Interview: Pokey LaFarge chats
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on May 15, 2015. Some formatting, content and style changes differ from the original version.
St. Louis songwriter and Illinois native Pokey LaFarge will take the stage at The Vogue Saturday to promote his latest album Something in the Water. With seven albums under his belt, the gifted musician, born as Andrew Heissler, has established a loyal following through his ability to amble admirably across the landscape of early American music: ragtime, jazz, pre-war blues, traditional country and more.
As LaFarge crosses genres and timeframes with ease, his old-timey sound and lyrics remain rooted in the Midwest. “My Hoosier girl so fine / shake the watermelon off the vine / She’ll blow you a fist / blow you a kiss / and you’ll thank her every time,” LaFarge sings on the title track of his new record.
We caught up with him on the phone this week ahead of his show to talk about his influences, which include Indy blues greats Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, his new album and his plans for the future. Watch the video for Something in the Water and then grab tickets to tomorrow night’s show via The Vogue.
SBW: Your music contains such a patchwork of influences from all of America. You have traveled extensively. Yet you’re a Midwestern guy. Can you talk about any sense of place in your songs that’s more specific than America itself?
Pokey LaFarge: Well, I don’t know if you heard the last track [Knocking the Dust off the Rust Belt] on the album. That’s pretty regionally specific. Goodbye Barcelona I would say it’s not American there. So yeah, I don’t know, I think there’s world experience that’s made its way into my tunes.
Also, it’s like the context that both plays with each other, the compare and contrasting all the places that we go to. It’s sort of a mish-mash in your mind. You like to think that you know what some things are about and so you, maybe even for the sake of a song, will take an idea that you have about a place, a feeling, a people and an experience and write a tune about it.
SBW: You worked with Jimmy Sutton on your new album. How’d you come to work with Jimmy and how’d he put his stamp on this LP?
PL: Jimmy is a well-known figure in music, especially on the underground rockabilly and early rock n’ roll, blues music scene. Obviously, he’s had his most recent acclaim with playing bass with JD McPherson. From a producer role, he produced JD’s last album Signs and Signifiers, which has done really well for him. Working with Jimmy, knowing his catalog over the years and him as a person, I knew that he would be a perfect fit. We got together and started talking, eventually pre-production stuff, I just knew that we were hitting it off and we were gonna do well together. He’s got a good style. He’s got his own style. He brings it, and I think you can hear that through the record for sure. He’s also easy to work with, and helps you go through the process, which, of course, is important.
SBW: Your latest album was released on Rounder. Why the switch from Third Man Records this time?
PL: Rounder was interested in me being a part of a new identity with them. Obviously, them signing JD [McPherson] was a part of that as well. Trying to take blues music into the future. I felt respect for that, and obviously there were some business dealings in there that were favorable as well. It just seemed like a good fit.
SBW: I caught your recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. You played a song by an Indianapolis musician, Leroy Carr, for her. I was wondering how you came to know his music and why it spoke to you?
PL: Yeah, Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell — his guitar player. Well, you know, just the same way I found a lot of music. You look at a record, or a CD, or a tape, or even a YouTube video, and you look at the next thing. You look at the discography. You look at the label or what the YouTube thing suggests, right? And I write things down into notebooks as I always do, and you dig it up. So, that’s simply how that happened. The specific labels I would listen to, and I would dig through in-depth as a youngster was Yazoo Records and Document Records specifically. They re-mastered and reissued hundreds and hundreds of titles from the pre-war era.
SBW: You’re an artist who wears his influences on his sleeve. When did you began to feel confident enough to feel you could offer something unique to such established, traditional forms?
PL: When did I feel confident in it? I don’t know, I think I’m still gaining confidence. I think that confidence is something that wanes. It’s something that increases. You try not to let it brim over. You try to keep it in check. I certainly have more of it now than I had before. I didn’t really think of it from a confidence standpoint. I just thought of it from you do what feels good. You listen to music that makes you feel good. You make music that makes you feel good. You sing what makes you feel good. You write what makes you feel good. As you get older you challenge yourself, and there’s a lot more things in your brain that it’s kind of harder to get to some of the things that just simply feel good. There’s a higher bar set now for what is good and what is not, in my mind. So, I’m writing even more now, but I’m releasing and performing less. There’s a lot of stuff that ends up under the table out of experimentation.
SBW: Your live shows are notorious for a lot of dancing. How has your audience’s appetite for kicking up their heels shaped your songwriting?
PL: I guess, unless when you play in Cleveland. If the youngsters come out, it will be a rowdy time. We’re very honored that we have a somewhat accessible music that transcends the age groups. So, we’ll get a decent amount of older people that I wouldn’t say are so much into making noise and dancing – quite the contrary really. We want to make sure that people can come to the show and express themselves. So, we would want to stress that no one can tell anyone else in the crowd to be quiet and stop dancing.
SBW: You’re heading to Europe for a couple of weeks following your U.S. shows. Have you toured in Europe extensively in the past?
