An Interview With Jeffrey Foucault: Pretty Soon I Was On The Road
I am a little embarrassed to say that I didn’t know Jeffrey Foucault’s music until his last record, Salt As Wolves came out, about three years ago. But from the first time I heard him sing the line “That night in Des Moines,” off the first track on that album, I was hooked, and have become an avid fan. On Friday, he’ll release Blood Brothers, which, as he says, “leaves the blues of Salt As Wolves behind,” and goes small. In my experience listening to Foucault, when he goes small, the rewards are big. Some of my favorite songs in his catalogue are understated gems of songwriting, always delivered with just the right balance of sincerity and self-doubt. If that’s true for you too as you’ve followed Jeffrey’s career, you’ll find plenty of songs on Blood Brothers that make you feel at home, even while some of them might make you feel uncomfortable and disquieted. This selection of songs is full of lines that most songwriters would be pretty damn jealous about. (The one that gets me every damn time is from “Cheap Suit,” as Jeffrey recalls seeing his father noodling on a knock-off Gibson guitar: “And when he sings, he looks so far away / As if there’s something he almost remembers, but doesn’t know how to say.” It is, of course, the delivery of these lines, restrained and wrung out, that makes them what they are; but it’s a damn good couplet just on paper.) The musicians on Blood Brothers are, for the most part, familiar compatriots: Jeremy Moses Curtis on bass; Eric Heywood on pedal steel; Bo Ramsey on electric guitar; and Billy Conway on drums. Kris Delmhorst and Tift Merritt lend their incredibly rich and beautiful voices to back-up vocals. Suffice to say that you’re in good hands on this record. I had the great pleasure of chatting with Jeffrey about these songs and the process he took to get there.
RLR: There are many echoes between songs on this record–and they seem concerned with what a friend of mine would call primary sources: hands, dirt under fingernails, images of home, mundane tasks like doing dishes. How do you think about these songs in conversation with one another?
JF: I think a couple things happened. The first thing is that I wrote the majority of the songs, or finished them, in the six weeks between when I booked the studio and when we all showed up there. So there were some older songs that were in play that made it on there–“Pretty Hands” is one of them, and so is “Cheap Suit.” But most of the other songs were just fragments, if anything at all, which is how I tend to work–there’s stuff just laying around in notebooks until I absolutely haveto do something with it. So what happens when you have a bunch of stuff that’s written around the same time is that your brain is not nearly as various as you think it is and so you use a lot of the same language without realizing it. I actually kind of enjoy that, especially if it makes the tunes, like you said, in conversation with each other, I think that’s pretty cool.
And then the other thing would be that the record that you hear is ten songs, but we cut sixteen songs. So what happens when you get a record done, you’re trying to find the ones that want to be together, that make the most sense. And maybe there’s no particular judgment to it, but my generation and the people somewhat before and after me tend to think of the album as the unit of measure. The experience of sitting down and just listening to an album on good speakers, or on the best equipment you can find, that may be particular to our generation. And it might be a thing that continues going forward; I don’t know if it will be or not. I mean kids are perfectly willing to listen to stuff on computer speakers or earbuds, and, you know, that’s probably fine. Duck Dunn said one time, “Did you ever hear a room full of people playing together, who are really cooking, and it sounded bad?” So if it’s good music, it’s probably going to be fine. But my conception of the album being what it is, I’m trying to find songs that all work out in some kind of sensible way–songs that co-relate.
RLR: “Pretty Hands”–that song lingered for a while. I think it’s probably a surprise to many people that a song could stew for five or six years before it’s recorded.
JF: My compost system is pretty extensive. When I was younger, I thought you wrote something from beginning to end, and if it wasn’t that, if it wasn’t a standalone piece, then it had less value. But you have more perspective when you’re four or five records into the ballgame–and it turns out I was just wasn’t ready to do this thing I was trying to do, and now I am ready. So a song or a lyric might pop back up. So you get to the point where you don’t really throw stuff away, you just wait for it to find its moment.
I often have a whole series of notebooks laying around: there’s the one I’m working in at the moment, there’s usually one that’s the fair copy workbook for a record, and there might be two or three notebooks before that, that still have something to do with what’s going to happen on the record.
So, “Pretty Hands,” I wrote that during Hurricane Irene when I was trapped in the kitchen with a three year-old, waiting for it to quit raining. I think I wrote the verses, which all follow the same form. And I actually grabbed that bridge from a song I’d written probably back in 2006 that never went anywhere. But I’d always liked that bridge and it was, like I said, it was waiting for a place where it would make some sense.
RLR: There’s a lot of patience and trust implied here. Were there any specific things that led you to that process?
JF: Just experience, just being at it longer. You know, when you’re 18, 19, 20, 21, you have a lot of goofy ideas about everything. That’s when you’re in the most danger of getting married or signing up for a war and you might be accused of not having it all together entirely. But as you go along, I think you’re probably less confident, in a good way. You’re less certain that you have it figured out, so you look a little harder.
