Music

Cellphones and Cattle: The Cerebral, Midwestern Folk of Peter Oren

Photo: Cassidy May / Courtesy of the artist

PopMatters speaks with Midwestern folkie Peter Oren about his new album, The Greener Pasture, which is both a polemic on technology and further proof of his unique, sophisticated songwriting skills.

The Greener Pasture
Peter Oren

Western Vinyl

24 April 2020

"I don't know my way / I don't know why I came
From this place / Columbus, Indiana
But it sure does feel strange / Coming from a place
So named after a killer and a misnomer."
– Peter Oren, "Falling Water"

The cover art for Peter Oren's latest album, The Greener Pasture, spells out the themes of the album's songs pretty clearly. It's an illustration – courtesy of Oren's close friend Quintin Caldwell – of a farm scene, with the cattle's enclosures shaped like cellphones. Oren says that the subject matter of The Greener Pasture can be summed up in a quote from Apple CEO Tim Cook: "When an online service is free, you're not the customer. You're the product."

"I think it's really interesting the way that the ubiquity of cellphone technology has changed our culture and social structures and how we interact with each other," said the 28-year-old Oren, speaking from his home in Bloomington, Indiana. "There are so many free apps that are designed to maximize our use of cellphones and are intended to string us along to maximize our attention on their platforms. To a degree, it's a heavy-handed metaphor with cattle and farms in that we may be getting something for free, but if we are the product, then the results don't particularly work well for the general public."

Oren has channeled his opinions of cellphone technology and its effects on society through nearly every song on The Greener Pasture, his third album and his second for Western Vinyl. You can hear it alongside the acoustic strum and aching strings of "Ones and Ohs". "I should treat my phone more like a landline / Only pick it up when it rings / Set it down, turn up the volume loud / All these vibrations and incantations / Got me singing lamentations you can't see." It's there on the stark, gospel-tinged ballad "Whole World". "Waiting for the page to load as my connection slows / There are screens even in my dreams / I'll bet they're in heaven, wager anything." Oren also addresses the issue on the sparse, emotive "Gnawed to the Bone". Put my head down, and I'm sucked into my phone / My bank called, and I'm gnawed to the bone."

Before he was documenting society's obsession with texts and free apps, Oren was raised in the small town of Columbus, Indiana, learning piano and eventually guitar, listening to the classic rock sounds of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and playing a stint in his Catholic middle school's church band – "Jamming for Jesus", as he calls it. It was as a high school senior that his interest in guitar dovetailed with a love of poetry. "It wasn't until I was probably 21 and after dropping out of Indiana University that I began to take songwriting more seriously and tried to figure out the business end of it," he said. "I'm still trying to figure that out."

In his early years driving around with his parents, he developed an interest in their music tastes – Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Cat Stevens, the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou. As a young adult, he discovered contemporary artists like Bill Callahan – whose deep baritone is a pretty obvious influence – as well as Bon Iver, A.A. Bondy, and Fleet Foxes. But it was the songs of the recently deceased John Prine that probably informed Oren's sound more than anything else. "His songs showed me that you don't need to shred on guitar or put on a persona to make music that people connect to," Oren said. "Where sometimes my critical lens is sweeping and broad, he always managed to put larger issues into human-sized stories that are relatable on an emotional level. There's no songwriter I admire more."

Oren's first album, Living by the Light (2016), was recorded in both a Bloomington performance space called Blockhouse and a St. Louis studio. He briefly shopped it around, but "I didn't want to grovel for approval from a label," he said. "I heard from artists that said maintaining full ownership of material can be beneficial down the line. So I just put it out and kept writing." Eventually, he connected with former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer in Nashville and began recording songs that would end up on his second album, Anthropocene. Western Vinyl signed Oren and released the album in 2017.

For what would become The Greener Pasture, Oren decided to make an album as independently as possible while still having the support of a label. "If it's not clear by my music," he said, "I have certain leftist tendencies such that I like to be independent as much as I can and not be beholden to fronting a bunch of money to make music happen. It's been worthwhile for me to invest in the means of production." Moving into a cabin on 60 acres near Nashville, Indiana, for about eight months, he recorded and mixed the album with the help of a few friends and local players, particularly drummer Mark Edlin. He also received a great deal of input from musicians in other cities, who submitted their recordings to Oren remotely. Dan Bailey contributed drums from Los Angeles. Aaron Goldstein's pedal steel was recorded in his Toronto studio. Laur Joamets' guitar playing was mailed in from Atlanta. And so on.

"Generally, I would send people a mix of what I had so far," Oren explained, "let them drop that into their digital audio workstation track alongside it and have them send that track back to me. Sometimes I'd be a little more specific about what I was looking for, but I more or less let people do what they wanted to do." The additional personnel give Oren's solo performances additional heft but still maintain a level of intimacy. That is even apparent on full-band songs like "Fun Yet", which could be easily mistaken for a long-lost M. Ward single.

In addition to providing commentary on cellphone technology, Oren also addresses other topics on The Greener Pasture. The pedal steel-fueled "John Wayne" is a comment on American individualism and the characters that symbolize it, namely the titular actor and Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne. "They justify violence in fighting crime, or disrespect," Oren said in the album's press materials, "while doing little to address underlying causes on injustice". The title track, influenced by the failure of the Democratic party in the 2016 election, uses the farming metaphor with a little help from the philosophy of farmer, author, and lecturer Joel Salatin. "It may be a nicer lifestyle for the cows to be rotated through a variety of pastures," Oren said, "But at the end of the day, the cows are being raised to be slaughtered. I'm not a vegetarian. There's not a food message in this. I'm talking mainly about what (philosopher Michel) Foucault called 'biopower'."

As if to underscore both his philosophies regarding technology and his DIY aesthetic, Oren has created a unique, handmade merchandise item available on his Bandcamp site and at shows – a phone stand that's not meant to enhance the phone usage experience. "It's not intended to be something where you prop it up and sit and look at it so much as a place to just put it and leave it, so you don't constantly have it in your pocket," he said. "This way, you can't be drawn in by notifications or messages." Oren has been building them in his father's woodshop using red spruce scrap wood. Doing his own PR, Oren frequently works in the digital realm, whether it's mixing music or sending out emails, and he relishes the idea of doing things with his hands like the phone stands.

While the coronavirus quarantine has put the prospect of live shows on hold for the foreseeable future, Oren has recently jumped on the home livestream bandwagon. "Livestream shows seem like the obvious thing to do," he said. "I've done a couple and intend to continue them. It's a weird thing to be playing live on video in my living room, but, fortunately, the technology makes such things possible."

Still, when it comes to touring, Oren – who opened for singer/songwriter James McMurtry in Chicago in February – likes the idea of pacing himself and being realistic. "Support shows for established artists at seated theaters are ideal for a developing artist such as me," he said. "I'm trying to be efficient about touring and trying to find a sustainable cadence and not overextending myself. Ideally, there will be shows, and they won't burn out and will put money in my pocket. We'll see how it turns out."

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