Apr 4, 2019
About This Episode
"Limiting myself to a genre has
never really been my thing," says Pokey LaFarge. "I'm most purely a
rambler. I'm traveling the world all the time, and my songs have
been directly influenced by my travels. You're liable to hear
something in my songs that sounds like traditional jazz; next thing
you know, you might be hearing something that sounds like Bob
Dylan's Nashville Skyline mixed with the chanson singers of France,
or a waltz mixed with cumbia, or soul mixed with swing."
Ever since his first record, 2006's
self-released Marmalade, LaFarge has been a difficult specimen to
pin down, indeed. Though he was raised on a healthy diet of blues,
bluegrass, ragtime, Western swing and old-time country — and though
he has consistently demonstrated a decided affinity for pre-1950s
menswear — the Illinois native is by no means a throwback or a
museum piece. Timelessness, and refined good taste, is LaFarge's
raison d'être, and his influences are as multi-hued and
wide-ranging as the rhythms that buoy his starkly poetic songs —
rhythms that are steeped in the very essence of jazz.
"With me, lyrics are the most
important thing," he explains. "But when it comes to music, it's
just as much about the groove — something about the groove that
makes me want to move, you know? There's always a little bit of
swing to it, something that's got a bounce. I mean, people have
been swinging for hundreds of years!"
LaFarge's deft way with words and
music — as showcased on such dynamite discs as 2008's Beat, Move
and Shake, 2010's Riverboat Soul, 2011's Middle of Everywhere, and
2015's Something in the Water — has won him raves from critics, and
inspired a devoted following on both sides of the Atlantic. Jack
White, recognizing LaFarge as a kindred spirit, asked him to sing
and play mandolin on White's 2012 album Blunderbuss, took LaFarge
and his band the South City Three out on tour as a supporting act,
and signed him to Third Man Records for 2013's Pokey LaFarge LP.
LaFarge also performed the White-penned "Red's Theater of the
Absurd" in a saloon scene in Gore Verbinski's 2013 film The Lone
Ranger, an appearance which eventually led to landing the recurring
role of country legend Hank Snow in CMT's 2017 series Sun Records.
LaFarge has played big stages like the Ryman, Red Rocks and
Bonnaroo, but he's equally at home ripping it up in any small
theater, nightclub or roadhouse that'll have him.
With each of his albums, up to and
including 2017's critically acclaimed Manic Revelations, LaFarge
has evolved and reinvented himself as an artist, preferring to
continually refine his sound and tinker with his approach instead
of resting comfortably in one spot. "Early on, I was into leaving
things open to interpretation," he says. "It was like me solo,
performing as if I was a full band. Or it was me and three other
guys — the South City Three — all string instruments, performing as
if we had a horn section. And then I got the horn section and the
drums, and everything was so loud and all the space was filled,
that I had to dial it back. Maybe it's hard for the fans to keep up
sometimes, but my favorite composers are the ones that you can't
describe what their music is, and every single record is different
from the one that preceded it."
LaFarge switched gears again in
2018, uprooting himself from his longtime home of St. Louis,
Missouri, and settling in Los Angeles. "People know me as being a
midwestern boy," he says, "but I really needed a change of scenery,
some new challenges, new inspirations, new routines, things like
that. St. Louis being a small town, I was well known there. You're
kind of under a microscope, people put a lot of weight on you, and
some of them are looking to hate on you seemingly because you
became a successful artist — you're damned if you do, damned if you
don't. Out here, I'm more anonymous, and that's great. There's
freaks everywhere, you know? I'm with my people now!"
The West Coast has always held a
special allure for LaFarge; after graduating high school, he
hitchhiked to Southern California and supported himself by busking.
But Los Angeles has also been the home of two of his biggest
heroes: Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski. "It's kind of cool to be
living where my favorite music composer is from, and my favorite
poet is from," he laughs. "I'm loving hanging around this place.
There are some cool ghosts here."
There's also a palpable sense of
freedom in L.A., something that's brought about a further
recalibration of LaFarge's creative vision. "I think in some
respects in the past, I was playing a character," he says. "I
created that character, but then people got used to me, and they
wanted me to play it; and when I didn't, they said I was out of
character. Yeah, I want to create characters in my songs, but I
would also like to be honest about who I am, and have my work chart
the progression of that exploration. But is that even possible? I
don't know. When you're changing all the time, maybe the trick is
just to do whatever you can to keep the demons away."
After a decade spent mostly touring,
recording and touring some more, LaFarge is looking forward to
easing up on the gas pedal, and taking a more considered approach
to his writing. A book of poetry is in the works, something he's
been wanting to do for years. "As a poet first, I've had a hard
time getting my poetry into my music," he says. "The forms of
American song that I've come up playing, they have distinct chord
progressions and structures, and then I'm trying to fit my poetry,
which is very fluid, into these boxes. It's almost like living a
dual life. I'm gonna keep trying to fit my poetry into my music —
but I also wonder, because poetry has become so damaged by the
academic world, is it now dead in the minds of most people? So
that's going to be an interesting thing to play with."
There will be more Pokey LaFarge
music, as well, though its sound and format have yet to be
revealed. "I'm messing around with different ideas of how and when
to release songs," he says. "It may be a song a week for a couple
of months, or maybe some EPs. I'll be experimenting with different
musicians and collaborators, different producers and backing bands,
while I continue to play solo shows and write new material with my
acoustic and my electric guitars. And, who knows, maybe the
occasional acting thing."
It's an exciting time to be Pokey
LaFarge — and the next few years are going to be an exciting time
to be a Pokey LaFarge fan. "You're going to hear a myriad of
different styles and presentations," he promises. "Hopefully more
piano, a little more electric guitar. A lot more minimalism, a lot
more space between rhythm and melody. A lot more poetry. And it's
going to be weirder and darker and more beautiful and sexier going
forward. That is my pursuit."
About Michael Perry
Michael Perry is a New York Times
bestselling author, humorist and radio show host from New Auburn,
Perry's bestselling memoirs include
Population 485, Truck: A Love Story, Coop, and Visiting Tom, and
his latest, Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through
Philosophy. His first book for young readers, The Scavengers, was
published in 2014 and first novel for adult readers, The Jesus Cow,
was published in May of 2015.
Raised on a small Midwestern dairy
farm, Perry put himself through nursing school while working on a
ranch in Wyoming, then wandered into writing. He lives with his
wife and two daughters in rural Wisconsin, where he serves on the
local volunteer fire and rescue service and is an intermittent pig
farmer. He hosts the nationally-syndicated "Tent Show Radio,"
performs widely as a humorist, and tours with his band the Long
Beds (currently recording their third album for Amble Down
Records). He has recorded three live humor albums including Never
Stand Behind A Sneezing Cow and The Clodhopper Monologues.
Learn more about Michael and where
to get his publications at www.sneezingcow.com.
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