When you’re nineteen, what you want is to be recognized for a genius–a genius that does not exist. So you think, “If I’m not famous by 22, the ship has sailed.” As you get older and look around, most of us, and writers and poets that I’m interested in, really hit their best work in their fifties. I mean, that’s what I tell myself, because I haven’t got there yet.
RLR: It feels like memory is such a key part of this album: “Little Warble,” for instance, is connected by two instances of the song, “Landslide.” “Blood Brothers” features a sort of rearview look a sense of being haunted by the past, and “Cheap Suit” features memories of your family growing up, and that line “something he almost remembers but doesn’t know how to say.” How do you think about the role of memory in songs and what writing songs do to unlock or even obscure memories?
JF: Well, you’ve got a whole life’s worth of material, if you were paying attention. But there’s always the stuff that sticks out, for whatever reason: a day that became an inflection point in your life, and obviously you didn’t know it at the time. And as you look back, that day is very clear.
But it feels like the industrialized world is going off the rails, and I thought I was going to write a record of the jeremiad style of complaint. But it just wasn’t in me to do, and everything I was actually writing about tended to go to the same place, and it was an interior place where love, and the memory of love, interact. Memory can be episodic, in the sense that it recapitulates a fairly linear narrative, or our understanding of the narrative, or it can be semantic, where you’re having experiences that are weighted and colored by emotion.
RLR: I have to say that I loved reading that your dad sent you a one-line text: It was not a cheap suit.
JF: Yeah, [Laughs] the beauty of it was that for him it wasn’t a cheap suit. It was probably a $200 suit from Sears and he probably thought, “Goddammit, I gotta shell out two hundred dollars for a suit.” So for me to go and call it a cheap suit probably didn’t feel right. But we’ve talked about the idea that you don’t go looking for literal truth in songwriting, unless you’re a fool.
RLR: So speaking of truth, you said that you shared “I Know You,” with Chris Dombrowski and he called bullshit on the line “I told you all of my fears,” saying, “You never told anyone all your anything. You told her some of your fears, which anyway is a better line.’
JF: That was a good call from him wasn’t it?
RLR: Great call!
JF: That’s the second time he’s saved a lyric. He busted my chops about a lyric on the Horse Latitudes album. The line [in “Goners Most”] was “Ashes for ashes, dust for dust,” as I wrote it, and he wrote back, and he said, “If you said, “For ashes ashes, for dust dust,” you would achieve three things: you would avoid a cliche, you would create a poetic form called a spondee, and it would also be alliterative, which is a win.” So I thought, Jesus, that’s really good, I’ll stick with that. He’s a good proofreader.
And I think that’s the difference between writing and editing. If you’re trying to be honest about it, it’s the better way to put it. “I’ve told you all my fears” is the easy place to go with that line and it’s much less interesting.
RLR: In “Dying Just a Little,” you have a line about “Trying to stay alive to it all.” I have a friend who is a birder and one of the things he says it affords him is attention to small details, and an alertness to the world. How do you think about this effort to ‘stay alive to it all,’ and how that connects with music, or with other things, like fishing?
JF: I think learning a version of attentiveness, it’s helpful to have what I guess you could call a discipline. So if your friend is talking about birding, that’s a version of the same thing as hunting or fishing, it’s just a more harmless version. I’m mostly a catch-and-release fisherman, which begs a question about why you do it in the first place, if you don’t want to catch the fish and eat them, you’re just trying to make ‘em late for stuff. It’s a little silly. But it’s not silly, because what you’re trying to do is locate what’s wild inside of you, and the only way to locate that thing is to put yourself in relationship to a wild creature. I’m cribbing from my friend Dombrowski’s book about bonefishing in the Caribbean, Body of Water. He’s a fishing guide, a poet, and an author, and he does a nice job explaining putting yourself in relationship to a wild creature and creating one point of focus in a giant landscape, where you’re trying to be a part of the natural world. Another book is Fergus’s The Hunter’s Road, about bird hunting in North America, or Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches, all those books contain versions of the same idea, which is: paying detailed attention to the landscape and when you do it, if you do it right, you cease to exist. And that’s the most interesting thing to me, and it happens when you’re hunting and fishing and ideally, it happens when you’re playing music. But with music it can be much harder, because ego is involved and that’s the thing you’re constantly trying to get rid of.
RLR: So thinking about this in terms of music, you have said about your parents that when they played music when you were young, “They looked like other people.” Can you talk about the ability for creative efforts like music or writing to reveal things to us that are masked or hidden in our analytical brains, or this idea of finding a moment where you cease to exist?
JF: Yeah, well, they don’t call it working music, they call it playing music, and it’s because there’s element of play that’s involved in the best part of it that is very childlike, and doesn’t make a whole lot of categorical, quantitative assumptions about who you are, who somebody else is, what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it. The best stuff is happening in the spirit of playful enterprise. Billy Conway and I talk about this a lot: you’re in the studio, and, you know, you’re doing something that, at the end of the day…it matters in the sense that records have mattered to me and have changed my life, so, absolutely, I believe that it matters. And at the same time, it’s not that big a deal if this record doesn’t get made. We’re creating art and there’s an element of art that’s certainly not frivolous, but it’s not always, in the moment, life and death necessary, except in the ways that it is. But the point is it’s not that big a deal if you said, “Let’s not do it,” and it wouldn’t be the end of the world; and yet, you work on it like it’s the only thing that matters at all. I relish those opportunities; I relish it in the live setting, doing a show, and when I can’t get there, when there’s something that intervenes either in my own head or just external circumstances, that’s really frustrating.
