Back to the ‘40s and ‘50s for old amps and space adventures.
Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt have contributed significantly to the development of Americana, and the common denominator is singer-songwriter and guitarist Jay Farrar. Son Volt themselves have gone through various personnel changes over the years, and are now building on a stable line-up with new record ‘Electro Melodier’ that was recorded during COVID. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up over Zoom with Jay Farrar to discuss what it feels to be classed as an elder statesman of americana, the new record, discuss how the record was given its name and the artistic challenges posed by COVID. Jay Farrar explains how he likes to ensure Son Volt albums are different from their predecessors, and while ‘Union’ was a political record, he explains why politics has also crept into the writing for ‘Electro Melodier’. It is also heartening to hear that, while Jay Farrar is a key architect of americana, some of his primary influences are British and include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Badfinger and The Clash amongst the expected blues, folk and country influences.
How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
We are doing what we can, it is kind of a day-by-day thing. We’ve made progress, but we have had setbacks also. We are just seeing how it all shakes out, you know, with the variants and the vaccine and it is like a boxing match between those two. At least we seem to be going in the right direction now.
It is over a quarter of a century since Son Volt’s ‘Trace’. How does it feel to be viewed as an elder statesman of a genre that you helped define?
Besides old [laughs]? I feel fortunate to have been able to play music for so long, and especially to have a creative outlet, which is the driving force. It was no different with this recording, ‘Electro Melodier’, it was great to have a creative outlet, especially during a pandemic.
What are the dynamics of Son Volt records as opposed to them simply being Jay Farrar solo albums?
The way it worked this time, at least in terms of the songs, was pretty much the same in that I wrote the songs and the arrangements and then got together with the band guys. This time around it was maybe a more hybrid approach overall, because in normal circumstances we would be living with one eye on the horizon to the next gig. Normally the recordings are done in between gigs, and this time around there were no gigs so there was more of a singular focus on the recording. At first, we tried Zoom recording and it seemed like some synergy was maybe getting lost along the way, and there were lots of technical hiccups as well, weird feedback loops because there were so many computers and monitors in different studios. Anyway, we wound up getting together, myself and the rhythm section guys in a studio here in St Louis with masks and doing a lot of the recording. Then Mark Spencer, who has his own studio in New York, added his parts from there and I thought it was a nice balanced, blended approach, I think.
A few people have said that with remote COVID recording you can lose the spontaneity of face-to-face recording, but the balance is you get more quality time to spend on recorded music, which a lot of artists don’t normally get.
I think that was one of the primary factors that was different this time, simply just more time and the fact I have been working with the same mixing engineer, John Agnello, and the same recording engineer, Jacob Detering. So, to summarise, it was more time and more team because everything was just shutdown.
Who made the call to stop recording because you can get too perfect, which is not what anyone wants?
Good question. I think it just reaches a point where you say enough is enough. In retrospect, just having the extra time was a blessing and we were fortunate, in a way, just to have the opportunity that you normally don’t get when you are going from gig to gig.
Your last album ‘Union’ was clearly politically inspired. What was behind the songs on ‘Electro Melodier’, which also has a political vibe?
I usually try to pivot away from the previous record, and you are right, ‘Union’ was written during a lot of turmoil in this country politically, so it was the “political” record. I wanted to pivot and at least try and come up with a bunch of songs where I felt that the aesthetic I was going for was more electric, up-tempo and melodic songs. To a large degree that is the case, but I read the news too much so there is always politics creeping in.
Who came up with the title ‘Electro Melodier’, was that you or somebody else?
I came up with that. I felt that it was representative and emblematic of the overall aesthetic. Electro, yeah, and Melodier is not even a real word, you know, they are just two names of amplifiers from the ‘40s and ‘50s. I’m fascinated by a range of amplifiers from that time because everyone was so excited by electricity and space, space exploration and stuff like that. Melodier I thought was a really interesting word that I felt would be representative of these songs.
Did you have to explain the title to many people?
Some people just kind of accepted it, others are like what the hell is that [laughs]? That is the right question to ask, I can tell you. It is one of those words that seem like it should be a word, it is just not. Maybe this record will change that [laughs].
Your lyrics are current, but your sound is timeless and definitely looks back to earlier times. How do you go about writing your songs?
The writing process for me almost always starts with a melody or chord progression, and then once I get enough of a song structure of the musical part, then I start thinking about the lyrics. That is usually just kind of a freeform stream of consciousness thing until some overarching theme jumps out, and then I just try and flesh it out and finalise it.
Your music references the sounds of the past. How do you go about that?
It has always been part of it. I have always thought it was important to study what has gone on before, be it folk music, blues, country, honky-tonk. There are endless amounts of that music I still find amazing, guys like I have never heard of in the blues and honky-tonk realm, and I just try and stay aware of that as much as I can.
Though varied, the sound of Son Volt is recognisable and you have stayed true to your own vision over the years. Who did you get your original inspiration to become a musician from?
For me, like so many other people of my generation anyway, it was the Beatles, the Rolling Stones I think were probably the most pervasive influence from start to finish. I embraced a lot of the blues guys, the same guys that I still find interesting.
So, it’s the English guys for you [laughs].
It is the English guys for me, yes [laughs]. I remember Badfinger being on the radio over here in the early AM Radio days and I thought that stuff was fantastic.
Badfinger must be one of the most unfortunate bands of all time.
They had some fantastic stuff, and I later learnt that Todd Rundgren was involved with some of that production. That was something I didn’t know when I was a little kid listening to that stuff.
As a musician, do you still enjoy music or is it now more of a job where you are always analysing it to work out how somebody did something, rather than it just being a simple listening pleasure?
