John Craigie’s Troubadour Tale

The folk artist discusses his new album, the Beatles, and touring with Jack Johnson

Photo by Harold Levine

Written all over his album reviews, Wikipedia page, and his own website biography, the word “troubadour” is used to characterize folk musician John Craigie. The frequent use of this description is understandable. “Troubadour” aptly emphasizes the vivid storytelling that appears in Craigie’s music, though it evokes a rather antiquated image of a wandering poet that fails to capture the lively nature of Craigie’s performances. In his most recent album, No Rain, No Rose, Craigie alternates between stripped-down acoustic guitar and a full instrumental band to supplement his lyrics, whose topics reveal Craigie’s perspective on everything from past lovers to more abstract concepts, like what it means to find home.

Craigie has released eight albums — including two cover records —and has toured all over the country, but this summer marks the first time he is performing with fellow acoustic artist and friend Jack Johnson. Before his show at the Greek Theatre this week, SF Weekly spoke with Craigie about his transition from teaching math to pursuing music, living and working with his folk singer friends in Portland, and trying to write songs that are neither painstakingly forced nor lazy.

SF Weekly: I read that you majored in math at UC Santa Cruz, which makes me think that you didn’t plan on being a touring musician. What was the original John Craigie life plan, and how did you get to making a career out of music?
John Craigie: When I was a kid, I played guitar and I dreamed of being a musician but that seemed very unreasonable. I wasn’t very good, and I was brought up in LA at the time, and that whole scene was very pop and I didn’t have that kind of aesthetic. And when I got to Santa Cruz, back in sophomore year the school called me in and asked, “John what’s your major?” And the only thing that I was remotely good at was math so I just said, “Math?”
At the time I figured I would teach – my mother was a teacher – but I didn’t really want to do that and I really wanted to do music. I actually taught for about a year and then I really didn’t like it. It was kind of good that I did that though because it helped me become more serious about music.

SFW: Press writers keep calling you a “modern troubadour.” Is that a nickname that you think is an accurate representation of your work?
Craigie: Yeah I think I get hit with that a lot just because – I’m not saying that a lot of people aren’t doing what I’m doing, because it would be naive and cocky to say that – we do live in a world where the idea of the singer-songwriter is very dominant. And then there’s the troubadour, and the difference I always saw is that the singer-songwriter is singing about himself and his feelings, which is beautiful and we can relate to that. But the troubadour folk singer will sing about current events and more general things like the election or cell phones, and then people relate in a different way, and that’s a lot of what I do. So it’s something personal but also universal. And I think that in the old days that’s what the troubadour would do – come to town and tell stories about travels and make people feel like they weren’t the only ones feeling a certain way.

SFW: Your most recent album is pretty different from previous works that were more solo-focused. Was the transition to becoming a collaborative artist strange for you?
Craigie: Yeah, it kind of happened organically. I moved into this house in Portland with some musician friends that I’ve known since college. The house was such a cool place with a lot of space, so we would always talk about recording there, and I think I was just the first one who had the songs ready for recording. Recording started out just with the guy I was living with, but the support I had around me was so big, and people just kept coming by and offering to play drums or piano. So by the time we were hitting record there would be 13 people in the room. And I really liked that because mostly I shine live – that’s where I spend most of my time, in front of an audience – and albums are always weird to me because they’re made sitting alone in a room. And to do it this way was fun because it was like there was an audience. In my album I kept in some of the banter from recording sessions because it kind of loosened me up, and I could pretend that I was just talking to my friends.

SFW: How did you and Jack Johnson meet?
Craigie: The way I met Jack was sort of weird and cosmic and doesn’t normally happen in the music business. He had heard my live album and is a big fan of that sort of genre and songwriting, so he reached out to me back in January. We came out to each other’s shows and at that point we had begun hanging out a lot. Then he set it up for me to come out on his tour this summer.

SFW: I feel like you and Jack Johnson both make music that sounds really effortless and relaxed. Do you think your songwriting process is as easygoing and carefree as you make it sound.
Craigie: [Laughter]. Well no, I don’t think so. You know, a good song, you shouldn’t have to yank it out. I have friends who hunker down in a cabin or whatever and make themselves write ten songs, and that’s never been my style. I think that’s not really what the muse wants for you. But, having said that, I don’t think you should just go with your first draft all the time. It’s important to me that all the lyrics make sense and say exactly what I want to say. I do think – possibly overthink – my songs a little bit. I’ll geek out over one word or one phrase, just to make sure I’m saying it exactly right.
There’s a song I’m working on right now where I’m using the word “stash,” and I’m meaning it in like the drug “stash” sense. But in the context of the line it could be confused as “‘stache,” as in “mustache.” And so I’m currently stressing a lot about that one word, because “stash” is cool but I feel like in the modern hipster world I live in “‘stache” is definitely more commonly used as “mustache,” and I don’t have a mustache, and there are no drugs in my mustache. Anyway, I feel like some people might be like, “Hey, that’s how I wrote the song, deal with it,” but it’s very important to me that I’m heard the way I want to be.

SFW: My favorite songs from No Rain, No Rose are “Rough Johns” and “Bucket List Grandmas.” Would you mind telling me a little more about what inspired each song?
Craigie: The title for “Rough Johns” came when I was talking to a girl and she asked me what my name was and I said, “John,” and she rolled her eyes. I said, “What’s wrong?” and she said “Oh, there’s so many John’s” and then she sighed. I knew what she meant and said, “Well I’m a nice John,” and she replied, “I’ve met some rough John’s.” I like that idea of – a lot of the album is about this – how a lot of people are damaged emotionally and we’re trying to move on and come back from that. And so that song is about someone who is trying to come out of it in a sweet way, and a pure way, but also knowing that everyone has been hurt, in a sense.
And then “Bucket List Grandma,” that came to me when there was this old lady who came to me at the merch table and she said, “I’m one of your Bucket List Grandmas.” I had not heard that before and didn’t know what it meant, but I liked the phrase. That song is this sort of stream of consciousness delivery of life on the road. Just a standard folk singer folk rock type of song, but specifically dealing with my own experiences.

SFW: You have covered both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles in the past. If you could perform alongside one of the groups, which would it be?
Craigie: My gut would have to say the Beatles. But I feel like I’m not talented enough, like I’d get to the show and they’d be too good. They’d be bringing in all these fancy horns and I would be all, “I don’t know.” So in that sense I think I would fit in better with the Stones. But energetically, I couldn’t keep up with the Stones – they’d want to dance around and do all these moves – and I wouldn’t want to, so then I’d probably go back to the Beatles.

SFW: Any final comments or messages?
Craigie: Wow, I don’t know what to say. It’s been an honor to be playing the Greek, and it’s been a long journey to that. Touring with Jack this summer has been really amazing, just to see his flow and the level he is at – how relaxed yet professional he is. And while our music style is different, I see a genuineness in his approach in songwriting that I feel, and it’s an honor to see it at that level.

John Craigie’s latest album, No Rain, No Rose, is available for purchase on iTunes and CD Baby. Catch him tonight, July 26, at the Greek Theatre with Jack Johnson.

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