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For Jan Krist, the singer/songwriter hosting the March 30 songwriters workshop at Come2Go Ministries, songwriting workshops, writing groups of all sorts, are essential and familiar territory. Over the past two decades, Krist has dissected and studied the craft of writing with several like-minded groups of artists. Her efforts have paid off, if not commercially then critically. Billboard Magazine said “her talent as a songwriter equals – if not surpasses – her vocal gifts. She has an uncanny way of cutting to the heart of a topic and providing the listener with food for thought” and called her singing “evocative … somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, but it’s all Jan Krist. Unreservedly recommended.”
The Detroit native (she earned 13 nominations and won four Detroit Metro Music Awards during her career) and her husband, Alan Finkbeiner, also a musician, moved last year to Fort Wayne. Bad for Detroit, good for Fort Wayne. The pair recently played at The Oyster Bar’s Sunday night songwriter showcase before a handful of Valentine’s Day weekend couples who seemed more intent on making eyes at each other than using their ears. Had they been listening they would have heard what the folks at Billboard heard, and what I heard: refined songs deftly played.
When she’s not writing songs, which is not often, Krist works out of her home as a booking assistant for The Roots Agency, which represents Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, The Chieftains, Luka Bloom, Hothouse Flowers, Claire Lynch, Ronnie Spector and John Gorka, to name a few. David Tamulevich, of the folk duo Mustard’s Retreat, is a vice-president of artist development at The Roots Agency and also a member, and host, of the Yellow Room Gang, a group of eight songwriters from Michigan who gather monthly to talk about writing. The Yellow Room Gang is just one of the songwriter groups Krist belongs to. One of the benefits of such groups, Krist said, is the freely exchanged prodding to keep at it.
“David is one of the best-known agents in booking for folk music,” Krist said. “He’s been on my case for the last couple of weeks to keep working on a new record. I have a truckload of songs. We’re just trying to figure out what to put on it.”
Krist has recorded eight solo CDs since 1992 (the first two, Decapitated Society and Wing and a Prayer, were released as a compilation in 2008) and appears on the two compilation discs recorded by The Yellow Room Gang. She also collaborates with fellow Michigan folkies Claudia Schmidt and Kitty Donohoe (a Yellow Room Gang member) in a project called The Biddies, who are doing a brief tour this March. Krist also performs with Jim Bizer as well, another Yellow Room Gang member. But whatever Krist is doing at any given moment, her main goal is honing her craft. And that takes work. Woody Allen, who has been cranking out a movie a year for seemingly his entire career has said inspiration is for amateurs. That’s an ethic Krist follows as well.
Since moving to Fort Wayne Krist has started attending yet another monthly songwriting group, Grassroots Arts, with people she’s met through Three Rivers Natural Grocery and with some of her husband’s colleagues at Sweetwater Sound, where he works. “I think that writer’s groups are really good for keeping people on task,” Krist said. “For me they help me to be accountable and to write better and better music. Once you’ve been in a group with the same people for a while you get to know each other really well and respect each other. It’s a great way to workshop your songs. The critiques are really good. We tear a song apart and find what’s working and what’s not working. The goal is to help make it a better song, and that’s been really good for me.”
As a Christian artist, Krist caught some flack for not being overtly “Christian” enough. Writing in the summer 1996 issue of Image, a journal of art, mystery and faith, Krist recalled how a person said to her, “Jan, if you would only mention the name of Jesus a little in your songs, we could all make some money.” But to Krist, her job as a Christian artist is not to “diagram the stick figure” of Jesus into her songs.
“It’s about the mystery,” she told me. “Music and art and faith are more about the mystery of God than about the dogma. I know what I believe, but I don’t think, inevitably, that it’s up to me to convince somebody or to retell them again. My art and my music are about the shared humanity and the troubles we all face. People call what I do hope in a minor key. It’s about hope and about finding our way. I don’t feel I need to make a roadmap.”
Krist’s tireless efforts at exploring the mysteries of life through her art take her to Leavenworth, Washington each year, where she teaches a writers workshop, and to an arts symposium at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, where she’s lectured on faith and writing and faith in music.
“I think I’ve learned more about what makes a good song,” she said. “Paul Simon said you have to start with the truth or else you’re just covering up your tracks. You have to start with the truth, some existential truth. In my painting I’ve found you can’t do a good painting from a bad drawing. As for writing a good song, I’m learning it’s not going to get better by adding a lot of verses. Less is more. I’m really struggling now to write shorter, more accessible lyrics. If it still has elements of poetry and beauty and you have that element of mystery, you can transform a pop song to a work of art.”