Reader advisory: This essay about Kate Jacobs is not strictly about Kate Jacobs, per se. But it’s more about Kate Jacobs than anything else I’m going to write, and is more about Kate Jacobs than about anyone else. All will become clear, more or less.
I’ve puzzled and puzzled over this, but I have no recollection how or where I came by the one Kate Jacobs CD that I own. It’s entitled Hydrangea, and it has an intriguing sketch of a swan biting its own neck on the cover, and it’s been sitting on my CD shelf, between Luscious Jackson and Jefferson Airplane, for who knows how long. It was likely a pickup at an annual WFMU record fair — there’s something about the combination of “I wonder what this sounds like, it’s only $5” and “the money is going to a good cause anyway” that tends to loosen my wallet — but which year’s record fair is anyone’s guess. My record collection is littered with albums that appeared mysteriously this way; sometimes they turn out to be among my favorites, sometimes I listen to them once and then never again, and sometimes they emerge unexpectedly years later, gifts from a former version of myself.
Okay, I can pin down the date just a bit: It had to be sometime since 2010, since that’s when Jacobs — who I’m sure I’d heard vaguely of before, as one of the singer-songwriters I tend to lump together into “the more interesting WFUV types” — started co-hosting one of my favorite internet-era music programs, the Radio Free Song Club.
The premise was simple: Get together a bunch of itinerant songwriters (Peter Holsapple, Freedy Johnston, Victoria Williams — “people who played at Maxwell’s at least once” is a reasonable umbrella term) and give them a monthly deadline for writing and recording a new song, which would be played on the air (well, the internet air) either live or on tape. That premise was also instantly discarded — Freakwater, who were the main reason I tuned in in the first place, submitted exactly one song before disappearing, and the rest of the roster tended to rotate from show to show, which began to appear less monthly than “whenever everybody got around to it.”
In the course of this, though, the RFSC mutated into something far more interesting: a loose collection of friends and friends-of-friends, getting together every once in a while to test-drive material, often hot off the lyric sheet. The Radio Free All-Stars, a likewise see-who’s-available-to-show-up ensemble centered around Dave Schramm, a frequent Yo La Tengo collaborator (and original member, briefly) and leader of his own excellent band The Schramms, provided expert backup, nimbly accompanying performers who might not even be in the room at the time, on songs that they might never have heard before.
Playing host to all this improvisational wonder were Jacobs and Nick Hill, who prior to this I’d only known as a legendary figure at WFMU. (It was on Hill’s live music show called the Music Faucet that Yo La Tengo, then including Schramm, famously played Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle” while Johnston sang the lyrics over the phone; you can listen in amazement here.) Hill was charmingly acerbic and a skilled raconteur, while Jacobs kept him more or less on track and chimed in with her own music-world esoterica; sometimes they performed songs themselves, but more often they bantered and introduced and invited listeners into a private world where some of the world’s most interesting musicians show up unexpectedly, or send in a song via email, to let the rest of us know what they’re up to. I even got to go to a live recording of the show once, at the now-departed Living Room on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and I mostly remember Hill and Jacobs at a small table on the side, listening in rapt attention just like the rest of us in the room, no doubt thinking what a privilege it was to be there for such a special time.
The Radio Free Song Club eventually fizzled out, and is presumably on permanent hiatus now. Hill suffered a stroke last year, and is currently recovering; you can help donate to his recovery expenses here. Jacobs is still out performing, as well as, I recently learned, running a bookstore in Hoboken that hosts not just readings but occasional music performances as well, under the “Little City Limits” banner; I recently caught Amy Rigby — an occasional RFSC contributor — there, and hope to go back soon for more.
I still haven’t listened to that Hydrangea CD. I plan to, but there’s just so much music to get to. In fact, I think I just spotted an old Radio Free Song Club session I haven’t heard yet…