Son Volt – Anatomy of an interview
No person can ever fully comprehend another, nor can any history be truly complete. Yet with practice, guidance, and self-awareness, you can learn to talk with a patient and obtain the comprehensive, organized set of data that constitutes the traditional health history. You must know (1) what information to get and (2) how to get it, while building a relationship as you proceed.
— Barbara Bates and Robert A. Hoekelman,
A Guide To Physical Examination (Third Edition)
When a nurse and patient convene to gather the patient’s health history, they enter into an implicit contract. The patient agrees to trust and confide in the nurse, and the nurse attempts to gather the information necessary to form a tentative diagnosis. Music journalism is not so different. By agreeing to be interviewed, the musician implies that he or she will trust and confide in the journalist; and the journalist attempts to gather the information necessary to support an explication of the artist.
Admittedly, beyond this point, the metaphor begins to show signs of strain. While it is in the patient’s best interest to be forthright (assuming an accurate diagnosis is the first step toward a cure), the musician’s motivations may be more complex, and unlike the nurse, even the kindest journalist is not ethically bound to operate in the best interests of the artist. Furthermore, perfectly healthy patients are rarely forced to subject themselves to in-depth prodding. Nor are their exam results made public. So, when one considers a publicity-shy musician faced with a journalist who essentially asks him to turn his head and cough — on the record — the metaphor is twisted out of shape.
Nonetheless, in preparing to interview the famously close-mouthed Jay Farrar about Son Volt’s latest album, Wide Swing Tremolo, due out October 6 on Warner Bros., I couldn’t help but think my former profession would come in handy. I recalled my days as a student nurse, when I diligently rehearsed my patient history gathering skills: Identifying Data, Chief Complaints, Present Illness, Past Medical History, Family History, Psychosocial History, right on down to Endocrinologic Maladies. I learned to facilitate, reflect, and clarify. I mastered the art of the empathic response. By the time I passed my boards, I could slap you into a backless gown and review your Twenty Systems before your buns chilled. Put me in a small room with a complete stranger, and within five minutes I’d have him cheerfully holding forth on everything from bowel habits to paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea.
And yet, here I was on the phone with Jay Farrar and my carefully arranged list of questions, and I was making a complete muckup of the whole thing, stammering and yammering, losing my way.
Oh, for an exam room and a cold stethoscope.
You must modify your interviewing style according to the needs of the patient as they unfold.
— Bates and Hoekelman
Let’s establish something: Jay Farrar isn’t difficult. He may be emotionally reclusive, but he seems to come by it honestly. He is not, in other words, reclusive in the way Michael Jackson is reclusive. He tolerates the interview process patiently. There are no derisive snorts or outbursts. But it’s pretty clear he’d prefer to be just about anywhere but in that chair.
A new album brings a new round of interviews, however, and Wide Swing Tremolo will raise a few questions. From the compressed, distorted vocals of the opening “Straightface”, to “Jodel”, a 38-second harmonica haunt, there is change afoot. The sound is unmistakably Son Volt, but where previous albums seemed linear, and tied to movement across the landscape, Wide Swing Tremolo is more about traveling without moving, in a landscape more emotional than geographical. Songs like the bagpipey instrumental “Chanty”, and “Carry You Down”, with its intermittent funereal drumstrokes, hovering flute, and spare piano accents, evoke places envisioned rather than places seen.
Whatever the public reaction may be to these shifts, Farrar’s talent and dedication to craft are already widely recognized. His music speaks for itself, and he seems resolutely determined that it remain so. And why not? And what does it say for the rest of us, that we aren’t simply satisfied with what comes out of the speakers? That here we have an artist who doesn’t want to crawl in the frame and crowd his own art, yet we insist on dragging him out for close-ups?
So here was my first big idea: I’d do a profile packed with irrefutably detailed, way-inside, never-before-told tidbits about Jay Farrar the Mystery Music Man, with one little catch: None of it would be true. A complete fabrication, a character send-up created to match the mystery. Something along the lines of: