Posted December 18, 2017 by Jeff in Tunes

Peter Oren: A Sense of Urgency

Peter Oren
Peter Oren

Singer-songwriter Peter Oren possesses a baritone voice that will remind listeners of great deep-voiced singers such as Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen. Oren, who released his second album, Anthropocene, earlier this year, has described his new single “Throw Down” as a tune for “people fighting for freedom from oppression everywhere.” Oren recorded the album in Nashville with producer Ken Coomer (Wilco), who recruited keyboardist Michael Webb (John Fogerty), singer Maureen Murphy (Zac Brown Band), and guitarists Sam Wilson (Sons of Bill) and Laur Joamets (Sturgill Simpson) to play on the disc. He recently spoke to us via phone.

You were born in Indiana. What was it like growing up there?
I was born and raised in Columbus, Indiana. My parents are engineers who met at Purdue. My dad still works as an engineer. My mom is an executive for a nonprofit now. Things were stable. We lived outside the city and had about five acres. I ran around the lakes as a kid. We canoed a lot. My dad was a canoeist and carpenter. He built some timber framing for our house when we were young. We kept busy. Nothing too crazy. It was all pretty stable.

What drew you to singing and songwriting?
My parents always listened to music. I enjoyed it. It was a natural draw. There was something about it that mesmerized me in my early teens. I asked my mom for a guitar when I was 13. My parents had a piano at home. My mom played. We were encouraged to play piano. I took lessons, but I didn’t care for it. My teacher was older than me and I didn’t enjoy the practicing part and the memorization. It didn’t translate to my life.

Your voice is pretty distinctive.
It didn’t start out like this. It’s taken some time to develop and mature. It’s deepened a bit since I was 18 or so. It wasn’t a conscious decision to sing like this. It’s just my natural tendency.

Were you a fan of Leonard Cohen?
I didn’t hear about him until later in my college years. My dad listened to this guy Stan Rogers, who was this guy from the ‘80s who died young. He had this deep baritone voice that had a lot of vibrato on it. That was something I was around when I was younger. We didn’t listen to Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen early on. Stan Rogers was the main subconscious vocal influence.

You released your debut, Living by the Light, last year. What was the experience of making that album like?
It started in 2015 at some point. I started with a friend in Bloomington at a new studio. Before too long, I played some shows with Elvis Perkins. His sound engineer and tour manager offered to help me finish it at a studio in St. Louis. That worked out well because I had been recording at a studio where there was a bar upstairs, so it was noisy and there was limited availability. I had to go to a studio that didn’t have those restrictions.

What did you want to do differently on Anthropocene?
I don’t know that the songs started from a different place. The music has been an opportunity for me to deal with what’s going on with the world. I’ve been more or less concerned about the same stuff. I got in touch with Ken Coomer, who used to play drums in Wilco, and he offered to produce the record at his studio in Nashville. I thought it was a good opportunity to say something of significance. I focused around political and social struggles that I’m grappling with. It was a bit more like the experience in the St. Louis studio. The recording process was a bit different but the writing process wasn’t that much different.

How’d the band come together?
It was a slightly different cast of characters. We did five days in September of last year and five days in March of this year. Ken brought those people into the room and trusted their talents. His phrase was “You’re here because you’re you.” He wanted people to play like themselves. The only time people played together and we weren’t overdubbing tracks was when the rhythm section was playing together. It’s not like we had a roomful of people trying to figure it out at the same time. The first day we recorded my voice and guitar. The second day was the rhythm section and we dressed it up from there.

You’ve said “Throw Down” is about people fighting against oppression. What inspired it?
That song was intended to try to express a sense of urgency that comes with people with a political motivation to change things, particularly the kind of feeling I felt with the people in the Occupy Movement years ago. It’s about the urgency of the situation. It’s the feeling of wanting to do something immediately. There’s all sorts of violence and injustice happening all around the world. The song’s details that cross borders. Whether or not you think justice can be served through violent, disobedient tactics, it doesn’t stop them from being used. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the oppressed.” I wanted to grapple with that. I struggle to find hope through the conventional channels and alternatively trying to struggle in physical, material ways. We need to find a better ecological balance. I saw a street sign in London that said they were concerned about the chewing gum on the sidewalk. I found that laughable. That’s not going to make a big difference. People talk about keeping things clean aesthetically and there’s the state of our oceans and our water and our soil.

I love the grittiness of it. It has a Neil Young/Tom Petty feel.
I love Neil Young, that’s for sure, and the song has a pointed message. I felt like it was best served with some emphatic playing. Laur Joamets plays on that one. He’s the guitarist for Sturgill Simpson. Right after I met him, I realized he is a rocker. He identifies himself as an anarchist, and I sometimes think of myself that way as well. Knowing that, I asked him to think of the song as an opportunity to play angry.

“Picture from Spain” is another one my favorites. What’s the story behind that song?
It’s Maureen Murphy who sings backing vocals. We wanted to have that given that it’s a song with romantic content. The song came about when the label asked for some kind of a love song if possible. I tried to look for a precedent for that on other well-known albums. I found that Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ has “Boots of Spanish Leather” on it. I took inspiration for that and tried to update that song for modern times. Instead of them exchanging letters from abroad, it’s a picture message from Spain. I thought that was a decent compromise. Laur Joamets played on that too.

Are you touring with a band or is it just you?
It’s just me for now. I can’t quite afford to get people on the road at this point. It would be great to do so in the future, but my means are limited. I’m still trying to figure out how to make ends meet myself. We have a booking agent on board. The most efficient thing is for me to be a solo artist. The songs can stand alone, so that’s just what I do.



Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.