Musician Peter Karp spends his life on the move. Perhaps he learned it as an Air Force brat, shuttling back and forth between military bases in the wake of his World War II bomber-pilot father, or maybe he never shook his childhood habit of running away to the Jersey shore for a life of lights and entertainment. He grew used to it while driving across the country in his RV, penning songs from the vast pastiche of people and places he’s met on the road. All that matters is that it earned him the nickname Runaway Pete.
“As a kid I used to run away a lot of the time; I’d run away to the Jersey shore,” he says. “People who stuck around would call me that because I always seem to run away from my problems, like a runaway train. Ask (former backing musician) Garth Hudson – he’ll tell you. He used to say, ‘only thing to do now, Pete, is run away.’ I’ve been doing it most of my life.”Debutantes and derelictsRunning away became fuel for the singer, guitarist and keyboardist. His tunes are filled with character studies and vivid tales of lives lived and loves lost, all rendered in a versatile Americana stomp that bears roots in the blues and roots rock of Karp’s past.”I’m pretty much based out of Nashville, but I’m on the road – even when I’m home, I go out on the road,” Karp says. “There’s something about the constant scenery change and the transience of life like that that keeps everything fresh. You meet all kinds of people and get all kinds of ideas.” As long as interesting personalities pop out on America’s highways, restaurants and even gas stations, they’re fair game to show up in one of Peter Karp’s songs.”The other day I came out of a gas station, and there was a guy sitting on the side with a backpack and a three-foot-long beard,” he says. “I eyeballed him. In my mind I’m thinking all these things about the guy. I see these guys in remote places near gas stations. Sometimes they’ve got a dog, or a walking stick with the backpack. They live off the highways, in the margins. I didn’t talk to him – that’d inevitably lead to no good. But you meet all kinds of people – everything from debutantes to derelicts and everything in between.”Karp’s rambling lifestyle sometimes takes him to places beyond the pale, like Turkey. Karp journeyed at the request of a previous label to meet with a producer who lived in the country straddled between Europe and the Middle East. But though the partnership fizzled, Karp penned two standout songs for his new album “Shadows and Cracks.””They wanted me to work with a producer who had a contemporary feel – he did a lot of drum n’ bass and all that jazz,” Karp says. “I lived there for two weeks and stayed at this guy’s house, where I wrote ‘I Ain’t Deep’ and ‘Goodbye Baby.’ When you’re in Turkey, removed from every part of your life, you feel very remote. You can’t understand language, and you feel isolated. ‘Goodbye Baby’ came (from that) because it was like a kissing off (to the experience). In my mind, it was over.”
Stories of the North, stories of the SouthKarp’s musical sensibility is informed by the intense dichotomy he experienced growing up: He split most of his time between Air Force bases in Alabama and New Jersey.”I picked up a lot of the storytelling aspects of the South, the way they tell stories and take 20 minutes to decide where to have lunch – the North is so quick and to the point,” he says. “In the deep south, I heard evangelists and gospel music and blues; it was very all over the dial. You’d hear Tony Joe White being played and lots of country that you’d never hear in the north. I got hooked on a lot of the regional music, that storytelling blues and R&B.”But the north didn’t lack for musical education, either: Karp’s mother and sister took the young Karp to any and every concert that landed in the fertile New York of the ’60s. Karp was exposed to every rock and pop trend imaginable, including Bob Dylan and The Beatles.”Living in Jersey as a kid, my mother would take me to see Motown – I saw James Brown at the Apollo at 5,” he says. “By the time I was 10, I’d seen most of the British Invasion bands, (including) The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. They’d drag me along to every show. Then, when I went down south, I heard the music that influenced all those people. I’d never heard of Muddy Waters or Willie Dixon. I learned about Robert Johnson, the original Bob Dylan.”Things would come full circle for Karp later when Stones guitarist Mick Taylor played on his album “The Turning Point.” The fruitful collaboration charges Karp to this day.”Mick is somebody who has the same kind of instincts or improvisational skills as Charlie Parker – they’re very different in styles to play, but the way he improvises is very much of his vein,” Karp says. “It’s what makes him one of the top guitar players in history. He doesn’t really know anything about the guitar, he just knows what he hears, and it’s pretty incredible. (It) energized me a great deal, and he’s quite a kindred spirit.” Mystical process
As Karp’s catalogue of songs and places visited grows, he’s noticing a strange side effect.”I write songs and two years later I live them,” he says. “It’s very unsettling, especially to those around you. The funny thing is that I can reference my whole life through my music, and it’s a little spooky. That sort of just dawned on me the last couple years.”Karp won’t speculate on why this happens; he prefers that a little mystery remains at the heart of his songs.”I don’t know what I write about,” he says. “In order to write something, you have to live, but you have to have an imagination too, because nobody wants to hear a documentation of your life. It’s a weird process, a ‘mystical process,’ as they say. I usually scoff and laugh and say ‘what a dumbass’ whenever I read somebody saying that, but it really is.”Karp’s settled in Nashville for now, but he has no plans to settle down or quit touring in the old RV. So while he may be caught at moments playing the family man or writing songs for fellow artists, Karp will eventually have to answer the call of the RV, the road and the lights of the stage.”I need the change of scenery, the change of everything to keep motor running,” Karp says. “That’s what I like about it. I don’t need much – I just need food, water, a shower and HBO.”Arts & Entertainment writer Ted Alvarez can be reached at 748-2939 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado