Jeffrey Foucault’s Private Religion
The Fremont Abbey’sbasement Café is a time capsule from the 60’s, a folky goulash of worn couches, dim lights and bright paintings. Bare branches in a barrel decorate the stage; empty sconces hang next to battered PA speakers. The seats are arranged in rows close enough that their occupants can breathe on the performers. Behind the bar supported on an old hardwood console stereo with a logo that reads “Obey” earnest volunteers mix up homemade vanilla sodas.
It’s a troubadour’s paradise. A mix of fans, more 20-somethings than Greenwich Village apologists, are cramming the space full on a crisp fall evening to hear singer songwriter Jeffrey Foucault open a brief West Coast tour.
Heavy beams frame the stage, reinforced by gray metal plates and oversize bolts, like a train trestle. The ceiling fixtures seem straight from a dank diner on a lonely stretch of Northbound 35. It’s the perfect ambiance for Foucault, a songwriter with a timeless voice and imagery forged from his upper Midwest roots.
Foucault sits, leaning over his battered ’47 Gibson, eyes squeezed shut as he digs deep through the fatigue of a 24-hour day of travel. He is working arrangements practically on the fly with pedal steel player Jay Kardong, whom he met for the first time earlier in the evening.
“Pathetic and sad is my stock in trade,” Foucault jokes with the audience. And the swelling pedal steel certainly reinforces that sense of sorrow. But Foucault is much more than a singer of downer stories. A deep and literary lyricist and colorful picker, he is the heir-apparent to Greg Brown, a story teller who bears with him the ethos of a simpler time. Deep of voice and of perspective, Foucault is one of the brightest songwriters of his generation.
“Greg Brown has been a huge influence on me,” Foucault said after the show. “Every record for Greg Brown is essentially the same record. Everything is in it, every record has all of life in it….You know, weather and the natural world, and fishing and sex and death and love, and everything that sort of makes any sense at all seems to find its way into each record….I picture him sort of picking up the red phone from God and taking dictation. Where I always feel like I have to sort of labor at saying what I want to say and how I want to say it.”
It’s a labor with roots in his parents’ collection of old country and early rock and roll recordings.
“I got a turntable when I was about 12 or 13,” he said. “Some friends of my grandparents were moving to Florida and they gave me their old turntable. And I would go down and just pick out in the basement whatever records my parents had in storage. I would look through until I recognized something, take it up and listen to it. That would lead me to something else. So, about every six months I would end up with another pile of records. And so in a pretty organic way I went from Chubby Checker and the Twist though early rock, which was my first real obsession: Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, stuff like that.”
Like an Alien
Foucault got his first guitar at the age of 17.
“My dad tried to teach me earlier than that, but it didn’t work out very well. And I was patient enough to learn sort of my own when I was 17. I learned by listening to John Prine’s first recordand learning all the songs.
“At the time I was into punk rock and New Wave and that was kind of the deal. So John Prine was like an alien. Certainly no one that I knew in my little town, other than my dad, even knew who he was. So there was nobody to talk to about it, which was sort of perfect, you know.
“So I had all these crazy old songs, like Sam Stone and Hello in There, all sort of bopping around in my head while I go about my high school business. Obviously, I had sort of like a private religion, you know, the thing I had that nobody else had any access to. And [it was] the thing that interested me in writing songs as opposed to just singing and playing the guitar.”
Years later, Foucault would pay homage to Prine with Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes, an album released in 2008 that covers the master’s songs.
His 2001 debut Miles from the Lightning, featured songs Foucault wrote “between the ages of 19 and 24,” he said. Since then he has released three more CDs of original material, Seven Curses, a collection of murder ballad covers with Signature Sounds label mate Mark Erelli, two collections with the folk collective Redbird (which includes Foucault’s wife, Kris Delmhorst, Peter Mulvey and David Goodrich) and Cold Satellite, a rocked-up collection of songs with lyrics by Goodrich’s wife, poet Lisa Olstein, and music by Foucault.
“That has been my favorite project to work on…I was not so heavily invested in the lyrics that I was distracted by what is going on. So I was just looking at the mechanics of writing a song. Does it fit together as a song? Does it make sense? What do we do here: do we extend, do we go back and write a bridge? We just finished the refrain, it seems like there should be room for a solo, but if we go back into the A section is it too soon? So the mechanics appealed to me.
“I feel like I get bogged down thinking about meaning when I am writing my own stuff. And when I am working from someone else’s ideas I feel very free to be a musician. So that record has been probably the most satisfying experience of my whole musical career,” Foucault said.
