Indiana born Peter Oren’s dramatic baritone voice combined with his visionary song writing places him among the most talented young artist currently representing the lo-fi music genre. His concerns at the continuing interferences by humans in atmospheric and geologic issues is the subject of his recent album Anthropocene. Depressing as the subject matter may be, the album is dreamlike and immensely enjoyable, enriched by Oren’s calming and restful vocal delivery. Due to perform in both Dublin and Kilkenny next May Lonesome Highway spoke with Oren about the motivation for his writing, his frustrations and the artists that he currently admires.
I believe your initial writings came by way of poetry. What motivated you to add music to the words?
Right. I had an English teacher my senior year of high school that had us read and analyse a poem as a class. The year prior, I stopped hanging out with a group of old friends because I was tired of the way they made fun of each other in a group setting. I started hanging out with a couple of new friends not long thereafter, and one of them I knew a little bit better than the other. The friend I knew better graduated a year early our senior year and went to Spain to work on a farm. The friend I didn’t know so well also knew a bit of guitar, so we ended up trying to write songs together for fun and joke about being famous indie musicians.
Had you studied music growing up?
There was always a piano in the house so far as I remember. I was made to take piano lessons at a young age, but I hardly practiced and didn’t really enjoy it. Later at 12 or 13 I asked for a guitar after learning more about music, particularly classic rock such as Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. I didn’t take guitar lessons more than a year or two as I recall. I played in the middle school church band at my catholic school. I stopped playing so much when I left the private middle school for high school. All this is to say that my musical training is limited and that I mostly just took the chords I learned and figured out which ones go next to the others.
Your work appears often inspired by travel and observation. Is the material written on the spot or ideas stored and fleshed out when you sit down to complete an album?
It depends. My workflow is far from streamlined. I think Living By the Light was mostly written while traveling. Lake Crescent was written a month or two after having visited Washington state. Songs mostly happen independently, but I guess that some of the songs for my current album Anthropocene were written with the album in mind.
Your lyrics are as much about questioning as voicing an opinion?
I feel like I have a hundred songs that start with “I don’t know.” It’s my accidental-go-to opening line. I have plenty of opinions, but even more questions. I’d rather have understandings than opinions, but sometimes opinions are all you can have. An opinion is like an untested hypothesis. For example, in my opinion, a shift to an economy that prioritizes meeting people’s needs, protecting the ecological health of the planet, and maximizing autonomy via direct democratic control would be significantly better than capitalism, but this hypothesis has scarcely had the opportunity to be tested, with the exception of the anarchists in Spain back in the 30’s, the Zapatistas in Chiapas, MX, and recently the Kurds who formed the PKK. What I’ve read about these groups has been limited, but favourable.
Many established artists and bands dip in and out of environmental issues, often genuinely, sometimes a more cynical marketing exercise. Your song writing predominately addresses ecological issues. Do you feel like a lone voice by times and have you considered forming a movement with other like-minded artists?
I definitely don’t feel alone in being tuned in to the ecological catastrophes of the day. I think there were a number of albums called Anthropocene when I looked it up, but not many in my genre if any. It was mostly metal I think. But there are definitely songwriters who are concerned and putting it in writing. It’s not always front-and-centre, and the artists aren’t as big as, say, Drake, but they exist. I’m definitely interested in seeing more people not only deeply concerned about the state of things but also taking action.
I don’t know what a movement of artists addressing the pervasive environmental problems would look like, but I hope that it would involve a look in the mirror that it would not just scratch the surface of the problem but also find the systemic causes.
Artists travel a lot in order to make a living, which makes our footprints much larger than most. I don’t blame them, mostly. I for one am just trying to survive capitalism in a way that might contribute to change, but I’m not sure it will. I fly and drive a lot more than I would otherwise. Sometimes I wonder what the “music industry” would look like in an ecologically-sound economy. High-speed rails to shows powered by wind and solar? Shows via the web and less travel? Collective ownership of the labels they are on?
Does much of the subject matter of your work depress you and is your writing a means of dealing with the inherent despondency contained within the material?
Yes, often I write to relieve depression brought on by the big issues we face collectively but have so little power over individually. In the case of “Anthropocene” I was writing from my own perspective and frustration, but I was spurred by a friend who was feeling depressed about the state of things and wondered out loud where all the songs about climate change are.
Your latest album Anthropocene, one that I’ve been treasuring since its release, appeared only one year after your debut recording Living By The Light. Was all the material for the album written in that twelve-month period?
I’m glad to hear you dig it. I think most of the material was, yes. The song New Gardens was written way back in 2011 and brought into the mix when my ex said I should consider it because the line “save the fences for the rabbits” sounded timely, given Trump’s border policy. Oh, also, River and Stone was written in 2014. And Canary in a Mine was tumbling around my box of songs for a couple years I think. I don’t remember exactly when I wrote it. Had to look through the list of songs to answer that question...
How challenging is the material from Anthropocene to deliver live while playing solo and do you prefer performing with a band or unaccompanied?
I rarely play with a band, unfortunately. I wish I could afford it, but it’s difficult to pay people at this stage to be quite honest. I wrote the songs without a band, usually on guitar first, so they’re built to be played solo. It’s not a big deal. I think they sound good stripped back. When I’m really raking it in, though, I’ll surely play with other people. It’s lonesome playing alone!
Tell me about how your relationship was formed with producer Ken Coomer?
I played a show opening for Gill Landry. He was accompanied by a band, including Jacob Edwards on drums. I kept in touch with Jacob and passed him Living By the Light. He passed it to Ken, then put us in touch when Ken indicated interest. Eventually I met with him at his studio while I was in Nashville and played him some new tunes, and we decided to work on a record.
Are you working on a third album at present?
I have a bunch of half-written songs and ideas for songs that I’m trying to work through and figure out which things are good, which are not worth the groove on a record, and which I can get placed in beer commercials so I don’t have to pay rent anymore. I’ll be free to do so until late March, so I’m hoping I come up with significant progress towards an album (or at least a song for a beer commercial) in that time.
The most obvious comparisons with yourself is Bill Callahan, an analogy that you may be tired of at this stage! I understand you’re on record as an admirer of his work. What other current artists or music moves you?
Yeah, I heard that almost every night on my recent tour with Jens Lekman. Bill’s great, so I can’t complain.
I really dig Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief. She’s an amazing writer. So outstanding. Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff is also great. Her song “Pa’lante” put me in tears. Tamara Lindeman of The Weather Station is a favourite. All Of It Was Mine is my favourite of hers. Joan Shelley’s great. I listen to Sleeping Bag a lot--a buddy from Bloomington, IN. I really dig Ka. His lyricism is so good it’s ridiculous. I wish AA Bondy would put out a new record. I play his three records more than anything else I listen to, probably. Blake Mills would be my first pick if I were building a band. He’s an absurdly talented guitarist, a standout songwriter, and a great producer. Also, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Duran Jones and the Indications, Angelo de Augustine, Elvis Perkins, Jessica Pratt, Kevin Krauter, and Lean Year all ought to make my list. Why not, this is an internet publication, right?
Interview by Declan Culliton
Peter Oren plays upstairs at Whelans on Saturday 5th May. Tickets €12 are on sale now from Ticketmaster.