Editor’s Note: Swallow Hill’s James Cook interviewed John Craigie and wrote this article.
Somewhere in Portland, Oregon, hidden under a wash of pine trees, John Craigie is on his porch playing guitar with his friends. That is, when he isn’t playing festivals, touring his songs, or recording new ones. John is currently on a tour spanning late summer to the first steps of winter, taking him coast to coast, as well as through the United Kingdom. One of his last stops will be at Swallow Hill Music, on December 15th. I had the fortune of speaking with John to talk about festivals, writing music, and his new album, No Rain, No Rose, out now.
The cover of John’s new album pretty much explains it all; John and his friends playing each other’s songs at their old, Victorian house. As songs begin and end on No Rain the tape continues to run, capturing the conversations of John and his collaborators.
Q: On No Rose, No Rain, there’s a lot of banter in between songs, which reminded me a lot of your live show. What’s it like when you go into the studio?
John: Well, it always changes from album to album. What I wanted to do with this one was get all my friends together in a house, and record in a similar style that we do after parties. ‘Cause everyone gets really jacked on how it sounds, ya know? After a show, we’re all in someone’s living room, we’re all just playing each other’s and everyone feels really good. So I wanted to kind of capture that. So for that album, I just got everyone over to the house that I live in, I had it set up by a great engineer, all rigged up with a few mics, and some cool ambiance, and we just played in that style. The reason I kept the talking on there, was because I wanted to kind of show the listener what was happening…
Q: How did you and Gregory Alan Isakov first get in touch?
John: So Gregory, I met him through the Shook Twins. I have been a big fan and listen to his stuff a lot. Weirdly, back in 2014 I put out an album that was sort of mellow, kind of in his vein, and I had reached out to his sound engineer who had done some mixing on Gregory’s records. He was currently mixing my record when I met Gregory. I wasn’t expecting him to know who I was, I didn’t realize that the sound guy’s mix room was on Gregory’s farm, in East Boulder. Gregory was like, “Oh ya, I’ve been listening to your album all summer.” So we had that kind of connection first, and then I went there, for the final mixes, and hung out for about a week with him… It was just so lucky that he was in Portland, during that week of recording [for No Rain, No Rose] and specifically on the “I Am California” song, which was very much inspired by his style and the mood that he strikes.
From the atmosphere of his recorded music to his live performances, John has a transparent voice that invites listeners in. Between the unedited banter of these albums and John’s on-stage comedy, he provides an experience that is distinctly his own.
Q: As far as songwriting goes, maybe you can shed a little light on how you keep a natural, transparent tone when writing lyrics?
John: I’ve always been of the school of say whatever you want to say… I’m of the school of, ya know, Louden Wainwright [III], John Prine; where sometimes the phrase doesn’t always flow the best. For me, whatever I need to say, that’s what is most important, making that fit in the best I can. And that’s just about the honesty of it all. The easiest way to paint a picture is to say whatever you’re trying to say.
Looking through John’s performance history, you’ll notice an array of styles and settings. There are studio albums and live recordings, with songs ranging from solemn love letters to full-band, uptempo tunes. Among the halls and pubs he tours, John has also a played a few annual music and culture festivals – the kind where you camp in the woods and barter your homemade jewelry.
Q: You’ve played at Burning Man and Oregon Country Fair. People have their perceptions of these kind of festivals and you see a lot of things when you’re there; but I’m curious, what’s the role of Folk music at a place like that?
John: For Folk, I think the role is that campfire, kind of grounding vibe. The jam bands, or course, have their role of keeping the dance and party going. But the folk singer’s job is sort of like the Arlo Guthrie at Woodstock – to keep everyone grounded and play that campfire kind of storytelling. They also bring a sense of humor, that’s how I’ve seen it. At Burning Man, the shows I do there, I think people are stoked to get a moment of focus. At a club, that’s expected, but when you’re out in the woods and have been twirling for the past two years, they’re like, “Oh ya, we can just sit and hold onto something.”
John is beginning to build quite the catalog of records with five studio albums, three live albums, and even a couple of cover albums. On No Rain, No Rose he shows no signs of decline. John continues to take his adventures and turn them into rich, sincere pieces of music. Whether those experiences breed pain, sorrow, or his unique brand of dry humor, he strums with intent and speaks from the heart. You can find all of John Craigie’s albums at his website, and see him perform on December 15 in Tuft Theatre at Swallow Hill Music.
Swallow Hill’s James Cook interviewed John Craigie over the phone earlier this fall.