For Jeff Karoub, past stories shed light on the present day.
The Dearborn rhythm-and-roots acoustic singer-songwriter believes historical people, places and pieces holistically define and shape society today.
“When I read this quote, it really kind of summed up what this was all about, and it was this Kansas journalist named Roy Wenzl, and he was talking about what he learned from his father. There’s just this great essay about it, but the quote I love is, ‘The ground beneath our feet is filled with the bones and the stories of millions of creatures that came before us,’” Karoub said.
“He talks about how we all go through our lives sleepwalking and missing what’s happening and not thinking about the people who came before or the places that have come and gone. Here, we live in this town where Motown rose and then relocated, but lots of musicians stayed and kept making music, but the world wasn’t necessarily hearing them anymore. I’m grappling with the past, but I also definitely want to be very much living in now and making sure I don’t miss anything.”
Piecing Together ‘Pieces Break’
In a sense, the album references timeless symbols of Midwestern life – tires, bells, barns and cities – and reminds people to reflect on how far they’ve come. Each track beautifully stands alone, yet collectively represents a certain musical point in time.
The album’s heartfelt title track wraps listeners in vibrant acoustic strums and vintage Hammond B3 organ chords while whisking them into a poetic reverie – “Sometimes the pieces break/In such perfect shapes/They’re better left apart/What does the water wash over/And what does it forget/If I was never here and we never talked, would it matter much?”
That reverie prompts listeners to view Karoub’s majestic “Pieces Break” track through a virtual storyteller’s lens. In a sense, the track’s parts are just as significant as the sum of it.
“It’s got those themes we talked about right in there. You know, about what we leave in the past and what we cast aside. Bringing these two ideas came to me appropriately enough in pieces. The first part about the water washing over and what does it forget, that came separate from the part about pieces breaking in such perfect shapes that are better left apart,” said Karoub, who also works as a journalist for The Associated Press’ Detroit bureau.
“I thought, ‘I guess I have two songs here. Wonder if I can develop two separate songs here?’ But, I sat down with both sets of words in front of me, and all of a sudden, musical ideas and melodic ideas came to me for both.”
“Pieces Break” also features a splendid collaboration with Vermont multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Putnam Smith and Massachusetts multi-instrumentalist, engineer and producer Garrett Sawyer at Northfire Recording Studio in Amherst. Karoub ventured to Massachusetts last year and recorded three tracks – “Pieces Break,” “Prophetstown” and “Big Red Barn” – with his New England friends and collaborators.
“Garrett was playing string bass on all three songs and a little bit of Hammond B3 on ‘Pieces Break,’” said Karoub, who plays guitar, fiddle, concertina and percussion on the album. “Putnam did a lot of nice guitar and banjo and harmonica work. His harmonica work on ‘Prophetstown’ reminds me of Neil Young. It just really hits the spot.”
Going to ‘Prophetstown’
Another exquisite track, “Prophetstown,” includes bright acoustic strums intertwined with folky harmonica and delicate mandolin plucks – “On the outskirts of Prophetstown/Windmills slice the sky/Eighteen-wheelers roll and rumble/Turnpike gray, a clap of thunder/Everything seems a game/That no one wants to play anymore/Racing toward the county line/Maybe lost in space and time.”
“Prophetstown” serves as an enduring history lesson that still rings true today. Karoub developed the track’s central theme while driving through Illinois en route to a folk music conference in Iowa City.
“I saw the sign for a town called Prophetstown. I thought, ‘There’s gotta be a good story behind that place. What a great name.’ It was a rainy, gray day, and there were windmills on the outskirts of town, and I sort of got this overwhelming feeling of kind of melancholy, partly due to the weather,” he said.
“This was an old native tribal village that was set on fire by white settlers after its native inhabitants fled. In more recent times, several years ago, there was a fire through the downtown business district of Prophetstown, and to me, it’s just like the past impacts the present. It’s kind of a reminder of how the past references our present in unexpected ways.”
Adding ‘We Are Moving’
Karoub also recorded six tracks from “Pieces Break” with Michigan-based producer and longtime friend Mark Palms in Manchester. While completing his final round of work on the album, Karoub started writing another song, “We Are Moving,” while sitting in his car.
He quietly watched a patch of wild grass and a tree remain motionless on a breezy day. The stillness of the moment reminded Karoub how life moves forward even when one pauses for mere seconds in the Manchester countryside.
With that inspiration, Karoub penned“We Are Moving,” which weaves uplifting acoustic guitars with a mournful violin – “Sometimes in the stillness I’m reminded/We keep moving, we’re still moving/Sometimes in the hard times I remember/We are striving, just keep striving/Someway we can make more of our time here/More in the moment we’re alive here.”
“It just kind of came to me. I didn’t know my antenna was up to receive it, but there it was, and I’m like, ‘Well, I gotta get home, I gotta start writing this song.’ So that song, some of the words came, I probably started to cut the melody in my head,” Karoub said. “The process was really easy. It came along, and I already had some other songs in mind for the CD, but I said, ‘Nope, ‘We Are Moving’ belongs on here.’”
Decoding Life Before and After ‘Pieces Break’
“Pieces Break” marks another significant milestone in Karoub’s life – he turned 50 last year – and wanted to celebrate with a new album and release show.
In a way, it recounts his half-century journey from growing up in Allen Park with a musical family and listening to his father play French horn in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and on Motown recordings with Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight & the Pips and Elvis Presley.
To hone his musical skills, Karoub studied classical violin as a child, played in marching band and sought creative inspiration from The Beatles, Motown and REM. He also discovered a love of writing in middle school while creating a zine and joined the student paper in high school.
“For me, music is just there. It’s just a central element. Before I had much to say, I was always writing songs, a lot of tragedies were committed maybe, but the music has always been there whether performing or learning a number of instruments,” he said. “The writing has gotten more and more as I’ve gotten older.”
While working as a journalist, Karoub continued to pursue music on the side and performed as part of a duo at local coffeehouses in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. He released his debut solo album, “Made by Motown” in 2013 and followed up with two subsequent projects, “Find a Shore” (2014) and “Northern Cranes” (2016).
With four well-revered albums under his belt, Karoub continues to perform live throughout metro Detroit at art galleries, churches, house concerts and listening rooms.
He has several live performances scheduled for the first quarter of 2020, including Feb. 8 at East River Folk Society’s Acoustic Open Mic at The Downriver Council for the Arts in Wyandotte and March 8 at First United Methodist Church in Dearborn with Putnam Smith and Ashley Storrow.
“I guess what I want to do is connect with people. I want to invite them in, and I want to create community, but I also want to ask questions, and I’m not worried about having the answer,” Karoub said. “The great thing about music is you can just ask a question and get people thinking.”