Written by: Frank Iacono
Singer-songwriter Karen Mansfield, long considered a mainstay of the legendary Asbury Park, New Jersey music scene, is best known for her enticing onstage presence and mesmerizing contralto vocal range.
Mansfield, who began her career as the frontperson in the 80’s all-girl punk band known as the Bleeding Knees, has been described as highly melodic and enchantingly haunting. Lyrically, she forms a strong bond with her audience by connecting through a range of deep emotions involving everyday love and relationship situations.
Over her career, Mansfield has recorded and performed with numerous national artists including, Jewel, Concrete Blonde, Whirling Dervishes, Bobby Bandiera (Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Jon Bon Jovi), Shawn Pelton (Saturday Night Live Band), Mikeal Jorgensen (Wilco), Erik Paparazzi (Cat Power), John Conte (Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes), John Eddie, Vance Gilbert, Johnny Thunders, and Willie Nile.
In this edition of The Creative Spotlight, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Mansfield and asking her a few questions about her musical inspiration and influences, her songwriting and recording process, her upcoming appearances, and her self-titled debut six song EP.
The Creative Spotlight: At what age did you first realize that you wanted to be a musician and whom or what would you say inspired you in your journey?
I was very young when my maternal grandmother would come over and sing to us and give us each a song of our own to learn and perform for the next time she’s visit. Mine was “There is a Tavern in the Town”. I remember looking forward to singing it for her and learning new songs. Her brother had been a vaudeville performer so she taught us all the tunes she’d learned from him.
I remember at a family party standing on a picnic table in the backyard of my Aunt and Uncle’s home, singing a song a made up, “Rock ‘n’ Roll in My Tummy”. We later figured out that I must have been 3 or 4 at the time.
Then on my 7th birthday I saw the Carpenters in concert and that was a big deal. My mom was a fan, and we had all their albums and 45’s. I think having heard the music in my home and also on the radio, then experiencing it live — also feeling some kind of connection with Karen because we had the same first name, (you know little kids think like that) — the combo of it all struck me and I’ve never been the same since. Karen was wearing a beautiful gown singing her heart out, and then she ran off stage and changed into some slacks and came out, sat behind the drum set and rocked out! I was thrilled!! I knew what I wanted to do with my life since that moment. I begged Santa for a drum set every year and never stopped singing and making up songs.
I believe that my father’s Grundig stereo console from Germany was instrumental in my early musical development. I remember my parents showing me how to turn it on and use the turntable. I remember feeling the warmth and hearing the hum of the tubes, playing LP’s and singles, dancing around the living room, singing and acting out the words to every song. I loved it! Certainly my favorite pastime as a youngster.
We had a piano in our living room that I used to color on the keys with crayons. I remember trying to sound out familiar melodies. My parents didn’t play, but my dad knew enough to teach me, “Heart and Soul” and “Nickelodeon”. It was tough playing though, when everyone else wanted to watch TV.
Later when I was ten my dad gave me a miniature reel-to-reel recorder he hadn’t used in years. We went to Radio Shack and bought a cheap little mini microphone. He showed me how it worked and I fell in love with recording, making up characters and songs on the spot.
Another early influence that I feel steered me into music was our family parties. My mom came from a large family with 11 siblings, and when they’d all get together they’d spend a good portion of the night singing, and having a ball. The last song of the evening was always “Side By Side”. I can recall wanting to be a part of that kind of fun and comradery, and of course, all that singing.
TCS: For the benefit of those who are not familiar with Karen Mansfield, how would you describe your musical genre?
I don’t feel I have a genre other than rock. It’s eclectic, but if I had to I’d say Retro-Pop Rock, Roots, Adult Alternative Pop, Americana, Alternative Country, Singer Songwriter. People have said I sound like Janis Joplin, Emmylou Harris, Olivia Newton John, PJ Harvey, and Karen Carpenter. I guess one would have to listen to decide for one’s self I think. I’m not aiming at any specific genre except rock. I just want to make great music.
TCS: What famous musical artists and/or bands were among your early influences and how do you think they shaped you both as a singer/songwriter and performer?
Elvis! I remember staying up late to watch the comeback special. I was pretty young, but I do remember! I’m pretty sure he influenced “Rock ‘n’ Roll in my Tummy”.
I loved Dinah Shore, Hee Haw, Partridge Family, and the Osmond’s; honestly anything music drew me in. Since there were six of us Mansfield kids, I wondered why we weren’t in a band with a TV show!
