In 1969 the three astronauts of Apollo 11 completed their mission–the first manned lunar landing. They were Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and…the other guy.
“The other guy” was Michael Collins. While Armstrong and Aldrin spent almost a day on the surface of the moon, Collins orbited the moon, alone, waiting for the rendezvous with the lunar module.
Folk singer John Craigie was drawn to Collins’ story from a young age because his father, a test pilot in the 1950s, knew Armstrong and Aldrin, and would often tell his son about Collins, the astronaut who came so close to the moon but never touched down on the surface.
The song “Michael Collins” on his new album No Rain, No Rose (out 1/27/17) tells Collins’ story, and it was a long time coming.
“Even as a kid I remember thinking that was really interesting. When I first started writing songs I wanted to write a song about him, but initially I wanted to write one that was more sad or more wistful. So for years I worked on that, about a character who’s up in the shuttle, à la Major Tom, but it never came to me. And then I was talking to my dad just about a year ago and we were being a little more jokey about it.”
This time the song came easily and it ended up far from sad or wistful. It’s a playful, amiable song with a bluegrass sound.
The chorus goes like this:
One small step for man, Jesus, goddamn,
22 hours hanging in the air.
Sometimes you take the fame, sometimes you sit backstage
But if it weren’t for me them boys would still be there.
While recording No Rain, No Rose in the living room of his Portland home, he’d play it as a joke.
“During the sessions I’d play it for the people to try to make them laugh. We didn’t really think we were gonna put it on the record, but we had so much fun doing it that we ended up putting it on there. It’s a pretty loose recording, and the engineer, Bart Budwig, ended up singing on it.”
Craigie recorded No Rain, No Rose over a period of three days with Gregory Alan Isakov, The Shook Twins, Tyler Thompson and Jay Cobb Anderson of Fruition, as well as other members of the Portland music community.
There’s one cover song on the album, a laidback, folksy take on The Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice.” Its presence on the album is a nod to the mood-setting Craigie did with the group.
“I really wanted to loosen everybody up, because a lot of people who played on the album are used to stiffer recording sessions, just because they’re all from really good bands. So to get them in the flow of being in my living room and really loosening up, at night, we’d set up one microphone and we’d play through a bunch of covers that I liked and that I had arranged. Then we’d do an original. I wasn’t going to use any of the covers, but the Rolling Stones one ended up coming out really fun and it really encompassed the family vibe. But I have 10 other (cover) songs that I want to release somehow. Maybe this summer.”
The relaxed atmosphere of the sessions comes across in the album, which includes some of the banter and chatter between songs. At the beginning of one short track, titled “Interlude,” Craigie plays the beginning of Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Suitcase Full of Sparks.”
“What’s funny about that audio clip,” Craigie said, “is that’s me talking to Gregory about his own song ‘Suitcase Full of Sparks.’ There’s a song called ‘Highway Blood,’ which is track three. He was talking about doing some ‘oohs’ on that, and so I said ‘Let’s make it like Suitcase Full of Sparks,’ but obviously not too close.
“When I wrote that song, we had just become friends and I was hanging out with him a lot, so I think that his vibe was rubbing off on me. So that song has a lot of his mojo in it anyway. So having him sing on it was great. That and the California song (‘I am California.’) Both of those songs are indicative of my time with him, playing music with him and listening to his music a lot. “
Craigie sees the folksinger’s job as traveling, seeing what other people’s experiences are, and sharing those.
“It’s all pretty easy if you travel enough and you see enough people and enough things. I think there’s plenty to write about. I think the only times it’s hard to write is when I get stagnant or when I get stuck somewhere, which luckily doesn’t happen too often.”
On this album he draws inspiration not just from people, but also from a place: his current home of Portland, Oregon.
“It’s been about two years since I’ve been living in Portland. I feel like each of my albums tries to catch me in a period of my life. All these songs were written during my time in Portland. This community of people was huge. I’ve known the Shook Twins for about ten years now, but the other people I met by living in Portland. I wanted their sounds on it. The title itself is stolen from Buddha, I think. Buddha said ‘No mud, no lotus.’ And I thought that was symbolic of music. You need some friction; you need some bad things to make good stuff.
“So I was sitting there talking to my housemate about how I wanted to make it more Portland. I wanted to use roses because Portland is the city of roses. I was like ‘No dirt, no rose,’ and then she was like ‘Rain really is what we’re most famous for.’ So the title comes from that. We have all that shitty weather and we end up getting beautiful springs and summers and our roses bloom.”
That sentiment made its way into the first track, “Virgin Guitar.”
“And also there’s just little mentions of Portland in different songs. I think people will connect with it if there’s town or a place that has held them, that has given them a nest. All of us musicians, we look for that.”
Photos by Maria Davey