An exclusive chat with the man who wants to asterisk the universe
When 2020 goes into the record books, it will be accompanied by multiple asterisks.
Asterisk the seasons for most sports. Asterisk the movie biz. Asterisk the concert industry. Asterisk graduations, weddings, births, and funerals. That’s where my mind immediately went when I heard about John Craigie’s new album, Asterisk The Universe, which I thought was a nice shorthand for our current situation. However, when I caught up with Craigie on the phone recently, I learned he had bigger things on his mind.
“It mostly comes from my analysis of infinity,” he told me, “how infinity is something that we cannot fully comprehend nor fully explain yet we all accept that it’s there because it has to be there. If I were to tell you that the universe is infinite, which most of us believe is true, you would say, ‘Of course,’ but it’s really hard to imagine.” True enough…but then he digs a little deeper. “If I were to tell you that it was finite, that would be even more complicated, because…what’s on the other side?” Whoa. “Infinity, weirdly and confusingly, is this thing that we surrender to, so I think there’s a lot of metaphors within that as well, of life. A lot of times we can’t explain something. We do our best but there’s a lot of beauty in the unknown. Even just simple things, where you’re like, ‘I don’t get it,’ it doesn’t mean that it’s not real or it doesn’t exist. So, the asterisk just means that not the entire universe is pictured when we say the word, ‘universe.’”
He also points out that it comes from a lyric in one of the songs, “Don’t Deny,” where he sings, “Believe me when I tell you the truth/There’s an asterisk on me and you/But there’s one on the universe, too.” After listening patiently to my ideas, he just says, “I’m excited to see how it’s interpreted!”
Asterisk The Universe came out on June 12 and, speaking of beauty in the unknown, before I was sent a stream of the album a couple of months ago, I had never heard of Craigie. I immediately loved the album just for it’s sound, a sort of Muscle Shoals folk-soul, with shimmering electric piano, country blues guitar, and a rhythm section so deep in the pocket they might have needed a ladder to climb out. Craigie’s warm tenor cuts through the swampy backing, straddling a variety of moods, from the sly, Dylanesque riffing of “Hustlin’” (“I get advice from musicians, I get advice from thieves/Sometimes it’s totally different, sometimes it’s the same thing/Steal a lot from one person and they call the cops/Steal a little from everyone, you rise to the top/I’m hustlin’, baby.”) to the compassion of “Nomads,” with it’s refrain, “Oh, Christopher, please bless these nomads.”
It all sounded very assured, but also fresh enough that when I went to Spotify and saw that this was his ninth studio album, with his debut, Montana Tale, coming out in 2009, I was amazed. I also noted that he was doing alright, with 350,000 followers and several songs cracking the multi-millions in streams. So I had to ask him: Who are you? Where have you been all my life? And why haven’t I heard of you?
He answers the first two questions easily: “I’m John Craigie, just a humble folk singer, traveling around the country, that’s where I’ve been.” As to the last question, perhaps he was just being nice, but he had a reasonable explanation for that, too. “I’ve been taking the slow road, really feeling each step, and not trying to skip any steps, very much enjoying…whatever you want to call it…whether you want to call it indie, or cult, or underground, whatever that might be. As soon as I got that, I was pretty content, I had no ambitions to move past that.”
Ambitious or not, he did catch the attention of Jack Johnson “in a very rare and strange set of circumstances” (why didn’t I follow up on that one??), ending up on tour with him, opening 16 dates. “That brought me into a bigger lens, I suppose,” Craigie reflects. “Although, in the end, I still think my style of music is in a much more humbler form, but that gave me access to a bigger stage there for a little bit, which was nice. Since then, just been rolling with each step as it comes.”
After all, this is someone who falls within a hair’s breadth of recent favorites like Hiss Golden Messenger, Phil Cook, and The Dead Tongues, so lumping him in with “adult contemporary” would be misguided.
But while M.C. Taylor or Cook can tell a good anecdote, Craigie, as I learned from his two live albums, is a full-on raconteur, telling shaggy dog stories from his life or giving background on how songs came to be. If you listen to, say, “Sellout Capacity” from Capricorn In Retrograde…Just Kidding…Live In Portland (2016), where he tells the the tale of selling out two nights at a venue that only held 16 people and bragging about it anyway, a few things come clear. One, is that he is very good at this, another is that he is very funny, and a third is that the audience is eating out of his hand.
