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Interview: Pokey LaFarge

14 October 2021

Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel

Pokey LaFarge isn’t fond of down time. Following a fairly regular schedule – write, record, release, tour, repeat – LaFarge, like everyone else in the world, was thrown off track by the global pandemic. Though he wound up releasing Rock Bottom Rhapsody to critical acclaim in April 2020, all the tour plans were scraped so LaFarge quickly got to work on his next album, In The Blossom of Their Shade, which, after a short delay, is finally seeing the light of day.

LaFarge is a unique musician. Known for his vintage, old-timey sounds, LaFarge dabbles in everything from Americana to ragtime to folk to jazz to blues. On his 7th album, LaFarge incorporates additional worldly influences, resulting in an album that truly defies time.

Looking like a character from a 1920’s film, complete with chewing on a toothpick, LaFarge joined me on a Zoom call recently to discuss how the pandemic provided the opportunity to write and record new music, the creative process behind the album cover, the Chicago Cubs and much more.

How was 2020? You had excitement being built up for an album release, a SXSW appearance and then a tour. What was it like for you after those brakes were slammed?

POKEY: It may be a surprise to you, but it was actually largely a good thing. It was a huge pause button for a lot of people. Some people have had some serious hardships in the midst of the pandemic, specifically talking about 2020, I was fortunate enough to not lose anyone. I was not able to tour my record and lost tons of money but, actually, it was nice. I just hunkered down in Austin, Texas for a few months, wrote a new record and then went up to Chicago and recorded. I just kind of stayed working. The pandemic has become increasingly difficult since it’s still going and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight, just realistically speaking. So, 2020 was good.

Did you lose the 2020 tour cycle since you put out an album in 2020 and now have a new album out that you probably want to focus on live?

POKEY: I’ll be playing songs off both records but all of the touring last year was pretty much moved into this year. We then realized that the new record was going to come out in October of this year so they pushed everything until around 4th quarter of 2021 and some stuff got canceled again, or just got rescheduled for 2022. Some of those shows that I’ll be playing in the spring next year, if I actually play them, will have been originally scheduled in spring of 2020 so they will be two years removed from the original scheduled dates.

Your last album was scheduled to come out in April 2020. I know a lot of bands ended up pushing release dates out to 2021.

POKEY: I didn’t want to do that. I am fortunate enough to be a prolific writer. Everybody’s style changes from album to album. For me, it was too important to get that out there and whatever happens happens. It’s not really about me. The record I released before then was 2017, so it had already been 3 years. I was ready to get that out. And I knew there was another record brewing up and, obviously, there was because I wrote and recorded another one. I wouldn’t have pressed pause on releasing Rock Bottom Rhapsody because look where I’d be at know, still wondering “Should I release the record?” I’m glad I did it.

Were the songs on In the Blossom of Their Shade already in the thought process, some of them already fleshed out, in 2020 or were they new songs that you wrote after you realized you wouldn’t be touring in 2020?

POKEY: Great question. Albums are like movies, you write them two or three years in advance to recording them sometimes. Recording them a year, two or three in advancing of releasing them and then, by the time you’re getting around to touring, all in all it’s three years after you’ve written some of the songs. You’re kind of already over them. In the way that time works in the record business, I had recorded Rock Bottom Rhapsody in January 2019, all those songs had been written between 2017 and 2018 and not actually released until the spring of 2020. So, by the time the record was released, I had already written quite a few songs, only two or three of those I wrote during that time actually made it onto the new record. Between April, May and June of 2020, I wrote a whole other batch of songs of which maybe seven or eight made it onto the record.

Does that mean you’ve already got the next record in progress?

POKEY: Yeah. In the Blossom of Their Shade is coming out in October, was done being written by June or July of last year so obviously a whole year has passed since then. I didn’t necessarily put the guitar down but I took off that hat. The hat that I wear when writing a record is one that you’re just wearing all the time and you maybe take it off to watch a movie or you maybe check out when you’re going to church or when you’re hanging out with some people and family but most of the time it’s a 24-hour job. You can wake up first thing in the morning, like I do, and work. Or you can wake up in the middle of the night and write some things down that ultimately will become the makings of a song or whatnot. I took that hat off for a months but starting around February of this year I kind of went on a tear and got a nice start to the next record so I can pull back a little bit and deal with life.

What kind of pressure do you put on yourself when you write songs? Is it, “I have to write the right words?” Is it, “I’ll just throw everything out there and see what sticks”?

POKEY: I can tell you what I used to do. I can tell you specific motivations behind Rock Bottom Rhapsody, which was a very crucial point in my life. So was In the Blossom of Their Shade, I’d say two of the more transcendent records for me emotionally. I can tell you where I’m at now in writing a new record, all pretty much with a different frame of mind with some similar themes and foundations. There’s the same ethos that I like to make songs that have a killer groove, have really colorful melodies and poetic lyrics and strong choruses and strong hooks. Where I was writing more before, like with the South City Three, rhythm wasn’t as much a matter of importance, unfortunately, but it seemed like people really liked it so I’m grateful for that. I’m more concerned now with making the deeper groove and slowing things down, relaxing a little bit, making the groove more like Jimmy Reed or JJ Cale or some of the rocksteady and Caribbean and Latino music that I listen to. Let’s not be in a hurry. My early music was all about being in a hurry. Whereas I was writing songs that somewhat glorified certain debaucherous ways of life, or writing with the mindset and intention of receiving praise and accolades and fulfilling my own ego subconsciously, I’m more concerned now about being honest and writing songs as if they were prayers, whether they’re talking about Jesus or not, just a song that is giving and speaking about love. That’s actually quite different than the way I used to write.

