SPOTLIGHT: Pokey LaFarge Sheds Demons and Damage After ‘Rock Bottom Rhapsody’
Photo by Larry Niehues
EDITOR’S NOTE: Pokey LaFarge is No Depression‘s Spotlight artist for April 2020. Tune in all month long for more from LaFarge and his new album, Rock Bottom Rhapsody, out April 10.
When Pokey LaFarge picks up the phone in Austin, it’s not from one of the South by Southwest showcases he’d had scheduled that week. Instead, it’s where he’s holing up for a while as the coronavirus sweeps through the US and conscientious people follow health experts’ advice to stem the spread by staying away from others.
Staying away isn’t easy for an energetic artist with “an incredibly high motor,” as he puts it, with a new album and a new band he’s eager to share with the world.
While Rock Bottom Rhapsody is releasing as planned April 10 on New West Records, tour dates in Europe and then the US have been scrapped until summer. Not only is that a financial hardship, LaFarge says, it’s also a blow to the rhythm and routine he’s fallen into after well over a decade of releasing and performing music.
“There’s this kind of struggle with identity because of how much of your identity is comprised of being a performer, and that life around being a performer,” he says. On tour, there’s a lot of structure — you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, and you know what to do once you arrive at the evening’s venue. Even when you’re not on tour, the pause is just part of the process.
“You have the road life, that recovering-from-the-road life when you get off the road and looking forward to the next tour, and then the writing, rehearsing, composing when you’re off the road,” he says. “All of that’s gone.”
As LaFarge adjusts to a few months of stillness, he’s livestreaming and trying not to be too weighed down by worries about the future of the music industry. “I’m not scared, I’m actually pretty blessed and pretty lucky with my certain situation and also trying not to give into some of the fear out there,” he says. “But you just don’t know what is true right now. Just trying to stay calm and stay creative and healthy.”
Ending the Escape
Even before the pandemic, health had become a priority for LaFarge after a 2019 that saw him struggling with demons and damage both internal and external. He’d moved from his longtime base of St. Louis to Los Angeles, and at first, “I was having a lovely time,” he recalls. But any demons he thought he’d leave behind in the move followed him to California, and his attempts to exorcise them were much more harmful than helpful.
“I kind of learned a lot of things on my own,” he says. “I learned a lot of things incorrectly” in terms of coping with day-to-day stress and larger problems. Far from family and friends, he leaned on drugs and alcohol, and even writing songs became a sort of crutch.
“Music is the greatest escape, but that’s kind of what it is: It’s escaping,” he muses. “And that’s kind of what art is in general. I don’t think art is ultimately healing. You really, really have to go through the work.”
While he was telling himself he was having a lovely time, LaFarge was writing songs awash in darkness, with titles like “End of My Rope,” “Storm-A-Comin’,” and “Ain’t Comin’ Home.”
“I was in love, I was in a great relationship, but you wouldn’t get that from the songs on the record. So I was kind of, in a way, predicting my future. I was writing through this — ‘This will help me, this will heal me’ — but ultimately I made some really shitty decisions and the love is no longer there,” he explains. “And I went back to being alone and was finally able to face it.”
“And now, I’m about the happiest I’ve ever been, and I’ve got to go out and sing a record about the most painful time in my life,” he adds with a wry laugh.
‘Fuck Me Up’
The first single from Rock Bottom Rhapsody is provocative even before the first note sounds. And when you do press play on “Fuck Me Up,” the song delivers right away. Drums crash, and a piano furiously churns out a sort of inverted blues riff that evokes a funhouse-turned-horror flick. With an audible sneer, LaFarge sings a first verse that makes clear there’s more to him that what lies on his dapperly dressed surface:
I’m that wholesome Midwestern boy
That you wanna bring home to your mama
Even though I bring you joy, baby, I’m not the toy
You wanna play with at night.
“Fuck Me Up” was launched into the world with a video that takes the theme even further, a dark carnival of vice that reflects some of what was going on when he wrote it, but, as he stated on social media, “is not who I am, but rather it’s about who I never want to be.”
It starts with a small funeral procession in the middle of nowhere, and soon LaFarge himself is shown singing from inside the coffin, flashing back to his living days of swigging from a bottle, being smothered by female hands, a circus-themed execution, and then some antics while he’s dressed as the bright-red devil himself.
That choice of a debut single was about “getting the fans to think about things in a different way,” LaFarge says, about himself and his music. “It’s kind of pushing the frame out a little bit — he’s a wholesome Midwestern boy when the folks are around, but maybe if you turn the lights down a little you’d better watch out.”
Sonically, Rock Bottom Rhapsody still features LaFarge’s unique blend of vintage-minded vocals and music, but leaves behind the horns and harmonica to make sure the singing is front and center: “I wanted a lot of space for the words and the vocals to really shine.”
While much of the album, produced by Chris Seefried, presages personal demons, LaFarge couldn’t leave out love songs entirely, and “Lucky Sometimes” is one of the finest and most beautiful he’s ever written. Against a romantic swell of strings, LaFarge unfolds a novel’s worth of love story, from first meeting while the singer was “Waiting tables at the burger stand” to both customer and waiter learning to give each other exactly what they want. The song’s video is equally lovely and poignant, co-starring singer-songwriter Esther Rose and set in some of New Orleans’ more somber, unsung places.
In his videos, LaFarge’s acting shines just as much as his songs do, and others have taken notice. He was cast in a small role in an upcoming Netflix movie titled The Devil All the Time, produced by Jake Gyllenhaal and starring Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson. “I wanted to do a role that was dark and sad and mysterious and forlorn, and that’s exactly the character I play,” he says.
Acting is very different from music, he finds, especially in the timing — fluid when playing with a band onstage, much more controlled on a film set. But there are some parallels: “Confidence and comfortability and experience from performing onstage in front of so many people so often definitely lends itself to being on camera, being vulnerable, and working your body, sure.”
Recalling his journey from rock bottom to a much healthier present, LaFarge doesn’t point to some pivotal event, some line crossed, as the starting point. It was, he says, just the direction he needed to go if he wanted to keep going at all.
“I had no other choice. I was just getting to the point of desperation where I had to open up or I was going to die.”
So he opened up to friends and family, starting to confront his demons instead of trying to outrun them. Along the way, he also found himself “surrendering to God,” rediscovering a faith that he’d put on the back burner for a long time. Instead of turning to religion for answers, though, he found that the comfort it gave him came from the requirement of faith to accept, even embrace, the unknown.
For a long time he was a “control freak,” LaFarge says, but now “I’m very comfortable with uncertainty and saying that I don’t know. … I think embracing that uncertainty has allowed me to be more present with my day-to-day and be at more peace.”
To keep his current day-to-days healthy, he’s also drinking less alcohol and more water, eating more mindfully, and exercising — he recently took up boxing. And he’s making space to listen to himself and take care of what he needs.
“I’m trusting God and trusting myself and trusting people that love me and just making sure that I’m staying present with those people,” he says. “I’ve had a tendency in the past to isolate myself, and that’s when I’ve noticed I tend to drift into some darkness.”
From his temporary home in Texas until the pandemic lifts — he left Los Angeles for good a few months ago — LaFarge says he hopes Rock Bottom Rhapsody will move those who hear it toward the self-care and openness that he says saved him.
“Going into this record cycle, I feel that I’d like to offer inspiration to those that need it, to say ‘Get help.’ Everybody needs somebody to talk to. Be honest with yourself and be honest with others, and the best way to do that is to be vulnerable. Just find somebody to talk to and open up that can of worms, because it’s going to come back to get you.”