A while back, Jo was told by some people “in the industry” that she should probably stick to one genre and just stay there. “But I just don’t roll that way…,” says Jo Serrapere, singer/songwriter and sage of the sweetly-sad melody and defiant musical magpie of myriad moods and motifs.
“I get too bored,” she says with a chuckle, “I was raised on mixtapes and all different kinds of music. I couldn’t just do one thing, so that’s kinda where all the different projects stem from. I knew I wasn’t going to put everything on one record. So, (The Willie Dunns) is my blues band, (Stella!), and then there’s LaFawndas, and it all just worked better that way.”
Serrapere has also performed with the a capella group Lorelai in the past and started the old-time bluegrass band Uncle Earl.
So, Serrapere chatted with Current about all the music she’s made and continues to make. We looked back on more than 15 years of her releasing distinct recordings with these various outfits, including an Earthworks label lineup of singular talents called Stella, each endeavor of hers lassos at a horizon-full of unique roots music styles: folk, country, rockabilly, bluegrass, blue-eyed soul and maybe just a bit of honky-tonk.
This Saturday at The Ark, Serrapere releases her latest, Dollar Store Nation, a collection of songs recorded with her group, The LaFawndas.
Serrapere has a voice as pure as snow and yet as warm as sunshine. It exudes personality, it draws you in, entices you to stay for the whole show. You always wonder where the heart-punctured protagonists of her rollicking narratives are going to go next. There’s always something about a Jo Serrapere song that picks the soul back up, dusts off the latest romantic debacles and takes a clear-eyed surveil of the situation when the next morning sun rises.
There is also a bite to most of her songs, like a cajoling sip of whiskey; it has a fiery recoil, often in the form of substantive lyrics that poetically pick their way into knotty issues by-way-of feathery-fierce commentary on a range of social issues. That would be the folk singer in her. But there’s also much to be said for the arrangements fleshed out by her backing LaFawnda players, producer/multi-instrumentalist Dave Roof, pedal-steel guitarist Drew Howard, fiddle player Tamineh Gueramy, singer/pianist Laura Ann Bates singer Jen Sygit and drummer Stuart Tucker.
When I listen to Dollar Store Nation, I’m charmed by its richly colored, nostalgic-splashed canopy, but the branches are an interweaving of rockabilly and folk, while the trunk’s bark is a tawny rustbelt orange. The delivery may be Grand Ole Opry or maybe art-deco soda shop, it might be cabaret jazz or torch song tenderness, but the soul of the album, the lyrics, the ideas, the sentiments… are undeniably Midwest, and very: Michigan.
Serrapere grew up in Dearborn but lived in Ann Arbor for long stint, having studied at U-M. She fell in love with music while in grad school over in Detroit (she went on to become a clinical psychologist). When she performed at the Folk Alliance showcase years ago, she caught a lot of big breaks and wound up scoring a string of impressive gigs, including two appearances on A Prairie Home Companion. “Most of my roots have been in Ann Arbor, Lansing, and up north,” Serrapere said.
“I have this hard time, because I love campy but I love authentic,” said Serrapere. “I have a whole other set of music that’s intimate and authentic, but then I also love theater.” (Among her many pursuits, she’s performed with a vaudeville troupe based in Lansing. She currently lives in Dearborn). “But, yes, I do love over-the-top campiness as this safe way of expressing yourself. Maybe there’s some anger in a song but it’s a safer way for me to feel angry about things.”
Her primary influences, particularly of late, include seemingly disparate sources such as Wanda Jackson, and the 1930’s artists and poets of the Harlem Renaissance. But Tom Waits has always been an influence. “Musically, he’s very theatrical. He can be heartbreaking, over-the-top, and I got into the camp of that. It’s playful and fun and it’s made to touch on real things that we’re dealing with in a way that has just a little bit of sugar coated on so it goes down easier. It’s so you can laugh to keep from crying.”
The album’s title comes from a sobering and sad story straight from the headlines reported in her hometown, when two teen-age employees of a Dollar Store were killed during a robbery. “Also, it was an opportunity to comment on the fact that every time I drive around the Detroit area I see all these Dollar Stores popping up. So, that deficiency of the economic system was just breaking my heart; that we went from trying to be an up and coming, vibrant community to this, to where all these Dollar Stores epitomized, to me, sort of the downfall of capitalism. This was all upsetting me, so I tried to write with basic country chords, but wanted it to be a little messier…”
“I love those basic, simple, sweet, cute melodies, and then just dirtying them up a bit,” said Serrapere with a chuckle.
The latest live sets of Jo Serrapere and The LaFawndas open up with the song “In And Out Of Love.” The melody is a dipsy-doodling shuffler, you could almost waltz to it, and all the while Serrapere’s voice is shining like a soft crescent moon on a cool summer’s eve. Then the electric guitar gets in and the percussion starts to stomp and an ear-tugging four-letter-word adds some delicious vulgarity to the lyrical palette.
“It’s like a wall hits you, cuz I’m up there with my little guitar and my little country dress and you think it’s going to be so sweet until it’s not, but it is…, but it’s not! Growing up here in Detroit, I think we all have this love/hate relationship to it, because it has this darkness about it that’s really heavy, but there’s also a rawness and realness to it that makes it beautiful. I’m falling in and out and back in love with Detroit and falling in and out of love with the world…”
To sample some of the lyrical assessments, poetic protests and sweetly intoned notions Serrapere’s been stewing over these past few years, come to the Ark on Saturday and listen close… Also, visit Earthworks Music for more information.
“But I have to say again, the people playing on this record. I’m so excited when I’m able to do something creative that I think turns out pretty cool. I have to mention (co-producer) Dave Roof and all the great ideas that he threw in; he’s a fabulous engineer and can play just about any instrument!”
And as we head into the weekend, Serrapere admitted, she’s actually feeling more nervous rather than excited; it’s been a few years since she’s been regularly active and visual on local stages, having taken time to be a present parent for her young child, Stella Mae. For those out there reading this, we know you haven’t forgotten about Jo. For anyone meeting her music for the first time through this column, consider a trip to the Ark on Saturday.