The first time we ever heard the music of Peter Oren is a moment that has really stuck with us. It was the summer of 2017, with only the gentlest strum of a guitar-line for accompaniment, his vocal crept in, deep, rich and luxurious. He felt ageless and somehow wise, channeling the spirit of Bill Callahan, Murray Lightburn, Kurt Wagner, men many years his senior, as he croaked out the opening lines, “where do I go, when I don’t want to be, with idle hands awaiting catastrophe, here in the anthropocene”. It was quite a remarkable introduction, as he matter-of-factly called out the pending apocalypse, without a hint of melodrama or doubt, just resignation that the human impact on the planet was already too late to reverse. The album that followed, fittingly entitled Anthropocene, followed along that most impressive path, a mixture of quiet anger, acceptance, and just enough hope to keep you guessing. Peter toured heavily on the back of that album, and were it not for my own misplacing of an appendix this interview should have taken place in the winter of 2017.
Now almost three years on Peter is set to return this week with his latest album, The Greener Pasture. It’s a fascinating record, it seems to find disparate threads of modern society, and weave them into a picture of the excesses of consumerism and erosion of life as it used to be. It’s like a beautifully crafted cross-stitch that only at the last second spells out, “everything is fucked”. Farming practices, smart phones, John Wayne as a representation of American individualism, Peter finds reasons to question all of them, and asks how much of it is designed to keep us in our place, controlled by market forces that don’t even give us time to question them.
If lyrically, The Greener Pasture feels like a natural progression from Anthropocene, musically too this feels like Peter moving his sound forward. The voice, still the middle ground of silk and gravel, remains front and centre, yet the musical backing feels more confident, more able to make a statement of its own. There are times when he seems to channel some of the wide-screen Americana that William Tyler perfected on his own state of the nation address, Modern Country, allowing the music to paint pictures of modern America. The album opens with the sublime In Line To Die, it introduces the album with a bluesy guitar riff, all country twang and steady bassy pulse. The track gradually picks up intensity, latterly joined by drums, that creep in and slowly take the track off into a heavy, brooding piece that’s as loud as anything Peter has ever released. Elsewhere, Stud Song plays up to its farming influences with an almost line-danceable hoedown feel, contrasting it’s lyrical questioning, Gnawed To The Bone (Come By) channels a similar feeling of isolation to early Bon Iver, while recent single, Ones And Ohs is probably the brightest he’s ever sounded, as he urges us all to put our phones down and live in the moment.
The Greener Pasture is a record of subtle progress, an artist shifting the game of their lens while still offering the same reassuring narrative style. It might not shout it from the roof tops, yet the record is a triumph, one of the finest songwriters currently plying their trade, stepping up and shining like never before.
Today Peter’s taken some time to answer our questions discussing recording practices, influences and why making a living out of music is the, “kinda question that makes my heart sink into my stomach”.
FTR: For those who don’t know, who is Peter Oren?
I’m a singer-songwriter from Indiana. I should probably have a neat little elevator pitch that succinctly conveys my “brand identity,” but I’d rather let my music speak for me.
FTR: Your new record, The Greener Pastures, is out this week what can you tell us about recording it?
I recorded myself in a cabin in the woods near Nashville, IN. I had a friendly rental deal, so I decided to invest in recording equipment and force myself to produce it myself. I worked with a number of really talented players remotely. I’d sent a track and they’d sent their files back. Mixing was a real challenge in particular. I was there January to September, and by the end of it, I felt a lot more confident about my abilities, though I continued to tweak for another few months.
FTR: What did you do differently compared to previous recordings?
This process was considerably different from recording in the Nashville everyone knows for music. Instead of trusting my songs to a bunch of high caliber recording artists with Ken Coomer at the help, I had to trust my gut, trust my ear. Which was wrong a lot. I had to get feedback. There were times I thought I’d have to pass it off to a seasoned engineer, but I pushed through. Having high quality performances from players who recorded remotely made my life a lot easier. There were songs where I tried to do as much myself as I could. There were songs that I put in the wrong key or at the wrong tempo without realizing it until I’d already had people record on them. So I had to do it again. There were other versions of “Stud Song” that got scrapped, and I ended up playing everything on that myself, essentially due to budgetary restrictions. So where the process for Anthropocene was an investment in the songs themselves and in my career, The Greener Pasture was an investment in my ability to do as much myself as possible.
FTR: How do the themes on The Greener Pasture follow on from Anthropocene?
There’s certainly a bridge of discontent between the two albums. Anthropocene was intended to grapple with how an individual may feel and act in the face of a changing climate and broader ecological irresponsibility, while The Greener Pasture is more aimed at interpreting the power dynamics that make such a catastrophe happen, particularly in the age of smartphones and ubiquitous free social media.
FTR: You’ve spoken about the influence of both phones and agriculture on this record, how do the two tie in together?
The agricultural aspect is intended to be a nod to Foucault’s concept of biopower/ society as a prison. It’s like calling people who obey sheep but in more American terms.
FTR: The album’s coming out on Western Vinyl, how did that come about?
This is my second album with Western Vinyl. I was introduced to Brian, who runs it, probably in summer of 2014 or 2015 when he was in Bloomington for Secretly Distribution’s annual label summit. He came onboard after hearing the first half of Anthropocene and facilitated the second set of sessions.
FTR: Who are your influences? What were you listening to when you wrote The Greener Pastures?
