One day a few years back, Asheville-based singer-songwriter Jane Kramer woke from a dream that she was sitting on her porch talking to her best friend, who had died seven years earlier.
“He was giving me this beautiful insight,” she says, “about the afterlife and grief and loss, as someone who was on this different plane, yet he was sitting right there with me on the porch. It brought me so much comfort that I started writing the song.”
She’s referring to “Valley of the Bones,” an arresting, vulnerable exploration of life and loss that is the title track of her new album. Kramer will celebrate its release with a performance at Ambrose West on Saturday, March 2. And, though she looks forward to performing the album in its entirety, she’s also quick to point out that it is an intensely personal collection inspired in part by one of her life’s deepest heartbreaks.
The dream conversation with her friend came when Kramer was processing a recent miscarriage, which makes the song’s declarations of mortality all the more stirring. “We’re all just wearing skin / Til we’re roots and waves and wings again,” she sings. “When you realize you don’t own anything / The things you lose hurt less.”
“It was incredibly painful,” she says of the miscarriage. “It opened my eyes to the fact that people don’t talk about that much. That’s so loaded. It’s so important and so healing to be able to talk about it and be honest about it. I want to shed some of the weird silence about it.”
It can be hard to find creative energy when something your body has created is so suddenly destroyed; hard to feel inspiration in the middle of life’s dark moments. For that reason, it took Kramer four years to finish writing “Valley of the Bones,” and in the meantime, she found solace in bringing to light other stories from her life in the form of the songs that fill out this new album.
Some are downright funny. “Waffle House Song” tackles relationship woes by running them through Kramer’s sense of humor and her wry manipulation of country clichés. The radio-friendly “I’ll See Your Crazy and Raise You Mine” offers a similar levity.
But there are also softer moments of love and renewal, such as on “St. Carrie of the Storms” — a song Kramer wrote when her sister was experiencing some hardships with her eldest daughter’s health — and album-closer “Wedding Vows.” The latter puts a cathartic spin on the grief and loss theme of the rest of the album, as if to highlight that walking through some of life’s hardest moments can lead us to a path to joy.
Kramer, who earned her degree in social work, believes it’s her responsibility as a songwriter to delve into difficult topics.
“Honestly, it’s my natural inclination as a human,” she says. “I’ve never turned away from crisis. There’s something in me that wants to touch into those really tender parts and try to help people through [them]. As an artist, as a human being, I struggle tremendously — existentially, spiritually, on every front. For me, what has been really healing and what has become my life’s mission, is to just be transparent about it. Because, over and over again, I feel like I’m shown that humans relate to that form of honesty and connection. I’m not interested in making music that doesn’t go there.”
This is a quality Kramer shares with Nashville-based singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, with whom she’s developed somewhat of a mentor-mentee relationship after attending a handful of Gauthier’s deeply inspiring songwriting retreats. One of them helped Kramer bring “Valley of the Bones” to fruition.
“I had the very beginnings of the song and was on a retreat with [Mary] in Scotland,” Kramer recalls. “I played it for her, and she was like, ‘This is your song. This is you arriving at your voice. Keep going with this.’”
Considering the rawness of the emotion, it was an important bit of encouragement for Kramer to receive as she sought to move through the experience and find her inspiration again. Indeed, Gauthier is known for writing songs that unpack every last thing about a given emotion, so her vote of confidence carried weight.
So did the opportunity for Kramer to travel so far, to retreat from reality in the beautiful Scottish landscape and immerse herself in the utility of creating. “Once I was able to pull back,” she says, “I was able to see the beauty.”
WHO: Jane Kramer
WHERE: Ambrose West, 312 Haywood Road, ambrosewest.com
WHEN: Saturday, March 2, 7:30 p.m. $17 advance/$20 day of show