BISS List Interview with John Craigie : Beautiful Vocation (07.26.17)

By Josh Danson, BISS List Contributing Editor
Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Vocation: a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation. Or: A person's employment or main occupation, especially regarded as particularly worthy and requiring great dedication. Synonyms: calling, life's work, mission, purpose.

John Craigie is a folksinger. This he’ll tell you, unashamed, unabashed. He cops to the label with pride.

From the ribald streets of New Orleans, to the loneliness of space, to the rainy porches of Portlandia, Craigie casts a wide net to gather raw materials for his universal tales of passion, loss, laughter and longing. Since leaving his native Los Angeles, Craigie has traveled far and wide, living the life of a modern-day troubadour.

Inspired by the songwriting and sensibilities of outsider folkies like Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley, he mixes sounds and influences as diverse as John Prine and Van Morrison, Woody Guthrie and Wilco, to do homage to the past while forging his own distinctive path. Combining these assorted lyrical, musical and referential elements, his music and lyrics manage to be comfortably familiar while at the same time taking the listener to heretofore uncharted territory and achieving something excitingly fresh and new.

Craigie’s latest album, No Rain, No Rose, was written and recorded in Portland in an old Victorian house he shares with friends and fellow musicians. The shared life of the Portland musical community that Craigie was welcomed into a couple years back was the inspiration for much of the material on No Rain, No Rose. Featuring likeminded artists such as Gregory Alan Isakov, The Shook Twins, and members of Fruition, the album was an organic, collective effort, reflected in the interstitial banter that Craigie and engineer Bart Budwig made the conscious decision to keep in between a number of tracks. The title of the album itself, No Rain, No Rose, is a tribute to the city of Portland, but also to the understanding that without loss there can be no great art. “I took it from an old Buddhist saying ‘No Mud, No Lotus’, which basically means, you need the bad things to make the good things. I changed it to reflect my rainy city of roses,” says Craigie.

John Craigie could’ve been a rocker, or a comedian, or – with his movie star good looks and intellectual curiosity – just about anything he wanted; but he chose the life of the folksinger because it was a vocation that called to him and one that he found he was meant for. “It is the job of the folksinger to present someone to the audience that is relatable. Music is not about making you feel better. It’s about making you feel that you’re not alone.”

I recently spoke to Craigie during a stop on his current tour of the Northwest, where he is opening for singer-songwriter, producer, all-around-good-guy megastar Jack Johnson.

BL: So, you’re playing the Greek Theatre in Berkeley on Wednesday, July 26th, opening for Jack Johnson. Looks like you’re getting ready to wrap up a full West Coast swing with him?

JC: Yeah. So originally, Jack asked me to do these six West Coast shows and I was stoked to do it. But then two months ago he let me know about this side stage they have and asked me if wanted to come out and do six of those side stage shows on the East Coast and Colorado. So I did that, and then during those shows he would call me up and have me do one of my songs during his sets, which was pretty remarkable. But two gigs ago in Santa Barbara, that was the first direct support – John Craigie opening for Jack Johnson. That was great – and they still called me up. But it’s going to be a crazy couple weeks and it’s just getting started.

BL: How did the tour come together and what’s it been like for you playing, I would imagine, slightly bigger places than you’re used to playing?

JC: That’s a great question and I had the same question as it was all unfolding. But it came about in a way that people think that something like that would always come about but it usually doesn’t. Basically, it was as simple as someone gave Jack my live CD and he heard it and gave me a call. Turned out we had a lot of mutual friends that we weren’t aware of, so it’s been a cool process to uncover some of those connections. I had worked with his keyboard player, Zach Gil – I don’t know if you know Zach from ALO?

BL: For sure. Local guy. I know Lebo, of course, and have seen ALO a bunch over the years.

JC: Exactly. All those ALO guys I had worked with on recordings and I’d also done some live shows with them. So as a result of that initial introduction I ended up hanging out with Jack in Oahu over the wintertime. I was out there playing a show, and he ended up sitting in and it was really fun so we started talking about the idea of me opening for him this summer. But at the time I don’t think he knew for sure if he was doing a tour, but when it got confirmed they reached out to me and of course I was beyond honored to do it.

BL: That’s awesome.

JC: Yeah, that’s pretty much how it came about. I wish I had a more elaborate story. You know normally when you get these opening spots it’s because of a manager doing a favor for another manager, you know? But this time it was really just that cool, organic way that we all kind of dream about, or hear about in legend.

BL: Well it’s nice to hear that it does sometimes happen like that. And of course the timing is great for you with a new album just out [Craigie’s most recent album, No Rain, No Rose  – his fifth studio album – was released in January of 2017]. So I imagine it’s a perfect time for you to tour in support of that and get some new listeners and a new audience for your music.

JC: Uh-huh, you know it.

BL: Speaking of the new album, No Rain, No Rose, I’ve been listening to it and it is definitely of a place, reflecting a collective effort involving a lot of members of the Portland music scene. Included on the album are people like The Shook Twins, and Tyler Thompson and Jay Cobb Anderson of Fruition. Tell me a little about the Portland you’ve discovered since moving up there a couple years ago. Why do you think it’s such a fertile musical scene?

