John Craigie is a travelling musician in the old mould. Based in Portland, Oregon, he has released ten albums in his 15-year career, including one of acoustic covers of Led Zeppelin songs. He prefers to record in the living room than the studio, and has been on the move for the past ten years.

His next tour will bring him to Brighton in January 2020. What can audiences expect?

“It will be just me solo. I’ll be playing a whole mix of songs. Scarecrow is my most recent album, but I’ll be playing songs from all over my catalogue.”

Scarecrow’s predecessor, No Rain, No Rose, was recorded in Craigie’s own living room with the help of his friends and fellow musicians from around Portland. Is this laidback method important to the final result?

“I record most of my rooms in that style,” he replies immediately. “Either in the living room or by turning a studio into a living room. Because I play so much live studios feel weird to me, but if you can get all your friends together in there at once it can be somewhat similar to the feeling of playing live.

“I guess just having people in a room makes me feel a little more natural. The new record is similar. A different living room but similar energy.”

The gruff, natural style of both Craigie’s voice and his guitar make it seem like something he has always done, but it turns out he didn’t start playing until his mid-teens.

“I think music was always there as a child. My oldest sister was a music lover and she would always bring home whatever was hip. I was born in 1980 so I wasn’t really an 80s kid but she was, so when I was eight or nine she was bringing home The Cure, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran. I was always very intrigued by the music that was coming out of her room.

“It wasn’t until 1995 when one of my friends got a guitar that I really started playing. I never thought there would really be a future in it for me because it’d not really in my family. My family’s great but they’re pretty square so there wasn’t a lot of that sort of stuff going on.”

Storytelling is a large part of Craigie’s concerts, as is particularly evident on his 2018 live album, Opening For Steinbeck album. This puts him in an emerging bracket of troubadour storytellers (along with folk musicians like Mike Taylor aka Hiss Golden Messenger) who incorporate stand-up comedy into their solo live performances.

Why does Craigie feel the need to do it? Is it anything to do with the narrative nature of folk music?

“Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about that when I started. I was a storyteller before I was a musician. As a kid I was always the one who would be called upon to tell the story. Once I found out it was an OK thing to do in concert I started incorporating it.

Has Craigie ever thought seriously of doing a stand-up tour?

“No,” he says immediately “It’s a little different. People say that to me and it’s very flattering but the thing about stand-up is that the audience is there specifically to laugh. I always wanted to have some laughs but also to have some more emotional reactions. That’s not to say that a comedian can’t do that, there are plenty of great comedians that do manage it, but I’m not funny enough to.”

“The other thing that people forget is that I’ll talk for a minute between songs with maybe one funny line, but a comedian has to be funny for 60 or 70 minutes straight, and I never really had that mojo.

“Storytelling was already a huge part of my life, socially speaking, but I grew up in the 90s when music was very serious and I listened to a lot of those 90s acts where it was a cool thing to not talk at all.

Part of the connection between storytelling and folk music might come from the size and type of audiences that folk acts usually play to. So how did Craigie’s storytelling hold up when opening for Jack Johnson in 2017?

“It was a challenge,” he concedes. “But I learned to tighten the stories up a little bit.”

“The crowds were great. People always ask, ‘how is it to play to that many people?’ ‘Is it hard?’ And to be honest it’s actually easier to play to 20,00 people than it is to 20 people. Once there’s that many people the work has almost been done. Everyone’s happy, everyone’s excited, all you really you have to do is walk out there and say the town’s name and everyone goes crazy. Whereas with a crowd of 20 people sitting stiffly in chairs in a coffee shop, you’re not going to get that.

“What you have to do is learn how to harness that energy. For a rock star it’s not that hard, you just sort of say stuff like ‘how you feeling?’ and ‘it’s good to be here’. But in order to try and tell your story and make them hear you it’s challenging because there’s extreme levels of distraction in a crowd that size. Over time I kind of figured it out, and Jack gave me great advice. Even though he doesn’t necessarily do that, he gave great advice.”

Beginning with Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads, North American folk music is rooted in politics. Is there a duty for modern folk musicians to engage with it today?

“Duty is a tough word, but I do think that it’s crazy to entertain people from a real place and not acknowledge what’s going on in the world. Some artists are more ethereal and can get away without engaging with not, but if you’re a folk singer you’re usually going to talk about your current state of feelings. I wouldn’t say it’s a duty but I do think that it’s what people want, and that it can be very healing for them to have that.”

So it’s what the audience wants, but does Craigie himself want to engage with politics in his performances?

“For sure. I’ve always been someone that wants to talk about what’s going on when I get together with my friends, and I don’t see it as that different when I’m with my audience.”

And is the current political environment – with Donald Trump being impeached this week – particularly fruitful for this kind of music?

“Yeah, it seems to be,” Craigie says with a laugh. “I think people are hungry for that kind of connection.

“Twenty twenty is a huge year for the US because we have the elections. The next album has a lot of references to that and the hope that we will have a change. I wanted it to come out just before everything’s about to go down, if you know what I mean.

“I always say that music’s greatest success is not making you feel better but making you feel like you’re not alone. I think that’s what music is best at.”