Peter Oren is a singer/songwriter from Columbus, Indiana. His latest album, Anthropocene, is receiving critical acclaim from a number of accredited and distinguished sources. Peter was kind enough to allow Aggie Radio to call and ask a few questions about his life, the new record, and music in general.
Aggie Radio: So you just got back from a European tour. Was this your first time touring overseas?
Peter Oren: Yeah, I haven’t really ever spent time playing shows in Europe. I had been there once before when I was nineteen, but it wasn’t for music. I think touring was better. It felt more productive, or like I had purpose, basically. I prefer that. When I was travelling, I worked on a couple of songs in Norway and then ending up spending some time in Copenhagen and Paris for a while. But you know I was just kind of wandering, and spending time in Norway was kind of isolating up in the mountains. But it was good to have purpose there and a good opportunity to share my music with people.
Aggie Radio: It seems like you get a lot of your inspiration from being on the road. What do you pay attention to while on the road to draw inspiration from?
Peter Oren: Oh man, you know, it’s whatever is in my environment. I’ve travelled because I haven’t really known what to do with myself exactly. And I was doing research, trying to figure out what else was going on in the world on a kind of random basis. You meet some interesting characters here and there and learn a bit about the various places, learning what may be going good or not so good in those communities. I guess the travels are often more of an opportunity to have time to spare and time to write and time to clear my head more than anything. So I keep looking for something and I don’t know exactly what it is, I’m looking for a better place to be or some place to apply myself, or maybe just a bit more freedom and relief from a nine to five, or a brief relief from paying rent and having those bills as a responsibility. I think I’m looking for a bit of freedom somewhere.
Aggie Radio: So you’re from Columbus, Indiana. What was it like growing up there and when did you really start branching out and travelling?
Peter Oren: Yeah I was born and raised in Columbus. I graduated in 2010 from high school, and after the summer I went to Indiana University which is in Bloomington, Indiana. I did about four semesters there and in my fifth I dropped out before the deadline, not exactly knowing that I wanted to pursue music per se, or pursue music as a profession. But in the following year I recorded with a band for the first time and then recorded an EP. I think that’s when I first had an opportunity to open for somebody who was coming in from out of town. I opened for this guy Joe Pug, and he thereafter he invited me to open for him again in Chicago. At the Chicago show he kind of told me that he thought that if I wanted to do it professionally that I probably could, if I applied myself. You know, that was the first time that I had really heard that from somebody that was doing it professionally, so I took him seriously because I admired his work. I kept in touch with him and, you know, I probably owe him a phone call. So yeah, that bit of encouragement kind of flipped the switch. I began to explore a little bit of what it means to be in the music industry. But more than anything, I just tried to apply myself to the craft of music. So in the following years I traveled quite a bit, spent five months living in Oakland and seemed to kind of bounce back and forth between the west coast and the midwest and tried to figure out what to do with myself. Slowly but surely, over the course of that time and those travels, I made some things and tried to find my way through the music industry. Things are looking okay right now. I have a record out on a label for the first time which is satisfying. So yeah the travels were kind of, you know, kind of what happened when I didn’t know what to do with myself.
Aggie Radio: So what were you studying at Indiana University?
Peter Oren: I started to study psychology and education initially, thinking that I wanted to find a way to affect the education system, the public education system. I didn’t really enjoy high school very much, and I felt like students should have more autonomy over what they’re studying and not be force-fed a bunch of stuff. It seemed like at the school, education was more geared toward training people to be teachers and it didn’t necessarily seem like the place where I would have an avenue toward changing those institutions on a broad scale. So I ended up studying English, mainly to have some command of language so I could speak my mind when I felt like it. I kind of wanted to find some way to be a writer, whether it was a novelist or an essayist or something like that. And as it turns out, during my studies I was beginning to write songs as a freshman, and found enjoyment and use in that on a personal level. It just so happened that that turned into something else. So that was where I found my voice, was in songwriting.
