Songs of grief and growth

Independent Scholars
kreitzman lead image

SUMMARY: Connor Kreitzman, Class of 2024, discovers his unique musical voice by blending raw emotion, haunting melodies and transformative storytelling.

Connor Kreitzman is an Independent Scholars major at James Madison University studying Music Production, Composition and Cultures. English teacher Kathy Thompson at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Virginia, initially sparked his interest in literature as applied to music, particularly magic realism. “When you take a real story and put a metaphorical and musical twist on it,” he says, “a lot more people can relate.”

Kreitzman says that the biggest impact on his life has come from the unwavering support of his family, particularly his older brothers, who were musicians and avid skateboarders. “I wanted to be just like them,” says Kreitzman. In high school, Connor began recording his own music videos using songs he had written. Drums and guitar were his main instruments. “When I started playing guitar, I wasn’t learning any theory and I wasn’t learning covers,” he recalls. “I wasn’t learning chord names either. I was just trying to write songs immediately.”

His main sources of songwriting inspiration were Elliott Smith, Richard Dawson and Yo La Tengo. Kreitzman was drawn in by Yo La Tengo’s beautiful noisy sound and Elliott Smith’s raw emotion and guitar work. “Richard Dawson had this studio album called Peasant. It’s a concept album based in medieval times and it’s so creative. He plays the acoustic guitar in a way I haven’t heard anywhere else—like he’s trying to break the guitar.” Similarly, when Connor writes songs, he begins with melodic ideas and stories that are far removed from his own reality but that still resonate in a personal way.

Connor remembers that from the start he thought of music in high school as if it were a 9-to-5 job. He began recording using the BandLab app on his smartphone. “The first time I ever recorded a song, I didn’t know that I should just put headphones in. I recorded the piano, right, that went fine. And then I tried recording a second piano part. But I wouldn’t plug headphones in to play that audio out loud from the last piano. And then I’d be recording a new piano line over it. And then I’d just keep adding on like that, so that it became an extremely noisy mess. And then I remember realizing, ‘Oh, you have to wear headphones!’

“After that, I realized I could double track the guitars and then hand them to each side of the listeners’ ears so they’d sound really full. And then I realized I could also multitrack vocals and they’ll sound really full too, and record two different instruments playing the same melody. At some point I figured out that you have to EQ out the low end so there isn’t a bunch of interference down there. You want the bass to take up the low end because it has a really clean low sound. And that’s just really beautiful. Guitars, especially classical guitars, have inconsistent levels at the low end of the frequency spectrum. But if you take away the low frequencies from those guitars and just keep the mid to high frequencies, you’ve created a hole where the bass can come in to make it sound more full. So basically, if I wanted things to sound full and beautiful, I needed to create spaces for them in the EQ.”

Kreitzman wrote and recorded songs for the next three years before putting anything on music streaming services. “I had a little listening community on BandLab,” he recalls. “My first fans were my friends and two old guys from the United Kingdom.” He formed the band Charming Slacker with his friends Anthony Montalvo (drums) and Josh Golden (bass). About this time, Connor began learning guitar more formally. He wrote a song using bongos called “Mangos,” and showed it to his guitar teacher Alex Minton. “I remember him being like, ‘Did you make this?’ And I thought that was so cool that he even questioned it.” In 2019, Kreitzman began releasing his songs on Bandcamp, building a small but devoted community. “I just kept upping my bag of tricks,” he says. “My output of songs was insane. It was like four songs a week.”

Then one of his brothers passed away, and in his grief Connor’s song-writing took a more serious turn. People who knew his brother liked the music, and also streaming listeners who were working through their own grief. “I realized that my songs helped people who didn’t even know me.” Connor put together seven of the songs into the 2020 album Scarecrow. The album became a poignant tribute, featuring samples of his brother’s voice. In the liner notes he wrote, “This is for you Chris.”

“I think ultimately, especially when we’re angry or sad, we all want to be understood so bad. And that’s why people listen to sad music. They just want to be understood. And it can sometimes help when someone else speaks for us through their music. You begin to realize that you’re not the first person to experience grief, that you’re not the only one who’s going through this right now.” In 2022 Kreitzman recorded and released his second album, To Be In This Body, collaborating with musicians from Richmond and local musicians in the Shenandoah Valley. The project evolved organically, breathing new life into songs he had considered abandoning. “I’m pretty sure it was not my original idea to make an album. I was just going to Richmond to see my friend Anthony. I liked all of his friends and got along with them a lot. They all happened to be musicians. Once I got there, I would record one person. And then the next thing you know, I’m recording somebody else. And then I would go to some event or whatever, and meet people, and then find out this person plays piano. So I would record them too. And I just kept recording different people, and that kind of like, spiraled. It became a really collaborative project. I had written so many songs that I was going to give up on, but these other musicians revitalized them.”

The album was followed by a 2023 performance at the Southern Regional Honors Council meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina. This performance featured three original songs, each exploring the theme of one’s connection with their body. The first song he performed was “Hello Toska.” It expresses feelings of dread and being trapped by one’s internal struggles. ‘Toska’ is a term employed by novelist Vladimir Nabokov to describe feelings of helplessness and a belief that everyone will be pushed away as a result of one’s anguish, often without any specific cause. The second song performed was entitled “In The Halls of the Strangest Moments,” which captures moments of dissociation from embodied reality during vulnerable times. The third and final song performed, “To Be In This Body,” examines the thoughts and feelings one experiences when feeling disgusted and ashamed of themselves and their body.

The aim of these songs was to describe personal experiences and share them with others who have had similar feelings. Says Kreitzman, “Something that ties all the songs together, beyond the exploration of oneself and the body, is a distinct focus on norms both indirectly and directly. A lot of the indirect discussion of norms in the music comes from the assumption that one feels perhaps inadequate. An example of this is a lyric in ‘To Be In This Body,’ which says, ‘I know that it is wrong; why do I believe it?’ It illustrates a sense of what is normal or ‘right,’ though it’s clear that the person expressing this in the song is not aware of where this belief comes from and is maybe only now questioning if it is even true from their way of understanding the world.”

Kreitzman hopes to encourage people to question why they believe certain things, whether it be the expectations that others have of them because of their gender, or why they feel the way they are is a ‘wrong’ way of being. The goal is for everyone to truly think about the validity and usefulness of societal norms for individuals who have their own unique ways of being.

The summer of 2023 brought a unique opportunity for Kreitzman to write a new song and create a music video in New York City. The official video for “Never Fully Realize” by Kreitz is available on YouTube. The video is directed by Jillian Junco, who also produced it. “Having participated in the process now, I’m realizing that video production is very different from music production,” he says. “You get to live in this world that other people construct for you, and you have to trust that it’s going to be fine. The camera work for the video is simply outstanding.”

Connor Kreitzman remains passionate about audio recording, mixing, and mastering. In recent months, he has expanded his artistic horizons into Screamo and Italian cinema, infusing his creations with intense vocals, haunting melodies, and the atmospheric suspense of classic horror films. He is currently collaborating with an Italian musician to create new songs. “I was exposed to Italian cinema by two roommates at JMU, both majoring in Italian. I’ve fallen in love with this 1977 horror/mystery movie called Suspiria. It’s cheesy and awesome.” Kreitzman is drawn to Screamo music and its unfiltered emotion. “It’s been fun working in different time signatures and playing the electric guitar in really new ways. And to pair that with raw vocals is just beautiful to me.” 

Back to Top

Published: Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Last Updated: Thursday, February 1, 2024

Related Articles