I’d be remiss to not start this answer with John Prine. His classic/ simple progressions and focus on stories and lyrics make him a Midwestern legend. His humor, humility, and humanity are beyond heartwarming. It’s the kind of music you can sing along to, which is largely the kind of music I’d like to make. HIs music is earnest and purposeful, like he wanted to make the world a better place. That’s all I want: I want to make the world a better place with my music, even if that just looks like someone else feeling less alone in feeling alone and frustrated. Especially if that exchange of feelings can lead to a transmission of ideas.
Apart from Prine, I specifically remember being overjoyed last year to finally have a new album from AA Bondy, which was even better than I could have hoped. I also remember laying on the floor really enjoying Hannah Cohen’s 2019 release. And Big Thief’s two albums.
Other artists that always find their way back into my ears include (in a fairly random order) Townes Van Zandt, Nick Drake, Blaze Foley, Emmylou Harris, Silver Jews/ Purple Mountains (never been hit by an artists death like David Berman’s), Bonnie Prince Billy, Jessica Pratt, Arthur Russell, D’Angelo, Ka, Wu Tang Clan, etc etc (TBH I kinda hate trying to answer “what do you listen to” type questions because it’s so hard to make short lists). I could go on and on.
FTR: What are your aspirations for this record? Do you see music as a viable career?
The main aspiration was to make it for the sake of making it. Obviously I hope people like it, but as Bonnie Raitt sang, “I can’t make you love me.”
Do I see music as a viable career? That’s the kinda question that makes my heart sink into my stomach. It’s such a challenge. It’s a question I’ve grappled with a long time now. Listeners don’t often understand streaming pay rates and such and are sometimes surprised to hear that I’m not rich with a song that has about 13.5 million plays on Spotify. It’s simply not enough to live on. It’s been a frustrating ride, coming to terms with the inner workings of the music industry, but I’ve gained access and perspective in ways that many never have a chance to. I’m trying to be as business savvy as I can and anticipate the direction the industry is going now that recorded music is essentially free.
All this is to say that there’s no easy way forward, but I do have hope that with a lot of persistence, some luck, and a helluva lot of work it could be possible to make a living in music. My strategies moving forward will include more worker-ownership, less reliance on capital, and certain unconventional tactics. This album roll-out, for instance, was stretched across six months with six singles in an attempt to maximize opportunities for songs to be pitched to Spotify staff for editorial playlists, which frankly has been the main source of income from Anthropocene.
I also have an idea for a new way of monetizing media via streaming and have seriously considered learning to code in order to see that happen myself, though I’d really rather be staring at a computer screen recording and mixing than coding.
So to answer the question, yes I see a career in music possible, but I kinda have to squint a little.
FTR: Do you think pursuing art as a career affects the art that you make? Did it shape the sound of The Greener Pasture?
Yes, that pursuit of financial stability definitely affects my approach to music. The whole process of recording TGP was guided by the notion that the more I can do myself, the lower the cost of releasing music. Sure, I didn’t compromise the songs themselves as best I could avoid it, but I have begun to flirt with writing songs specifically for placement in commercials, TV, etc. I had a demo whose working title was “Toyota commercial” for a while.
That said, the strategy for TGP was for it to be cohesive, relevant, and substantive with a full dose of artistic integrity. But in my opinion, to put music into albums at all is itself a bit of a marketing tactic in the age of digital consumption. I could just as easily put out singles one at a time and organize them in playlists by their mood or content for a similar listening experience to an album.
FTR: Why do you make music? Why not another art form?
I like singing, and I like writing. I wanted to be an architect growing up, though my ambitions were stifled by mentors who understood how the industry is largely unconcerned with good design so much as financial efficiency. I still intend to design the home I one day build for myself if I can ever afford to. But music can be direct and emotionally powerful. It can touch people who don’t even know your language. It’s like water. Almost everyone uses it.
FTR: It’s obviously an unusual time to be releasing an album during a pandemic, how has it affected your plans for promoting the record?
We tried to pull “In Line to Die” from the initial digital release for fear that it would come across as tone-deaf, but the distribution team said the logistics of such a change would hurt our chances of a smooth release. I didn’t have shows booked apart from a release show planned for the day of release, but I am missing out on the potential to be picked up as a support artist for other people’s tours.
I’m looking into lining up a virtual world tour such that I would play live-streamed shows at times appropriate for various parts of the world, potentially in cooperation with local promoters. Nothing set in stone, but I figured out how to do live-streamed shows with decent audio and intend to continue.
FTR: What can people expect from the Peter Oren live show?
When I’m travelling to shows, I travel and play alone. I like to talk on stage between songs, whether explaining the songs or telling jokes. I’m still warming up to streaming shows, but I’d like for it to be similar. I think it’ll become easier and more natural as I do it more, but it’s honestly pretty awkward to accidentally look at yourself or the comments while you’re singing. It’s like singing into some psychedelic mirror instead of into a dark and cozy room that responds with applause and laughter. It’s a bit of a nightmare, but basically all any of us can do.
FTR: What’s next for Peter Oren?
I’m writing a lot and working on polishing up a few songs to release as singles pretty soon after TGP. I’d like to say I’m working on a new album, but at this point I’m just working on new songs in general, which are sounding pretty darn good. I’m writing a bit with a friend remotely–there may be some old-timey kinda country duets or something in the future. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, I have a couple songs I started writing with Jason Wilber, Prine’s long-time guitarist, who is also from Bloomington. He came out to the cabin to write a few times. Those may come out in June if they’re ready.
Beyond that, for me personally, I’ll be seeking more balance in life. I’ve been leaning pretty hard into music the last few years to the detriment of my own well-being. I’m going to take more control and take better care of myself.
The Greener Pasture is out April 24th via Western Vinyl. Click HERE for more information on Peter Oren.