PL: We have. We actually do better in Europe than we do in the states.
SBW: Can you tell us about the difference between audiences overseas versus back home in the states.
PL: I don’t know, I think that they, perhaps, appreciate the classic sound. I think that they appreciate the refinements in the form, more so than Americans do who are more often than not trying to chase a fad. I think it has to do with the wealth of music we have over here. Not saying that Europe doesn’t, but I don’t know that Europeans think about forms in the same way that we do. They don’t attach the same sort of buzzwords to it. Their stimulus, it’s not hindered really. Again, they just do what feels good.
SBW: What’s next for Pokey LaFarge?
PL: Well, thank you for asking. I know that it will be a pretty busy touring year, all the way through the spring of next year. In August, I look forward to the opportunity to get into the studio and see what a few months of steady writing will bring to me in the studio and maybe do some demos.
SBW: Anything to add?
PL: I will just say that we’re definitely coming to Indiana in support for equal rights. For people to practice whatever religion that they want to, and sleep with whoever they want to and marry whoever they want to, and to not let people’s use a fictional guy in the sky to defend their own ignorance or their intolerance. We’re just happy to come to Indianapolis as always. We love Indiana, and we’re happy to play for the good folks there. It’s gonna be a great time, and I thank you for taking the time.
Written by Rob Peoni
Screening for Relief: ‘Highway to Dhampus’ at ArtCraft Theatre
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on June 8, 2015. Some content and formatting changes differ from the original version.
Earlier this spring, a massive earthquake struck Nepal, killing more than 8,000 people and injuring tens of thousands more. Around the same time, Pastor David Schreiber was in a meeting, prepping materials for vacation bible school at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Indianapolis. Coincidentally, the theme for the class was Everest.
“So, there are scenes of these happy kids climbing the mountain and meeting these smiley, cartoonish characters that are wonderful and teach virtues and things that are related to the bible school,” Schreiber says of the vacation bible school materials. “But here’s Everest, this happy shiny place in vacation bible school, and yet it’s a place of utter devastation in the news.”
As Schreiber and his team at Resurrection brainstormed on ways to bring the theme of Everest to their students, he recalled a film he had seen at last year’s Heartland Film Festival.
In 2014, Highway to Dhampus earned Heartland’s “Best Premiere Award” in the narrative feature category. The film centers on a British celebrity’s trip to a Nepalese orphanage with the intent of repairing her public image. Along the way, Nepal emerges as a major character in its own right.
“The delight about Heartland is so many of these filmmakers come and not just for Q&A, but they hang out in the lobby afterwards and have conversations,” Schreiber says. “I kept bumping into Rick McFarland, who’s the director, on a couple of occasions. We had some conversations about film, but also about Nepal and also about themes that are in the movie — generosity, cultures connecting, and all of that.”
After the festival, McFarland and Schreiber remained connected through Facebook.
He noticed McFarland had organized a benefit screening in his hometown of Salt Lake City in response to the earthquake. Schreiber reached out to McFarland about hosting a similar screening in Indianapolis in connection with the service portion of his vacation bible school. McFarland agreed and also vowed to attend the event along with the film’s star Raj Ballav Koirala.
“We gathered a few nice connections and friendships as we were there at the Heartland festival,” McFarland says. “It seemed like that would be hopefully an additional draw, rather than just the screening–to have part of the filmmaking team there.”
Organizing a fundraiser for disaster relief can prove a complicated task. For evidence, look no further than ProPublica and NPR’s recent coverage on Red Cross’s mismanagement of funds following the earthquake in Haiti. The best intentions often get lost in a sea of red tape and middlemen.
With this in mind, Schreiber and McFarland wanted to do everything in their power to ensure that the funds raised for Nepal will not go to waste. A member of Schreiber’s congregation donated frequent flyer miles to cover the cost of Ballav Koirala’s flight. Another member of the church covered the cost of booking Franklin’s historic Artcraft Theatre for the screening.
“There’s literally almost no expense here,” Schreiber says. “So, everything that comes in will go to the aid effort in Nepal.” Proceeds from the benefit screening will go directly to Mind the Gap Worldwide and Lutheran World Relief. Both organizations are currently involved in relief efforts in Nepal.
McFarland admits he had no intention of creating a film that would serve as a fundraising vehicle for Nepal when he set out to make this film nearly five years ago. He just wanted to create a good film. Nevertheless, he is excited about the film’s potential for a greater good.
“It could help, and maybe in some small way it could be of legitimate help — not just an emotive piece, not just something that tugs at that the heartstrings, but something that connects people with the people of Nepal and with the sense of helping them,” McFarland explains. “That’s a new and unexpected thing that the film has taken on, and I’m enjoying that aspect of it.”
Tickets for Wednesdays screening of Highway to Dhampus are available for free. Donations are strongly encouraged. To learn more about the event, visit Resurrection’s website or connect with the event on Facebook.
Written by Rob Peoni