Singer-Songwriter, Record Store Owner, Indie Label Head: Jennifer O’Connor Talks Shop
by Chris Stanton
For music obsessives, the idea of owning an independent record store rarely develops beyond a pipe dream. The realities of small business ownership deter most. But for singer-songwriter Jennifer O’Connor, the idea never lost its appeal. Three years after cofounding Kiam Records Shop on Main Street alongside her wife, musician Amy Bezunartea, O’Connor continues to approach the venture as something new and exciting.
“Since I was a little kid, I’ve been a music obsessive,” O’Connor told Nyack News and Views. “So the store was always something I’ve played around with in the back of my mind.”
On any given day, O’Connor or Bezunartea likely sits behind the counter in the back of Kiam’s cozy storefront, surrounded by shelves of LPs, old and new. The two musicians share the responsibility of restocking the store’s ever-changing inventory, which has expanded beyond vinyl to include books, vintage clothing and an array of stereo equipment. O’Connor orders the bulk of the store’s music, which includes a bit of everything, from easy-to-sell pop records (Thriller, The Stranger, etc.) for the casual buyers to rare jazz albums for the crate-diggers.
“I like lots of different kinds of music,” O’Connor said. “I feel like there should be something for everybody.”
The store’s genre agnosticism reflects not only O’Connor’s taste, but also the demands of an audience with Spotify’s infinite library at their fingertips. Almost two decades after the rise and fall of Napster, O’Connor views vinyl as an unlikely mainstay amidst the streaming services’ game of musical chairs.
“I think vinyl is probably around forever,” O’Connor said. “People like to go to a store instead of shopping online. It’s more social, or at least a different kind of social than what we’re used to nowadays.”
As the shop continues to develop as a local hangout, it has also become the headquarters for Kiam Records, the independent record label that O’Connor founded in 2002. The label has existed in various forms since O’Connor first established it to release her self-titled debut album. Today, it represents a dozen different artists and groups, including Adopted Highways, Choo Choo la Rouge, Clint Michigan and–naturally–O’Connor and Bezunartea.
“We only really put out a few records a year, at the most,” O’Connor explained. “It’s all stuff that I believe in. It’s all over the map, genre-wise. But it’s all stuff that I feel has something to say, musically or lyrically.”
Indy Label, Kiam Records
As a label head, O’Connor draws wisdom from her career as a solo artist. After growing up as a fan of Matador Records-–the iconic indie label that represents Belle and Sebastian, Kurt Vile and Yo La Tengo, among others–O’Connor signed with the company in 2005. She released two albums before parting ways with Matador, but describes the partnership as a formative experience in her approach both to music and to running a label.
“I think that most label heads–in the indie world, anyway–care about music and want to do the best job they can for the artist,” O’Connor explained. “But I really know what it’s like to go out and play shows, to try to get people to come, and to try to get people to buy your records.”
That ability to empathize with artists has shaped Kiam’s roster, which consists primarily of local acts that O’Connor knows personally. In 2015, the label signed rap duo TRØN & DVD after the group’s members happened upon Kiam Records Shop. Consisting of local Nyackers (and siblings) Norvin and Darian Van Dunk, the duo will release their debut album later this year.
“I’m a huge rap fan, and I’ve always wanted to do something in that vein with the label,” O’Connor said.
While all things Kiam continue to take up most of her time, O’Connor has also managed to work on new solo material. Her most recent album, 2016’s Surface Noise, exemplifies the sort of plainspoken folk-rock that has become her trademark. But for the new record, O’Connor has drawn inspiration from a host of genres, including instrumental hip-hop.
“I’m having a bit of an identity crisis, musically,” she joked. As with her other endeavors, the trick seems to be knowing how to incorporate a little bit of everything.
Chris Stanton is a recent Cornell graduate.