Singer-songwriter Jess Klein ’95 learned her first guitar chords from a suite mate her sophomore year. He was Gabriel Unger ’97, who founded the campus Acoustic Coffeehouse series and eventually asked her to open for one of the visiting performers.
As a junior Klein studied in Kingston, Jamaica, where she learned from the great musicians she met and began to write music of her own. She returned to Hamilton knowing that she would make music her life, which she has done since she graduated and became part of Boston’s music scene. Unger was her first manager.
Klein’s American roots music is influenced by blues, rock-and-roll, folk, and country. As a kid she loved her mom’s Motown albums. Her music has taken her from Boston to New York City, Austin, Texas, and now, Hillsborough, N.C. She’s made 11 albums and is working on two more, one of them with her husband, musician Mike June.
She tours roughly four months a year, and right about now she’d typically be working in the United Kingdom and Europe, but the pandemic has grounded her. Klein misses playing for a live audience, even though touring is both exhilarating and exhausting.
“It's a little bit like the highest highs and the lowest lows,” she said. “You can feel incredible. You can be on a really big stage and performing for hundreds of people and getting all this adoration, and then the next night is just not that way; maybe you had to travel six hours to get there and the food wasn't good and the hotel room was cold or something. It's just a lot of ups and downs.”
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Anchored in Hillsborough, she’s performing live-stream shows, and she has more time to work her music. She’d started her new album before the COVID-19 shut-down, but now she has a system in place. Every morning she gets up, has a cup of tea, writes, takes a break, and then writes some more, if she has the energy. The pandemic and current turbulent landscape informs her writing. Klein tries to capture people’s fear, sorrow, and determination to go on — yet create songs that will remain relevant after times have changed.
The pandemic has sharpened her appreciation for her supportive fans and for her art. “It’s given me a lot of gratitude for my ability to write and create and observe things and make them into something, hopefully, empowering and uplifting for people, because I don’t really know how I would cope with all this if I didn't have that ability,” Klein said.