The deeper the well, the better the song.
Most of my favorite songwriters have the incredible ability to explore their darkest shadows, those inner nooks and crannies that most of us want hidden or shielded even from those closest to us.
But to dig deep and bare a grief or injustice or turmoil for all the world to hear? That takes a strength many cannot fathom, and – in my mind – it sets apart great songwriters from those who just write songs.
At the outset, I could tell that Valley of the Bones, the latest release from singer/songwriter Jane Kramer, came from somewhere deep. The title alone prepared me for a difficult journey, and Kramer’s songwriting proved me correct, with grief, doubt, and redemption recurring themes throughout the collection of songs that make up the new record.
Kramer continues to be one of my favorite songwriters in the region. She challenges me as a listener and gets me to thinking about the songs she pens.
I recently caught up with Jane to chat about the new record, working with songwriter Mary Gauthier, and how spirituality influences her songcraft.
BRO – The album’s title brings to mind a stark landscape. Is that an indication of from where the inspiration for many of these songs came?
JK – I would definitely say yes to that. The title track to me a long time to write – four years and three different versions before this final one – and it started when I was in a really dark and depressed period of my life. I had experienced a miscarriage and I didn’t know how to move forward, but I desperately wanted to. I had a dream one night that I was sitting on my front porch drinking cheap beer with my friend Matty, who had passed away abotut eight years prior. He was giving me beautiful insight about death, loss, grief, and the afterlife. It was hugely comforting and I believed him. I woke up and started writing this song. About a year later, and feeling it wasn’t finished, I worked on it intensively during a songwriting retreat in Scotland with Mary Gauthier. Mary and I even skipped an outing to see the Queen of England at a local church so that she could help me work on it. I finally finished the last verse this past April and could tell it was an important song byy the way people cried and came up to tell me their own stories of loss and rising when I played it. So, yes, I believe that the stark landscape the title connotes was not only a description of my internal landscape of grief, but also hopefully one of transcendence and understanding. The last image is a white bird flying homeward to the valley of the bones, which I believe is hopeful and spiritual image.
BRO – Can we chat about how bad ass a dobro player Billy Cardine is?
JK – Hah! Yes! He is a bad ass indeed! Billy’s sound is so uniquely his own and I love that there are so many diverse influences that come through in his playing that transcend just mountain or country music. It’s really a gorgeous fusion. He studied dobro under an Indian master and I love those complex, eastern flavors that come through and what his parts add to my songs. He’s a really wonderful, fun human as well. Truly, all of the guys in the band – River Guerguerian, Eliot Wadopian, and Chris Rosser – are just as spectacularly talented and amazing to work with. They are all world class instrumentalists, composers, and golden, solid souls. I feel so lucky to get to make music with this incredible group of musicians and learn so much from them. They truly elevate my songs and lift me up.
BRO – We are featuring “Hymn” on this month’s Trail Mix. What’s this about it being a homework assignment from Mary Gauthier?
JK – Mary looked me in the eye and told me that all of my self-deprecation wasn’t cute or charming and asked me when I was going to drop the bullshit and really own my power and talent. She told me that only then would I write the kind of songs that were up to my true potential. She challenged me to write a song from a perspective of self-love. Like full, real, spiritual and true self-love, and to call it “Hymn,” whatever that meant to me. I spent a few weeks after that alone, backpacking around Italy with a little travel guitar. I wrote this song in a little mountain village called Vetulonia, where I slept in a small cottage with a hammock for a bed, looking out over mountains that reminded me of home, and it sunk in then that I couldn’t really come home till I came home to myself. I remember sitting in beautiful olive grove at dusk, it was early summer, and there were fireflies all around me. It was almost too much beauty to take in. I had an epiphany right then, realizing that I did deserve to behold that beauty and that I was actually a part of all of it. That’s when the line “I am the ember of God/lights up the fireflies” came to me. And that was my way into the song. I’m learning more and more that, the older I get, the more I realize that deeper self-love and self-acceptance are inextricable with loving others.
BRO – Did you grow up in church? If so – or even if not – do you have a favorite hymn?
JK – Oh goodness, I definitely didn’t grow up in church. I am 3/4 Jewish and 1/4 Protestant, so my household was partially culturally Jewish, sometimes loosely Christian, the mostly Pagan, vegan, and all free-thinking. I feel grateful that my parents gave me the space as a young person to explore spirituality on my own terms, and it’s still a continuous journey for me. I really don’t feel at home inside of organized religion, but there are elements and ideas from many religions that resonate with me. Nature is my temple and connection to the sacred and spiritual world and you will find that imagery in many of my songs, especially “Hymn” and “Valley of the Bones.” I found myself craving deeper spiritual understanding and connection to help me cope with my grief and come to terms with my loss. I found much of that comfort and solace in nature and in the songs that I began to write about my experience. Even more than that, I felt it in the way that sharing those songs spoke to other people’s hearts and gave them permission to feel and share about their own grief. It’s powerful stuff. But I do have two favorite hymns – “Amazing Grace” and “Abide With Me” – that my mom taught me when I was young.
Jane is playing a couple house concerts in the coming weeks, so maybe if you know a guy who knows a guy, you can sneak in and catch her and her gorgeous songs in the comfort of someone’s living room. She’ll also be performing at a songwriters round up on Sunday in Asheville and, in early, will be at LEAF in Black Mountain. For more information on Jane, her new record, and all of her shows, surf over to her website.
And be sure to check out “Hymn,” along with great tracks from The Black Drumset, The Honey Dewdrops, and Matthew Logan Vasquez on this month’s Trail Mix.