RLR: You said earlier that you’d anticipated writing more politically-minded material, given where things are…
JF: I’d qualify that, because I don’t write political material. “Ghost Repeater” or “War on the Radio”–those songs are political because politics is part of being alive, but really what they’re about is ideas that inform politics.
I’ve never been very easy with the idea that someone would write a political song as such. Almost never does it do anything useful and sometimes it’s counterproductive. It gives people the opportunity to dismiss you out of hand because you’ve violated their confirmation bias; or, worse, it gives them the opportunity to agree with you out of hand, without having done anything useful or meaningful. And then everybody feels real smug and righteous and we move on with our lives. I feel like Mark Twain’s disdain for being in the majority, I always thought that was a wise place to be; being in a room full of people who agree with each other is unattractive to me. So, I tend to shy away from being overtly political but I am willing to put politics into the service of creating music, because it’s part of life and you want all of life to be in there. The best stuff manages to be more artful about that. It’s worth pointing out that Bob Dylan stopped writing political material, with about two exceptions, by 1964. And he was about as good at it as anybody.
RLR: So with a song like, “War On The Radio,” that’s more of a cultural critique.
JF: Yeah, I think it is. To me, that song is about feeling that complicity is the dominant fact of being alive in the modern industrial world. Even if you didn’t want to be a part of it, you’re born into the machinery and you live your life on the backs of innumerable people around the world who are much poorer than you. I think it’s an appropriate reaction to be uneasy with that, so uneasiness is at the heart of that song. There’s a Greg Brown line in the song, “Billy From The Hills,” where it goes, “You can strip the trees, foul the streams / Try to hide in a progressive dream / Ease into the comfort that kills.” And I always thought that was such a great line about the danger of being comfortable or being satisfied with letting your political opinion take the place of actual thought. And playing a song is a ritual enactment but it’s not doing an actual thing–I don’t know, maybe it’s useful in the moment, if it makes somebody uncomfortable.
On my last tour, I was playing McKinney, Texas, north of Dallas. It’s this wealthy enclave, mostly oil money and tech. I’ve got this song, “Blues for Jessie Mae,” from my last record, and the chorus of that song is: “The only way I can get to heaven is to love everybody.” Sometimes when I play that song, I’ll retroactively introduce it and say that it’s a song I co-wrote with Donald Trump. And even people who voted for that bastard know he’s certainly not humble. So I say, “He’s too humble to tell anybody, but he’s such a great songwriter; he’s one of the best.” And even those people have to chuckle, because they know Trump is a giant asshole and that song is about everything he is not. And that’s more useful than putting your hands on your hips and trying to get people to agree with something you say.
RLR: You’ve said that first song you learned was “Hello In There,” by John Prine. And you’ve said: “Pretty soon I wrote songs. Pretty soon I started playing at the Cafe Carpe. Pretty soon I was on the road.” Sitting where you are now, how do you make sense of that trajectory?
JF: [Laughs]. I don’t. There’s no way to make sense of it. I learned that song, “Hello in There,” from this bootleg of R.E.M. and Billy Bragg playing at The Borderline in SoHo, in London; they were just playing an off-the-cuff, goof around set. They were playing Flatlanders songs, like “Dallas,” and they played, “Jackson,” by Johnny Cash and June Carter.
RLR: I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone learning John Prine from an REM/Billy Bragg bootleg.
JF: It was a pretty cool tape. Somebody gave it to me when I was seventeen and it had acoustic versions on it. You’ll remember back in the early ‘90s and there was long time in the ‘80s you didn’t hear acoustic guitar on anything but public radio. The reason MTV Unplugged was as popular as it was, maybe, was getting to hear these people just play guitar. To me, I’d stay in on Saturday night because that’s when public television in Wisconsin broadcast Austin City Limits and I’d get to see someone playing acoustic guitar and learn something that I really wanted to learn and I didn’t have a whole lot of reference for.
And you can imagine–Billy Bragg and Michael Stipe have such cool voices, but they’re not blendy voices, so it was pretty messy, and they all sounded kind of drunk. They played “Hello In There,” and that made my dad bring home John Prine; he said, “This really stinks, you should hear the original.” It was ten years later to the month that I played The Borderline the first time I went on tour in England. There’s an element of that sort of thing, where you say, “I’m doing what it is I’m supposed to be doing; this all makes sense.” And that’s either true or it’s not.
Blood Brothers is out now and I highly recommend that you add it to your collection. While you’re at it, if you like good, entertaining, thoughtful writing, you should subscribe to Jeffrey’s mailing list at his website. You can find tour dates and everything that you need there too. Be well, everybody.