I think I know what you are saying. Your perspective changes a bit from when you were a young guy taking in music and absorbing it, and now, certainly, you see trends and patterns over time. I think it is unavoidable that you get a bit jaded, but I keep trying newer stuff and I think there is good stuff still coming out. Again, the stuff I really find inspirational is going back and finding someone like Cliff Bruner in the honky-tonk realm, or someone like Skip James in the blues realm, there is just all this amazing stuff.
It is probably a sign of our times that we have more music available to us now than there ever has been.
That is absolutely true. Forty years ago, or whenever, there were major record companies who primarily owned music and they were editors, and there was almost like a finite amount, and now there is an infinite amount of music out there. It would take a herculean effort to actually try and listen to everything that is out there now.
How do you keep challenging yourself to keep going and remain fresh?
The creative outlet is the primary motivation, I think, but also there is something cathartic about playing music and performing. It is almost like a kind of exercise, scientifically there is probably some answer like endorphins, serotonin or whatever. There is also the camaraderie aspect of performing on tour, there is really nothing else like it.
It has just been announced that The Stones are touring at the end of the year, so they are still doing it.
Yeah, we also have a small tour happening in the fall, and hopefully, if things keep going in the right direction, we have a lot of touring planned in the United States in 2022.
You are releasing a record for the third time through Thirty Tigers. They are making quite a name for themselves amongst more independently minded artists, what attracted them to you?
The main folks in charge were very personable, and I felt like they had the best interests of the artists in mind, and I think they have proven that time and time again. It has worked out well with them, and I hope it has been the same for all the other folks that keep joining the parade. When I first started there weren’t quite so many artists on the roster, it has expanded quite a bit. They are definitely providing a platform for folks who maybe don’t need to be given a whole lot of direction, they just need some help with the actual mechanics of getting recordings out there.
You still live in St Louis, don’t you?
Yes, I’m in St Louis. Apart from living in New Orleans back in ’95, I’ve been here pretty much most of my life. You could say I have been close to the Mississippi River, one way or another, because the place I grew up was Belleville, Illinois, and it is about 30 minutes away from St Louis.
How much did the river affect your music or was it something else?
Certainly, going back historically, the Mississippi River was a conduit for commerce and it also allowed musical ideas to travel up from New Orleans to St Louis and parts further north. My father worked on a dredge boat on the Mississippi River for most of his life. There were all sorts of Mark Twain type stories coming home with my father. So, it certainly looms large with its mystic there. I think it all goes back to the places on the river and where the musical ideas travelled back in time.
America and the world are living through unique times. Are you surprised that there hasn’t been more of a protest movement amongst artists?
I don’t know. When I was growing up protest certainly seemed pervasive with Bob Dylan, Neil Young and so many folks. I mean the Clash were hugely influential for me, so it seems second nature to be writing about topical subjects and to just try and observe and make sense of what is going on. Maybe everyone has a different experience, so I can’t really explain why it is not the same as it used to be.
Just looking into America from the UK it seems to be a completely different place now than we thought it was 10 years ago.
I would say so, for sure. A lot of that has to do with the amount of misinformation being pumped out through the internet, and even some of the established media, one of which comes from England I think so we are all a little to blame here [laughs]. I think things are now heading in the right direction, so we will see.
You hope to be touring in 2022, have you anything else planned or will it be a matter of seeing what develops?
That’s the idea at this point. It is like an existential situation when you are a musician and you can’t play music, and it has been that way for the last year and a half, so we are certainly ready to get out there.
You have been in the music business for a while, do you have a particular view on streaming. Obviously, it makes music incredibly available but the economics from an artist’s point of view are not so good.
I probably fall more into the camp of just making the best of it. It is here and that is the way it is, just make the best of it, but compared to the way it used to be, getting pennies for a play doesn’t seem quite right but what can you do? Touring is even more important now, and especially for Son Volt, it happened in our cycle where we had put out our previous recording, ‘Union’, and we were able to tour so it maybe didn’t impact us as much as some other folks who were getting ready to put out their record. I empathise with them, and I hope they will be able to get back out there and do what they do.
Hopefully, most of the venues will still be there.
That is absolutely right. It is probably toughest on actual venues, it does seem that a lot of them have managed to stay on.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers. What are three of your favourite tracks or artists covered by the documentary?
Let me think about that. You know, I’ve been going back and listening to a lot of Fairport Convention, which is really great stuff. I was aware of them early on, but I keep finding out more stuff, whether it is a Sandy Denny solo record or, obviously, Richard Thompson. Richard and Linda Thompson put out a lot of really great stuff, and in a lot of ways, I was more aware of Richard and Linda Thompson’s stuff than Fairport stuff. I was also listening to this Emitt Rhodes guy, I picked up a vinyl album and I really liked that. He was in a band called The Merry-Go-Round and that song ‘Time Will Show The Wiser’, Fairport covered it, and I always thought it was a Fairport song [laughs], that continuum going on is kind of cool when you find out something like that.
Emitt Rhodes managed to release an album just before he died recently.
Yeah. I haven’t heard that one, but I have heard about it.
Have you read the Richard Thompson biography ‘Beeswing’? It is worth reading and covers’67-’75.
No, I haven’t, and I definitely have the time at the moment to read it [laughs]. I will check that out, I think I came across a Mojo article, and I didn’t know there was that situation early on when they were coming back from a gig, and they were in a car wreck. That was just really awful, particularly early on in your career.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
At the moment we don’t have any plans to come over with Son Volt, but we are always open to it and hopefully we will make it over. I think we will make it over probably next year. It has been a while since we’ve been over to the UK so if we can make it happen, we will.
Son Volt’s ‘Electro Melodier’ is out now on Thirty Tigers.