A long journey made up of folk music, people and America, with a faithful guitar and a suitcase full of stories to tell.
The U.S. songwriter John Craigie is one of the most interesting revelations within that congeries of artists who are inspired by the American traditional folk music. Perpetually on tour, John embodies the true spirit of the storyteller, following in the footsteps of the great past folk songwriters (Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, to name a few), with surprising personality and mastery, despite his young age. In a break between a concert and another, John has granted us this interview.
Everyone of us has a sort of “musical story”, starting from his first approaches with music and songs, and going on with all the ways music and everyday’s life interact with one another. A musician has a stronger and deeper involvement in music, throughout his life. Could you please tell us something about your personal music background?
When I was younger I was really into music, but the reality of creating it just didn’t seem possible, because as far as we know in the history of the Craigie family there has never been a musician. It’s not that my family wasn’t supportive; it’s just that it wasn’t something that was discussed or even encouraged. Also I think that for my generation (kids born in the 80s) there was a lot of pressure to sing well. It wasn’t encouraged, you were either born with a talent or not and if you weren’t born with a talent you weren’t encouraged to sing.
As far back as I can remember I had the desire to sing, to create music, and to write songs. I was pretty sure that it wasn’t going to happen because I just didn’t have that talent. Around the age of thirteen I secretly, only inside my mind, began to “write songs” that I would hum to myself and sing to myself. I never wrote them down, never told anyone, and never recorded them. I was very embarrassed. I thought about getting an instrument but I was afraid that if I got one then eventually I would have to show someone and I was too afraid to have the reality of not being able to do it, so I didn’t. In the summer of 1996, I was 16 years old and my best friend Shadi Muklashy got a guitar and I’d go to his house and he would play and he would show me things he had learned on the guitar: some Green Day, Pearl Jam songs and Nirvana songs. I always just sat and watched and supported him but never asked to play. Until one night he put the guitar in my hand and showed me the very easy riff to a song and made me play it. When I went home that night I decided that I would start saving my money for a guitar. About three months later I bought one. I got the guitar and began to write. Now all I needed to do was to get the courage to show people, but that’s another story.
In the many web definitions of “folk music” a constant reference goes to the songs and stories being orally handed from generation to generation. In your live performances you give great importance to storytelling, thus embodying, for all intents and purposes, the spirit of a real folksinger. What is your relationship with the music tradition and, regarding your musical path, who are the most influential folk artists of the past?
Folk music is a genre that is very vague in today’s society. Eighty years ago folk music strictly meant older traditional songs and passing down songs with long since forgotten authors; things like “I Know You Rider”, “House Of The Rising Sun” and other classic traditional songs. In the sixties though, folk changed. We had the “folk explosion” and people once again started to write their own songs and from then on the genre meant writing songs specifically aimed at entertaining the audience and writing songs with lyrics that the listeners would understand and that they could connect with. It could be personal, it could be topical, it could be anything, as long as the audience could connect with it and understand it. It usually had simple musical structure and clever lyrics.
For me, folk music means to add to the genre. When I started doing it professionally, I treated it as a job, as if I was an employee of the business and it was my job to write songs that we, the audience, and myself could benefit from.
People like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Arlo Guthrie were there to help give the modern folk genre that jump start. I still listen to them and I still look to them for inspiration. Some lesser-known older guys are John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and some more modern songwriters are Greg Brown, Todd Snider and Dan Bern.
One could say that you are perpetually on tour, since for the last four years your concerts have occurred and still occur almost incessantly, bringing you all around the United States. What was, so far, the most touching moment? And what about the weirdest anecdote?
To pick out one specific moment as both touching and weird would be almost impossible. It’s not like a movie, there’s not one touching moment, everything is touching and everything is weird.
The most touching moments are when the fans come up to me after the show and tell me how the music has helped them. For some it has helped them through a break up, for some through a divorce, even for some through depression and really dark times.
