Karen Mansfield is one of those rare artists who is deeply conversant with the history of rock music. Growing up, she absorbed a wide range of music: from the British invasion fizz of The Kicks, The Hollies, and The Animals, to the mystic sounds of The Doors and finally to the literate, jangly magic of The Smiths and R.E.M. Mansfield took it all in, transcended it and became very much herself. With her new disc, Thistle and Boon, she convincingly displays a unique voice and writing style. It’s so commanding and original, that someday other musicians will be citing her as an influence.
This New Jersey native’s musical evolution was slightly circuitous, but ultimately absolutely perfect. She began with experimenting with recording at age 10, journal writing at 15, which led to poetry and eventually guitar playing and songwriting. After steeping herself in classic rock and arty indie bands, Mansfield started an almost all-girl punk group, The Bleeding Knees, who performed all over the New Jersey shore and opened for Punk legend Johnny Thunders. “We weren’t very good, but we were funny, passionate and outrageous,” says Mansfield. “But the direction the other girls wanted to go in was too extreme and unfulfilling, just not where I felt I was being called. My father at the time was diagnosed with cancer and passed away within six months and this forced me to take a more serious approach to life and my creativity. I was evolving and wrote from a deeper place.”
She performed solo for several years, winning numerous local awards, played bass in a punk band called The Summer Nationals (featuring members of New Jersey’s Whirling Dervishes) and then fronted a three piece alternative garage pop band called Mansfield Electric. Through the years, with spec deals and contracts with indie labels, Mansfield recorded numerous not-yet-released albums and demos.
In November 2014, she released her self-titled six song e.p. on her own label, Willow Bella Music. In Feb 2018 she released her first full length album, ‘Thistle and Boon’ again on Willow Bella, entering Billboard’s Heat-seekers Chart for the Mid Atlantic at number 6 the following week. The first single from the album, “There Was a Girl” was named one of the top 10 songs of New Jersey for 2017 by the Asbury Park Press.
It’s a haunting, moody disc, that moves from quiet, introspective numbers like “The West Side,” which showcases Mansfield’s seductive, girlish voice and gorgeous vibrato to the romantic, rushing “Me and Leslie,” that shows trace elements of Bruce Springsteen, Rickie Lee Jones and British songbird Lulu. But maybe it’s best to let Mansfield talk about some of her favorites.
“I’ve always felt strongly about ‘Lover for the Ride.’ It’s one of the first songs I wrote that made me believe that I could take myself more seriously as a songwriter, that I had something more meaningful to convey than the satirical defiance of my early writing. It comes from a deep, honest place of yearning and exposes a vulnerability I was unable to share as a beginning songwriter. I feel the song is about one’s quest for simple yet elusive happiness. The song came to me through my experience as a person who has suffered on and off with depression and has struggled with alcohol.
‘You Make Me Happy,’ which closes the album was born of a very different place altogether. It’s about experiencing true contentment. The song came to me in a dream where I heard it coming out out of a radio. I’d never written anything so positive before so it felt very new to me. I wasn’t really sure that It’d be song I’d ever record. Then, this past summer, while we were starting production on the album, I reread ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’ I came upon the line where old man says to the boy, ‘You make me happy.’ I thought, ‘What a wonderful thing to say to someone. In some ways it might mean just as much if not more than saying ‘I love you. This made me believe in the song, it’s message and that it was for me.”
One of the reasons the album has such a consistently fine groove is due to the drummer Aaron Comess from the Spin Doctors. Other players include Jack Daley, longtime bassist for Lenny Kravitz, who holds down the ‘bottom,’ beautifully. Playing various instruments and producing the record is Steve Greenwell, a seasoned vet who has worked with everyone from Hip Hop artists to Grammy winning songstress, Joss Stone. Emily Grove adds the fine background vocals. Billy Siegel adds piano on “Break Away” and keys on “My New Favorite Thing,” “There Was A Girl,” “Gone,” “Lover for the Ride” and “Me and Leslie”. Jay Shepard and Jimmy Farkas play guitars throughout.
Finally, Mansfield sees the title as an image and explanation for the yin and yang of the album’s charms. Thistle is a prickly, mostly unwanted weed, but it survives where nothing else can and blooms where nothing else will. It represents the songs on the album that were born of trying times, loss and heartache, that she believes mold us into a purer version of ourselves. She says, “If we let them, challenges can help us nurture our faith and bring positive spiritual transformation. So, in a way, I am like thistle, life is like thistle. Boon is a long awaited blessing, which for me is the album itself, who I’m becoming and the life I am living right now. The additional blessings are the fans who love it, the chance I had to work with Steve Greenwell, the caliber of musicians he brought to the project and lastly, that I’m doing what I set out to do since day one.”
You can catch her live, giving her all, on storied stages all along the Jersey shore and beyond.