Currently on hiatus from his solo acoustic tour, Jay Farrar spoke with American Songwriter from his home in the greater St. Louis area. The longtime Son Volt bandleader released two different projects last year, Son Volt’s return to vintage form, American Central Dust, as well as a documentary soundtrack with Ben Gibbard, One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur. From his songwriting in Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, and extending to his solo catalog, Farrar’s moody laments have helped define and expand the Americana brand for two decades now.
Do you approach your solo tours in a totally different way than what you might do with Son Volt?
Well, every tour is a stopgap tour. I’ve been doing some writing during it, just seeing which direction the writing will go. It’s something to do in the meantime. The solo gigs give me freedom, and allow a reinterpretation of some of the songs. Gary Hunt accompanies me on a few instruments. I haven’t used some of the instrumentation, like mandolin and fiddle, for a while on stage. So it energizes me in a way, bringing in different elements. The set-list is primarily comprised of my last two records, but I’ll dip into some songs going way back.
You’ve been involved in several different bands in your career, from Uncle Tupelo to Son Volt and to solo configurations—what determines the direction of your next project?
I’ve noticed a pattern over the years—you’ve probably noticed in communist countries they always follow a five year work plan. I use that. I don’t know—after five years of putting out solo records, the pendulum kind of swings the other way. I guess the direction might be more solo stuff now, acoustic based. I wanted to get back to that.
I picked up The Slaughter Rule, your 2002 movie soundtrack, recently and was struck by how evocative your music is, especially with the tonal open tunings, and how it helped shape the movie’s feel. What was that process like?
The movie had a brief life. I think you can find it in rotation on the Independent Film Channel. But I thoroughly enjoyed that whole process, getting to work in that context in a way I normally don’t.
Was working on the Kerouac documentary soundtrack, One Fast Move or I’m Gone similar to that experience?
Yeah, it was. Getting to work with Ben Gibbard was nice—ultimately we have a shared sensibility, but going into it all we had was a common interest in the work of Jack Kerouac. We met the night before we went into record that record.
Who came up with the lyrics for this?
In the rear of the novel Big Sur there’s what Jack called “Sea Poems” where he was just kind of free-forming poetry. We started there, and put melody to some of these words, and then moved into the text of the book itself for ideas. Ben and I wrapped up the tour of the record by playing in Big Sur at the Henry Miller library. It was good to be able to present the songs in that setting.
Did you consciously go in the studio last year with the idea of doing a more acoustic Son Volt record?
Well, last year I did two projects almost concurrently, though Central Dust came four or five months before the Kerouac record. With Central Dust, I wanted to get away from the schizophrenia of jumping back and forth between acoustic and electric. Going way back, acoustic music was some of the fuel that inspired stuff along the way that I’ve done. I felt like getting away from that formula for Central Dust.
Your songwriting has always been impressionistic in form, did you try to write in a more topical, lyrical approach with Central Dust?
We touched on Jack Kerouac before. His method of writing left an impression on me somewhere along the way. Meaning, the idea of just getting your first thoughts out there, and not being too analytical about it. Not a lot of structure. That played a role here. I believe in the idea that impressions count, you know? As far as more recently, I was trying to mix things up a bit, looking for more topical subjects in songs like “Sultana” or “Cocaine and Ashes”.
How did Keith Richards inspire you to write something like “Cocaine and Ashes”?
That was about Keith snorting his dad’s ashes. His story just felt honest, and I responded to that. Uncle Tupelo did some recording at this farm in Massachusetts, and that’s where the Stones had camped when they rehearsed for one of their tours in the ‘80s. The local engineers played me tapes of Keith. Somewhere along the way he had recorded just him on piano, drinking gin, and it was quite good. I did find it inspirational enough to give playing the piano a shot.
When you look at the Alt-Country scene now, do you still feel much of a connection to it? Or has it become something that you didn’t envision? Was this part of the five year plan?
Well, I didn’t envision it, that’s for sure. This wasn’t part of the five year plan. Once a name gets put on something, there’s no way to control the quality or what gets inputted into it. I guess I haven’t been following things all that much. These guys probably wouldn’t want to be put into that category, but a couple guys have surprised me with the work that they’ve done over the last few years. AA Bondy and Mark Kozelek from Sun Kil Moon have interested me.