With an amalgamation of country, blues, western swing, and a touch of jazz, Pokey LaFarge is doing music his way and keeping it as real as ever.
Pokey LaFarge (born Andrew Heissler) with his sonic and sartorial retro style evinces the Great Depression era, but the multi-instrumentalist is not stuck in the past. LaFarge is authentic with his sound steeped in old-time roots music with a modern twist, apparent on his latest, eponymously titled album. A dexterous mandolin, banjo, and guitar player; this young, articulate mid-westerner has a penchant for jug bands, string band music and, er, BBQ ribs…
Roots music such as yours, and others who play traditional instruments, has again become popular in recent years. To what do you attribute this renaissance?
There’s definitely been a shift with a lot of younger folks in particular getting into older music, or older-sounding music. I think it’s refreshing for people to hear real instruments being played again and to go out and see people play live music that’s not just a guy standing in front of a computer. I think, at first, a lot of young people get into it because it’s considered cool or different, or a way of separating oneself from mass culture, but I think a light switches on for some people, and they realise it’s quality music and that it speaks to them.
You have a retro look and sound, and a clear authenticity in your music…
I want to be clear that I’m making music that I want to make, music that I enjoy, and music that I want to listen to. That’s my goal anyway – to make myself happy first. So that goes a long way as far as authenticity. If somebody’s playing music they want to make, and not having someone in a studio tell them what to do, or selling out, or cashing in, then that is a big part of it. And then there is the voice itself. The voice, and the tone, and the emotion – you can tell. It’s like when you’re talking to a person and you can tell if they’re jiving you or not. With that being said, you do have to be able to sell a song and sell an emotion. Let’s say you write a song about heartbreak, and then three years later you’re madly in love with another woman. How do you sell that song? So you dig in deep, and you act a little bit, but it doesn’t mean it’s not authentic. There’s so much emotion you can draw from through the experiences of your life.
As a child, what made you connect with country, folk, and bluegrass music and did you ever step away from these areas to explore other genres?
It was enlightening at the time, just the passion and the attention to detail and all of these things that I wasn’t getting from the pop music of the day. My grandfather also played banjo, so I was around that sort of thing as a kid. My interest in American history went along with it, too. This music was educational to me in a way that was so real, not like something you learn out of a textbook. I got into bluegrass at a young age. The stuff that really got me was Sleepy John Estes and early Muddy Waters. When I first got into music, I wasn’t playing any instruments, but I wanted to start, and I wanted to do something that was a little bit different, but not for the sake of just being different. That’s no way to do it. When I started playing music, I picked up the mandolin because of Bill Monroe; I didn’t know anybody my age who was doing that. I got into the fiddle and was playing old-time and bluegrass, but I was always into music that had more of a bounce and more chord changes. My bridge from the bluegrass world back into jazz was western swing. So I got into the guitar and I started singing. Once my voice started to come together, my songwriting started coming together, and I realised that the guitar was probably a better instrument for me.
I’ve heard that literature has inspired you. Has there been anyone in particular who has been a literary voice (perhaps Steinbeck) you draw from?
Steinbeck, of course, is a big one. I also love Mark Twain and Hemingway. I started getting really into this stuff as a kid and it’s still important to me today, still inspirational. They’re timeless. Love and War and being down and out – all of these things that so many of us have experienced, and these guys put a voice to it. And, of course, their work was a bit of a history lesson to me at a young age, too.
You recorded Pokey LaFarge – your first album not produced solely by you – with producer Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show. How did that transpire?
It’s good to have different opinions and, with a producer, you’re going to get a different perspective and a different touch. I’ve known Ketch for about 10 years, and I knew that what he would bring would be a nice addition to my sound. A producer who’s lyrically minded, like Ketch, can see things that are between the lines of the original composition. I’m a pretty controlling person, but I want the songs to be the best they can be, and some of the best songs ever written were co-writes. We started recording in December 2012. Some stuff was live in the studio, sometimes we recorded instrumentally and I’d work up my vocals separately so that we’d have a little more control over those. Ketch really wanted to have control over the vocals and make sure they were put out in front. There was a pre-production sit-down, which I’ve learned is very effective to make sure the musician, band, and producer are on the same page.
You refer to your music as “American” rather than “Americana” – why the distinction?
The term Americana has a lot of meanings depending on whom you ask. Personally, I don’t like to get bogged down with all the labels people throw around to make sense of what they’re hearing. That’s very limiting, and my sound is evolving and growing. I started with a string band, now we have some horns. Describing my music as simply “American” is more accurate.
You have a sound and style that is redolent of the 1930s. What draws you to that era?
It’s just more interesting. I think most people would agree that it was a classier time. There was better quality in the photography, perhaps the music, the food, the clothing. The quality was there. And these are things I was raised on a little bit, but you have to take to it – and I did. My overall goal, with the music specifically, is not about living in the past. I don’t want to go back in the past. I’m here now and I like the way things are now for the most part and it’s making the best of both worlds. You can’t go back. You have to embrace the now, and I’m living in the now. So what I’m saying is that this isn’t a new art form, but this is a current and long-lasting art form – American music. The things we invented like rock ‘n’ roll, country, country, swing, western swing, jazz, blues, these things that were invented in America have been around for 100 years, and the roots go back way longer than that. So it’s not like going back in the past. It’s just like classical music; that’s been played for hundreds of years. You don’t class somebody playing Vivaldi on the violin as retro.
Are you self-taught instrumentally and, if so, how did the learning process evolve for you? Did you start with the mandolin, banjo or guitar?
I am self-taught, yes. I first picked up the mandolin, then the banjo and guitar. I grew up hearing my grandfather play banjo and was very taken by the instrument.
Is the Epiphone Spartan your main guitar?
I use my Spartan (1946) the most; it’s a quality instrument for sure. Though I also use a custom-made Hamm-tone archtop and an 1895 parlor guitar by Lyon and Healy. Archtops for me just have the most complete sound, and my Spartan really cuts it. I tune it a whole step down now, and that gives it a really rich tone.
How does songwriting come about for you – is it an ongoing process or do you have to set aside time for it, and do lyrics or melodies come first or simultaneously?
My writing is generally an ongoing thing; it’s a deeply rooted habit. There’s no particular place or time that’s the best for me. I write on the road, I write at home, you name it. As far as the process goes, I typically hear a melody first and then the words come after, though it doesn’t happen this way exclusively. Usually it all happens pretty fast, matching the lyrics to the tunes.
Finally, besides Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe, who are other big musical influences?
Jimmie Rodgers because of his voice and his songwriting. He practically created his own sound. He was an innovator. That’s the same reason why I love Bill Monroe. Milton Brown is one of my favorite singers. Emmett Miller, too. Robert Wilkins, Tampa Red, and Blind Boy Fuller are my favorite bluesmen. Plus, I love Leon Redbone simply because he is so original, so creative, and for his voice.
Pokey LaFarge is out now.