I am thinking about a band like Guided By Voices that releases five albums a year with 20 or 30 songs per album, there’s probably not a lot of self editing going on there.

POKEY: When it comes to editing with me and lyrics, I write a lot of content and it takes some chiseling for sure. I’ve found some really good songwriting partners – Chris Seefried, who produced Rock Bottom Rhapsody and co-produced In the Blossom of Their Shade, he and I have been writing songs together for years now. My best friend, Nick Africano, he and I wrote half the songs on this new record via FaceTime. He was in New York, I was in Austin. That was kind of fun. He has been editing some of my writing for years. I don’t necessarily need ideas but I lean on trusted people in the editing process for sure as I come up with a lot of content.

Do you have people in your inner circle or on the outside of your circle that you test songs out with? Like, maybe you’ll send somebody a new song that isn’t involved in the writing or creative process and ask what they think?

POKEY: Great question. I’d be interested in hearing what other people do. I’ll send stuff to Nick and to Chris. I’ll send some stuff to my manager every once in a while and I’ll send some stuff to the A&R person at my label, Kim. My girlfriend is a great songwriter and performer in her own right so I’ll play things for her and we’ll write together sometimes and she definitely helps edit too. That’s pretty much the extent of it unless I have an idea for a song that I specifically of somebody for this one tune and want to get their thoughts.

I talked to Andy from Far Lands and he said his brother is his sounding board.

POKEY: I like that. I love that he trusts his brother and having somebody you trust outside of the business. I can feel the safety, the protection there of having somebody close to you, a blood relative, your brother, that would be nice. My brother is definitely not somebody I could bounce music off of. That’s actually not true. Maybe I should try that.

The new album has a “global” feel. Some of the songs have a Caribbean feel. Some have a Polynesian feel. It feels more than Americana/folk/blues sounding. You mentioned earlier that you may have had some influences that played into the songwriting for this album.

POKEY: A filmmaker has to watch film and can’t help but be influenced by it. An author is going to read books and can’t help but be influenced by the things that he reads. Same thing with a musician. The music I listen to is a wide range in eras and styles and locations from around the world. I know some things find their way in there without even realizing it, whether it be musical or the experiential living. I have sought out more Latino music styles and Caribbean styles, some African stuff, some European stuff, new and, especially, old because you hear one thing that leads you to another thing that leads you to another thing. Next thing you know, you’re completely immersed in vallenato Colombian cumbia music for 6 months and you’re like, “Oh, where’d this song come from?” and you’re like, “Oh, that makes sense.”

For me, it’s very important to take songs – as much as I listen to rocksteady – you take different rhythms, the cumbia groove, and it’s two chords. That’s what I’m hearing. Two chords. Very simple melodies but super catchy and a lot of space and a lot of percussion. That appeals to me. There’s different elements you pull from it but you have to let your right hand do the work, like “What feels natural to me?” I’m not going to play a straight Rock Steady groove. I’m not going to play a straight cumbia groove. Refraining from getting into cultural appropriation conversations which I know are largely contentious. What’s more important to me is making something that is as authentic as possible to me.

As I go through life, taking in these influences and what feels like me. As a matter of pursuit, trying to get away from being too on the nose what I wish I would have done more in my early days. You have to realize that genres have their own influence. Rocksteady music was largely influenced by Motown and early soul and some early country and they created their own groove. The essence of that, why don’t I take that and make my own influence. That’s what music is, it just keeps getting passed around. I don’t think that it’s too on the nose. I think it can be shocking to some of my fans who know some of my more country/blues and more my more traditional jazz elements but I’m only 38 years old. I’ve made a lot of records and I’m going to make a lot more so I would say I’m only going to get further and further from the roots. Maybe I’ll turn right back around and go back to it, who knows?

Do you use Spotify or YouTube to get into those musical holes and dig deeper and deeper and learn about stuff you didn’t know about?

POKEY: I do. Spotify has been incredible in discovering new music. It has been incredible in having the possibility to listen just about any song you want to listen to wherever you go. As a person who travels a lot, I can’t bring my records with me. It has always been about discovering music, discovering the people who make it. Who are the songwriters? Who are the producers? Where was it recorded? What studio? What era? What year? That has always been the interest, from when I was fetching records and CDs from the library in high school, perusing the liner notes, to sharing music and all of that knowledge. Who were the side musicians? What label? Some people are interested in that, I know I am, so I’m keen to take it in and share it. That’s what I want people to do with me. I learn a lot about music and discovering a lot of music just from talking to people and asking questions. Digital devices have been an incredible asset in discovering new music but also taking it with you around the world.

