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Folk singer Craigie creates travelogue through music

John Craigie has released eight albums.
John Craigie has released eight albums.

They say you should write what you know. For folk musician John Craigie, that’s life on the road. The characters in his songs are wanderers, ramblers and vagabonds traveling from town to town, and many of them are modeled after Craigie himself. Some of them are even named John Craigie.

“What’s cool about being a solo musician is that you become a character in your songs,” Craigie said in a recent phone interview. “The audience comes to the shows wondering what the adventures of John Craigie are like. I’m partially referring to the character, even though it definitely is myself.”

Since 2003, Craigie has put out eight studio albums, three live recordings (one is cheekily titled “Live from Somewhere You’ve Never Heard of, in Front of Not Very Many People”) and two cover albums: “Leave the Fire Behind,” which features Craigie’s takes on ’90s alt-rock hits like the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today” and Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy,” and “Paper Airplane,” a collection of acoustic arrangements of Led Zeppelin classics.

Craigie’s most recent release is “The Apocalypse Is Over,” inspired by an extended stay in New Orleans a couple of years ago.

For the most part, it’s livelier and rowdier than the quiet, contemplative folk of his previous albums and is colored with blues inflections, horn sections and a dry, mordant sense of humor.

“As a child, I was sort of the funny kid, the class clown,” Craigie said. “When I was a teenager, I got a guitar. And that was in the ’90s, when it was all about being a serious and pensive singer-songwriter. For the first few years, I denied the funny part of me and was focused more on the emotional side. … It wasn’t until I got to college and was exposed to the Americana genre, and I got to see how one can mix the two.”

Those sensibilities shine through on “The Apocalypse Is Over,” and it’s the kind of album that documents a night of joyful, drunken misconduct as well as the next morning’s hangover.

Craigie’s stable of characters and settings is also more varied here. In “Rachel,” a French brothel worker laments her doomed relationships with Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin; a poor musician deals with the fact that one of his songs is made famous by another artist in “I Wrote Mr. Tambourine Man”; “We Ain’t Leaving This Bar, Patrick (Til We Find You Some Love)” and “Preservation Hall” detail the highs and lows of carousing in the French Quarter.

Most of the scenarios Craigie sings about have really happened to him, and others come to him while he’s touring and talking to strangers.

“I travel solo on the road, and something would happen to you that’s funny or weird and you had the need to tell someone,” he said, “but all you really have is the audience the next night.”

But Craigie said he finds the unpredictability of traveling from one place to another almost therapeutic, and when he sings that “playing to an empty room is still better than any other job,” you get the sense that he really means it.

“Everyone approaches a town as a stranger if they’re not from there,” he said. “But if you’re a stranger to everywhere, then you’re almost welcome everywhere.”

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