To hear singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault tell it, he originally set out to simply record a blues album.
With iconic guitarist Bo Ramsey and former Morphine drummer Billy Conway in tow, Foucault ended up with something very different, very diverse with Salt As Wolves, his tenth full-length release.
Sure, the album is chock-full of Delta influences. There’s a healthy dose of Big Bill Broonzy, a taste of John Lee Hooker, and dash of Jessie Mae Hemphill to spice it up a bit. But there’s also so much more. There’s life and death, surrender and commitment, pain and wanting, a sparse yet rich texture and sound that transcends pure blues.
“No, it’s not (strictly a blues album),” said Foucault, a Wisconsin-born and bred artist now living in western Massachusetts with his wife, singer-songwriter Kris Delmhorst and their daughter.
“There are a couple of country ballads. There are pretty straight-up rock ‘n’ roll tunes. ‘Left This Town’ pretty much sounds like the Rolling Stones if they’d lived in Iowa. And there’s one on there that I’d call a finger-style folk song.”
Foucault has the ability to turn a single syllable into an entire musical sentence. He taps into the soundscape of all he’s ever recorded, all he’s listened to as a child, a teen and a married man.
And his ability to make covers his own, like Lucinda Williams, pays off big time with the trance-like “Jesus Will Fix It” on Salt As Wolves,
For generations, the Foucault family has pronounced their name “Foc-Alt” – not the traditional French way. “Folk-Alt” seems very fitting for new album. Salt As Wolves – recorded at the famed Pachyderm Studios and set for an Oct. 16 release on Blueblade Records – is 100 percent Foucault.
“That’s my story. It’s the first record I’ve made where I feel like this actually represents everything I do and everything I listen to.”
The seeds of Salt As Wolves were planted a few years ago at a gig in Iowa. It was split bill with Foucault’s Cold Satellite band and The Pines, the Iowa-born, Minneapolis-based band that includes Benson and Alex Ramsey. The Ramsey brothers are the offspring of guitarist Bo Ramsey, who produced Foucault’s much-loved and critically acclaimed Ghost Repeater and appears on the new album.
“Bo came down to sit in with his boys in The Pines. His playing just blew me away. It just sort of pricked up my ears. He’s kind of like a national treasure, (with Bo) you’re getting one of the last connections to that kind of blues. I remember sitting watching the Pines’ set, thinking ‘I gotta make another record with Bo,” he said.
The wheels began to turn.
“It sort of dawned on me. Bo and Billy are friends. Bo is only one of two guitar players who ever sat in with Morphine. So I had to get Billy and Bo in the same room together and make music. I told them that night – right out in the parking lot – next record. The next record I do, this next record of my own stuff – it’s going to be us. It’s going to be a blues record and one to just be like really tough, no rehearsal, no (messing) around.”
The die was cast. “All right,” he told them that night, “I’ll grab Moses (bassist Jeremy Moses Curtis).”
All in a Name
The album title, in case you skipped that class on Shakespeare, comes from Othello. But its the phrase used by other writers – such as environmental writer Barry Lopez – that led to the album’s name.
“I came across (the phrase) when I was reading…I just liked the music of the phrase. Often times when I’m in a cycle of writing tunes, or whatever else, I’ll sort of find a phrase that encompasses something I’m thinking about. Salt as wolves, I just wrote it down. I liked it on paper and how it sounded in my mouth.”
“I’d been writing a bunch of blues tunes. Been working on my electric guitar chops at home – I play electric guitar a lot at home. I’d been feeling really good on stage. So I went to make a record like that and that phrase just jumped out at me from a notebook and became the organizing principle. The thing that will frame the project for me. You know, lots of times, I will have a working title, or I’ll have something like working art, something like a painting that I saw and it won’t be the cover. But for the time being, you got the cover and it helps me encapsulate the project.”
Salt as Wolves stuck.
“Salt As Wolves” is made up of some real gems.
Take “Hurricane Lamp,” for instance. Originally, it was a “four-on-the-floor” straight-up rocker, he said.
“It sounded like U2 or something,” he said. “It just wasn’t really working.” Foucault tinkered with the tune, tried it this way and that way. Something happened that turned the song on its head. Foucault, in his pre-sale campaign, puts it this way.
“Bo took me aside and in his quiet way suggested I take it down to basics and play it gently with some lilt, quit leaning forward on it, quit pushing. So next morning after breakfast I grabbed an old sunburst Guild that was laying around the house at Pachyderm and tried to play it like a John Prine song, with just my thumb and one finger. Bo walked up and said, ‘yeah, that’s it.’ We drank off our coffee, walked down to the studio, and cut it in one take. The thing I’ve learned about Bo is that he’s usually right but you might not know it until later.”
