Q-and-A with singer-songwriter John Craigie
By Timothy Behuniak EBS CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
Thirty-nine-year-old John Craigie is an American musician known for his soulful and comedic tunes reminiscent of John Prine and Arlo Guthrie. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Craigie discovered guitar patterns and chords through a friend when he was in high school. The musician left home at 18 to study mathematics at UC Santa Cruz, but also dabbled in music classes. Although the academic side of music turned him away, he found musical inspiration in Santa Cruz’s free-spirited, laid-back community.
Since taking to the stage, Craigie has performed with or opened for Jack Johnson, Trampled by Turtles and Sean Hayes, and sold out shows in New York City, Boston and San Francisco, among others. His songs “I am California” and “Highway Blood” both erupted past 1 million Spotify streams shortly after being released in 2017. Currently on tour through the Mountain West, Craigie spoke with EBS before his March 1 show at Bozeman’s Filling Station to discuss process, his feelings about Montana and why he loves Adam Sandler.
Explore Big Sky: What started your pursuit of creating and playing music?
John Craigie: We had no musicians in my family. I think I became obsessed with music because it was kind of a foreign thing, and playing music almost seemed like a fantasy.
EBS: Besides the guitar, what other instruments do you play?
JC: Harmonica and anything similar to the guitar like the banjo, ukulele or bass. But the guitar is really just a vessel for storytelling – it gives me legitimacy. If I started telling stories without the guitar I’d just be like Garrison Keillor.
EBS: From which artists or bands do you draw inspiration and influence?
JC: John Prine, Todd Snyder, Greg Brown, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Simon … all of the storytellers and risk-takers. I like artists with diversity. When I found the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie as a kid, I liked that I could track their careers with different sounds.
EBS: How would you describe your style?
JC: Humorous, storytelling folk music. I always want to have some humor but also have some sadness or some truth. I think the best songs are like the best movies or books – ones that can tap into emotions.
EBS: How do you decide on a setlist for each new location on tour?
JC: I’m very anal about my setlists. I carry a book with me in which I write down my setlists so I can refer to what I played each time I’m in a new city. I try not to tell the same story twice or place the same song at the same location every year. Songs will vary based on many things: what I feel is working for me at that time, new material or things I think the crowd will be happy to hear.
EBS: You’re known for humorous storytelling on stage while many musicians take different approaches to songwriting and performing. What inspires this direction?
JC: I was always the class clown in school, but was nervous when I was younger that I would never be taken seriously. When I discovered artists like [John] Prine or Arlo [Guthrie], I was able to see how it was done. But it’s always something I struggle with because I never want to lose credibility as a caring person when sometimes I just want to sing an Adam Sandler-esque song.
EBS: How has living in the American West influenced your singing and songwriting?
JC: Nowadays you can soak up so much influence, and there is plenty of angst and calm on both coasts. But I think the West is a little more laid-back and it’s obvious when thinking of something like the Eagles versus The Velvet Underground.
EBS: Why did you choose to tour through Montana?
JC: I mostly fly when on tour now but when I was first starting out I used to drive around the country in my Astro van. I always enjoyed driving through Montana and the crowds are great. The type of music I do doesn’t work everywhere, but I think Montanans really connect with the style.
EBS: Do you have a particular song that reminds you of Big Sky Country?
JC: I don’t have a particular song, but I put out a record in ’09 called Montana Tale. I wrote a lot of those songs while driving through Montana and I always think of the state when I put on the album.