the AU interview: Pokey LaFarge (USA) talks about new album, touring Australia and what defines "good music"

Ahead of his Australian tour playing Bluesfest Byron Bay alongside shows along the East Coast, Lucy Inglis caught up with USA roots artist Pokey LaFarge to talk about his new album Something in the Water (out today!), the forthcoming Australian tour, what defines "good music" and much more...

Hi Pokey, it's Lucy here from the AU review. Thanks for taking the time to chat to me. So what's on for you today?

Well, I'm at home and I'm getting ready to leave for New Zealand tomorrow. I'll be going down to Wellington for a few days just to get ready for the tour and then I fly up to Auckland which is where I start the tour. I'm just at home preparing for the trip and doing lots of little things. With the record coming out I have so much going on.

It must be busy for you, and all very exciting. Congratulations.

Well thanks, I appreciate that. I think that I am very fortunate for the response and for my career, but also I bring it upon myself. I seem to make my life my life more complicated in some ways. It's a good complication though!

Absolutely! So how did you find the writing of your new album Something In The Water to differ to your earlier self-titled release?

Well I'm very keen to mention that song writing is very much subconscious. So it's hard to put a finger on everything that comes out of your songs, all of your influences. Because everything you experience in life makes you who you are, everything you are comes out in your songs, comes out in your writing, comes out in the way you sing, play, perform, all these little subtleties. And the intuition of the listener, [the listener] can maybe interpret some of those things themselves. So it's also important to understand what the listener may be interpreting. And that can determine how you craft a certain song. But anyway, on the surface, I guess I was trying to make sure that there was more space in the music, not too much movement of the chord progressions, making sure that we had good strong grooves with the bass and the drums. This record is definitely different to any other record I have done before because I have never used so much drums before – a full drum set. Right now I have a drummer on the road. So that and the three/four part harmonies. Those are the two big differences.

Thinking about what you said about experience shaping the music that you play, I am interested in how you were first introduced to the mix of influences that you draw upon, such as early jazz, ragtime, country blues, western swing music?

Well, but you know at the same time I really like a lot of Afro-beat, I enjoy a lot of African music of all kinds. I like a lot of music from eastern Europe, I like a lot of music from southern America, punk rock, Caribbean music. You may not consciously hear some of those things in the music, or even certain imitations. I certainly enjoy the singing of anyone from Bob Marley to Sam Cook to Otis Redding. You never know, these guys or country singers, who do you hear more of an influence from? I would say that my voice is definitely something that is changing and my multiple influences are something that influences that. All of the little subtleties of my voice, the little tricks that you pick up from other people singing, you think oh that’s a cool way that they sang that. I’ve kind of been picking those things up ever since I’ve been listening to music. Just the cool little ways to express a word, finding a way to express a word in your own way or the only way that you can in order to sing the note to what you would deem properly.

But the music you speak of specifically, ragtime, jazz, blues, that stuff I think I was gravitating towards music that was raw, that was pure in tone. Very simplistic music but very true. There was a message in music – you could understand what the person was saying and you knew what they were talking about. There’s always so much great interplay among the musicians, the melody is strong. You don’t hear a lot of melody in today’s music unfortunately. So those things have always carried their weight with me, those things I have tried to contain in my music, and just the quest for a good song. A good song crosses all boundaries, you know? It doesn’t matter what country you are, what gender you are, what genre you are. So it’s just the quest for a good song.

And as a consequence you have drawn upon a great range of musical influences?

Yeah, but, basically working with Jimmy (Sutton) my producer we kind of sat down and talked about the record and he was like you know we’ve really got to make sure we’ve got some strong grooves on this record and luckily we just had the best drummer that we knew. It was Alex Hall from Chicago and Jimmy is from Chicago and all these Chicago musicians I’d been wanting to use. We started to look at the drums and the bass and that brought us into some different influences. We thought ok if we want some good upright drums and bass, what are we thinking in terms of influences there? We were thinking of stuff including The Big Three Trio, and The Cats and the Fiddle. Willie Dixon’s first band was called The Big Three Trio. Willie Dixon is of course a great song writer and one hundred percent instrument to building Chess Records which of course is Chicago.

When it comes to the vocals, we were thinking that various songs would sound beautiful with three or four part harmonies. So the first thing for me that came to mind was The Jordanaires. The Jordanaires were a white group from Nashville that backed up a lot of great country singers in the fifties and sixties, and if you hear a lot of Elvis records they were the guys backing him up.

So you grew up in St. Louis?

I grew up in Illinois but I’m based in St. Louis.

Would you say that growing up in Illinois has been an inspiration?

