Hoops musician finds beauty in solitude on 'Toss Up'

In a culture obsessed with winning, Kevin Krauter spends a chunk of his full-length debut, Toss Up, confronting failure.

“Tumbling down that hill again,” the musician sings on the otherwise breezy “Rollerskate,” a line conceived and written in comedic contrast to the upward half of the bell curve depicted in Kate Bush's “Running Up That Hill.”

“A lot of that song, and a lot of the album lyrics, are me trying to recognize how many times I get knocked over — and not physically — and trying to laugh at that and be lighthearted about how life is hard and you have to take an L sometimes,” said Krauter, reached via phone in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the morning after a concert with his newborn hardcore project, Matrix. “If there's any nuanced sort of takeaway from the lyrical content of the album, it's that life is overwhelming, try your best. That's what I try to tell myself, at least. And that's how I communicate it to myself, by writing it in songs and solidifying [the concept] into something I can sing to myself and to other people.”

As a songwriter, Krauter has long favored ambiguity, a trait that draws him toward the work of likeminded Indianapolis artist Nathaniel Russell, who created the album illustrations for Krauter's 2016 EP, Changes.

“His art is really endearing and really charming, but it's vague enough you can draw your own conclusions. … It is what you make it, and it could be very deep if you want it to be or not if you don't want it to be,” said Krauter, who performs at Ace of Cups on Tuesday, June 19. “I don't think I could ever write country music, because country music is straight to the point, or at least conveys a clear sentiment … and that's something I've never been good at.”

Yet Toss Up contains the most straightforward song the musician has written to date in the sumptuous, R&B-tinged “Keep Falling in Love,” a paean to Krauter's girlfriend, Emmy. “Wondering how the hell I'd survive/Without you loving me every day of my life,” he sings, delivering his words in a plaintive near-falsetto atop pillows of synthesizer and soft-focus drums.

“Accessing that emotion was very easy, and I gave myself permission to be a little cheesy and very true to form for an R&B love song,” Krauter said. “It was easy and fun to step into that one … and make a romantic-comedy-type love song — something that will get snatched by a huge Hollywood movie and make me a ton of money.”

Elsewhere, Krauter's words maintain more mystery, though there does appear to be an arc to the album, which begins with the narrator trying to carve out some space (“Find myself amongst the thick of it all/Slowly start creeping toward the edge,” Krauter sings on dreamy opener “Cowboy Chloe”) before entering into a series of songs where Krauter explores the concept of solitude. As the album closes, however, the central figure makes a return to the fold, first with the starry-eyed “Keep Falling in Love,” and then again on the record-closing “Toss Up.” “Hand you a smoke when you're feeling alone/And I'll stand with you watching it burn,” Krauter sings as synthesizers flicker above the pair like overhead stars.

“‘Toss Up,' especially, that song is about being a friend and loving my friends, and [asking], ‘What are my duties? What do I want to make my duties?'” said Krauter, who recorded Toss Up in the fall of 2017 with engineer Ben Lumsdaine at Russian Recording in Bloomington, Indiana. “And, I think, yeah, that sentiment is pretty contrasted with the earlier songs where I really focus on being alone, or finding the answer to a question within myself rather than operating externally.”

In the past, Krauter saw a clear delineation between his solo songs, which tended to be quieter and more introspective, and the comparatively pop-oriented tracks he wrote for Hoops, though he admitted to blurring the line more in recent times. The pulsating “Lonely Boogie,” for one, was initially conceived as a Hoops song before Krauter hit on lyrics that made it a natural fit on Toss Up.

And while Hoops is currently on the back burner as its members pursue various side projects, Krauter hasn't seen any less of his bandmates. For this solo tour, he fleshed out his backing band with a couple familiar faces in Keagan Beresford (keys) and Jack Harris (guitar), both of Hoops (drummer Ben Lumsdaine, who produced the record, and bassist Alex Grove complete the touring lineup). And then there's Matrix, the punk quartet he joined alongside Hoops' Drew Auscherman.

“I do vocals and play bass and we made a tape and now we're playing some shows here and there,” Krauter said of the project. “It's so different from what I normally make. … Doing punk, I have to think harder about it, which is funny, because it's such simple, stupid music.”