There’s a gentleness, sweetness to the reworked “Hurricane Lamp,” but other offerings on Salt as Wolves have an edge.
“Left This Town,” the first song officially released on Soundcloud, rocks like a V8 flying down a back road.
“Rico” is about bassist Rick Cicalo, a blues player who worked with Ramsey, Greg Brown and on Foucault’s Ghost Repeater before dying of cancer at 54.
“It’s about him, and that’s the jumping off point. But it’s him, and Rainer Ptacek (another blues guitarist who died young from cancer), and people like that who never get famous. People who are real musicians who truly have the thing, and just the sense of injustice. The best ones seem to get chewed up by the sort of culture we live in.”
And “Slow Talker” honors Ramsey, guitarist-producer who scored big with Lucinda Williams’ Grammy nominated Essence, as well as on releases by Greg Brown, Iris Dement and Pietra Brown.
“Something Bo said to me once, ‘Just play one note. It’s great to have all the notes in the world but you have to be able to play one note, and play it right.’ And that’s not only Bo’s philosophy but really the whole ethos of this record. A very minimalist approach, everybody’s looking for opportunities not to play, to use that, to not play in that great negative space.”
On “Paradise,” listeners will find a tune that hints at the desire to “make your peace with people you can’t usually talk to,” while “Take Your Time” is a collaborative effort with Conway.
Conway laid down the tune, added some lyrics, and Foucault just went to work on it. Then, a friend was rocked by the suicide of an adult child and “so some of that worked its way into the song.”
“I guess what we’re saying is settle down, it’s going to be all right.”
On “Take Your Time,” Foucault said small scale time-changes and circular word play made the tune very different from his customary craft.
Foucault used the acoustic rhythm to drive the tune, with lots of overlaid guitars to fill it out.
“I think I played three or four guitar parts on that. I was sort of proud because I felt it was farafield from what I would normally do. And it sounded like a nice coda for the record. It’s not on the vinyl. It’s not necessarily in the wheelhouse of the 11 (on the record) but it is definitely part of the experience – the thing that happens when you make the record you want.”
“It’s almost lullaby-esque. It’s very cool and very spaced out.”
And then, there’s the blues.
Foucault’s “Blues for Jessie Mae,” is a tribute to little-known blues singer Jessie Mae Hemphill, queen of the trance-like “hill country sound” that populated north Mississippi jukejoints in the past.
“I’ve chased her round since, I don’t know, it might have been She-wolf, or (Get Right Blues)…I learn blues players the same way I learn French wines, which is I pick one thing at a time and stick with it for months. When I was young, the first one that really nailed me was Big Bill Broonzy, that weird lowly sound and his crazy guitar style. Right around time the time I got Big Bill, I got a John Lee Hooker record. So the first time I heard Jessie Mae, to hear a woman playing that Delta style, Mississippi kind of stuff that John Lee was doing, but doing it from that other perspective – something about the way she wrote and played that really killed me. So I had to learn that really hypnotic, repetitive, somewhat modal style of blues.”
He reverently covers Hemphill’s “Jesus Will Fix It,” on Salt as Wolves.
“That’s her arrangement on that song,” Foucault said, confiding that he was raised by an evangelical Christian mother, “so that definitely imprints on you.”
What Foucault does on “Jesus Will Fix It,” is channel that trance-like vibe and “turn that song around and make it the darkest music that it could possibly be.”
Americana artists can study all the genres, but it’s what they do with that institutional knowledge, those centuries of sound, that becomes their signature.
“You absorb influences and then your job is to get free of them. It’s like painting yourself in the corner and then jumping out,” he said.
He does that “jump” so well on the soulful “Oh Mama,” and the slow romance of “I Love You (and You Are A Fool).”
One of highlights of Salt as Wolves is “Des Moines,” a snippet that captures what life on the road as a musician is truly like.
Foucault said he decided to give Ramsey and Conway co-producer credits on Salt as Wolves because of their commitment to making this a great album.
“I felt Bo put an awful lot of time and care into the record. Bo was all about this record from the get-go. He heard it back when the record was going down and said ‘this is a really cool record,’ and I think essentially he wanted to make sure I didn’t screw it up. It seemed like he was calling me three times a week the first five weeks after we made the record. And Billy, well, Billy has made more records than God.
“Billy always liked to talk about whether or not you’re actually moving forward at all. Are you turning the wheel? So that’s what we’re trying to do. Make something that doesn’t conform to a standard thing. But we don’t go too far out of the wheelhouse.”
11 Questions with Foucault
JoelB: You play a lot of gigs in the Netherlands. Are you huge in Holland?
