Queer country trailblazers Karen & the Sorrows are excited to announce the release of their critically acclaimed new album Guaranteed Broken Heart.
Karen & the Sorrows have previously been featured in Billboard, WNYC’s The Takeaway, and Rolling Stone, who described them as “Dolly Parton fronting Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers.” Noisey called the band “exactly what country music needs right now.” For the last eight years, they have also been at the heart of a growing queer country community, running the Gay Ole Opry Festival and the Queer Country Quarterly, and creating space for people who love country music even if country music doesn’t always love them back.
With the Sorrows’ third album, Guaranteed Broken Heart, singer-songwriter Karen Pittelman has struck off in new directions. While many of the songs still center around the dark, country-rock twang that Pittelman loves, she also dove more deeply into both ‘90s country and string-band inspired sounds.
After parting ways with longtime bandmates Elana Redfield and Tami Johnson, Pittelman explains, “It was scary to be on my own, but I was also excited to experiment with new arrangements. I knew I was going down a different road when I realized that about half of the songs I was writing would require a string band.” So Pittelman began reaching out to members of Brooklyn’s strong bluegrass and old time scene to put together an all-star line-up, including Rima Fand on fiddle, Ross Martin on guitar, and Cole Quest Rotante on dobro. She also called on friends and frequent collaborators to form her core electric band, including engineer Charles Burst, who stepped into the additional role of drummer for this album, guitarist Barbara Endes from fellow country-rock band Girls on Grass, Larry Cook on bass, and Gerard Kouwenhoven on harmonies.
“My inspiration was imagining: what if Neil Young had made a ‘90s country album? So on the one hand, I was obsessing about producers like Garth Fundis and Keith Stegall, listening to the genius way they layer and build a song. Sometimes people dismiss that era of country music for being too smooth and slick, but when it’s at its best, that polish and shimmer is there for a powerful purpose—to make you feel exactly what the song feels. At the same time, I was thinking about not just Young’s Harvest, which I guess I’m always thinking about, but also On the Beach, and the way that rawness and honesty draws you in and makes you trust the music. The two songs I probably listened to most over the last year were George Jones’ ‘Choices’ (produced by Stegall) and Young’s ‘Ambulance Blues.’ Though they are on opposite ends of the production spectrum, I wanted to make something that drew from what I loved about both, and how each can make me cry. I was also looking to some of the powerful women artists that I grew up with, like PJ Harvey and Tori Amos, who produce their own work and have never been afraid to make the sound that is in their head, no matter how strange it is.”
With a band named The Sorrows, it’s no surprise that Pittelman tends toward sad songs. For this album, she found herself writing in particular about grief and desire, and the powerful intersection of the two. “I wanted to write about the tidal pull that these feelings can have, about what it’s like to be pulled under—and what it’s like to want to be pulled under. There is a religious version of this experience and a romantic one, and most of the time we keep them separate. But I was thinking about how similarly terrifying and ecstatic both can be, whether the source is sacred or profane. And that sometimes it’s not so easy to tell which is which.”
While Pittelman was recording Guaranteed Broken Heart, she was also working on a long essay about the relationship between country music and white supremacy that she published earlier this year on Medium. “I’m happy that we’re in a moment where some new conversations about racism, sexism, and homophobia are happening in country music and Americana. But there is still such a long way to go. Sometimes people will ask me why I keep bringing up all these issues about identity and politics. Don’t I want people to just listen to my music for the music’s sake? Of course I do! I would love to live in a world where everyone gets to be an artist on their own terms. But we don’t live in that world. Whether you take an explicitly political stance as an artist or not, what you say—and what you don’t say—is always political. The history of music in America, especially the history of country music, has always also been a history of white supremacy. If we’re not reckoning with that past and fighting to create a different future, we’re not doing right by the music itself. And I love this music so much—that’s why I want to do right by it. One of the things I love most about country is that it demands we tell the truth about our lives. For me, this is part of what it means to tell that truth.”
Pittelman formed the Brooklyn-based Sorrows in 2011 together with guitarist Elana Redfield and drummer Tami Johnson. In 2012, they released the EP Ocean Born Mary about a ghost story from Redfield’s New Hampshire hometown. In 2014, they put out their first full-length record, The Names of Things, which was voted one of the Freeform American Roots Chart’s best debut albums of 2014. On their 2017 sophomore record, The Narrow Place, The Sorrows continued building their heartbreak catalog with songs that were both unexpected and entirely country, from a queer reimagining of the bro-country pickup truck ode to a Jewish family story about immigration and race. The band will be celebrating the release of Guaranteed Broken Heart on October 18th at Brooklyn’s Littlefield, and then heading out onto the road for a southeastern tour in November.