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Kari Arnett pours a lifetime of pain into ‘When the Dust Settles’

Kari Arnett

Kari Arnett Chris Duke

Kari Arnett’s first full-length album is a sad one.

No wonder: The Minneapolis singer-songwriter recorded When the Dust Settles, set to be released on Thursday evening at the Cedar Cultural Center, at a time in her life when she shouldered more misfortune than you’ll hear in an hour of country songs.

Arnett left Madison, her hometown, in 2013, moving first to northern Wisconsin then settling in Minneapolis two years later with her husband. She was booking shows, playing music, making connections. Then, just around this time that she released her EP, she was called back to Madison to take care of her ailing mother.

In the three years since, Arnett has gone through even more hardship: Three loved ones have died, she’s lost a kidney, and her seven-year marriage unraveled. Although the songs on Dust were written long before these trials, Arnett has a lifetime of pain to draw from.

“At an early age, it was just me and my parents,” she says. “My dad and I had a pretty tumultuous relationship. He was not the best father figure. I would run upstairs and play on my keyboard for hours. It would distract me from the pain at the time. Music was my savior. There’s a lot of pain in my life. I grew up in a poor household. I had to really work my way up for every single thing I have. Getting to a point like this, where I’m doing music and people are liking it, makes me feel good. Maybe this is my calling.”

Speaking in an Uptown brewery, the singer-songwriter’s blue eyes are thoughtful behind a fringe as she mulls over the questions she’s asked. It’s not that her answers are rehearsed; it’s more that she’s had so long to think about them, and she’s just now realizing her voice carries weight.

“My husband wasn’t super supportive of my career,” she says. “It was always met with reluctance. It was, ‘Oh, you’re doing that music thing again.’”

When the Dust Settles is an album that wraps a warm but worried pair of arms around your thoughts. Arnett writes about relationships—with others, but also with herself. When she brought them to her husband, during a rough patch in their marriage, he would say, “Oh, I know what that was about,” but Arnett says the songs weren’t actually about him at all. They were based on how she viewed life, and gave a perspective to other views in life as well.

“As far as pain goes, it's an authentic experience,” she says. “My pain is one perspective. Everybody goes through pain differently. It’s how you perceive it. I’m one voice that writes what I feel. I hope people can relate to it and know we’re in this together. I suffer with depression and anxiety. That all plays into that too. Sometimes you gotta sit with that moment. It’s also important to move on and remind myself, ‘Hey, you’re alive. It’s good. It’s not always gonna be negative forever,’ even though it sometimes feels like it will be.”

When it came time to record, Arnett worked with producer Danny O’Brien seeking another perspective on her pain. “I’ve cried enough in my life,” she says. “I don’t want to keep doing that. I put that emotion where it should be, otherwise I would never move on. It’s a form of therapy for me, because it’s forcing me to address my situation. Danny got that when I worked with him on these songs.”

And now the time has come for Arnett to move on—she’s readying herself for a move to Nashville next year, a relocation foreshadowed on the most talked about track on Dust, “Only a Woman.”

“My ex never wanted to move to Nashville,” Arnett says. “Now that I’ve got this newfound freedom, I can finally do what I want to do on my own terms and not have to worry about someone telling me no all of the time. At the end of the day, we just want each other to be happy. We spent eight years of our lives together. As hard as it was, I want him to do what he needs to do. I hope he would want the same for me. Life’s too short to not do what you want to do. It’s fleeting.”

Kari Arnett
With: Mary Bue and Becky Kapell
Where: Cedar Cultural Center
When: 7 p.m. Thurs. Sept. 20
Tickets: All ages; $15 advance, $18 door; more info here