Jeffrey Foucault: I’m not huge there but Ghost Repeater did really well in Holland. It did really well in record stores. With a population of 15 million people in an area the size of Maine, I guess I can go over and do a few weeks of gigs without much trouble and do fine. You know, make enough money to pay everybody, buy all the flights, and that kind of stuff. Honestly, it’s not that much better than the states – it’s like that everywhere.
Being raised in Wisconsin, how’d you end up in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts?
Kris Delmhorst. She was playing the Boston scene, and I didn’t want to move to Boston and she didn’t want to move to the midwest. We both agreed a rural situation could be good for both of us. I’d never lived out east. I hadn’t been east of Michigan until 2001. It’s perfectly fine for now to raise a family. It’s a sweet little town and full of good people. I travel so much at this point. I go everywhere twice or year or so it seems. So it doesn’t feel like I’m suffocating because I can’t go fishing.
What was the first song you ever got paid to sing?
It may have been a song swap at the Cafe Carpe. I was working at a summer camp and one night, an off night for the camp, a crowd of about 50 (camp) people showed up. The owner told me I could come back anytime, and handed me a couple of five dollar (bills) as my split. I remember thinking ‘that was a pretty good deal.’ Or it might have been during college (in Madison, Wis.,). Me and a buddy would grab our guitars and go play at the Capital Square mall on Saturdays. People’d throw money in the case. We’d be doing whatever came to mind. We’d make enough money to buy a case of beer and whatever food we wanted and we’d have our Saturday off. Get a sunburn, $40 and be good to go.
What’s in your CD player right now?
Little Walter’s I Hate To See You Go. I have that on vinyl and I just keep flipping that record over and over. If I want to put a record on, I put that on and turn it up. I’ve also been listening to Rainer Ptacek a lot lately. The deeper I get into it, the more complex it is, the more impressive it is. So I’ve been trying to bring in that, not so much what he plays but the spirit which he plays it with. It is really just beautiful.
If not music, what would you do for work?
I have a buddy who is a poet and a fishing guide – that sort of work is appealing. I’d probably be a writer. But I’m not sure about that. I may still get around to being a fiction or non-fiction writer. I’ve been working on a literary project with my friend Chris Dombroski, a collection of his poems and my lyrics. I think that will come out in the next years and will be called “Ragged Anthem. You know, and maybe I might get one more record in and then take a month and try and write something. Go up in a cabin somewhere and continue it.
You’re a big fly fishing enthusiast. I have this theory that the music, the gigs in far-flung places with world class waters, is just a front for your fishing. Is that true?
There’s some of that. I buy five or six different state (fishing) licenses every year. I’m going to fly-fish in Montana this week a bunch, then I come back out and fly-fish Wyoming in September and of course I fish a lot back east. And I’ll bring a fly rod when I’m traveling through California or the Southwest or wherever it is I get a chance. Fishing is probably like birding or any other discipline that trains you to pay attention to the natural world in very particular formalized ways. For me, it’s what I do for meditation. What you want is peace and calm. For two or three hours, I’m not thinking about anything.
This year, you produced records and worked with up-and-coming artists such as Caitlyn Canty, John Statz, and Hayward Williams.
Caitlin’s record is really nice, I’m geniunely proud of it. They (all three Foucailt-produced LPs) are doing well for them. That’s all I can ask for, so they get a little more notice, a little more work. I felt that each of them made a record that showcased what they did best at the time. (I) felt like I could work with them and bring something to the table.
Any new talent you’ll be producing in the coming year?
I’d love to make a record with Dave Moore of Iowa, but he’s not ready to go into the studio right now. His ’90s release Breaking Down the Tree is essentially the Ghost Repeater LP. Bo produced it and it’s a great record. I know he has a bunch of songs.
Will we see Bo on the road with you promoting Salt as Wolves.
Bo will be at full-band shows in the midwest, and the Americana Music gig in Nashville in September. Other dates, Eric Heyward will probably be sitting in but we haven’t firmed that up yet.
The endings of your songs are very unique. An example is “Heart to A Husk.” How important are endings?
I don’t think I have a deeply articulated theory about how songs have to end but usually it’s a good way to get out. That’s always a good trick – it is like walking down the stairs in the dark. You think there’s one more step but there’s not. I like to think that it can pull people up short and they tend to pay more attention to that last line.
There’s one song missing from this album and that’s “French King,” the song you wrote with Mark Erelli. What happened to it?
I like the tune fine. I’ll probably cut it for something at some point but stylistically, in terms of what I was paying attention to in ‘Salt As Wolves,’ it wasn’t on my mind to include it on this record. We recorded 18 or 19 songs for this. So we’ve done a full EP that’s ready to go and maybe in six months I’ll drop this.