Yeah it’s certainly at the nature of what we do. I think where we’re from is at the nature of what we all do whether we accept it or not. I may be a little over dramatic, or romanticising the places that I’m from, places that I’ve been, but romanticising about or dramatizing things is basically the artists’ job.

In the last few years you have travelled so extensively across the world, have you found that that has inspired your sound?

Precisely. Absolutely. I mean when you meet people from across the world I mean it of course gives you a bigger picture of the world, it gives you a bigger picture of what humanity is. You also realise that some of the differences across the world are really more subtle. There have been some pretty big differences in some respects, but mostly people want the same things in the subtly different ways and they subtly go about getting them in different ways. But you see good things you see bad things, you see things in your country that you want to change and you also see things that I don’t see anywhere else but in America and it makes me very proud to live here - for a country that has the faults that it has.

You’re going to be over here in Australia for Bluesfest very soon. Are there any places that you are particularly looking forward to seeing while you are here?

Well other than wrestling a big red kangaroo, I don’t know if I’m going to have any time. I’d like to take that drive maybe around Kangaroo Island, some of the coastal drives. But I have a day off in Byron Bay, so looking forward to seeing a lot of bands, discovering a lot of music that perhaps I’ve never heard before. Any recommendations? We get to spend a lot of time in Melbourne?

Melbourne is beautiful! And make sure that you drink lots of good coffee there – it is incredible.

I can handle that!

Any Aussie musicians that you are looking forward to seeing while you are here?

You know I don’t know too many Australian artists. I know C.W. Stoneking but that guy is very elusive, I don’t know when he’s going to be playing again. I know Hat Fitz and Cara, and maybe if you guys could bring Slim Dusty back from the dead wouldn’t that be great. Seeing some good Australian country music would be cool and I don’t mean Keith Urban.

After your tour what are your plans?

Well I go to New Zealand tomorrow and then Australia, and after we get back we’re doing Texas, Tennessee, up the East Coast. We’re doing three nights at a club here in St. Louis, we’re going to take the record around the world. So that’ll be taking up all of April up to late May. Then we go through Europe until June. Then we're doing a big festival called Bonnaroo which is kind of like the Bluesfest of America, just a huge huge festival. A lot of traveling! Hopefully a lot of creativity, a lot of songwriting. And hopefully managing to stay healthy, that would be paramount.

Which can be difficult on the road, I'd imagine?

It can be, I've got it down to an art form. You have to sleep, it's very important to get eight hours of sleep a night, at least six. Drink a lot of water and wash your hands. Those three things are all very important.

So how do you find writing music on the road? Does it become more difficult?

I write non-stop no matter where I'm at. I'm always writing I always have notebooks with me and pens. But I do have an issue when traveling in reference to actually finishing a song. To complete a song takes time and patience to really iron it out and fine tune it. To that I need to be in solitary and to have some peace and quiet, and that rarely comes when you are on the road. My mind is so scatterbrain on the road, to finish the music I find clarity of thought and a peaceful mind is very important. I find it is good to write songs after taking a nap in the morning or afternoon is good.

You need some peace and quiet!

Yeah because I get very excited and my mind is running a hundred miles a minute, it's hard to write a song in that state.

Do you have a favourite place to write music?

My favourite place to write music is in my sleep.

So when you wake up the music comes to you?

Yeah so when I dose off in a moving vehicle, in a plane or a boat or my bed or a coach or whatever - the floor - I'm in a lucid dreaming state. That's the best time. I'll write anywhere though it doesn't matter.

I feel in your music you are trying to evoke another, older time. Is that at all intentional?

No I don't think so. I just think it's a stark contrast to a lot of the music that you heard today. I think I do have a lot of strong influences from the past, but I have a lot of strong influences from today. It's just the fact that it's acoustic music, I have a very different original voice, I'm using horns and my songs actually have a melody. The songs have a swing beat - a lot of the time they swing and they bounce which you don't hear a lot in today's music. But no not anymore than say Amy Winehouse, she sounds like she could be from the sixties. Or Sharon Jones or CW Stoneking - so much of that neo soul stuff you hear today are people trying to go back to the eighties or back to rock and roll. I don't know, maybe it's just that people hear a certain tone and there's something in that, and that I think is timeless. And that's just good music, it will never die. It can be now, from back in the twenties or two hundred years from now. Good music is good music. But no I'm very much living in today, I have no intention of evoking the past. It's all a matter of how you twist the vernacular.

Well thanks so much for chatting to me today, and all the best for your upcoming tour!

Thanks for chatting with me, have a good one.


The tour dates:

Tickets are on sale now! Something in the Water is out today!