Portland Americana singer-songwriter John Craigie has played all over the country and built up a sizeable audience in the 15 years he’s been in music, with six excellent, moody indie-folk records to his name.
But it all started here in Santa Cruz. When he was a student at UCSC, he discovered KPIG—and by extension, Americana music.
“I started hearing music that I never would’ve heard in L.A. growing up,” Craigie says. “John Prine, Gillian Welch, Todd Snider, Greg Brown, Lucinda Williams, Loudon Wainwright III, and so many others.”
He got his feet wet as a live performer around the same time, playing in a group called Pond Rock.
“I met other serious musicians who were open to jamming together. House parties, Catalyst Atrium, Moe’s Alley, Henflings, etc. It was a great time to be in a jam band,” Craigie says.
He’s since scaled down the jam sounds and developed into one of the most respected singer-songwriters in the DIY touring scene. His latest album, Scarecrow, is a somber record that he recorded in a room alone, with the engineer stationed elsewhere. These are down-tempo, morose folksy songs.
“I wanted to capture that quietness that one feels alone on the road,” Craigie says.
The songs were written mostly when he was writing music for his previous record No Rain, No Rose. That album has a totally different, upbeat vibe. Though he sings about hard times, a lot of the focus is on the light at the end of the tunnel. When it came time to record it, he rounded up a bunch of musician friends and had a big jamboree acoustic recording session in a comfortable living room, and the enthusiasm is apparent all over the songs. But there were several songs that just didn’t have the right feel, and those were the basis for Scarecrow.
“I wanted to give them their own home that tied all these songs together,” Craigie says.
These two records mark a turn in Craigie’s career. They not only document his endless touring lifestyle, they showcase his finding a sense of home. After cutting his teeth in Santa Cruz’s music scene, he dove into the touring lifestyle. That’s when he really saw his songwriting blossom.
“It was always my dream to travel, and I had no problem roughing it. I loved sleeping on couches and meeting people and hearing all their stories. I noticed when the venue would give me a hotel, I would head back there alone and not meet anyone or get any stories. I craved those connections. It 100 percent affected my song writing in that most of my songs came from those interactions, whether they were romantic or tragic or new friendships,” Craigie says.
As serious as his songs are—and the ones on Scarecrow might be his most serious yet—Craigie is known for being a funny guy and putting on fun shows, with lots of hilarious in-between song banter. He even gets compared to Mitch Hedberg—not something you often hear about singer-songwriters—but his banter tends to include more funny true stories than absurd observations.
“I listened to an interview with him where he was asked about his delivery,” Craigie says of Hedberg. “He said that he was pulling a lot from jazz musicians and beat poets. He said something like, ‘shy people trying to sound cool.’ I don’t think I have much in common with Mitch’s style of humor, but I do think we have that similar delivery inspired by those beat poets and jazz musicians. We’re both shy guys trying to sound cool.”
It’s not that the new songs are devoid of humor. He thinks it’s just a little less overt.
“I think sometimes there is a type of humor in sad songs,” Craigie says. “It just depends on what you’re going through while you listen.”
INFO: 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 18. Flynn’s Cabaret & Steakhouse, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $27. 335-2800.