However, fans coming up to you after the show can also lead to some of the weirdest moments. Since a lot of the shows I do don’t have a backstage, and some of the audiences are small, people feel very comfortable approaching me, which I love, because what would my job be without weird stories. (smiles) Since I do all my own booking and I’m always travelling to new places, I never know what I’m going to get. One of the weirdest nights was when I did a show at a coffee shop that was actually a church. When I booked the show I was under the impression that it was a coffee shop, but when I got there it was actually a coffee shop “inside” a church. I have nothing against playing in a church, I’ll play anywhere to anyone, but my music is not necessarily labelled “Christian”. They had me play in between two Christian metal bands. I was worried when I took the stage with my harmonica and painted guitar, but after telling a few stories and singing a few songs everyone was into it, which reminded me again how universal folk music could be.
Some time ago, in an interview where you were asked to talk about the most influential albums in your music career, you primarily cited “New American Language” by Dan Bern, an underrated U.S. songwriter. Talking about Bern, you said: “Dan and his guitar alone could take over the world”, underlining moreover the undeserved visibility of a singer you somehow consider as a mentor. Which aspects of his songwriting impressed you most?
Out of all the musicians out there today I look to Dan the most for guidance and inspiration. Although we have different styles on stage and in songwriting, I admire the way that he approaches the art. Dan will write about anything. If there’s a line he wants to say, he’ll say it, and I don’t just mean in the terms of something that would be controversial or in need of censorship, I mean something that sounds stylistically awkward or unique. A lot of times a songwriter will be in the middle of writing and a line will come to them that sounds good in their head, but is really hard to fit into the structure of the song. Usually what ends up happening is that the line or idea gets thrown out or twisted so that it loses its original impact. With Dan, what stands out is that you can tell most of his lines are coming from the original place. In my opinion, that’s what makes him a great songwriter. “New American Language” is the perfect combination of his songwriting and great production by Chuck Plotkin.
On your MySpace page, in the “Influences” section you mention, among the others, Joel and Ethan Coen, the two brilliant directors. How did their imagery affect you and your music?
I refer to them not so much in my songwriting or my music, but when I sit down to make an album. An album to me is similar to a film in the sense that there’s a story that you want to tell and here’s the moment when you have to cast it in stone. It will stay this way forever and people will come to view it over and over again. A live performance is easy because you can change things to fit your audiences and things can evolve. What makes recording an album so intense is that no matter what you do you are going to end up with one finite product. When I sit down to do it I think of it as a film and I look for inspiration from great film directors: Coen brothers, Hitchcock, Kubrick. With the Coen brothers, their attention to detail is amazing. The way that they lay out their plots and character development all inspires me.
Imagine that you have been condemned to spend a full year on an isolated island. If you could only bring two albums and a book with you, which ones would you choose?
I would bring “Rain Dogs” by Tom Waits and “Decade” by Neil Young. “Rain Dogs” is an album that never gets old for me and “Decade” presents a beautiful scope of Neil Young’s diversity. It’s a great mix of folk and rock and roll.
As for the book I would choose anything by Mark Twain or John Steinbeck. They are both such great storytellers that out of all the books I read, when I finish one of their books I feel like I could just pick it back up and read it again.
In many of your pictures available on the web, you are together with your inseparable acoustic guitar, whose pied cash is such an explosion of colours that it is almost impossible not to notice it. Could you tell us something about this artwork’s story?
I’m glad you asked that. One of the questions I get asked the most is whether or not I painted my guitar. In the fall of 2001 I was living in Santa Cruz, CA, with a bunch of artists and one night I painted a simple design on the face of it. A couple of the people in the house asked if they could add to it. Within a few hours the whole front had been painted. For the next year at parties and get togethers anyone who wanted to and had a good idea was allowed to paint. Some were people I knew, some were people I had never met and have never seen since. Even today people will come up to me and point to something they had painted on my guitar that I was unaware of.
In multiple live performances, the alchemy between performers is of utmost importance in order to feel comfortable, thus obtaining the better results. If you had the opportunity to tour with a band or an artist you appreciate and do not know yet, who would you choose?
Even though I’m an acoustic performer and play mostly solo I love it when I see a band that is really tied together. Two of the bands that I would love to work with would be Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Wilco.
The “Portland Basement Tour” is on its way, with numerous dates. Some of the unreleased songs that will presumably be in your next album are already facing your audience. How do you feel about this new album?