In the late 70’s my brother ordered a bunch of records from K-Tel for $.99 each. One of the albums he received was called “British Gold”, a compilation of hits like “Bus Stop” by the Hollies, “The Letter” by the Box Tops, “World Without Love” Peter and Gordon, Derek and the Dominoes, Cream, The Yardbirds, and more. I loved it. Since we didn’t have a ton of records I’d play that one and the Elvis greatest hits record and Linda Ronstadt over and over.
We used to spend a lot of time at my Uncle Rocky and Aunt Cherie’s and he’d always be listening to the country station 1050 WHN. I started listening in my room on a little transistor radio under my pillow; so there is that country-based influence.
I was a pretty big Donny and Marie fan as a middle schooler. Then my tastes changed as I got into high school. I absolutely loved The Doors; definitely my favorite band of all-time. I was into B-52’s, Led Zeppelin, The Who, early Ozzy Osbourne, and Bruce Springsteen. I later got into Patsy Cline and Billie Holiday.
TCS: Take us behind the scenes in the making of your 2014 self-titled EP Karen Mansfield. What was your favorite part of its production and the most challenging from an artistic perspective?
My favorite part of making this record was working with the guys I chose for the project. Rob Tanico is just bursting with creative genius and loves music possibly more than anyone I’ve ever met. I knew I was in good hands with him as producer and musical director. We had a magical day at Shorefire Recording Studios in Long Branch, NJ laying down live tracks for bass, drums, and guitar. Most tracks were done on the first or second take. I love that room and Joey DeMaeo is solid gold. I felt that having P.K. Lavengood on guitar, David Halpern on drums, and Rob on bass it was going to be a great studio experience and it certainly was. They’re all of course so familiar with each other, having worked together for so many years; P.K. and Dave playing with John Eddie and Rob and Dave with Mr. Reality and Highway Nine. The energy was great and I felt that everyone was equally excited for the project.
The only challenge I had was being patient waiting for the rough mixes. Rob put a lot into this project and played nearly everything that wasn’t laid down on that first day in the studio. I consider myself a pretty patient person but the excitement of completing this album proved to the contrary.
I had the best artists working on the photos and album artwork. I had such a great experience working with my art director Barbie, who just happens to now be my sister-in-law. I couldn’t be happier with Steve Greenwell’s job mixing it, and Turtle Tone with a fine mastering job. I enjoyed working with everyone at Disc Makers and CD Baby.
It was all very exciting and encouraging. There was a bit of panic and juggling for me to make it all happen, but I’m very happy for the experience and can’t wait to do it again.
TCS: Personally, one of my favorite songs off of that EP is the track called “I Know You Know,” so can you share with us the writing process and the meaning behind it?
Actually, this was one of those songs that writes itself and it the whole process takes less than 15 minutes. I’m not sure where the inspiration for this song came from but I remember it fell upon me while I was in the studio recording a record in the early 90’s. I guess I wanted to write about that electric intensity, that magnetic pull of attraction, and the waiting, knowing after the first kiss, etc., you might get that feeling back. Not like it was prior. So, you wait, in the excitement and the desire. You leave it up to other person to make the first move. Maybe you’re not sure they’re feeling what you are. It’s the buzz of sensory overdrive and the anticipation of that magic moment when you succumb to the inevitable.
TCS: Tell us about how rewarding it was to serve as the frontperson for the all-girl punk band Bleeding Knees and how it prepared you for your solo career?
I enjoyed my time thoroughly during the Bleeding Knees days. I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. I had my fist gig booked before I even had enough songs for our set. I was shy and hid behind bangs that fell into my eyes. It was a great time of writing about whatever came to mind, what I thought was funny, or lame, and what would shock people. Honestly we were out of control. I barely knew how to tune my guitar. We were funny! People loved coming out and getting the joke! Checking out what obnoxious thing would we do next. The songs were funny, crude, silly and we had a blast. I recall someone after one of our shows at the Green Parrot in Neptune, NJ saying we reminded them of Pebbles and Bam Bam from The Flintstones but with cuss words. It was a lot of fun. The other members were still interested in coming up with more outrageous and raunchy material when I felt it was time for me to take things a bit more seriously as a songwriter.
I never wanted to perform solo and was waiting to come across players who’d want to back me up. One day my friend Alex Goetchius called asking me to open for his band, Piece of Wood, at the Brighton Bar in Long Branch. He encouraged me to play solo. I’d never turned down a show before and although I was petrified I did the show anyway. So, I feel fronting the Bleeding Knees taught me that I can get out there no matter what and connect with the audience whether it be with a band or by myself with an acoustic guitar. I guess I was ok at it since I ended up being nominated 9 times and winning 3 Asbury Park Music awards in the “Top Female Solo” category.
