“Sometimes I’ll write songs and a few weeks or months later, I’ll live that experience,” says singer-songwriter Jane Kramer. The song “Truck Stop Stars” from her new album, Carnival of Hopes, is about a woman leaving a mountain town to cross the U.S. “To me, it foreshadowed my own drive back across the country to Asheville, but I wrote it before I made the decision to move,” she says.
In a way, the entire album — which Kramer will release with a show at The Grey Eagle Friday, Feb. 26 — is tied to the musician’s relocation from Portland back to Asheville where she’d lived previously. A Warren Wilson College graduate, Kramer was a member of the roots music trio Barrel House Mamas. “I’d spent most of my adult life here,” she says of Western North Carolina. But after “a lot of personal explosion,” including a break from her band, Kramer felt she needed a new place in which to reinvent herself.
Portland provided that proving ground. There, Kramer launched her solo career with a debut eponymous album. “Yet I went out there and realized all I wanted to do was write mountain music, and I missed people on street corners with banjos,” she says. As she began to pen material for Carnival of Hopes, “It became incredibly clear that I needed to record it in Asheville.”
She did that a year ago, working at Sound Temple Studio with producer Adam Johnson and a host of local musicians, including percussionist River Guerguerian and bassist Elliot Wadopian (both of Free Planet Radio), fiddler Nicky Sanders (Steep Canyon Rangers), cellist Franklin Keel (Sirius.B) and trombonist JP Furnas (Empire Strikes Brass), among others. It was that recording session that evinced to Kramer that she was ready to move back to WNC. By last summer, she was again based in Asheville.
The album leads with the swaying “Half Way Gone,” on which the fiddle sweeps and the bass struts. Kramer’s vocal glides between sorghum-sweet low notes and a breathy upper register, maintaining a wink the whole time. But even with its moments of levity and meet-cute two-steps, Carnival of Hopes is sincere.
“This new love of yours grows living things from dirt / I’ll bet she’s got tattoos on those sturdy arms of hers. / I can’t keep a houseplant alive and it ain’t no wondering why / you found some better arms than mine to call you home at night,” she sings on the title track. The song is full of staggering details: “I think God lives in the things that I don’t know,” and “This fellow here knows I like whiskey, he don’t know nothing about my heart.” If Kramer had to move 3,000 mile to benefit her songwriting, the effort paid off handsomely.
“In my songs, I feel like I have to be raw and honest and expose myself in ways that would make me flinch if I were speaking them,” she says. “In performing them, I’ve carved out this place for myself to be that honest and not regret it. It’s a wonderful fear that produces bravery.” The hope is, she adds, to connect with others and help them in their struggles.
Kramer grew up playing classical flute and, although her father is a classical guitar player in his free time, she never took guitar or voice lessons. “I rely on my ear and my intuition when I’m writing,” she says. Kramer describes the songwriting process as mysterious and elusive.
Her connection to Appalachian music is also enigmatic. “When I got to Warren Wilson, I was so enamored with learning about the culture of these mountains and storytelling,” she says. The members of The Barrel House Mamas bonded over those sounds and, though their songs weren’t necessarily historic ballads revisited, their instrumentation was distinctly Appalachian. “That was something that never left me,” Kramer says.
Though her current album moves beyond those roots, adding poetic verses, catchy melodies and the kind of personal insights that feel universal, “In my own songwriting I love to think that I’m collecting stories in a similar way.” Looking ahead, Kramer sets her sights on a European tour (there’s precedence — Carnival of Hopes has been out in Europe for a couple of months). She’s also excited about re-establishing herself as a performer in the Southeast and within the Asheville music scene.
Not that an icebreaker is needed, but Kramer’s decidedly local album release show seconds nicely as a welcome-back party.
WHO: Jane Kramer’s album release party for Carnival of Hopes with Sea the Sea
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Friday, Feb. 26, 8 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show