I’m very excited for my next two projects. My new album will be released in the fall of 2008. It will be my first live album and it features a recording of one of my shows in Northern California. This has been much anticipated by my fans and I’m looking forward to getting it out there. The next studio album will be released in 2009 and will follow the sound put forth on “A Picnic On The 405” with some inspiration from bluegrass and blues.
“Soft Hail”, as the title suggests, lies on soft sounds, recovering your first albums’ relaxed songwriting and partially departing from the previous “A Picnic On The 405” and from its more markedly roots atmosphere. The two albums’ names seem to somehow predict their content. How does the choice for an album title come out?
You’re exactly right. When I approach the task of naming an album I want to pick a name that embodies not only the sound of the album but also the poetic content. I’m not sure if every artist chooses that way but I have found that my fans really appreciate that.
“Soft Hail”’s titletrack was originally intended to close “A Picnic on the 405”, while in the end it represented the starting point for your latest album’s realization, also becoming the title of the album itself. Could you please tell us something about this change of program?
Both “Second Grade Awakening” and “Daddy Longlegs” have secret songs, meaning songs at the end of the album that aren’t listed as tracks. When I finished “Picnic On The 405” I wanted to stay in character and put a secret song on that album. I like to have my secret songs be soft and quiet to create a calming vibe to close an album, almost like a lullaby. I realized that the next project I was going to be doing was going to be a whole collection of songs of that nature so I decided to let “Picnic On The 405” stay upbeat and rocking without a secret song and “Soft Hail” the album be one big “secret song”. Neither have a secret song and I feel that they are companion pieces to each other, sort of like one is the secret song to the other.
At some point in the titletrack’s enchanting lyrics one can read: “Life is short, I say to you. You just smile and say: life’s the longest thing you’ll ever do.” This sentence is a magnificent and finely definitive re-proposition of the pairing “half full - half empty” glass, leaving presage for a positive resolution of the conflict, in favour of the first one. Usually in your everyday’s life are you inclined to be more optimistic or pessimistic? And how does this approach influence your music?
I think anyone who listens to my music can see that I try to be optimistic while still being aware that there is much to be pessimistic about. All the great writers I think walked that thin line. You don’t want to be too optimistic because it’s cheesy and unrealistic. But you can’t be too pessimistic because then you are just complaining and we’ve had far too much of that. The best thing that I can do for my listeners is to shed a little light on the darkness. It’s up to each one of us to embrace it or not.
“Tacoma”’s delicate beauty makes it one of the most evocative songs in the album, able to reach the heart on tiptoe, staying nestled there for long and gently lulling it with the light beat of its picking. What is the interaction coming out between you and your guitar when you compose music?
When writing a song you want the sound coming out of the guitar to compliment the scene that your lyrics are creating. Just like in a movie, you want to pick the perfect soundtrack for your scene. With a song like “Tacoma”, I wanted to create something quiet and sweet that someone would be playing right before bed in the hopes that they would not wake up anyone else in the house.
“Folk singers are like wine, they get better with age”, you say in one of your songs. You are quite young and you have already released five full-lenghts. How do you imagine your music future, in twenty years?
That quote comes from what I’ve seen in the business of folk music. It’s hard being a young guy and trying to write songs with lyrics that have a message. People seem to respect and listen more to the folk singers with a few more years under their belts. So, in twenty years I’ll probably be doing what I’ve always been doing, the only difference will be more songs, more stories and more credibility. (smiles)
Things are related to different perspectives one has when looking at them: in this way, while one is just reading the word “now” it has already become one moment ago. So lastly we would like to ask you something about your ongoing feelings. How do you imagine your future in two minutes? Or better, how do you feel like “now”? Or even better…how did you feel one moment ago?
The greatest thing about an independent folk singer is that the future is unwritten. For stars like Fergie or Justin Timberlake, there’s a whole corporation surrounding their image and their music. There are a lot of expectations and there are a lot of external forces pulling them this way and that. But for me, there is no pressure. The fans come to the shows and they just want to hear what’s going on. They want to hear the songs that I’m singing at that moment, whether they are new or old, serious or funny, even good or bad. It is for them that I sing and I’m very grateful that I have the opportunity.