Indeed, Foucault’s songs are filled with imagery that, like the novels he frequently references in conversation, carry many levels of meaning. Take for instance “ghost repeater,” which crops up as the title track to his 2006 release and in a few other songs.
“’Ghost repeater’ is just a beautiful phrase,” Foucault said, “and it seemed like a great, naturally occurring metaphor for it what it felt like to live in the United States around the time I was writing those tunes, toward the end of the first Bush administration.
“Ghost repeaters are empty radio stations that broadcast signals from somewhere else. Clear Channel, for example, will buy up radio stations in small markets and then fire all the humans and then send a pre-programmed, demographically tailored playlist to that station. And they will dub in the town name and the local weather and make it sound like there are humans there but instead it is just a re-broadcast of some bullshit from another part of the country.”
For Foucault, the trains, horizons, horses and ghost repeaters are an inevitable part of growing up in small-town Midwest.
“There is a great book about Mexico by Octavio Paz called the Labyrinth of Solitude. And there is a part in there where he is discussing with a woman about how it is impossible to disassociate the facts around you, the physical objects you grew up with,” Foucault explained.
“When I see a tree I see a Burr Oaktree like the one in my yard where I grew up. When somebody says ‘tree’ I default to that. The forms that you get in your brain become the bedrock of your language. Those are all determined by place, so for better or for worse, even being away I still write about the Midwest. I still feel the Midwest, the openness, the flatness, the horizons.
The Hunter and the Gatherer
Foucault and Delmhorst now live in Western Massachusetts where they are raising a young daughter. And while they sing on each other’s albums and join (with friends) in Redbird, their writing styles are very different.
“She is a magpie and I’m like a hawk. She makes this analogy all the time, the hunter and the gatherer,” Foucault said, repeating word-for-word an analogy Delmhorst shared with the Victory Reviewlast year.
“She gathers, I hunt. I get an idea in my head that I just (stay after it). Like Last Night I Dreamed of Television, I remember I wrote the first verse, so I had the A section of the tune, the first series of changes, and I had the sort of axe I was grinding (based on the title, stolen from Sherman Alexie), I knew the idea that was going on. And then it sat around for two years or something like that while I slowly chipped at two more verses.”
’Horse Latitudes’ was a phrase I read in a book by Evan Connell and the idea that becalmed Spanish sailors would end up either eating their horses or throwing them overboard because they drank too much water—like the idea that you are in a place where there is nothing left for you except a reckoning.
“I was in my early 30s. I was having a kid and I was writing all these tunes and I was having a very vivid dream life for a while, while we were expecting the baby. My brain was cycling through all these crazy scenes from the first part of my life and also people I hadn’t thought about in a long time. So, there are a number of songs that are essentially flashbacks to the things that you do in your dream life, old lovers and that sort of thing.
“I was processing all that stuff and so the ‘Horse Latitudes’ seemed, one, to be like a personal reckoning, trying to take stock and make sense of your life, which I think is a natural instinct when you’re in your early 30s. It seems to me like lot of people get to 33 and start looking backwards for the first time as opposed to forward, And then two, looking at all of modern Western industrialized culture coming to this place where we are going to enter the period of actual consequences for the way that we do things, shit that is just utterly not practical or sustainable on any kind of major level.”
Of course, parenting reinforces that sense of reckoning.
“The essence of having a kid, the reason the story of Moses in the Bible is so compelling is because no matter who you are you are always essentially putting the baby in the basket and sending it down river and hoping that shit is going to turn out,” Foucault said.
For a man who has put out nine CDs in just over a decade, written a catalog full of haunting, deep songs and toured incessantly, fathering brings other changes as well.
“You know, your life is only going to happen to you one day at a time….I have the opportunity to try to be much more present tense and slow down. You are not an effective person if you are completely distracted and worried about whatever. So, I was packing to come out here, and I knew that I needed to take over (childcare) for a little while in the afternoon. So, we hung out in the yard, we built a fire in the fire pit and just hung out. And you try to just be there instead of thinking about the other shit that you have to do.”
It’s a type of fallow time that will no doubt feed Foucault’s creative soul and simmer through in future songs and projects. I can’t wait to hear the results.
This post initially appeared in the Victory Review, an online music magazine from Seattle.
Communications manager for the anti-poverty non-profit Solid Ground by day, performing songwriter by night, Mike Buchman is a long-time music journalist. You can hear his music and find out where he is playing at www.mikebuchmanmusic.com.
All photography copyright 2011 Gary L. Benson www.garybensonphoto.com