Photo by Alex Doane
Very few 23-year-old folk singers are ever compared to Bill Callahan, but Peter Oren is not like most folk singers.
With a calming, deep voice that reminds me of Callahan but matched by more observant and direct lyrics, Oren follows in the footsteps of the politically minded protest folk singer-songwriters who came before him (Dylan in his Greenwich days, Phil Ochs, etc) while making his own way with his atmospheric singing and songwriting. Unlike most folk performers these days, whom would rather be Marcus Mumford than Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger, Oren actually has something to say and a powerful voice to say it, and that makes this young singer-songwriter someone to look out for.
I had the chance to talk with Peter about his songwriting and of the many people and places that have inspired his music and lookout on life. Below is our conversation:
Does songwriting for you have a particular structure (lyrics first then music or vice versa) or do you find that songs come out of nowhere and the lyrics and music come together at the same time?
“I definitely don’t have a formula for songwriting. I have a pocket-sized notebook and pen on me at (almost) all times to catch whatever thoughts or phrases come my way. Musical phrases come on their own as well, and I collect those with my phone’s recording device.
Sometimes everything comes at once. Sometimes I mix and match, or begin and leave it open for a while. I try to keep the idea/ lyrics at the forefront of whatever song I’m writing. I slip up on occasion and write a song that doesn’t really mean anything to me, but usually lyrics are the top priority. I think a clever or powerful line can make all the difference in a song.”
Some of the best moments of songwriting are those first few times you play your new song and it sounds amazing and it’s the greatest song ever written and you’re going to change the world with your new, totally unique song.
But when you step away from the music and try to go back to it to fix a section or to record it, it’s easy to only look at all the things wrong with the song – the lyrics are bad, it’s a bland chord progression, this song sounds too much like this song, etc. How do you keep that songwriting mentality strong? It’s easy to forget that songwriting is actually hard work.
“I feel it’s important to let everything out of your system, whether it’s good or bad songwriting, and deal with figuring out what’s good after. I’m sure every excellent songwriter has dozens of bad songs they’ve written and forgotten about. The trick is to trust yourself fully as an artist and always go with what your passion is.
I’ve got bits and pieces of over a hundred songs floating around here and there, but not many are likely to hear any of it. The good stuff floats to the top, whether it’s because you know it’s good and love to play it (even before anyone’s heard it yet) or because you play it for others and most everyone agrees it’s a keeper.”
Jack White has this idea of creativity and inspiration that he works best by figuratively putting himself in a box and trying to come up with songs when he’s forced to only use certain instruments or record something in a very short timeframe. Do you agree or disagree that setting some sort of restriction can enhance creativity?
“There’s definitely something to be said for Jack White’s approach. Whether it’s writing or improvising on stage, Need can force creativity out of people. However, I feel that Need that arises organically (often internally) can be more fruitful and artistically valuable than Need created artificially.
For example, I have (on at least one occasion) written something that helped release me from a period of depression and gain perspective. This feels more artistically fulfilling to me than coming up with a new guitar riff because the tape is rolling or because a crowd is watching. I also have a tendency to quit or leave town without a concrete plan, and I take pride in this because it’s under such circumstances that one enters the unknown and has to deal with it.
So if you’re asking me if I find it better to do something than sit and wait, I say yes, do something. But I prefer to align such efforts with real Need rather than artificial need because I’d rather hear a song written by someone with an existential crisis than a song written under pressure just because that artist felt it was time to put out a new record. Hope that makes sense.”
Who are your literary (or just non-musical) heroes and how do they influence the way you write your songs?
“Wendell Berry and Scott Russell Sanders. Ross Gay is a local favorite. Peter Gelderloos is a really talented anarchist writer who always seems to give me a new and powerful take on the world today. He is super eloquent and thought-provoking. Hermann Hesse for Beneath the Wheel and Siddhartha. Hemingway, Albert Camus, and William Faulkner for various reasons. Vonnegut is incredible. David Berman is both a songwriter and a poet I love. Aldous Huxely for Brave New World in particular. Kerouac.
These writers have all influenced my world view in various ways. Some, such as Berman, Hemingway, and Faulkner all influenced my style as a writer whether by encouraging simple, declarative sentences (Hemingway), using run-on stream-of-consciousness, big-picture existential passages (Faulkner), or maneuvering abstract metaphors and descriptions that seem to add up to feelings more than ideas (Berman).”
Do you remember the first song you wrote and what inspired you to write it?
“I think the first song I wrote was actually “Try Hell,” which is online at swales.bandcamp.com. I adjusted parts of the lyrics between writing it at 18 and recording it at 21, but it’s basically all there. I was caught up with (and still am) a feeling of nausea and absurdity which stemmed from being born into a day and age where we burn fossil fuels despite the fact we are changing the climate, grow vast fields of soy and corn in a monoculture, and remain rooted in institutional religions, where we look for answers.
Obviously the “we” in the previous sentence is loose. The chorus in that song, “If you think it’s hot here, try hell,” was borrowed from a church sign in Paoli when my friends and I passed through in the summer after our senior year. It was a hot day. My friend Nick Greven spotted it and suggested I put it in the song I was writing that night around the campfire. It fit the theme perfectly.”
It’s easy to throw a Bob Dylan comparison at you, but what other major musical influences are in your life? Your music reminds me a lot of Bill Callahan in the way that you approach singing and writing, and I’m sure people want to hear about other good folk artists.
“Yeah yeah Bob Dylan. Hell of a songwriter. Bill Callahan is definitely the bomb, you’re spot on there–I’m definitely a big fan. As far as older stuff goes, I love Townes Van Zandt, Nick Drake, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Blaze Foley, Arthur Russell, and John Prine. Artists making music now who I love include Bonnie Prince Billy, AA Bondy, and Blake Mills.”
What is your secret music guilty pleasure? Like, are you a closet Spice Girls fan or do you have every single Shakira bootleg? Don’t be ashamed!
“Die Antwoord? Does that count? “Drunk in Love” by Beyonce?”
Who is an artist who you wish more people knew about?
“The Weather Station. Tamara Lindeman writes super beautiful songs. They’re simple and elegant–delicate and personal.”