by Donovan Wheeler
photos by Ray Tarantino and Ashlee Pinney
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]o understand Kevin Crafton, you must first accept the paradoxes which define him. At age 33, Crafton is seasoned and experienced: treading the floorboards of mostly small Nashville stages with almost twenty years’ experience as a guitarist and slightly fewer than that as a singer and songwriter. But he’s also naïve and green: standing in front of those same footlights with little-to-no name recognition and a sporadic recording history. He’s neurotic and self-conscious: writing, playing, and recording songs which he often abandons because he can’t get beyond the flaws which only he can see. But he’s also confident, bordering on arrogant: believing that he’s very good at what he does and expecting to become the best. He admits to frequent battles with stage-fright, but he thrives every time he’s under the spotlight. He believes that the purpose in life is pursuing a craft and seeking perfection, but he also believes that life often has no purpose at all. He’s a self-admitted relationship guy who has turned away from relationships because music matters more. He’s a man who is at peace with his place in the universe, yet he’s hungry for the chance to be something more.
Currently living in Nashville, Tennessee, when Crafton returns to Greencastle for the Songwriters’ Showcase at the Inn at DePauw on October 16, he will appear as an artist whose story, even by his own admission, has been “beginning” for a long, long time.
“[My interest in music] mostly began for me in late middle school,” Crafton explains. “At that time I was getting inspired by Silverchair, The Beatles’ Anthology was aired on TV around the same time as well, and it was also about the time that [a popular GHS student named] Brian Lanie died. All of that started a daydream for me which ran through high school.” After high school, his plan included marrying his high school sweetheart, seeking a degree in psychology, and living out a happy life. But when his girlfriend broke up with him he fell into what he calls a “catatonic state” which derailed college and left him in a protracted limbo.
“I walked away [from college] on October 16, 2001,” Crafton says. “…a monumental day in my life. I wasn’t mature enough. I remember all my teachers when I was growing up saying something to the effect of, ‘The choices you make in college will define the rest of your life.’ I’m thinking, ‘I’m not old enough to make that kind of decision…’ So I spent my time in college sitting in my room, battling alcohol, and getting depressed. Then September 11 happened, which just gave me cause to be a bit extra depressed.” Eventually, Crafton would go back to school, and walk away with his degree, but in typical Kevin Crafton fashion, it wasn’t something he sat down and mapped out beforehand.
“Any big decision I’ve ever made has been on impulse,” Crafton says. “When I quit school the first time, my mom asked me…what seemed like daily… ‘When are you going back to school?’ I always told that I would when I felt like I was ready, and that’s eventually what happened. Otherwise, if I actually think it through, I analyze every single possibility to the point where nothing happens. I was like that as a kid…it was the reason I was afraid to jump out of the swing because while other kids were just jumping out, I was thinking, ‘I could break my leg.’”
“I was dating [another] girl from Springfield, Ohio, and went out there with her,” he explains. “I wasn’t planning on staying out there, but that night I arrived I took her to a lit parking lot, and started playing for her. Eventually the police showed up, they had her get out of the car, and they asked her if she was there of her own free will, and so forth. Suddenly I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to go to jail…!’ So they’re reviewing my license, and checking out my background when one of the cops abruptly said, ‘Play me something.’ So I played ‘Dead or Alive’ and ‘Mr. Jones.’ I don’t remember which one I played first, but after that first song he looked at me and said, ‘Hold tight’ and went back to his squad car. By this point I’m terrified. When he finally comes back he said, ‘Hold on…I’ve got another guy coming.’ When the second officer arrives, he’s going through the usual motions, but the first cop stops him and says, ‘You need to hear this guy play!’ By that point, I’m sure my blood-sugar had dropped to zero, and I’m surprised I didn’t black out. After I played the second song, one of them said, ‘What are doing here? You need to be down in Nashville or somewhere like that.’”
Crafton’s run-in (or near run-in, perhaps) with law-enforcement lead to later conversations with friends from high school and elsewhere, and in yet another of his classic moments of impulse, he penned a song which he felt tapped into the frustrations he and many of his peers were feeling at that point in their lives. Of course, how others read the lyrics can be a different story.
“[The song] was called ‘Sincerely, Goodbye,’ and it was written in the form of a suicide note,” Crafton says. “I left a copy of it at home, and my mom found it. I was at school with my phone turned off, so I woke up to sixteen phone calls a knock on my door. In fact, when they were pounding on my door I was thinking, ‘Nobody knows I’m here,’ so I went back to sleep. But a few minutes later I noticed all the missed calls on my phone just as the door was being unlocked. Suddenly I’m staring at two police with their guns drawn as well as a campus officer and the assistant dean of students.”
“I ended up becoming good friends with her,” he continues. “Later she told me she was frightened that night, and I said, ‘You were scared…? You were on the back side of the gun. Don’t tell me about that.’ So after that I decided I’d write ‘happy songs,’ and I went on a five-year binge of those.”
After graduating in 2007, and spending time in the Ohio area playing alongside a band dubbed the High Tides, Crafton returned to Indiana where, in 2011, he and the band produced their first full-length disc: The Vacant Heartland. Among the tracks on the CD included the album’s title tack, for which the group produced their first video.