JC: I moved to Portland because a lot of my musician friends were living there, Shook Twins being a big one, Fruition being another big one, and my buddy Greg Marston also. So these guys were all encouraging me to get up there and start playing in Portland more with the hope of eventually getting me to move there. When I got there, I joined a group of folks most of whom weren’t originally from there either, so the music community was right there with me supporting me from the start. And that’s kind of how the album came together. I had a house with Niko who plays guitar in the Shook Twins’ band and Tyler Thompson – “T Tom,” from Fruition – we were all living together. We got this big Victorian in Southeast Portland and we were just walking around it one day, looking at the rooms and the layout, and we all kind of said, ‘Wow this would be a cool house to record an album in.’ I think all three of us had the idea to do that, I just happened to be the first one who had the material ready to go. So we started talking about recording – just the three of us – but then you know, people just kept coming by! [Laughs} So you know, it really just happened organically that way.

BL: That’s great. I wonder if the formation of most music scenes are like that, where one person moves to a place and then they tell their buddy to move up, or if it’s something as mundane as the cost of housing is cheaper there, or maybe just a combination of those things.

JC: Yeah, I think with places like Portland, or San Francisco in the Sixties, it’s a lot of different factors that contribute and they all just come together and people start to feel this pull around the country as it’s happening. At least that’s how I was feeling.

BL: So along those lines, a lot of places get tagged with a “sound” when a certain critical mass of musicians and songs come out of a place that seem to reflect something about it. The Bakersfield Sound. Laurel Canyon. You know. Is there an identifiable Portland sound? And if so, what are the characteristics?

JC: That’s a really good question. You know I was thinking about that when the album first came out and people were saying that the album was very Portland because it had all these local musicians. I do think that right now in the Northwest – of course there’s tons of “sounds” – but among my crew there’s definitely this feeling of taking inspiration from the jam bands, but also talking inspiration from great songwriters. I think what we’re trying to do right now, and not me so much personally because I am a folksinger, but a lot of bands in the Northwest right now are trying to be fun, upbeat and dance-y, while still having good lyrics, lyrics that make sense. As opposed to maybe the jam bands of the past where it was more about the jam and less about the actual lyrics. And you know we’re no longer in the psychedelic era so you can’t just sing about flowers and sunbeams, it’s not going to resonate. So that’s what I’ve been seeing so far around here. But the sound I think, each band has their own sound, but I think collectively what we’re trying do is have that sense of community and that’s what this album was really about. You can hear that with my friends Fruition, and with everyone kind of playing on everyone else’s stuff. So I’d say the sound is less genre-specific, and more specific to that particular group of musicians. If that makes sense.
BL: Yeah, for sure. And that actually tees up my next question nicely. I’ve been listening to the new album a bunch and I’ve really been enjoying the opening track, “Virgin Guitar”. It’s got great instrumentation, with shimmering strings and piano to go along with your guitar and harmonica. The sound marks a definite departure from your last album [2015’s Working on my Farewell, on Zabriskie Point Records], which was pretty stripped down and kind of mournful, despite featuring you playing electric. In contrast, this one definitely sounds more celebratory. Is that a result of finding yourself at home in Portland, being a part of that community you were describing and feeling more connected, more grounded, as a result?

JC: Yeah, that was a big part of it, feeling connected to the community. But also as the album title refers to, you have the dark or the rain – which would be the album previous – you go through all that stuff in order to get to the rose. Without trying to sound too pretentious, I do feel like this album would be the rose, but you have to go through those kinds of dips in order to get there. And all of my heroes have experienced that as well, I feel like.

BL: Yeah, for sure. And that’s clearly another recurring theme on No Rain, No Rose, the idea of light surrounded by darkness, or that sense of the Yin not being able to exist without the Yang. “We need the bad things to make the good things.” Were you thinking of any particular hard times you’ve been through and come out the other side when you were writing those songs, or were you just reflecting on the universality of that basic truth.

JC: Yeah, I think some of both. I think it was, not only just me, but that was something about that Portland community – everybody on that record had experienced some kind of loss, whether it was death, or a breakup, or something like that. Or just moving to Portland to get away from something. So the energy in the studio was that of everyone coming together and using the darkness, using that rain, in order to make some great music. That’s kind of why I chose these particular musicians and why I loved having them there, because I knew they were going to come in strong. Of course I had my own personal shifts that had gone on that inspired a lot of these songs, but I was also pulling from my community as well. When you’re in a community that tight you end up feeling everyone else’s blues as well, which was cool. Especially if you like their music and they’re all singing them, you know?

BL: Yeah, that must’ve been cool. To be able to do that collectively, to go through that kind of catharsis together and make music, make something beautiful out of it, all together. To help each other through it. That’s special.

So, other than your friends and fellow musicians in Portland, who are some of your other musical influences? You give a shout-out to one of my favorites, Blaze Foley, in “Bucket List Grandma’s”.