TCS: Can you share with us some details about your time performing with numerous artists such as Jewel, Bobby Bandiera (Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and Jon Bon Jovi), Shawn Pelton (Saturday Night Live Band), Mikeal Jorgensen (Wilco), and Concrete Blonde just to name a few?
I opened for Jewel at the Saint in Asbury Park just about six months before her album went platinum and everybody knew who she was. She was not feeling well that night so she stayed in her van until her performance. Great voice, though she did a bit of yodeling, which was kinda different for Asbury Park. I was impressed.
My sister dragged me out to see Bobby Bandiera on a Wednesday night at Cheers in Long Branch circa ’89 or ’90. On his break we were introduced and immediately he asked, “ya wanna sing?”. This became a weekly occurrence, never rehearsed, always a ton of fun. He’d call me up to do “I Got You Babe”, “Love Potion #9”, “Dream Lover”, “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Stop Dragging My Heart Around”, and more. It was wild fun. Bobby is fantastic.
It was certainly the place to be on Wednesday nights. I think I stopped making the scene in ’96, around the time I had my daughter but I’ll always remember how he encouraged me and included me.
Shawn Pelton played with John Eddie and I’d known him from the local music scene and from playing with P.K.’s band Without Fear, also at Cheers. Then in ’92 or ’93 when I was making a record in Red Bank we called in Shawn to play on most of the 11 tracks. He’s the best!! The album has never been completed but one single entitled “Jessie” was released and is available still on ReverbNation. He’s such a phenomenal player and so amazing to work with!
Mikael Jorgensen and Erik Paparozzi were in a local early ’90’s band which I absolutely loved, called Lizard Music. I met them at an open mic at the Ink Well in West End and fell in love with them! I requested them on all the shows I did and we became great friends. We had a lot of laughs and we encouraged and believed in each other’s music. It was a sweet time!! Then when their bass player, Chris Guice, was in California playing bass for a kids show on Nickelodeon, “You Can’t Do That On Television”, Mikael, Erik, and I formed as “Karen’s Lizard” as per request by Brighton Bar promoter Jacko Monahan. We did a few shows mixing up the set with half my tunes and half Lizard Music tunes. The guys had such amazing harmonies and I just loved hearing my songs with their added magic.
During the early to mid-90’s I had many opportunities to open for national acts. One of the most exciting of those times was when I got the chance to open for Concrete Blonde during their Bloodletting tour. The show was at the Fast Lane is Asbury Park. The place was packed and the audience was wild, and super receptive to me and my acoustic guitar. Johnette Napolitano and the guys were awesome!!
TCS: Tell us about the background story behind another favorite off of your new EP entitled “Your Lies”?
The title says it all, “Your Lies”. I think it’s about the affect the lies have on the broken lover, the hopelessness of the situation when one is addicted to the lies of unhealthy love. I’ve found sometimes there’s a dream that underneath all the falsehood there might be a person of substance who could be capable of something real and good and pure. It’s a tremendously sad song.
TCS: Share with us your experience in playing at the Light of Day Festival in January of 2015?
My performance for Light of Day 2015 was at Asbury Lanes, in Asbury Park. My band was Rob Tanico on bass, P.K. Lavengood on guitar, Billy Siegel on Keys and David Halpern on drums. We played for a half an hour and did mostly all the songs on the EP, plus a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Joleen”. It was one of the best shows we’ve done so far. It’s always such an honor to perform for Light of Day and to be a part of finding a cure for Parkinson’s and related diseases.
TCS: How thrilling was it for you when the Asbury Press wrote an article featuring you entitled “Jersey Shore Treasure Karen Mansfield Returns to Scene”?
Oh, it felt great! I’ve felt loved for a great many years now, having been a part of the scene for so long.
I took a long break to be with my daughter and try other career options. As my daughter grew up I felt I was being called back to my music. My return was certainly greeted with a warm welcome and I couldn’t be happier. I’m very grateful to be welcomed back to the music community with open arms. It’s like having a second family! Certainly blessed to have all the live and support I continue to receive!!
TCS: From your new EP, please describe for us the writing and recording process behind the single entitled “Just A Man”?
”Just a Man” came out of me talking to a friend about a guy I was hung up on, and her being sick of me going on and on describing all of his wonderful attributes. She finally looked and me and said, “he’s just a man!” Kinda like, get over it! Of course my response was, “yeah, but he does it to me”. Not all of them do so I thought it was worth putting into a song.
The song wrote itself. Rob came up with the early Rolling Stones feel for the recording. It’s one of my favorites to play live; and audiences connect with it too.
When someone “does it to you” it feels great, and that’s what this song is about.
