Indiana-born, everywhere-based singer-songwriter Peter Oren possesses a remarkable
singing voice, low and deep and richly textured: as solid as a glacier, as big as a
mountain. Similar in its baritone gravel to Bill Callahan, a hero of his, it rumbles in your
conscience, a righteous sound that marks him as an artist for our tumultuous times,
when sanity seems absent from popular discussions. His voice is ideally suited to
confront a topic as large and as ominous as the Anthropocene Age.
That term is relatively new, reportedly coined in the 1960s but popularized only in the
new century to designate a new epoch in the earth’s history, when man has exerted a
permanent—and, many would argue, an incredibly deleterious—change in the
environment. Sea levels are rising, plants and animals facing mass extinctions; it may be
humanity’s final epoch, which makes it a massive and daunting subject for a lone singer-
songwriter to address, let alone a young musician making his second full-length record.
But Oren has both the singing voice and the songwriting voice to put it all into
perspective. The songs on Anthropocene, his first album for Western Vinyl, are direct
and poetic, outraged and measured, taking in the entire fucked-up world from his fixed
point of view.
Art and activism are inseparable on these ten songs, each bolstering the other. “There’s
no separating art from reality,” says Oren. “The reality is that our politics are guided by
our emotions, and music has the capacity to demonstrate those emotions, at least on an
individual level. And if you can talk to someone on an individual level, you might be able
to have a more useful conversation than if you’re talking to a roomful of people.”
Oren hails from Columbus, Indiana, a city famed for its midcentury modern architecture
(and as the hometown of our current vice president). Yet, as he notes on the sober
“Falling Water,” the town is “named for a murderer and a misnomer”—not a brave
explorer but a greedy exploiter. “What do you do when you’re from a place that’s
named after a genocidal figure?” he asks, not quite rhetorically. “It’s a difficult thing to
come to terms with: the long history of segregation that is by a long stretch not over.”
He began putting his thoughts down in poetry while a high school student, later picking
up a guitar and setting his verses to music.
“It was a form of therapy, a way to process whatever a teenager’s trying to figure out.
And there’s a lot to figure out with politics. I’ve always had a tendency to be critical of
what’s going on, and when I got pulled into the Occupy movement, I had my ideas about
the world questioned.” As soon as he could, he left Columbus to travel the world:
drifting along American highways in his trusty pick-up truck, folk and hip-hop albums his
only company on the road. Along the way he kept his eyes and ears open for new
experiences, new inspirations, new songs to excavate out of the earth like fossils. “I

always go ‘cause I ain’t learned to stay,” he sings on “Burden of Proof,” a song full of
vivid highway imagery.
“I was trying to capture what it’s like traveling around the country, sleeping at rest
stops, and harboring disdain for the both the evangelical tendencies of the Bible Belt
and the commodification embedded in pop country music. Songs feel like a process of
discovery more than creation. Most of the time I’m just trying to understand how I feel,
trying to figure out if there’s some nuance or shape that I can give a feel. I feel best
about the world when I’m writing a song or when I’m playing a song and I can tell
people are really listening to it.”
After releasing his full-length debut in 2016, the eloquently spare Living By the Light, full
of road songs and wanderers’ laments, he began playing more live shows, just him and
his guitar on an empty stage. The set-up was not simply financially expedient but
musically effective, allowing him to address listeners more directly, whether he’s singing
to a scattering of curious onlookers or a full house of fans. Early encouragement came
by way of Joe Pug, another singer-songwriter unafraid to confront big issues in his
rootsy songs. “I was on a bill with him in Bloomington, Indiana, and he invited me to
open another date for him in Chicago. His support was amazing. He was the first real
professional musician I ever worked with.”
He would not be the last. Soon Oren attracted the attention of Ken Coomer, the
drummer for Wilco and a producer in Nashville. Together, the duo assembled a backing
band featuring some of the city’s finest session musicians, including keyboard player
Michael Webb (John Fogerty), singer Maureen Murphy (Zac Brown Band), and guitarists
Sam Wilson (Sons of Bill) and Laur Joamets (Sturgill Simpson). On Anthropocene they
provide stately backing for Oren’s songs, with drips of pedal steel and quivers of strings
subtly reinforcing his observations about the state of the world. “Throw Down” bristles
with energy and resolve, penned for “the people on the far, far left,” Oren says, “the
anarchists and the rioters. There’s not often a voice that’s trying to understand those
people or defend those positions.”
Anthropocene might be merely didactic and oppressive—a giant bummer of an
album—if those rallying cries weren’t tempered with something like hope, particularly
on the sunny “New Gardens.” He penned the tune as a teenager, but as an adult felt the
message still resonated. “Save the fences for the rabbits,” he sings on the earworm
chorus. “If you need a tool, you can have it.” The song celebrates labor, individual and
collective, as the most effective tool for last change, and that vision of communal
responsibility that makes the album such a rousing call to arms.
“Music is a sympathetic process, where people who feel the same can experience it
together. I don’t know if my songs would change somebody’s mind, but they might help
people feel a little bit less alone in their opinions and might encourage them to get

involved in some way. Nobody’s going to riot when the album hits the street, but maybe
it can in some small way help turn the tables.”