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John Craigie’s sense of humanity

Bobby Cochran

Singer-songwriter John Craigie performs at Wave Thursday night with fellow singer-songwriter Mason Jennings.

Singer-songwriters John Craigie and Mason Jennings will perform at Wave on Thursday, April 25.

The pair are on a short run of dates that will also see them perform at The Bottleneck in Lawrence on Friday, April 26.

Craigie, who grew up in Southern California, issued his latest album, “Pagan Church,” earlier in 2024 and quickly continued his ongoing commitment to live performance in support of the LP.

Known for his uncanny ability to balance humor and heartfelt songwriting, Craigie recently discussed his origins as a live performer, how he treats humor with international audiences and his hopes for his shows with Jennings.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

I’ve read that you consider live performance of primary importance. 

I think for any storyteller, that’s when you can really let the song make sense and make it hit.

Sometimes, I would imagine, you’re performing for people who don’t have your records, this might be their first encounter with you. 

Some songs have a story behind them. People want to know that, and I think the live show lets you tell those stories. If you’re into a songwriter, it helps knowing more about them. I think people really want to connect with who the songwriter is, their humanity. The live show allows you to do that.

When you started out, did you do open mics as part of your development? 

An open mic is so crazy because sometimes you just get to play one song. You don’t have any build up or transition. You could follow somebody who is way better than you or you could follow someone who destroyed the room with something really awkward. I just went to an open mic last week to watch a friend of mine, and I was just remembering that it’s one of the hardest things to do. It’s such a trial. It’s such a rite of passage. It’s the hardest thing to do, to get someone’s attention in the mishmash that is an open mic. You’re also so nervous because you haven’t done it before.

It's a good thing to do, but it’s not necessarily the best place to discover your live structure and talent. To do that, you’ve really got to get some shows.

I would imagine that when you start getting your own shows, you start making discoveries. “They laughed at that.” Do you remember some of those moments?

I was out touring, playing little shows, and it’s a bit lonely, that life. Things would happen that didn’t seem that funny, but I just needed to share them with the crowd. Together, [we might find], “Oh, yeah, that is kinda funny.” Sometimes they would be sad or embarrassing to me. But then you tell them, and we start laughing at it. I had a lot of those moments.

I can think of times when I’ve gone to see songwriters, and they share something that went wrong at the hotel or an experience in a coffee shop and there’s that connection to them because you say to yourself, “Oh yeah. I’ve done that. I’ve thought that.” 

I think a lot of comedy is that: just meeting shared grief, shared embarrassment, shared experience. I think that’s when you get the biggest laughs, someone says, “Me, too. I know what you’re talking about. That’s happened to me.” Even something as simple as a [kind of] Seinfeld [moment of], “What’s the deal with airplanes?” I think people laugh at that because it’s relatable, and it helps to hear that. “Oh yeah, no one’s ever said it like that, but that’s true.”

Were there specific songwriters you’d go to see because you appreciated how they related to their audience? 

I saw Arlo Guthrie, and he was really good at telling a story about how a song was written. Todd Snider was really good at telling road stories that were much like what we were just talking about. I saw Greg Brown a lot. He was good at having a very subtle way of making you laugh at these simple things. Every musician I came across really influenced me.

And sometimes you find out the things not to do. 

[Laughs.] Definitely. I think we’ve all seen performers who keep rambling. Sometimes it doesn’t matter because they’re charismatic enough or you just like their music so much that it doesn’t matter. I think we’ve all been to a show where we have that thought, “Just play the song.” I think everyone wants musicians to talk a little bit. It’s the number one complaint that I hear from people: “Yeah, the musician came out and played the songs, said, ‘Thank you,’ and that was it.’” It is a delicate dance.

When you’re in a different country, are there things that you modify? 

Sometimes you look at a story and think, “Oh yeah, this does feel culturally very American.” Maybe I reference something that they don’t know, like Home Depot. Not that I have a lot of Home Depot bits. That’s why the European tour is always hard because every day you’re in a new country. I gotta ask around, “Do you have this thing here? What do you call this?” I had a bit where I was talking about Freeze Tag, the game you play as a kid. Most countries have that game but none of them were calling it Freeze Tag. There was Stuck in the Mud or Scarecrow or, I think in Germany it was Schtickle Pole or something like that. It’s more challenging but in some ways it can be fun.

When you wrote the material for “Pagan Church,” did you have specific things you wanted to express? Themes? 

If anything, as lame as it sounds, the theme of each of my albums is, “How are you feeling right now?” I think the songs have a cohesive sense of a snapshot of my headspace. I had made a record before this called “Mermaid Salt” that was very much a lockdown record. The songs were influenced by that solitude and lack of socialness. I started to get back out and playing live a bit. I think these songs were coming out of the energy I was feeling post-lockdown. It’s interesting energy. Sometimes it’s a little more cautious, sometimes a little more wilder, but then also a little more sassier.

Given that you see records as snapshots, are there songs that you have where you say, “I understand this happened, and I wrote it and that people might like it, but I have to move on from that”? 

Definitely. I’m lucky that my audience lets me do that. That’s one of the benefits of modern day when we don’t have hits in the way that artists did in the past. People might like a song of yours but nowadays I tend to think that we like artists as a whole. I think sometimes there’s a song that people will shout for at a show that I’m not going to do. I’ve never experienced too much negativity around that because hopefully I’m playing other songs that they like, or they just like the show.

You have these dates with Mason Jennings. Have you worked with him before? 

Just once. We did a show in Florida last year. It was really nice, and we have a lot of mutual friends, and we’ve even spoken a little bit through Instagram. I’m really excited about this; this will be our first tour together. We have a similar energy. I think probably our fanbases are similar. He’s a phenomenal songwriter. His audience is hopefully going to have that same ear and attention span [for my stuff]. He’s a phenomenal singer, lyricist, so I’m really excited to share the stage.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.