Americana Highways made a pit stop to talk with Asheville North Carolinian Jane Kramer, whose new album Valley of the Bones will be out on Friday March 1st. By all accounts Kramer is a powerful songwriter, who has honed her craft meticulously, yielding deeply moving results.
AH: Your music is very genuine and primarily touches on very deep topics. But let’s start with a lighthearted one – your song “Waffle House” is so understandable, and yet has never been done before. What inspired you to write this one?
JK: The “Waffle House” is one of those concepts that is so universally relatable. Especially if you live in the southeast or any region where Waffle Houses are ubiquitous, they kind of hold a special place in your heart. For me, they represent living in the south, and my time in Asheville during my disaffected youth. I went through some difficult personal challenges, and at a certain point I moved as far away from Asheville as I could – I moved to Portland, Oregon where I lived for about four years. While I was out there, there were no Waffle Houses, so missing them was a metaphor for feeling out of place, and missing my home. When I collected myself and was ready to come back home to the mountains that I love so much, I drove across the country in an epic road trip with some girlfriends. When I started seeing Waffle Houses again, I knew that I was home.
I stopped at one and I got some hash browns, and the song just started coming to me. There was a connection between a big satisfying breakfast and real substantial love! I was getting over a long relationship, and had gotten past that grieving place where you would write some more serious songs from, so it was a good time to write that song. And this song also represents me trying to call into my life the kind of love I felt like I deserved.
AH: Did that work?
JK: It did! It worked! A few months later I met my husband. I highly recommend the ritual of ordering hash browns with pickled peppers. (Laughs)
AH: “Hymn,” the first track on the album, has moving lines like “My hippie mama didn’t make me go to church, I found god in the fireflies and digging through the dirt.” What is the connection for you between spirituality and music?
JK: The older I get and the deeper I dig into my craft of songwriting, and performing experiences, the more I realize that spirituality and songwriting are inextricable. That is when I experience god (I use the term ‘god’ very loosely) and I discovered spirituality and god outside of any organized religion, in nature. So that element of nature imagery is big in my songwriting. But also: in my music is where I remember how to love myself. It’s where I remember patience and compassion for myself and others. The subject matter I’m singing about on this record, which is things that have happened to me over the past two or three years, has really brought up spirituality for me as well.
One of the big things I sing about is a miscarriage experience that I had and how difficult that is for me, and how difficult I know it is for so many women. And so that also just made me want to grab harder on to spirituality and faith, and that became even more present in my music, especially on this album.
AH: Would you say music has an ability to connect with other people in almost a therapeutic way?
JK: Music is one of the most universal outlets for people to connect with one another, and it extends beyond just being the one playing or performing music. It happens when you’re hearing and experiencing music in any form. And as an artist, performer, and storyteller, it’s my job to give people the opportunities to connect. I’m not interested in writing songs that wouldn’t give people the opportunity to connect and to feel less alone.
AH: “Valley of the Bones” is a very real, sensitive song, and it is also the album’s title, which underscores its significance.
JK: I am always working on songs, it takes forever to finish them. This song took me about 4 years to finish writing. It was a wonderful case study in the fact that you have to live something, to write the song. A few years ago I experienced a miscarriage, which was really devastating. I was really blindsided by the stigma and silence around this that still exists in our society. I think we have come a long way, and it’s really so common. And yet we don’t talk about it, which perpetuates the sense of pain and isolation surrounding it. And I struggle with some depression too, so I found myself in a dark place and during that time I had a dream that I was sitting on the porch having a conversation with my best friend Matty. Matty was a really important person in my life, he was like a brother to me, and he passed away eight years ago. He took his own life, and that was another deep loss to me. And I dream about him frequently, which is comforting.
And during this dark time I had this dream, that he was sharing the experience with me as someone who had experienced the afterlife. We were talking about grief and loss and perspective on being human and how that is just one piece of the spiritual experience.
When I woke up I started writing that song, and in the dream he had talked about the Valley of the Bones, and it took me several years to finish.
One iteration I worked on with Mary Gauthier, who has become a wonderful mentor and friend of mine, during a songwriting retreat in Scotland. There was a chance to see the Queen of England who was going to be at a local church that day, and Mary and I both decided to stay back and work on the song instead! And even after that it didn’t feel quite finished, and I just finished it this past year. It’s the song I feel most proud of, that spoke most deeply of my experience, and which was very hard but very redemptive also. I also got good feedback from Mary on that, which was good to hear from a mentor.
AH: Valley of the Bones, even the title gives people chills. It’s very resonant. Do you feel vulnerable in front of people with songs this deep?
JK: Yes and that is a good thing. Certainly I do feel vulnerable. But at the same time, that is my mission. I really do want to cut to the core of human truth and emotion. My background is in social work and domestic violence crisis counseling. So I’ve never shied away from struggle and wanting to comfort people, and that being my mission. So I feel vulnerable. And there are some places that are loud noisy bars and I’ll try a vulnerable song and nobody is listening, and I even sing about that on the album too, with “Singin’s Enough.” It’s hard. But more often than not, people do connect, the response I’ve gotten from people has been genuine and beautiful with people sharing their own stories of loss and hugging me. So the vulnerability is worth it.
AH: Let’s revisit your connection with Mary Gauthier. How did you meet her?
JK: I came to songwriting as a teenager, and Mary was starting to get popular. And her music resonated with me, I was amazed at what a storyteller she was and I could see her compassionate heart and I knew that she had struggled as well. And she had overcome addiction and abuse and all kinds of things. All of that was so beautifully and truthfully told in her music.
I met Mary around 2012 or 2013 when I signed up for a songwriting workshop which was run by Darrell Scott who was teaching, and she was one of the guest teachers. She and I really connected. It was thrilling to get to play some of my work for her. And I’ve taken other workshops over the years from her, but we are friends now, she is my mentor, she called to congratulate me when I finished “Valley of the Bones.”
AH: Who plays on the album?
JK: Asheville musicians: River Guerguerian is the drummer. Elliot Wadopian is the Grammy winning bassist, and Chris Rosser is a multi-instrumentalist, he plays guitar, harmonium, keys, mandolin. They are the Free Planet Radio band. They have a wonderful established chemistry. Billy Cardine also played dobro with us, and Nicky Sanders from the Steep Canyon Rangers on fiddle. Adam Johnson engineered and produced it. I like having a team effort. Chris Rosser co-produced with me and Adam Johnson. I really respect their ears on everything.
AH: What’s on the horizon for you?
JK: I’ll be on the road spring and summer, I’ll be getting to the Midwest, and further south and further northwest, and then in the north east too!
Check out all things Jane Kramer, right here: https://www.janekramermusic.com/