Until recently, James Cramer has been as much a part of what you might call the ‘hidden’ music industry as a star in his own right. Part of the quirky and dynamic ‘Tupelo’, he’s also spent much of his musical life behind the scenes, crafting songs for others.
The multi-intstrumentalist who’s worked with Hermitage Green and Eleanor McEvoy plays every instrument on his own work, which has seen him feature on Canadian TV series ‘Hello Goodbye’, and will shortly see him feature on the BBC adaption of Sally Rooney’s debut novel ‘Normal People’.
Latest single ‘Simple Man’ is, he feels, the closest to his ‘true sound’ he’s ever got. I caught up with James, virtually, just ahead of its release…
I understand you have a substantial background working with others as well as your own work. What are you most proud of to date?
I’m proud of being able to make it a career. When I started out I was advised by lots of people to not write my own songs – to write other people’s instead. I’ve managed to see a lot of the world because of my own songs so that’s something I’m very proud of.
Do you approach writing differently when you’re writing for yourself, or with Tupelo, or for somewhere else entirely?
I write constantly so I have lots of songs in different genres; if a project comes up I usually have some in the locker. If I write with someone else I might buzz off their vibe and usually new ideas come to the surface quickly that way.
Sometimes, an artist might want to cover one of my compositions or do a co-write. That’s great too because the artist might be totally different to me so it brings different elements into the song – they will be the one performing it and recording it so it needs to suit them artistically. At the end of the day, they’re all songs. If you sing it in a different key, or play it using a different instrument, it’ll sound totally different but in its essence, it’s the same thing.
I’ve learned over time what will work for certain projects. My manager, Ian, always reminds me to not get frustrated – to just keep writing. The songs will be used in the future, they just they might not suit right now. He’s been right!
Is it more difficult to launch a solo career when you’re so invested in other projects? I’d imagine it’s financially more complex, so do you tend to do it as a labour of love?
No not at all. I have a fantastic record company and team around me who support me, so we get the plan in place and go for it – which is what we’re doing with ‘Simple Man’.
Presumably live is a different thing for you as obviously you can’t play every instrument simultaneously like you do on record. Do you take that into account when you’re writing? What’s your live set up like?
Live, it’s a big band: drums, bass, piano, two guitars, horns and myself. With recording, a lot of the time I like to go into the studio and just see what happens. There needs to spontaneity, room for new magic to come in the door.
With ‘Simple Man’ we had no clue, musically, where it would go but we knew it was a strong song with a strong spine and we worked from there. There are times I have specific ideas of where a placement should happen in a song, sometimes I’m right and sometimes what’s in my head doesn’t sound right when it comes back out of the speakers!
What’s special about this new track – I gather you see it as your first real ‘your sound’ track.
What’s special about ‘Simple Man’, for me, is I think it has a richness to it that comes across from the first beat to the last note. I recorded it a while ago and I still like it – that’s unique for me anyway! I suppose every song I’ve ever recorded is ‘me’ but this one feels like it’s the sound that fits me and my music best. It’s reminiscent of a lot of the music I grew up listening to – blues, soul, gospel and old rhythm and blues. I love that big, full sound and it feels like home to me.
What’s the story behind Simple Man?
I’ll leave up to you – and I’ll tell you why! Remember when you were a kid and you had a song on repeat? You thought it was about this or that and it meant something to you because of what was in your head. Then you hear an interview with the band and one of them says it’s about his Uncle Charlie or something and all of a sudden that song doesn’t mean what it did before to you! I like people to interpret my songs in their own way and make them theirs.
Is there something more substantial coming down the line – an album, for example?
Yes, the album is on its way, for sure. ‘Simple Man’ is the first single from the album. We’ll put a couple more singles out but there’ll definitely be an album release this year.
What kind of career would you like to have as a solo artist. Do you see yourself primarily as a pop singer?
I want to be known as a great songwriter and performer and have songs that will be ingrained in musical history and, more importantly, in people’s lives. That ambition really hasn’t changed since I wrote my first song. I read a book on Rembrandt, it must be 15 years ago, and there was a quote from when he was child: ‘There’s something inside me that wishes to rise’ – that sums it up really.
How do you feel when you see your stuff appearing on various TV shows?
It’s funny – when I write a song it could be on my bed, in the studio, on a plane, wherever… and then as if by magic it’s suddenly halfway across the world on a TV show! It’s always flattering to me that the people behind a show think one of my songs is perfect for what they are working on and I’m intrigued by why they see it as a fit.
Like I was saying earlier about not wanting to project my ‘meaning’ behind a song onto its listener, hearing and seeing a song I’ve written on a TV show is like the flip side of that. It gives me an insight into what that song is about to the person who has picked it and now it has a visual. A lot of the time it’s a visual I wouldn’t have even dreamt of my song sitting alongside but it just works. It also reaches a whole new audience which is great.
How are you using this enforced downtime – lots of new music on the way?
Yes reading, writing as always – that never stops – and cooking!!
What are your hopes for the future?
My hopes are to have a nice house in Dublin and be respected and known as a great singer-songwriter. I’d love a no.1 album in Ireland too – I still love the meaning of the charts and radio.
‘Simple Man’ by James Cramer is out on Bohemia Records on Friday 27th March. Available on all usual platforms.