The timeless sounds of folk music will fill the Center for the Arts Friday night, thanks to a sold-out performance from Portland-based artist John Craigie.
Known for his comedic wit and penchant for storytelling, Craigie has been called “the lovechild of John Prine and Mitch Hedberg with a troubadour vagabond edge.”
He’s touring on the back of his latest album, “Mermaid Salt,” which was born out of the pandemic lockdown. Craigie typically collaborates with other artists, such as Jack Johnson and Gregory Alan Isakov. He spoke to KHOL ahead of the show about what it was like making a solo album.
The following interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. This conversation was recorded on Wednesday, Feb. 1.
John Craigie: It was both challenging and freeing. I really like the ability to bounce off ideas with other people and have this sort of collaborative effort. But, on the other hand, there was more time to sort of explore layers, which is not something I had done before. So I feel like this record is very layered.
Hanna Merzbach/KHOL: What stands out to you on your new album, “Mermaid Salt”?
Craigie: It’s hard. They’re all like your babies. So, it’s interesting when you release it, some songs will rise up as being more requested or more listened to, and other songs kind of sink to the bottom. That intrigues me always, just because when you go into it, they’re all equal in your eyes. Sometimes as a parent of the songs, you then protect the little guy. So, you say, “Well, what about this guy?” I like how on “Mermaid Salt” they all are part of the same story, so I like how they weave together in my mind.
KHOL: How would you describe that story?
Craigie: I think of the human sense of trying to connect through an isolation of some kind and trying to remember what it was like to have access to all this humanity and closeness. And then to not take that for granted when it comes back.
KHOL: You’re known for your stage presence—your comedic flair. How do you balance writing funny songs and more “serious” music?
Craigie: I looked to a lot of my influencers, like John Prine and Loudon Wainwright and Arlo Guthrie. I think it was just part of the human spectrum. And I wanted to sort of not ignore either side. There’s a lot of humor in this life, and there’s a lot of sadness. It felt dishonest for me to just focus on one. So I think it’s pretty honest to do both.
KHOL: How did you start performing like that? Did humor and wit come naturally to you?
Craigie: Somewhat. I was a storyteller before I was a musician. I was always kind of the funny kid, class clown. Music was a more serious thing when I was starting out in my community. I think in a lot of ways that’s somewhat universal, but I was able to blend the two. When I lived in Santa Cruz [California], I was doing a lot more casual performances like house concerts or coffee shops where just your friends were coming out to see you, so it made sense to tell a story, and I saw how that worked well.
KHOL: I want to talk more about your career. With your 2020 album, “Asterisk the Universe,” I was starting to hear you on big radio stations. You’ve toured with Jack Johnson. How do you think about growing your career and where you want to go?
Craigie: I’ve enjoyed the very slow walk that has been my career—not to say that that was fully intentional. I think just the nature of what I do, there wasn’t going to be any meteoric rise. I just didn’t even think that that was possible. But it has been nice to be able to go really slow with it. I think my fan base has been able to appreciate that as well. I don’t think anyone feels abandoned or forgotten.
I’ve always just wanted the same thing, which is just the ability to travel and sing to a group of people who listen and to be able to afford to do that and then be able to make new music once a year or once every other year. So I don’t mind the highs and lows, as long as that stays the same, and it’s really nice to be able to collaborate along the way.
KHOL: You’ll be playing with one of those collaborators this week in Jackson, Madeline Hawthorne. Tell me a little bit about where that collaboration came from.
Craigie: She’s a good friend. I must have met her at a festival. She was coming to Portland a lot to play. And it just was only a matter of time before we got to do some shows together. So I’m really excited. I think someone had told me she was covering “I Am California” [Craigie’s song] up there in Montana, and that’s always a big source of honor and pride when someone can do that. So, I think she’ll probably come up and join me on that song in Jackson.