Todd Lewis Kramer, Brooklyn's Voice of Twenties Angst, on His First Full-Length LP 'Fairground' (Q&A)

Todd Lewis Kramer -Publicity-H 2016
Courtesy of Todd Lewis Kramer

Watch the just-released music video for 'I Want Your Love,' a single from Kramer's album, which drops May 13.

Music lovers the world over will soon have the opportunity to discover an artist who has been generating growing buzz on the New York music scene for the last five years: Brooklyn-based Todd Lewis Kramer. The 28-year-old Syracuse University grad, who melds heartfelt lyrics with a sound that shifts between pop, country and folk, is poised to break out with his first full-length LP, Fairground, which drops May 13. He will mark the occasion with an album release show at Rockwood Music Hall the following night. Click below to watch the music video for the album's single "I Want Your Love," which Billboard premiered earlier this morning, and to read a Q&A with Kramer about his life and work.

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Where were you born and raised? And what first drew you to music?

I was born in New Haven, Conn., and grew up in four different towns in the surrounding area — I am one of five kids, and we kept moving as my family kept getting bigger. But I spent most of my childhood in a town called Woodbridge. My family was always really into music, and my earliest memories of listening were on family trips to Vermont where we’d just have James Taylor and The Beatles on repeat. My mom always had the oldies radio station on, my dad always had the jazz station on and my siblings and I listened to classic rock or whatever was on the radio. I can’t say I ever thought I’d be a songwriter, but I definitely was drawn to the idea of writing songs — combining a melody with storytelling — pretty early on.

Which singer-songwriters have had the greatest influence on you and your music?

My taste kind of evolved over the years. I was definitely a fan of pop music growing up, and Dave Matthews and John Mayer were huge in my town and in New England, in general, so I drifted toward that kind of stuff throughout my adolescent years and high school. But an artist who has had a big influence on me as a songwriter is Ryan Adams, which is funny because I never really listened to him growing up. Once I started playing around New York, a buddy of mine told me to check him out and I just couldn’t believe I hadn’t immersed myself in his catalog earlier. It was a huge discovery for me.

How did you first begin writing and performing?

Not surprisingly, I discovered writing when I discovered relationships. The first song I ever wrote was about a girl, when I was 15, and that pretty much set the tone for what you still hear today. Performing my own songs was a different beast altogether. I had performed in talent shows and recitals growing up, singing other people’s songs, but playing my own stuff was terrifying. I basically just decided, after living in New York for a few months after college, to book a gig and see how it went. Thinking about those early gigs now is pretty cringe-worthy, but I was fortunate to have an unbelievable support system of family and friends who would come out and show me love early on and encourage me to keep doing it.

How would you describe your “sound” to someone who has never heard it?

Good question — I’ve been trying to come up with an answer to that for a while now. I’d say the music falls somewhere on the pop/country/folk spectrum. I’d like to think there’s an accessibility to it that would allow for some crossover.

Talk about making the move to New York and breaking into the music scene there.

I always assumed I would live in New York at some point, having grown up just 90 miles away, but it’s kind of crazy how lucky I got to fall into the music community that I fell into here. A singer-songwriter who is now a dear friend of mine, Jamie Bendell, told me about this Monday open-mic scene back in 2009 at a place called Caffe Vivaldi, and I ended up going almost every Monday for four years. It wasn’t like any other open mic I’d been to — the talent there was unbelievable and the community was super supportive. It was all a very pleasant surprise. And that’s basically where I learned to play live and try out new stuff and seek feedback from people whose opinions I valued. I count many of these people among my best friends now. I still think back a lot on how fortunate I was to fall into that community — I'm not sure I’d still be playing if I hadn’t, or if I would have even started.

What is Todd Lewis Kramer’s New York? Talk about the places you love/where you spend the most time.

I lived in Manhattan for about five years before moving out to Brooklyn a little less than two years ago, so I’ve been lucky to experience a lot that the city has to offer. Brooklyn is as good as advertised, and Manhattan is still a magical place, and even better for me now that I don’t live there, I think. I don’t go to that many big concerts, but I spend a lot of nights seeing my friends’ shows — friends who will be playing big concerts very soon — at various spots in the city. I also like many different food establishments — turns out there’s a lot of good food in New York City!

Describe your creative process: Where do you work? How do your songs come together? And how do you know when a song is done?

The creative process definitely varies. Most of my songs are written in my apartment, but the time it takes, the speed with which the words come out, the developing of the melody — all that varies. Sometimes I’ll write a song in 20 minutes, sometimes I’ll work on a song for a month and it never gets finished. My writing style is pretty straightforward — I usually come up with the melody first, but I definitely don’t think a song is finished until I’m thoroughly comfortable with the lyrics. I feel like lyrics can be an afterthought in a lot of today’s music, and I try really hard to make sure I’m satisfied with them — and believe me, I’m no wordsmith. It can take me a painfully long time to come up with a coherent, strong string of words, but it’s important to me that I’m comfortable with the end result.