“[We shot that] in an abandoned house right off of I-65 south in Indianapolis…which we broke into,” Crafton admits. “It was also so hot, and I was wearing that three-piece wool suit. And mold grew all over the place. I’m horribly allergic to that stuff, so I was sick for weeks afterward. I took acting classes before we filmed, but I still struggled with it because acting in front of people versus a camera is a completely different thing. But Kelly Kyrouac, the girl in the video, had no acting experience at all, but she was such a natural.”
Eventually, Crafton’s stint with the High Tides flamed out, and the singer found himself back home again, trying to find direction and purpose. “I’ve actually produced a lot of work since then,” Crafton says referring in particular to his 2014 EP Give Me an Answer, “but the perfectionist in me didn’t want to put much of it out. I finally released my EP last October which was my first fully-produced recording. That was created by a guy in Nashville, and we’re working on four new songs right now. I’m going to pull a couple more songs off of Vacant Heartland and put together what is—for me only—a ‘greatest hits’ sort of collection. But since nobody really knows who the hell I am, this is going to be a debut album in a sense. The important thing is that this is something I can get behind.”
Critical to Crafton’s evolution, both as a young man and as a singer-songwriter, was his transformation from a finally-serious college student to a working adult, and for Crafton the second half of that evolution had to take place somewhere he had never been before. “When I playing around the Great Lakes with the High Tides, I was losing money,” he says. “So I said I’m going to go to a ‘music city.’ So I went to the ‘Music City,’ and I realized pretty quickly that it’s an industry city. Which means that you really aren’t going to get ‘discovered’ playing gigs. You have work through producers and publicists, which is the direction I’ve gone. I would like to end up in Chicago in particular (some of my best memories on stage happened there), but I’m a bit a fatalist. I don’t think I would have ended up in Nashville if I wasn’t meant to be there. And it’s been good for me in terms of giving me this perspective I have now and making me grasp the point that, if I want to make it doing this, then I have to be the best at what I do. Soon I got down there, it was clear to me that I had to get better.”
Today, Crafton is moving forward, putting the challenges of his past behind him. But ever the introspective figure, even the roadmap for his future is starting to crystalize, he fully admits that some demons still linger. “I experience panic attacks on stage,” he says. “I think it’s always been that way for me. When Ron Dye would hold his open-mics at…I think it was Hathaway’s then…I would always sign up, then freak out, and leave before I was supposed to go on. I’ve obviously learned to deal with it, but the idea I often wonder about is, when you’re dealing with a panic attack on stage, what are not giving to people? What’s the trade-off for all that work you’re expending to compensate for your fear?”
For anyone who listens to Crafton, his compensation comes in the form of perspective. “If you do your thing, then usually people will appreciate that,” he says. “I was in a show, and I followed a band with a full complement with a keyboard, bongo, and everything. Sonically, there’s nothing I can do to compare with that, so I decided that I’d go up there and play the slowest, most depressing song I have. A few people walked up to me after that, and told me they could listen to me all night.”
Now comfortable in his skin, Crafton is beginning to embrace his role not only as a songwriter but also his place in the musical universe. “I think that a lot people try to be original,” he explains, “but originality is not really possible. We look up to these people who we embody as original like Elvis or the Beatles or punk…right? But punk was born out of the Beatles, who were inspired by Elvis, who himself was inspired by gospel music and Little Richard. Originality is your particular influence melded into what’s already out there. So someone complaining that Elvis sounds too much like a gospel singer doesn’t really mean anything because Elvis has made it his.”
“I’m working a pop song…something new for me,” he continues. “I was watching an Ed Sheeran video. He started with a bass line for a song from The Hobbit, and I thought was very cool. So I decided that I was going start with a bass line. From there I decided that I’d like to model a song after ‘Billie Jean,’ where the beginning is also the chorus, and the actual verses follow that…very opposite of the normal lyric pattern. So I worked on it, finished the verses, but got stuck on the chorus. I worked on it off-and-on over the next few weeks, and I was also reading a Kurt Cobain biography. Suddenly I thought, ‘It would be kind of cool to do a Lithium sort of chorus.’ When I went back to the song, I inserted a series of ‘Yeeeaaaah! Yeeeaaah!’ I ended up with a lot more than that for the chorus, but that worked as far as getting me moving on the song. I still wish I could write something that simple and pull it off, but this process has been interesting for me. The original bass line I started with has changed…it’s not even in the song, now. But that’s all part of the process. You don’t sit down write a song, and it’s done. You have to work through the process…just keep working.”
Who then, is the Kevin Crafton we see on stage? The teenage dreamer who once had his life all mapped out? The young twenty-something who discovered—the hard way—that no plans are set for any of us? Or the emerging adult making peace with his past and latching onto the moment which he says is “right now?” The answer, as Crafton himself sums up, is a mixture of all three: “I’m writing with the intent to be Kevin Crafton, and for that to mean something to somebody. We all have our ‘breakup album’ or something to that effect, and I want to be that for somebody. I want people to make memories and babies and whatever else people make with music. I know that sounds egotistical, but that’s what we do.”
And this is the thing about paradoxes: you can let the contradictions consume you, and drive yourself crazy trying to find the right side to stand upon, or you can embrace every oppositional reality, make it part of who you are, and ride with it into the future. The biggest difference between the young man who once sat in my classroom and the wizened man standing behind his guitar today rests with this understanding. Now he’s ready to make his move, and more importantly, he’s ready to do it with as clear a sense of self-awareness which any of us will ever have. And once anyone figures out how to take the demons which used to haunt them and turn them into assets…well, it’s impossible not to root for that story.