I've made records with that were never released and the records were more of their ego than the art. If Rob wanted to change certain parts and I said I wasn't into that, he totally honored that; when I had worked with somebody else they wanted full control. It didn't seem like as an artist I was being acknowledged with some of the people I've worked with. With Rob, he's a very sensitive guy and he's an artist, he's not just a button pusher, and I think that's why the record came out so great.
Rob definitely heard the second song as Glen Campbell and it goes back to the sixties thing again; the era wasn't all about the British Invasion, it was about artists like Glen Campbell too. He heard Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys on "Just a Man". I think he looked at each song as an individual thing. He was a little bit worried that the record wouldn't be cohesive all the way through, but I think it works.
Why did it take you so long to finally put out a record?
Mainly because I was taking care of my daughter. I had made a record with Bobby Bandiera playing guitar on every track, which was never completed and never released. I made another record with John Conte playing bass, Shawn Pelton on drums, and Jack Morer from Tall Stories. Rob Tanico was on that record too. It was an 11 or 12 song record, but I don't have the rights to it so I could never release it.
A lot of this was me taking care of my daughter. I'm a single mom and just trying to get by. I was trying to get the money together so I could buy the rights to those records and then ultimately realizing I can't get the money, so just make another one.
It's a bummer because when you're an artist you get taken advantage of, but what can you do? All you can do is keep trying. My daughter is 18 now and getting ready to go to college, so I'm able to get back and focus on the music. I'm sure that fathers have the same feeling, but there is that mother guilt. I sold all of my guitars, sold all of my amps — you do what you have to do to provide for your kid. And then you hope you haven't missed a beat so you can jump back in the game and hit the ground running. I'm happy that I have had about 20 years to think of who are the cream of the crop musicians in the local scene. We have a lot of great musicians in this area but not all of them are ones that I wanted on this project. These are the ones I wanted. This is my dream team. I sang with PK Lavengood 20 years ago, and I was always palling around with Rob (Tanico) and Mr. Reality. David (Halpern) is the only one I didn't know very well, but I knew he had worked with Rob and PK so it was like these guys are already in good with each other. They're great musicians and they can deliver what I need. And so we did it.
One night in March 2012, I was thinking that I wanted to make a record and I wanted Rob to produce it. I had been working late teaching, I was at home in my pajamas and getting ready for bed. I went on Facebook and saw that PK was filling in a gig with Rob and Dave at the Boathouse in Belmar. I was like, "The three of them are together!"
So I got dressed and went down to the Boathouse. As soon as I walked in they called me up to do a couple of songs. I hadn't seen any of them in a long time. While on break they're like "What are you doing?" I said, ‘I'm here to ask Rob to do a record and hopefully you guys will be the band!" And that was it.
When we were in the studio I just knew — sometimes you're in the studio and it's just a pain and things can take all day to do one simple part. This was different. Pretty much everything was done on the first take. One time PK asked if we could go back for "For Your Lies" and he came up with that solo and everybody had goosebumps. It was like something really spooky just happened in the studio. It was really cool.
Even though you've never left the local scene, there are a lot of people who remember you from The Bleeding Knees days. Did you worry about competing against your past?
Unfortunately, I have to worry about it because many people still want the original thing that we did. I don't know if you ever saw The Bleeding Knees, but we weren't very good. The songs were very simple. It was mostly girls although we had a different guy on bass for each gig. People would say, "Karen, you're like Pebbles & Bamm Bamm."
We were silly. Every song made fun of something and people loved it and laughed. We were outrageous and people want that again. I remember when I began writing serious songs that I knew wouldn't work with The Bleeding Knees. I tried to weave some of the songs into the Bleeding Knees set and nobody was into it. They liked us singing bad words and being obnoxious. I think when you start out as a comedian it's hard to be taken seriously.
It sounds like the band's legend grew over time.
I think it's because we were young. People my age are not coming out, they're at home with their kids. The Bleeding Knees were around 1987-88 and there was a bunch of people that I went to high school with who were all looking for something fun to do, so it was really outrageous to come and see my band. It was like who has enough guts to get up and do what we did? It was out of control! And we didn't last that long.
What kept you interested in music all of these years?
I love writing songs. I love when they come to me and I love working with people that can build it into the song that it's meant to be, make it a recording, and put it out. I teach voice, guitar, and piano lessons and have a part-time job as well. I don't have to be rich, I just want to make music. It's the greatest feeling in the world for me.
Photo by Danny Sanchez
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at email@example.com.