Aggie Radio: It seems like you’re pretty passionate about environmental issues as well. Where does that come from? What sort of sparked that passion for the outdoors or protecting nature in general?
Peter Oren: Yeah, well growing up I would canoe with my family. My dad canoed since he was in high school I think, and that was a hobby of his. So growing up, over the summers in particular, he would take my brothers and I and my mom canoeing in nearby rivers. Later, in our teens, he took my brothers and I up to Ontario to do a two-week canoeing and fishing trip where, ya know, you’re out there and not seeing anybody for two weeks. So I was definitely raised with a significant appreciation for wildlife and the outdoors. In high school there was a friend of mine who encouraged me to take climate change seriously, and I didn’t really recognize that until later in high school when he was, ya know, kind of shocked that I didn’t accept that to be truth basically. So he printed off a bunch of articles and brought them to me to kind of convince me, and he was pretty effective with that. So he and a couple of other friends and I started this environmental club that we called the Environmental Boating Brigade. With the help of my dad, we built a wood strip canoe with the intention of using it, and other vessels, to do canoeing trips and collect trash in the waterways. That was something that on vacation up in Michigan I would do with my family. My dad always brought a bunch of bags that we would collect cans and bottles in to redeem for, ya know, whatever the redemption value was because Michigan was a state that did that and Indiana wasn’t. So we would go do that for a canoeing trip and see how much we could get and buy some ice cream with the profit from that. So yeah, environmental issues continue to be a big thing for me and were at my time at the university, and it has helped bring my attention to larger political issues and just issues that I have with power, political power, economic power and that sort of thing. That’s kind of developed an overarching sort of cynicism towards the way things are. I’d really like to see something change on a systematic level that could make widespread environmental and ecological improvements. But yeah, that’s definitely pretty fundamental to the record.
Aggie Radio: What is it about music that makes it an appealing platform for you to speak your mind? Is it the right platform for voicing these political grievances? Is it the platform you want to use for the rest of your career?
Peter Oren: I’m not sure. Music has been therapeutic in the past and present. The writing process helps me come to terms with the world. I found use for poetry in particular at the end of high school and into my college days. There’s something about the simplicity and the concise nature of poetry, and songwriting in particular, where you basically have three minutes to say something. The goal is to kind of get at things on less of an intellectual level and more emotional, and I think that it’s important to try to look at things on an emotional basis and not try to always use reason as our primary tool for changing people’s minds. At the end of the day, people, from what I can tell, make decisions more often on an emotional level. So for me, it’s a two-sided opportunity for me to kind of heal myself and process what I need to understand before anyone hears the music. And on the other hand, it’s become more and more of an opportunity to kind of be heard and to say what I want to say to the world. So it functions on that level too. If I have the opportunity to write essays, or have another medium for expressing myself or my discontent, generally speaking, there may be a time for that later on in life. I think there are many chapters to life, so who knows what may come next?
Aggie Radio: So what do you think about whether or not we’ll be able to reverse climate change? The title of the album fits well with the tone of most of the songs, but there does seem to be a glimmer of hope in “New Gardens.”
Peter Oren: It’s kind of one of those things where I’ll believe it when I see it. I don’t really have hope that there are “green” capitalist solutions. I’m an anti-capitalist, as I said I’m skeptical of the capacity for climate change to be mitigated through efforts under a capitalist economy. And unfortunately there aren’t too many significant efforts internationally, particularly in the west, for capitalism to be confronted or replaced. There are some efforts Southern Mexico, Southern Turkey, and anarchist communes here and there, but generally speaking it’s hard to have much hope. In fact, that song “New Gardens” was written six or seven years ago when I was a freshman. That was one of the first songs that I wrote, not by any stretch the first, but early on for sure. It’s one that kind of got recirculated because of the lines about saving the fences for the rabbits, it seemed timely in terms of talking about borders in age of Trump. I mean yeah, it’s honestly hard to have hope these days but I figure all I can try to do is, ya know, contribute to the conversation and maybe over the course of time the balance of power shifts and people who give a damn might be able to do something, so we’ll see how it goes.