Granted, Craigie is a lifelong West Coaster, having been born in California and a resident of Portland, OR, for the last six years. But, as he explains to me, besides being “indicative of a Craigie show, the live albums are important to me because that is the majority of what I do. At heart, that is what I do. Live albums are hard to capture, which is why I think a lot of bands don’t do it. There’s so much more room for error, and mistakes, and concern.”
Yet Craigie has forged ahead, inspired by his heroes, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Arlo Guthrie and Todd Snider, who often weave storytelling through and between their songs, especially in concert. As someone who grew up summering in the Berkshires, which practically makes Arlo Guthrie a member of my family, I know exactly what he’s talking about. Craigie continues: “Even something as simple as… do you know the Dave Bromberg version of ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ kind of a deep cut? He has a live version, it’s very simple, it’s not necessarily even funny, but he kind of explains his connection to that song and playing guitar. And I just remember things like that, as a kid, always spoke to me. As a nerd, too, you always want to know what’s behind the scenes, like DVD commentary.”
As ever, necessity was also a mother of Craigie’s self-invention. “Early on, my shows weren’t very dynamic. I don’t blow anyone away with my guitar playing prowess, or anything like that, and I was always by myself. I just thought it might be appreciated if I just gave a little insight into what was going on and that sort of spiraled into what we have today, which is what I think is a nice show that blends a lot of storytelling with my music.”
“It is hard to do,” he admits, “it’s another layer of vulnerability…For me, it makes it so much more interesting. I have friends who tell me they’re bored of touring and I think, Why? I mean, every night is like a freaking skydive jump! You never know what’s going to happen.”
Craigie was born in 1980, so I wonder what was going in his house that he so casually tosses around names like Guthrie, Bromberg or Dave Van Ronk. Was he the child of “parents that are cooler than yours,” as he sings in “Woodstock Baby”? Apparently not.
“I don’t want to throw my parents under the bus,” he tells me, “but it definitely wasn’t them, they were very square. I was raised catholic, my neighborhood was very suburban and none of the parents were that hip. Even obvious ones, like The Beatles or Bob Dylan, I didn’t discover until my late teens. It’s so embarrassing…the 90’s were kind of an embarrassing time anyway. Because of the rise of what you would call then “counterculture,” like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, a lot of the “dad and mom music,” like The Beatles, was not considered cool. I thought of things like The Beatles and Bob Dylan as, like, grandparents music, but of course having not heard it.
“Also,” Craigie continues, “the classic rock station in Los Angeles at the time was playing really bad [music], like Bad Company, AC/DC – nothing against those guys – and then there was the oldies station, which played The Beach Boys and The Temptations. So, it wasn’t until a band like Oasis came out, which is so embarrassing – bless me for my sins, but I liked them at the time – and then I would read things, and think, they keep talking about this Beatles band, I gotta check these guys out. I remember listening to Let It Be and thinking, Ohh…this is everything! I get it now!”
Not content to let it be, Craigie started digging further.
“It was kind of fun back then, it was like a treasure hunt, because you didn’t have Spotify. You might hear tell of something like Houses of the Holy, and OK, cool, and then you go to the CD store and do they have a used copy, they do, sweet, and you come home with your friends and you listen, and then you’re going online and reading all the legends about this and that. So, that was a lot of it, just my obsession with music and adventurous nature. One day you’d listen to Bob Dylan’s Desire, and then, Freewheelin’, and then you’re all over the place. Eventually, the picture starts to come clear.”
Tracing his discography, you can hear his rapid development from student to a singer-songwriter of wit and subtlety. Even so, Asterisk the Universe represents a leap forward, with little reliance on jokes and more weight to the groove. Clues to how he got there can be found in his playlist of inspiration, chock full as it is with the likes of Bill Withers, Nina Simone, and Shuggie Otis. Al Green is there, too, and Craigie is also a big fan of Frazey Ford, who worked with the Hi Rhythm section on her album Indian Ocean, and continues to perfect her country-folk-soul sound on U Kin Be The Sun, released earlier this year.
VIDEO: John Craigie Live on KEXP
Craigie traces the funkier sound of Asterisk to “a gradual progression to finding minimalism in a way. I would be very bold to suggest that my new album was funky, I appreciate that. But I do think what ends up happening with these things, these Bill Withers grooves, is that you end up thinking less.”
The sound of Asterisk the Universe also grew out of the way the album was made, which shows the same skydiving spirit Craigie brings to the stage. “I just got myself together with contemporaries of mine, but with very little rehearsal. These songs had come out of a place of simplicity where I had not really been writing as complex chord changes as I had in the past. I think that the musicians just kind of went with that. I remember saying, You know, some of these songs are kind of repetitive, let’s not try to fight that. Let’s lay the bed down, I really want these lyrics to be clear and heard.”