JC: Yeah. I’m really into that era, you know, Blaze and Townes [Van Zandt] and John Prine. That’s kind of the bread and butter, what I call the obvious influences, where if you’re a songwriter like myself, you can’t deny those influences. But to branch out a little bit more, I’ve always been, especially when it comes to making albums – those early albums by The Band and mid-sixties Dylan – the looseness of those projects were always really inspiring to me…

BL: Yeah, for sure. I was actually thinking to myself when I was first listening to this latest album, “Post-motorcycle accident Dylan crossed with Wilco.”

JC: Yeah, Wilco’s a big influence too. But probably the album that was most inspiring to me going into this project was, Will the Circle be Unbroken , by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. And that album, especially for the technical aspects – that album features a band that was inviting a bunch people to sit in, which is what I was doing – they kept in a lot of the studio banter, which is what I was doing – so that album was a major reference for me and the engineer [Bart Budwig] as we were going through the recording process and later as we were mixing it. Even though that album is very bluegrass-y, very old-timey – that kind of thing – other than that, it was very close to what we were going after.

BL: Totally. I remember lying on my parent’s living room floor and listening to that album, so it’s definitely a touchpoint for me – and a lot of other people too, I’m sure.

I wanted to ask about another recurring theme that jumped out at me while listening to No Rain, No Rose and some of your earlier stuff as well, the question of: What does it mean to you to be a quote-unquote “Folksinger”? Everyone knows it’s a tough row to hoe. In “Bucket List Grandmas,” you warn other aspiring folk singers, “Don’t be in such a hurry to lose everything.” So what is it that compelled you to follow that path? I think it’s a beautiful vocation, don’t get me wrong, I just wondered why you chose that path, or if you feel like it chose you?

JC: I think most of us starting out in this day and age – because we’re no longer in the age of the folksinger; it’s not like the early sixties where Peter, Paul and Mary are at the top of the charts – so I think everyone who starts out as a songwriter, you’re writing whatever kind of songs you’re writing and for me I was writing songs in that tradition. I didn’t even necessarily know who Woody Guthrie was, but I was writing songs… I think it’s a very natural thing, not to discredit those pioneers of this genre, but I feel like folk-singing was happening even back in Medieval times when the guy was walking around with his little guitar and singing about what the king was doing and what everyone else was doing… so I was singing songs in that manner and people started saying, you kind of get put in certain spaces, and you get audiences that want to get near you because they want to hear what you have to say and how you’re relating to them. So the path kind of opened up before me in that sense. Because as a folksinger I wanted to keep it solo and I wasn’t really interested in having a big loud band with me when I toured because I didn’t want to have anything getting in the way of the lyrics. So I kind of just followed it as it went. Then of course I started researching and read Woody Guthrie’s “Bound for Glory,” and watched the Pete Seeger documentary and the Joan Baez documentary and the Dylan documentary, and began seeing what it was all about, and that kind of made it all a little more clear to me.

BL: Well thanks for that. And I think what you’re doing in following in that tradition is helping to put voice to a lot of common struggles, and then letting people take away from it what they will, but you’re doing a service for all of us by kind of articulating a lot of the things that we all are feeling and putting it out there in a poetic form that people can find themselves in and take something away from.

JC: Yeah, thanks man.

BL: It also seems like you’re inspired a lot by places. Like Portland, obviously on this most album, but I also noticed that your 2013 album, “The Apocalypse is Over,” definitely has a New Orleans theme and sound to it. Was that album recorded in New Orleans, or just inspired by it?

JC: Well, originally it was going to be recorded in New Orleans. I had written a lot of those songs in New Orleans and collected a lot of sound effects that I had recorded on my trips down there, but for budgetary reasons and also because it turned that all the musicians I wanted to use were in San Francisco, we actually ended up recording that album in Martinez, California. Steve Adams from ALO played bass on that album, and Randy Schwartz from Brett Dennen’s band played drums, and Sean Hayes dropped in on a track, so we definitely had a lot of Bay Area people playing on that, but we were all channeling the New Orleans feel. All of those guys knew what I was going for, which was cool.

BL: So what else is on the horizon for you? Looks like you have a UK tour lined up in the fall. Have you ever played over there before?

JC: Not yet. I have played in Europe, but I’ve never been to the UK, which is exciting. Basically I’ve got another week-and-half of Jack shows and then more festivals throughout the summer. September we’ll be touring in the Midwest, then the UK is October, and then November and December I’ll be doing a bunch of shows recording my next live album, sort of as a follow up to my previous live album. So it’s a busy stretch and 2017 will definitely go down as one of the busiest years for me.
BL: Well that’s good stuff. It’s always good to be busy in this business. And it looks like you’re going to come back around here and play at the Great American Music Hall in November (Saturday, November 11 @ 8:30 PM). Hopefully you’ll be doing some recording there as well?

JC: Yeah, that will be recorded and that’s one that I’m really looking forward to. I love San Francisco and the Great American’s been a dream for a long time. So that’s really going to be a proud moment.

BL: Such a cool theater and a beautiful space. I will look forward to seeing you there.
JC: Thanks man.

Show info:
John Craigie (opening for Jack Johnson)
Wednesday, July 26th
Greek Theatre
2001 Gayley Rd
Berkeley, CA 94720
5:30 PM Doors, 7:00 PM Show