CARM: The Art of Crossing Over

With help from Justin Vernon, Sufjan Stevens, Yo La Tengo and others, brass player CJ Camerieri’s solo project gives classical-pop fusions a good name.

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CJ Camerieri is CARM. Credit: Shervin Lainez.

The term “orchestral pop” tends to refer to a kind of crossover that only goes in one direction: when anyone whose work primarily falls into the broader category of popular music dabbles in “orchestral” sounds, using instruments and lush arrangements typically associated with the symphony. But CJ Camerieri, a trumpeter, French horn player and composer who just released his self-titled debut album as a solo artist under the moniker CARM, takes the opposite approach — one the Juilliard graduate has refined over the past 15 years while working with headliners from Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (both of whom appear on the release) to Paul Simon.

“I wanted to play classical music with the energy and excitement of pop music,” Camerieri says, alluding to the impetus for the contemporary art-music ensemble yMusic, which he co-founded in 2008. “But when I had the chance to play in bands and with songwriters, I wanted to approach that music with the seriousness and the level of attention to detail and polish that I learned at Juilliard. I didn’t want to say, ‘Oh, it’s a rock gig so I’m just going to play as loud as I can.’”

His new album is a natural extension of that mission, showcasing how Camerieri, 38, has been able to go from accompanying established pop and rock musicians to conceptualizing a new marriage of pop and classical music. In his meld, pop’s core song structures are illuminated abstractly instead of with lyrics, and by French horns and strings instead of guitars and synths.

The New Jersey native fixated on music early. His dad was a middle-school band director for decades; Camerieri idolized him, so he began piano lessons as soon as he was able to. Trumpet instruction followed soon after because his dad told him he had “good teeth” for it. (“I still don’t really know what that means,” he adds.) “If you asked me when I was 8 what I was going to do with the rest of my life, I would have told you, ‘Be a professional trumpet player,’” Camerieri says. He was initially drawn to jazz, but was accepted into Juilliard’s classical trumpet program, where his professor Mark Gould, he explains, “set me on this path of not being a jazz musician, not being a classical musician, but searching for a different kind of music.”

The epiphany about what specifically that kind of music would be arrived shortly thereafter, when Camerieri heard Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 album Illinois for the first time on the way to a free-jazz gig in Buffalo, New York. “I almost canceled the gig,” he quips. “Here’s a trumpet playing melodies on almost every single song, and the songs are brilliant, and they’re using the instruments that I was surrounded by at Juilliard, and using these instruments in such a unique, highly personalized and expressive way.” He got the opportunity to play alongside Stevens for the first time in 2006, accompanying him for a performance as part of Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook” series.

Soon he and some of his Juilliard peers were touring alongside Stevens, and those peers would eventually join him in creating yMusic, which earned critical acclaim for its fresh and approachable but not trite take on contemporary classical music. He also toured alongside a slew of alternative and rock acts including the National and Sean Lennon. Ultimately he was able to make contributions on more than a gig-to-gig basis, appearing on two Paul Simon albums and earning two Grammy Awards for his work on Bon Iver’s 2011 self-titled LP. His playing can also be found on recordings featuring Taylor Swift, Rufus Wainwright, Dirty Projectors, David Byrne, Beck and John Legend, among many others.

“I worked hard to have the skillset that could bridge that gap,” he says of the transition from accompanist to collaborator. “Just really investing in it, being informed and talking to the artists that I work with about the music and how to make it better.” That mindset informed CARM, which Camerieri conceived much of alongside Justin Vernon; before the pandemic, he would fill up hard drives with musical ideas and take them to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, so they could go over them together. “The one thing I wanted was for no one to listen to it and go, ‘Oh, well, it sounds just like that,’” he says. “I wanted it to answer the question, ‘What would Miles Davis do if he was alive today and surrounded by the people I’m surrounded by?’”

CARM’s answer is an impressionistic blend of brass sounds, all layered by Camerieri himself (although his father makes an appearance on trombone), with strings, various synths, guitars and electronics, played by musicians like Vernon, Mouse on Mars and album producer Ryan Olson. Guest vocalists including Vernon and Stevens, as well as Yo La Tango’s Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan, My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova and Jake Luppen of Hippo Campus, give half the tracks some lyrical weight. But on the rest Camerieri relies on a wordless pop song structure to convey his crossover-oriented sound.

“It was an interesting challenge, being a trumpet player and not having the luxury of the words — but not wanting to just fall back on playing a solo,” he explains. “You don’t have a narrative element that separates this verse from that verse and puts the chorus in a different light each time.”

The resulting record likely won’t sound too out there to listeners who are already fans of the kinds of artists Camerieri has worked with, many of whom have made contemporary-classical-music aesthetics central to their takes on indie rock and pop. It’s proof positive of the Internet age’s disintegrating genre orthodoxy, of how the overlap between ambient and new age and classical and rock and folk music is better understood and more accepted. And for Camerieri, it’s evidence that the trumpet is due for a mainstream renaissance.

“I’m really sad about how — maybe this is a controversial thing to say — but I feel like nobody that plays and blows into an instrument today is making music for a wide audience of interested, curious listeners,” he concludes. “You might not like the CARM project, but you can’t say that it sounds like anything else.”

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