Aggie Radio: I read somewhere that you went to the same school as Mike Pence. Is that true?
Peter Oren: Yeah, I grew up down the street from his brother, Greg Pence. So I sort of grew up with Mike Pence’s nieces and nephews. He’s from Columbus, Indiana, and I believe he went to the same primary school that I went to, Saint Bartholomew’s. So yeah man, it’s fairly conservative, and that’s kind of an odd family tie, or connection that I feel strange about. It’s pretty bizarre, such a small world.
Aggie Radio: Your songwriting and composition reminds me a lot of Leonard Cohen. He’s an all-time favorite of mine and you seem to have similar styles. Who did you listen to growing up? Who are the artists that sort of inspired you, or that you try to emulate?
Peter Oren: Yeah, he’s definitely a favorite of mine. My folks didn’t really listen to him that much, though. My parents listened to a fair amount of Cat Stevens. I remember they had Neil Young’s Harvest Moon record, and some Fleetwood Mac. My mom got me a Jim Croce record at a pretty early age. There’s Stan Rogers, who had a real deep voice, and he was a folk singer in I think the 80s. He died pretty young, but you know, he had an oddly, subconsciously influential voice. One that could maybe be compared to mine, but seldom is. He sang about the Great Lakes, fishermen, and that sort of thing. But in my teen years, when Pandora and Limewire and Myspace were a thing, I found Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen and a number of other favorites. Simon and Garfunkel was in there as well. So yeah, kind of the older, folk stuff.
Aggie Radio: Tell me a bit about your songwriting process. Do you build the music around your lyrics? Vice-versa?
Peter Oren: It depends. Sometimes it’s lyrics first and sometimes it’s guitar first, sometimes they happen separately and I realize that a couple of ideas could fit together. I guess I find that every song I write is kind of a learning process. Ya know, I’m not particularly well trained or thoroughly trained in terms of music theory or guitar. So sometimes it’s just a matter of finding what chords sound good next to each other and that process of discovery turns itself into a song structure and a melody to go along with it. Then it could be a matter of trying to figure out what ideas match that sound and just try to explore what is going on in my head and in the world. It’s always different. Some people have exercises and stuff, some people have things that they do to try to generate an idea. Often I just let the song come to me, and more or less try to find the time to be alone and pick up the guitar.
Aggie Radio: So were you involved with your college radio station over at Indiana University? Or did you guys have a station at all?
Peter Oren: Yeah, definitely. WIUX. But I wasn’t involved with it. I think I played an open mic or something there at least once, and I think they played some of my earlier stuff, but I never actually worked at the station. I was in an anti-coal group that was sponsored by the Sierra Club, then the Occupy movement happened while I was at school around 2011 or 2012. So I was more involved in those things than the radio station, unfortunately.
Aggie Radio: We definitely want to attract people like yourself to get involved with the station. What do you think we can do to best benefit our listeners and just be a good station in general?
Peter Oren: You know, support local music pretty well, get a diverse group of people to play what they want, and just be good people. There isn’t really a wrong answer I feel. But just keep a pulse on the local music scene and get a good group of people with a variety of tastes in music to be involved.
Aggie Radio: Anything else you would like to add for listeners/readers? Plans to come to little Logan, Utah?
Peter Oren: Well cool, yeah, I’m definitely going to keep you guys in mind. I appreciate your interest in the record and I wish y’all the best. I hope the record speaks for itself and I’m pretty proud of it, and I’m grateful for the support it’s gotten. I always wonder how it is that people hear it, and I’m surprised and humbled when people understand it and when it rings true to them.
Check out a review of Peter Oren’s latest album, Anthropocene, here.