Does your new album have detailed liner notes that the teenage you would have been looking for and reading?

POKEY: Lyrics are always in the record, for sure. Thank you credits for sure. Side musicians definitely. I guess my interests in knowing who plays on the records is secondary to those people getting their due credit for their contribution to the record.

The album cover is striking. Was that your idea? Was there an art director?

POKEY: I didn’t really know what the album cover was going to be going into the album photo shoot. I just knew that I wanted to work with Eliot Lee Hazel, he’s a Los Angeles photographer. Knowing Eliot, he would provide a few different options of striking photographs, the way he utilizes natural light and shadow. I styled the shoot knowing what I wanted to wear. I played him the music and talked about some overarching themes and some specific themes to go with photo references. It wasn’t until the last minute that I realized, from this one pose, we weren’t even considering that one pose, but I was like, “Oh, I like that pose but I don’t like the background.” It was just an off-the-cuff photo, we didn’t set it up. We didn’t get the lighting right. I was like, “It’s a white background. I could really see a mixed media vision there.” That’s when I went to El Marques, he’s done a lot of my merchandise, t-shirt designs and stuff. He was already going to be doing the album design, the interior and the back cover, and I was like, “Let’s try to create something here.”

I’ve always loved color-added photography, Kodachrome, where you take old photos from the ’40s, ’50, ’60s, black and white that are very clearly painted over. I love color-added photography. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I did that with Rock Bottom Rhapsody too, that was color-added photography. I just gave him some direction on the theme and he knocked my socks off. It kind of looks like a kid album cover.

I watched The Devil All The Time on Netflix to see you in your acting debut. I hadn’t read anything about it and it was a lot darker than I thought it was going to be.

POKEY: It’s a very dark film. Technically, it was my film debut. I had a very small cameo in The Lone Ranger. I was in TV show about five or six years ago. I really liked playing a villain. I don’t know that I will ever be pursuing acting, having an agent. I don’t think I’ll ever go to auditions or things like that but I would love to do more acting and hopefully more of the villainous kind of bad guy role as opposed to playing the happy, bubbly kind of goofy guy which I have a tendency to be more on a daily basis, more than a villain.

[Pokey can be seen at the 1:21 mark in The Devil All The Time trailer]

I understand you’re a baseball fan. Are you a Cubs fan?

POKEY: Huge.

Are you a baseball fan or a Cubs fan? Do you only watch the Cubs or do you follow baseball in general?
POKEY: Both

How do you feel about the Cubs dismantling the team at the trade deadline?

POKEY: While I’m happy that there is a baseball players union to get the money for the players – because if they didn’t, the owners would be pocketing all that ticket revenue, marketing revenue, 162 games, that’s a lot of money – I do think that the players union puts money in front of loyalty. They want the players to get the money, get the biggest contracts they can get so that it helps set a new bar for the next guy coming up at that position, at that age. You don’t see guys starting and retiring with the same clubs anymore and I think that’s really unfortunate.

In the case of Kris Bryant, I think he’s over-rated, he has Scott Boras as his agent. I’m sure if you’re a player, you love him but everyone else hates him. He was always going to go for the top next contract, I don’t think it was ever realistic that the Cubs would re-sign him. I love Javy Lopez, I love watching him play, he’s so exciting. But I really got tired of his bonehead plays, especially the way he is at the plate. He literally strikes out every other at bat. As an old school ’90s baseball guy, that just doesn’t play for me. I was more saddened by the trade of Anthony Rizzo. He was there from 2012. He doesn’t strike out a lot. He crowds the plate. He had two at-bats this year with 14 pitches. He was the heart and soul of the team. That was tough.

All in all, it was necessary. I don’t think we got the best returns for some of the guys but clearly all those contracts off the books and having a big free agent market in the off season, if the Ricketts want to open their pocketbook, they’ll have plenty of money to do so.

Tour Dates 2021

October 15 – Columbia, MO – The Blue Note
October 16 – Kansas City, MO – Knuckleheads
November 3 – Minneapolis, MN – Fine Line
November 4 – Chicago, IL – Thalia Hall
November 5 – Grand Rapids, MI – Pyramid Scheme
November 6 – Indianapolis, IN – HiFi
November 7 – Charleston WV – Mountain Stage
November 9 – Pittsburgh, PA – Thunderbird
November 12 – Philadelphia, PA – World Cafe Live
November 13 – Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall
November 14 – Fairfield, CT – The Warehouse
November 15 – Holyoke, MA – Gateway City Arts
November 17 – Burlington, VT – Higher Ground
November 18 – Exeter, NH Wood Barn
November 19 – Albany, NY – The Egg
December 8 – Berkeley, CA – Freight & Salvage
December 9 – Petaluma, CA – Mystic
December 10 – Felton, CA – Felton Music Hall
December 11 – Morro Bay, CA – The Siren
December 14 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo
December 16 – San Diego, CA – Belly Up Tavern
December 17 – Tucson, AZ – Fox Theater
December 18 – Flagstaff, AZ – Orpheum
December 19 – Phoenix, AZ – Musical Instrument Museum