How Jen Korte Restarted Her Music Career
Jen Korte (left) decided to record a new EP when her band scored a set at Film on the Rocks.
For Jen Korte, getting an offer to play at Red Rocks Amphitheatre for an installment of Film on the Rocks sparked a chain reaction. “I get an offer to do a show like this, and in my head I’m already working on eight different other projects to go with it,” she says.
Each year, the Denver Film Society works to pair the right bands with the movies chosen for its summer series, and Korte’s band, Jen Korte & the Loss, will play before a screening of The Breakfast Club. For local musicians, playing Film on the Rocks is a big deal: Not only do they get to perform at one of the country’s most storied outdoor venues, but it’s also an opportunity to play in front of thousands of potential new fans.
“Getting asked to play Red Rocks — it kind of lit a fire under my ass to record this EP,” says Korte in her charming Texas drawl about her newest project, Everything Red. The plan is to have the concert double as an album-release party: Everyone in the audience will get a free copy of Everything Red, which Korte wrote and helped record, mix and master.
The album is the first from Jen Korte & the Loss since 2009; it was recorded at the Oriental Theater, a space that fit the musicians’ budget and gave the band a chance to grab hold of what makes the Loss so great: its live performances. “I knew that it was a big enough room that it could really capture Jess and my voices,” says Korte of singing with longtime bandmate Jessica DeNicola. “We can really belt it out, and I worried that it wouldn’t read well on record. With my first album — people have told me, this is a great album, but you aren’t as big as you are in person.”
So the band set out to harness its strength, and made what was essentially a live album — but without an actual audience. Everything Red is the recorded version of what Jen Korte & the Loss deliver on stage: wild but focused vocals that guide an accessible, emotive Americana-rock style. Along with DeNicola, the Loss is made up of other strong players: drummer Neil Mitchell, bassist Andy Bercaw and violinist Julie Beistline, with occasional appearances by trumpet player Joshua Trinidad.
The four songs on Everything Red are actually part of a bigger picture for the band. A second full-length album, Shade of Blue, is in the works. Sonically, it will be very different from the swing and sway of the EP: Shade of Blue will be all about the beat.
Korte says she’s not a “musician’s musician”; she doesn’t play or write every day, choosing instead to work on each piece of material as it comes to her. During the past few years, she’s been drawn to her roots: Playing guitar with her Puerto Rican grandfather brought her music to a new, more rhythm-oriented place. “I have a big love of Héctor Lavoe and Buena Vista Social Club and Latin music that is inherent in me,” says Korte. “It’s interesting, because it has evolved into this Latin, reggae-sounding thing in my music.”
The Caribbean had an influence on Korte’s music, too. In 2013, Korte found herself bouncing between St. Thomas and St. John, living in the U.S. Virgin Islands after her longtime girlfriend accepted a nursing position there. “When I say I was influenced by the Caribbean, I mean the actual water,” says Korte. “Living in the Caribbean influenced me musically, but it’s very segregated in the islands. Racism is prevalent. You know where you can go and where you can’t go. I thought I was going to go down there and delve into the music, but it’s not like that; it’s all tourism and cover bands. There’s this influx of thousands of people every day on cruise ships, and they just appear and trash the place and leave. It’s, like, no wonder there’s this divide.”
But Korte managed to navigate the strange world well, finding violinist Beistline playing the same circuit. The two teamed up and started doing sets at bars frequented by tourists. They made good money — better, Korte says, than they made playing shows back home in Denver. “Julie and I would try to split it up; we’d play an hour and a half of original songs mixed in with an hour and a half of covers,” recalls Korte. “We would focus all of our covers on violin parts. I mean, y’all would laugh at me in Denver, but if we pulled out a Dave Matthews song in the Caribbean, we’d get one $20 tip after another. We just had fun and we didn’t care.”
Korte thinks those long nights of doing covers and originals helped her sharpen her skills. She was playing guitar and singing for hours each night, jamming and improvising with a cadre of other professional musicians who’d either retired to the Caribbean or were living down there and making money, like she was. But after less than a year, Korte and her girlfriend were back in Denver — and Korte was able to persuade Beistline to leave the islands, too. Beistline became a member of Jen Korte & the Loss, and the two continued their musical partnership.
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There’s yet another side to Jen Korte as a musician, one that will appear on the Red Rocks stage at the upcoming Film on the Rocks show. For the past three years, Korte has been heading up the Dirty Femmes, a project she calls a “celebration” of the Violent Femmes’ music.
Korte is very clear that this is neither a tribute band nor a cover band, but rather an interpretation of the music she grew up on.
“It’s a very weird balance between being an artist and writing your own music and then having this — a celebration of Violent Femmes music,” she says. The band doesn’t play often, but Korte has noticed that being this other musical entity has opened a lot of doors for her. One of those doors opened up to a relationship with Violent Femmes frontman Gordon Gano himself. “We played that first show — we had put posters up, and, you know, it was all over social media. I guess someone saw a poster, took a picture of it and sent it to Gordon,” says Korte. “He got my phone number from someone and called me out of the blue. He was just like, ‘Hey, it’s Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes. You might have heard of me?’ I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ I was standing in my underwear in the kitchen doing dishes, trying to play it cool. I’m like, ‘Hey, what’s up? What’s going on?’”
Gano — who now lives in Colorado — met up with Korte, and the two hit it off. He steps on stage from time to time to play with the Dirty Femmes, but it’s rare. Korte says sometimes there’s confusion when she books the act, with an assumption on the other end that Gano is part of the band. But he’s a featured player at most, popping in to play fiddle or duet with Korte. More than anything, Korte says, Gano has become a friend, someone she can go to with questions about music and life. “I wrote him in the middle of the night recently and asked him, how do you get on stage in front of 10,000 people and not let the fear or your nerves overcome you?,” says Korte. “Gordon was like, ‘Let’s talk about it in person.’ We talk about each other’s lives. I consider him to be my friend.”
The audience at Red Rocks will get a good dose of both Jen Korte & the Loss and the Dirty Femmes. But at the heart of it all is Korte — a musician whose work has matured substantially since she moved to her adopted home town ten years ago. Whether her rough-hewn voice is belting out old-school country-influenced originals, working alongside Latin beats or churning through the Femmes catalogue, Korte shines brightly.
Film on the Rocks presents The Breakfast Club
With Jen Korte & the Loss and the Dirty Femmes, 7 p.m., Wednesday, August 26, $12, 303-595-3456.
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