Say hello to your new favourite folk artist. Peter Oren’s resonant baritone and plaintive, purposeful plucking might evoke Bill Callahan or Mark Kozelek, but his voice and music is distinctively his. Inspired more by poetry than the traditional folk canon, Oren’s lyrics are often dense and abstruse while tenaciously pointed, tackling existential alienation, social dissolution, and most abruptly, climate change. With his first European tour this November and the salivating critical response greeting the lead singles ahead of his upcoming album Anthropocene, it’s difficult to escape the intuition that Oren is just leaving the embryonic stage of his career, and we’re meeting him at a junction. We caught up with him before his performance at Mirrors Festival in October.

Anthropocene; big title, loaded title, why?

I’ve been living with garden designers who do a lot of ecological work, and we got chatting about where the climate change songs are, where the urgency of time necessitates, and I wondered that myself – it’s been on my mind too – how do we deal with these issues without becoming overwhelmed or fatalistic? I think the idea of ecology musiccame naturally to me, as did the title.

Do you look at it as an overtly political record or more of an unconscious one?

I think it’s somewhere between the two, I wanted to make the record feel meaningful but also cohesive, and when I realised that was the direction I wanted to go in the songs sort of emerged and sequenced themselves naturally and authentically in what I’m interested in and grapple with. I, like a lot of people I guess, use songwriting to try and understand grand problems that we and the world are facing. I guess that means it’s also overtly political in its own, undeliberate way. So it’s somewhere inbetween, not intended to be a statement but a vocalisation. If we were living in a vacuum I think these songs will have probably come out anyway, despite their content.

This record sounds steeped in the very heady folk storytelling tradition; folk has always been attentive to nature and ecology, and inherently political as well; did that folk tradition inform this record, or again, was it more a naturally disposed framework?

My natural tendency is to write folk songs, and I guess it also has to do with my skillset; I’m not classically trained, I know a handful of chords after picking up guitar briefly as an early teen, and didn’t return to it until my late teens, generally I was and am more into poetry. Though, my parents were really into folk music, and I think that shaped my relating to that world.

In that folk tradition, you have politically overt artists like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and I guess Tom Petty in a more abstract way, did any of these or others influence you lyrically?

Dylan and Young certainly, Nick Drake also, as I said it’s more I was reading a lot of poetry at the end of my high school years and I was fascinated with this idea of words on a page that were intended to be a puzzle, and dense with meaning, and I started to write lyrics and poetry in that vein, where they represent a dense puzzle with the potential to mean different things to different people; there are a few songs on the record more blunt than others, where I didn’t want to hide their meaning behind too many layers, I wanted that directness essentially.

Which poets then?

Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, there’s a poet from Kentucky called Wendell Berry; he pretty directly influences one of the songs on the record actually, one of his lines stays with me from the end of a short poem; “it’s the impeded stream that sings,” and that works into the song ‘Falling Water’. There’s also David Berman, the Silver Jews singer, his lyrics hit home really hard. My reading habit has declined a bit these days, but there’s quite a crowd of poets that perforate those influences.

I guess with poetry there’s that predilection for very vivid, memorable one-liners – as you say – which you evoke poignantly with this record, how important was that sustaining the baseline of political subtext, underneath these images which, I guess, enforce your meaning?

I think it happened organically, and it’s something that I try to understand and express simultaneously, and I think poetry is a useful tool for doing that, for trying unpack and convey your feelings about politics, coming at it from an abstract place. Sometimes you write a song with a guitar tune in mind, and you make words up improvising as you riff, and you realise you’ve conveyed some subconscious meaning that works. There’s a song yet to be released yet called ‘Canary In A Mine’ that means a lot to me, and one of the more direct songs off the record, that came about that way.

The vocal style, the baritone, was that an organic development itself, where did that come from?

It was organic. My dad wasn’t musical, but was tall and so possessed a deep voice anyway, and always used to sing when I was child in a really deep voice, and I think that precipitated it. Also, when I started writing songs during my first year of university when I was in a dorm room and wanted privacy and didn’t want to disturb people, I sang quietly and in a lower register than my normal speaking voice and it just maintained itself.

Returning to the more collective themes, what do you hope people take away from this record? Do you think art has the capacity to force direct change?

I don’t know if I can really say. I don’t think I’ll change anyone’s minds. Sometimes I hope the songs might add nuance to the debate; someone came up to me after one of my shows and we discussed power dynamics for a while, discussing that comparison often made between people and cattle, and institutional confinement. Most songs are in some way political, and I don’t think anyone listening is not aware of that anymore, it’s more about people looking at different perspectives. These aren’t songs about facilitating reform, rather demanding systemic change; I was influenced by the mandate of the Occupy Movement, and I accessed more leftist thought than before and that influenced me hugely. Even simpler songs like ‘Chain Of Command’ confronted power relations and purported the notion of a radical and decentralised power structure. We need to change the power dynamics, so we need songs about changing power dynamics, especially with climate change, even if it won’t necessarily mean any tangible impact.

About that impact, I’ve discussed the feasibility of art as activism before and I’ve always viewed, arguably romantically, that there is substantial value in art and music in radical movements; with 60s progressives you had Dylan, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye; in the UK opposing 80s anti-Thatcherism you had bands like The Specials addressing the poverty weathered by greed. It was a soundtrack to inspire people, but it was also thirty and fifty years ago, a colossally different time in our history. Do you think the cultural and technological shifts since then have precluded music’s import in the same way?

I really don’t know. Technology has disrupted western society and western politics, especially in the last decade. I think things like social media can actually help art and music in organising direct change rather than detract from it. You read about how Facebook helped the Arab Spring, they can be tools for positive change, but at the same time it does allow us to be atomised and impotent. We all have our own individual struggles, and it can be difficult to connect to global or systemic issues, or even simple human ones, through a TV screen or smartphone, so it’s a double-edged blade. Like most things, I guess.

Anthropocene is out November 10th on Western Vinyl and Peter plays the following UK dates:

10 Nov - Glasgow @ Broadcast

11 Nov - Dublin @ The Grand Social

13 Nov - Manchester @ The Castle Hotel

15 Nov - London @ St Pancras Old Church