Friday, Oct. 27, ArtRat Gallery presents Americana Special! An Evening With Jes Kramer. This special edition of ArtRat’s Americana Sundays series runs 7-9pm at 46 Division Ave. S in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. (Admission $15; tickets available from Eventbrite.)

Jes Kramer is a stack of battery-powered keyboards disguised as a woman, woven together by big emotions and standing upright with the help of the nostalgic sounds from childhood. Having played shows for over half of her life, Kramer invites you to share the comfort of this space with her at every show, including you into the process as she builds songs layer by layer in front of the audience.

Ahead of the show, ArtRat asked Jes about the ingredients that go into her music.

You juxtapose songs that reference classic singer-songwriter traditions with electronic instruments we don't usually hear in that context. How did you develop your sound?

Jes Kramer holding keyboard.

I always found comfort in music with a certain mix of electronic and organic elements. It also turned out to be the place where writing felt most rewarding for me.

I didn't realize it until more recently, but I think I was re-creating some important moments from childhood with Casios and an organ I used to play in the basement at my grandparents' house that had a simple drum machine function. When I could recreate those comforting sounds from growing up, it felt like a good way to cushion hard topics in the lyrics. 

You've put out a variety of albums and EPs. What's the difference between the way you approach recording and live performance?

Jes Kramer in silhouette.

Each recording experience has been different from the others, so it's hard to say that approach is one certain thing. But a lot of times, when recording, I'm swapping out different instruments, adding strange sound effects, or inviting other people to sing harmonies who complement the feeling of a song. Live,

it's all about seeing what I can do on my own. Deconstructing the songs and learning to put them back together in layers for a loop pedal is a really satisfying puzzle. It feels a bit like mathematics, and it tests my ability to focus on many parts at once.

You've been performing for almost 20 years. How has your songwriting evolved, and your relationship with audiences?

The easiest answer is that I haul way more equipment now. But really, there have been so many eras within that span of time. When I started, I was in high school, meeting a ton of new people by playing live shows, and trying to figure out how to develop my live sound. A lot of those early songs were me and a guitar, or maybe software that I couldn't recreate live. I wrote a lot of conceptual stuff, or songs about other people's stories. I've really shifted more toward live looping and creative problem solving, as well as auto-biographical subject matter.

Jes Kramer photographic collage portrait.

When it comes to my relationship with the audience, the last three-and-a-half years have been an interesting challenge. I was used to playing a show per month on average, and suddenly I wasn't leaving the house during the pandemic.

It was so hard to remember that the audience was still there, still interested. I had gotten used to relying on that level of human connection, and it really shook me up to go without it. I did a few live streams and was always surprised when people tuned in. In some ways, it made me more thankful to come back to playing live shows, but it also made me pay attention to ways in which I've created emotional connections through music that might go beyond who shows up to hear me play. 

I think my songwriting has also become more about what I feel the need to say, and at the pace I'm ready to say it. Slow and steady wins the race. 

What's your creative community like in Grand Rapids? What do you like about playing here?

Jes Kramer in profile silhouette.

Grand Rapids has a lot of people who are really passionate about all kinds of music. When I listen to WYCE or go to a multi-genre show, I really get to experience the wide range of music that people get excited about. 

Personally, I don't make music with a lot of people; there are maybe a handful of collaborators I'll play with these days, and one of them is my thirteen-year-old son.

But I'm surrounded by a pretty brilliant creative community. Every year I get to be a part of Girls Rock! Grand Rapids, a week long camp for girls, non-binary kids, and trans kids. The campers, staff, and volunteers are endlessly inspiring and really create an environment where people can take risks and be brave creatively. Surrounding myself with people who care about keeping the door to music and art open for the younger generation is so important, and I'm really grateful to have found that in Grand Rapids.