TCS: After all these years of chasing your musical dreams, what do you feel keeps you motivated to continue recording and performing?
I am motivated by the desire to reach the listeners who connect with my writing and my performance. I don’t know that I’ve done that to the best of my ability yet, at least not on the scale that I believe I can. Also, I feel this is a calling and to turn around at this point would just not be acceptable. Most of all, I continue because of the love of music. I’m still that little three-year-old getting goosebumps from watching Elvis in that leather suit, teaching us all how it’s done. I’m blessed to feel what I do every time I make folks happy with my music.
Lastly, the most important reason is to teach my daughter to follow her dreams, to be true to herself no matter what anyone says. To find out what brings you joy and to do it with all her heart, soul, and strength. To dig deep inside, work hard, and never give up.
TCS: What’s the most unusual place that you’ve played or made a recording? And, how did the qualities of that place affect the show/recording?
My very first show was on ’85 or ’86, I with my friend Diana at a furniture gallery for a holiday event called “Festival of the Trees”. It was a silent auction for elaborately decorated Christmas trees. We played in front of a fancy staircase and had to move every 2 minutes when shoppers or staff wanted to come through. It was pretty awkward but we had fun.
I’ve played the 8×10 Club in Baltimore, hit my head on the ceiling trying to get on stage. Cool place though. We were there the day after Michelle Shocked.
TCS: In what ways do you market your appearances?
I usually post my events on my Facebook Music/Band page. I also use Bandsintown, ReverbNation, and my website KarenMansfield.com. Additionally, I tweet on my Twitter account, post on Instagram, Tumbler, Pinterest, and sometimes on LinkedIn.
To stay connected with Karen Mansfield, please visit the following:
Tee shirts are on their way. And, my CDs are for sale at all of my shows and are also available on the following:
TCS: Is there a particular venue that you’ve always wanted to play either as a member of Bleeding Knees or as a solo performer? And, what other entertainer or entertainers would you most like to have play alongside you on that stage?
While in the Bleeding Knees I was content just gigging locally. I was still very shy and apprehensive in those days. Nowadays I’d like to travel to perform in cities like Nashville, Asheville, Austin, Philly, New York, where ever there’s a cool music scene, where ever I can meet my listeners. I’d like to perform in other countries as well. There are many venues I look forward to performing in! I can’t wait to play whatever venues the future holds for me.
As far as performing alongside other entertainers, I am open to whatever comes my way!
I’m looking forward to an upcoming trip to Mesa, AZ where I’ll be performing for the Mesa Music Festival November 13-15, 2015. It’s going to be a huge event with Matt Pinfield giving the keynote address at the opening ceremony.
I look forward to meeting the locals there and meeting many of the artists and industry professionals in town for the event.
TCS: What famous song do you wish you had been credited with writing and performing?
There isn’t a song that comes to mind that I wish I’d written. Though, there are amazing songs out there, that of course, when I hear them I wish I would write a song of equal intensity, sensitivity, depth of soul, and brilliance.
I’ve always thought that I’d love to make a record like Carol King’s Tapestry. It’s got everything and it’s wonderful from start to finish.
I guess if I had to pick one song I might go with “On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)”, because I find it so inspiring.
TCS: Name a band or musician, past or present, who you flat-out LOVE and think more people should be listening to. What’s one of your all-time favorite recordings by this band/musician?
I love J.D. McPherson. And his tune “North Side Gal” changed my life. I also love Lucinda Williams and all of her songs, especially her album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.
TCS: What does the short and long-term outlook look like for Karen Mansfield?
Short term is Mesa, AZ for the first ever Mesa Music Festival November 13-15, 2015. Then I am hopefully heading into the studio to start my next album. I’m hoping to play more music festivals, house concerts, and shows out of my hometown region.
Long term, I plan to keep making music, writing, recording and performing, and meeting great folks like you along the way.
Song List on Karen Mansfield (2014)
- “I Know You Know”
- “No More Suffering”
- “Your Lies”
- “Just a Man”
- “Keep On (For the Sunny Days)”
About Frank Iacono
Frank Iacono is a highly skilled results-oriented Strategic Marketing Professional with proven critical thinking, problem solving, and project management skills, developed through more than 20 years of experience concentrated in integrated marketing strategies. Frank brings a thorough, hands-on understanding of marketing strategies and technological platforms as related to applications available for web design, content development, email marketing, site and campaign analytics, search marketing and optimization, service and product marketing, lead and demand generation, social media, and customer retention.
Frank has a BA degree in English/Communications and Marketing from Cabrini College, and he received his Webmaster Certification from Penn State Great Valley.