I met Jane Kramer at a house party in Montford in 2003. She was pickin’ and singin’ on the front porch with a group of musicians. Impressed by her musical point of view, I started going to hear her in the all-female trio The Barrel House Mamas, who helped reintroduce Americana music to the Blue Ridge Mountains.The list of accolades and reviews on her website are full of eloquent reflections on her authenticity and truth-telling, addressing her deep introspection and keen ability to put the right melody with the right turn of phrase, and her rich and lilting voice that fearlessly paves the way through and within her melodies and verses. It’s no wonder this songbird attracts, aligns and collaborates with some of the best like-minded instrumentalists in our area, making for heady and gratifying musical experiences. We communicated over email to discuss and celebrate how she became a singer songwriter.
Jane Kramer writes: “I was born in 1980 in the sleepy little town of Valley Forge, PA, near Philadelphia where my older sister and I were raised. My father, a hard-working businessman, came home after long nights at the office and played classical guitar to unwind. My mother, once an elementary school teacher at inner-city public schools, became a full-time environmental and animal rights activist and taught my sister and me about compassion and the importance of using our voices for those who need to be heard. She had a beautiful voice and sang to us and with us, all the time. She taught me to harmonize by ear and to pick out melodies and harmonies on piano.
“I realized at age five that I’m happiest when singing. My maternal grandfather, David Tevia Madison, was the Associate Concert Master and first chair violinist for the Philadelphia Orchestra for 50 years! He passed away when I was 12, and his beautiful music, spirit, and dedication made lasting impressions and helped me understand the music in my veins: that expressing myself through music is where I feel most complete. My family has always nurtured this quality in me.”
How did you become a songwriter?
“I became enamored of words in my teens, reading all the poetry I could get my hands on: Maya Angelou, Sharon Olds, Leonard Cohen, Dorianne Laux, Langston Hughes. I knew I had something to say and wanted to combine all the things I loved: singing, writing, sharing a message. When I was 16, my father gave me his first guitar and showed me basic chord shapes. I remember being delighted to pair my (angsty teenage) poetry with a few, simple chords and begin making songs. I used music that was most formative for me then (Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens) as templates for song-form.
“My first songs were terrible, but it felt incomparable and life-affirming to write them. I was insecure and nerdy and my parents divorced when I was 13, but pouring myself into writing songs was healing. I didn’t know I would make my living writing and performing songs, but knew it was something I would never stop doing. Harlan Howard’s philosophy – “Three chords and the truth” – is my guiding principle for writing. I have it tattooed on my arm as a reminder.”
Tell us about your writing process.
“It’s different every time. Often, a line of melody or poetry will come and I build the song around that, once I figure out what I am trying to say. That is no small thing. I have to have something to say for it to mean something. Once I’ve figured that out (and often it’s surprising), I work on the song just in my head, or with my voice (often while driving or walking), and when I have a verse or two and/or a chorus, I pick up the guitar.
“As I get older and hone my craft, I strive for more discipline around writing, i.e. to write everyday, to write about things that scare me and make me vulnerable, to shake up my natural process (like starting with the guitar), etc. I’m still a student of song-form and it’s the part I pay the least attention to because I don’t want to stifle the wild gesture of the song with being bound to form, and I believe that a truly great song will feel seamless – you will be so immersed in the story and the emotions that you won’t notice the form.”
Do you have a favorite song?
“One of my first and all-time favorite songs is ‘A Case of You’ by Joni Mitchell. It has that seamless quality where I literally, in my gut, feel like I’m sitting with her at the bar while she doodles a map of Canada and her ex-lover’s face on the back of the coaster. I feel her ache and the places where she’s stuck and I love this man she’s singing about, but you see the cracks in it all. It’s personal and universal. She paints it all with her exquisite lyrics and melody. At the end of the song, I feel like I’ve been on a journey, like when I watch a great film. I feel this way about certain Leonard Cohen, Patty Griffin, Nina Simone, Gretchen Peters and Mary Gauthier songs.”
What have you learned about yourself while singing and songwriting?
“… that I’m fragile and kind; that I’m an artist in the truest sense, driven by a deep need to share my truth in hopes of inspiring hope and connection in others. I’m ok with being poor and not working 9 to 5, but I am very hard working. I’ve learned that being ethical and honest and true to myself are more important than being ‘successful.’ I’ve learned to return to the songs because they are most important, not social media or ticket sales or anything else.”
Tell us about the connection with your loyal fans.
“I am constantly touched and humbled by my fans. They show up. They write. They tell me how my songs apply to their life. Sometimes, they cry. It is an honor to share myself with strangers and friends in music and for them to be present and permeable, to receive the songs, to let them land and reflect them back. It moves and uplifts me to be part of that beautiful, reciprocal process.”
Talk about how you hone your craft.
“Truly, I spend almost all day, every day, listening to music I love and admire as a form of study and research, and constantly work on a song in my head as I go about my day. Even the times I’ve been discouraged or felt rejected and said I was swearing off being a musician, I simultaneously work on a song in my head, about that. In the last few years I have worked only part-time jobs in order to put my craft at the center of my life. Now music is all I do. It’s a gift and a privilege to be able to spend time doing what I love.”
What do you love about performing?
“It’s where I feel most alive and most vulnerable and it’s where, when I’m in that heightened state, I realize how fragile and beautiful humans are and how important it is to share our stories and make connection.”
Who do you listen to when you’re happy or need a boost?
“Regina Spector, Sam Cooke, Jason Isbel, Shovels and Rope, Ray Charles, Etta James, Guy Clark – when I need a boost. When I’m happy, I listen to sad or pensive music! Then it’s Gregory Alan Isakov, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, and Dar Williams.”
What are you working on now?
“I am halfway through writing a new album. I hope to have the songs finished and ready to record by summer 2017. I perform regularly around the Southeast and hope to begin a volunteer program doing therapeutic songwriting with local military veterans.”
What about your show in January?
“The show will be recorded live on Saturday January 7th at the Grey Eagle, and it’s my birthday! Old Man Luedecke, a Canadian Grammy-winning banjo player and songwriter, will open. I have an all-star band backing me up: River Guerguerian, Eliot Wadopian, Chris Rosser from Free Planet Radio, as well as Billy Cardine and Lindsay Pruitt of the Jon Stickley Trio. These are truly some of the best musicians in this part of the country and what they add to my songs is immeasurable. We’ll play a mixture of new and old tunes with some fun surprises.”
Visit the Grey Eagle website for tickets. The show is Saturday Jan. 7th, doors at 7pm, show at 8pm. For Ms. Kramer’s schedule, to hear her music and view some live footage, visit her website at www.janekramer.net.
Peggy Ratusz is a singer, songwriter, and vocal coach. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and www.reverbnation.com/peggyratusz.