Why do you write music? Do you find it fun or cathartic or something else?

Cathartic is probably the perfect word to describe it. I’m not someone who’s terribly comfortable conveying my emotions through conversation, but I can let loose in a lyric. In that regard, I guess I write music for myself, just to get out some of the thoughts in my head (and there are a lot of thoughts). But when I play a show or a song and people come up to me after and tell me they connected with my words or my thoughts in some way, that’s a pretty good reason to write, too. I’ve been fortunate to have had that experience.

What about performing? You’re a self-described shy guy, yet you pour your heart out in front of rooms filled with strangers.

Well, from conversations I’ve had with other performers, it turns out that’s not an uncommon thing. It’s a bit hard to explain, though. I still get nervous before pretty much any show, no matter how big or small it is. But there’s something about performing where, like, you’re kind of there to do a job, you’ve already written the songs, you’ve rehearsed them (hopefully), so you might as well go out and enjoy yourself, and that’s usually what happens in my case. I’ll be stressed out all day and then the second I start playing, that just goes away and the fun starts. This is easier when I’ve got my band behind me, but there’s also something awesome about the intimacy of a solo show. Both have their perks. This probably goes back to what I said about having an easier time writing and singing about my feelings, rather than talking about them in conversation.

Talk about your new album Fairground — what inspired you to put it together, what was the process of doing so like and who is its target audience?

I’d say the main reason we started to make the record was simply because it was time to make it — some of these songs are more than five years old. I felt ready to put together a full-length LP under my name for the first time, and with the encouragement of my producers, Jeremy Siegel and Sam Merrick, and my band, we agreed it was time to go do it. The process was pretty long — it’ll be almost exactly two years between the start of the recording process and the release date — but that doesn’t bother me at all. People might assume we overthought it, micro-managed it, etc. But we just took our time with it, worked around everyone’s busy lives and schedules and made sure we were happy with the final product. And here we are, ready to release something we’re proud of.

What does the album's title mean?

I went through all the typical ideas of what to call it, but none of the track names, or my own name, jumped out at me. Then, randomly, I thought of Fairground, which is the name of the street I grew up on, and I knew it was right. I think it’s perfect for this compilation of songs — it honors where I come from, which had, and still has, a massive impact on these songs and on my songwriting, in general.

Which song on this album are you proudest of? And how did it come together?

That’s a tough one. I have a pretty specific relationship with each of these tracks, but I will say the two most "emotional" tunes on the record, "Anna" and "Workin’ on Me," are pretty special to me — shocker, I know. "Anna" is probably the oldest track on the album, and it’s about something that someone very important to me went through in high school. I didn’t really have any plans of putting it onto this record until I realized I needed another track, and then we as a band really transformed it and sonically I think it came out beautifully. "Workin’ on Me" is the last and most stripped-down track on the record, and we recorded it live at the tail end of a 20-hour recording weekend. I think the rawness of that session and that moment comes through in the final product.

You write songs about very personal feelings and experiences — sometimes with sort of cryptic lyrics — but in a way that I think is relatable for any listener.

I’m constantly battling in my head what’s appropriate to put in a song, what’s maybe too much or too honest, and how to convey it. I don’t really know how to write any way other than from a personal perspective so, for the most part, what you hear is what you get. I’m not clever enough to come up with lyrics that really hide what I’m trying to say. I do think that people generally respond and relate to that kind of style, just because when it comes to love, relationships, heartbreak, most people have gone through those things.

It’s funny, actually, that the two "happiest" songs on the record — "I Want Your Love" and "Give My Love Away" — are the least autobiographical songs. I was just in a good mood for those. Most of the other tracks are driven by relationships that either went wrong or never even started. If we’re citing specific songs, I’d say "New York Girl," "Who's to Say" and "Counting Down the Days" would fit the bill of "relationship" songs. And then there is definitely a running theme throughout the album about growing up and navigating my twenties, basically. "Give and Take," "Tennessee" and "Workin' on Me" are some examples of those.

Which other musicians are you most into at the moment? And if you could team up with any other (living) musician, who would it be?

I’m constantly scouring the music world looking for new music. What I listen to really depends on my mood, though. Like, now that the weather in New York City is no longer terrible, perhaps I’ll go seek out stuff I wouldn’t have just two weeks ago. But, generally, I’m always looking for great writers. Even though I live in New York, I keep up with the Nashville scene a little bit — so many great writers there. As far as teaming up with another musician, that’s a tough one. Playing a hometown show with fellow Connecticuter John Mayer would be pretty neat.

What is your ultimate goal as a musician? If you could script it, what would you be doing five and 10 years from now?

I just want to keep writing songs and hope that people like them, and if that turns into a demand for me to be on the road playing those songs for people, that would be a dream come true.

Todd Lewis Kramer's "I Want Your Love"
Sam Merrick (drums), Ben Kogan (bass), Will Graefe (guitar), Jeremy Siegel (engineer)

Produced by ROCK*IT FILMS
Directed by Ryan Gibeau
Edited by Connor Reidy