The musicians follow Craigie’s lead with cohesion, warmth and flair. Considering my whole experience with Craigie, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when I checked the credits and found a collection of unfamiliar names. The core band consists of Niko Daoussis (guitars), Matt Goff (drums), Ben Berry (bass), and Jamie Coffis (keyboards). There’s also a trio of backing singers – Vanessa May, Caitlin Gaudi, and Erin Chapin – who perform as the Rainbow Girls who featured Craigie on their 2019 covers album.
The Rainbow Girls also provided the location, offering Craigie their cabin in Bodega, CA, just a few miles from where Hitchcock filmed The Birds. Craigie and band set up shop there, recording and living together for five days while they made the album. “We all just kind of camped there,” Craigie tells me, “like an MTV reality show. These were people I had jammed with at festivals, and had long talks about music with, so I felt very safe with them.”
The whole live-in approach resulted in a number of cover songs, like J.J. Cale’s “Crazy Mama,” which sets the tone for Craigie’s turn toward simplicity. “He is the master of that,” Craigie says, “Because these were all new players playing together, I wanted to get everyone comfortable. A lot of times at night, when we were all done taping for the day I would pick a few covers just to loosen everybody up, things that were extra, extra simple. “Crazy Mama” is pretty much one chord with just a little F-C turnaround there. We just did that and I told the engineer, keep the tape rolling and we’ll see, and that one came out so nice.”
Craigie was probably also stoked to get on the road when the album came out, but with that path closed to him, I ask him what he’s been up to during the quarentimes. “I was not doing anything for a while, because it felt like that was what’s supposed to be done. But once this [Black Lives Matter] movement started, I’ve been helping in Portland, marching when I can, delivering food to the organizers when I can, doing my part there and that’s been nice to sort of bring back some mojo into my life.”
It wasn’t an easy transition, however, as he readily admits: “It was hard for me, so much of my purpose and satisfaction and joy came for touring. It was pretty fast. In about three days it went from a pretty full spring of shows to nothing. That was a challenge for me. A lot of my musician friends were doing way better with it than I was, I would call them up to complain and they’re making sourdough bread, painting or whatever. I was, like, commiserate with me!”
But the concert stage is calling, loud and clear. “What I miss most,” Craigie says, “about touring with a new album is you get to explain yourself to people a little bit. These are all new songs to the audience, mostly, and you get to go out there, and you say, OK, now you’ve listened to it…here’s what I meant by this, here’s what I meant by that. But I’ll get there, whenever it is that I do…I also like this humble door-to-door salesman type thing of taking the records around and selling them that way. But it’s a different world right now and I’m OK with that.”
With the band on Asterisk the Universe so tight, I wonder if he’s tempted to take them on the road with him. “I’m not sure,” Craigie answers, “I did a few shows right before quarantine, it was a preview for this record, and I had the band from the new record, it was really fun. I’d like to do both, I’d like to dabble in that, but, to be honest, my true joy and true calling, I think, is that storyteller-troubadour who walks out there and says, “OK, we’re going to do an hour and a half here, and we’re gonna talk.” That seems to work better for me as a solo. So, I think that will always be the majority but I will always love dabbling, throwing in a little band here or there.”
Even without tour support, I can see Asterisk the Universe bringing Craigie to a wider audience, drawn by its fresh sound and sharp lyrics. That’s always the hope, as he tells me, but his humble nature keeps him from expecting to much. “I always like the music to get out there and fall on the ears of whoever gets a chance,” he says, “but I’m never too lofty or ambitious. I always joke: Never trust a musician who’s too stoked on their new record. But I am very proud of it and I think that it’s got a nice collection of songs and I’m excited for it to get out there. But I never put that kind of pressure on my child, that this is the one that’s going to make me. I never think about it like that, I just hope it really captures that snapshot in time when we all recorded it. I do think that some of the songs are very relevant to what’s going on right now and I hope people can have it as a soundtrack to their summer.”
He would never admit it, but if Craigie continues on his path of growth, he may yet be counted among his heroes as a signature troubadour of his time. Until then, and until he can get back on the road, give a listen to Asterisk the Universe at all the usual places. If you like what you hear, check out the virtual march table. All that will be missing will be a chat with one of music’s nicest people – and quickest wits. If you make it that far, I think you agree with me that Craigie’s latest will not be a mere asterisk when it comes to list the best albums of 2020.