New Multitudes Interview: Jay Farrar

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In the spirit of Woody Guthrie, four diverse songwriters — Jim James, Jay Farrar, Will Johnson and Anders Parker — banded together create New Multitudes, an album of all new songs using the unpublished lyrics they found in Woody Guthrie’s archives.

By now you’ve had time to check out our New Multitudes feature in the March/April issue. Here’s the raw interviews, which feature plenty of bonus material, for your enjoyment. Happy reading.

How familiar with Woody Guthrie’s music were you before taking on the project?

Woody’s music was brought into focus for me through my parents who sang his songs and had Woody Guthrie records. It was my father in particular that that identified with Woody as he spoke a similar dialect ( south central Missouri) to Woody as well as a part time shared profession (Merchant Marine sailor). My father shipped out of NYC as a Merchant Marine in 1949 which was a couple of years after Woody Guthrie and a few years before Jack Kerouac. It was my mother that bought Woody’s records and taught me to play Woody’s songs as a kid.

What do you admire about Woody Guthrie as a songwriter?

Woody wrote about social and economic injustice as he saw it with the idea that music can inspire and change the world.

What do you admire about Woody Guthrie as a songwriter?

Woody’s prolific output and the far-reaching scope of his songwriting is something all songwriters can aspire to.

Tell us about a few of your favorite tracks on the album.

I sent Will Johnson a package of lyrics I had pulled from the Woody Guthrie Archives. Will said he wrote “Chorine” within 15 minutes of receiving the package! The song ‘Chorine’ has added significance to me because my father used to use that expression “Sheba Queen.” I’ve never heard it anywhere else.

How did working on the Jack Kerouac album One Fast Move Or I’m Gone prepare you for this experience?

This project started in 2006, so actually it was through the experience of working at the Woody Guthrie archives with Woody’s lyrics and writing songs based on Woody’s notes and journals that prepared me for the “One Fast Move or I’m Gone” project with Ben Gibbard where I was pulling concepts from the novel Big Sur. So Woody prepared me for Jack Kerouac. That sort of rings chronologically true both in terms of these projects as well as how and when I first came into contact with their recorded and published works.

Any interesting origin stories about the creation of these songs?

The lyrics for the song “Hoping Machine” jumped out at me from one of Woody’s journals. The contents of Woody’s journals could be routine like “8 am breakfast, 9 am haircut” juxtaposed with something deeply inspirational like “Don’t let anything knock your props out from under you — Always keep your mind clear and let your plans come out of mistakes—Don’t let any earthly calamity knock your dreamer and your hoping machine.”

We actually had one recording session in St. Louis that almost didn’t result in a song being recorded because we kept breaking up into fits of laughter. Everyone was playing and singing into one large mic which necessitated unnatural contortionist ways of standing. We got the song (“Muddy Water Finds its Way”) and the laughs and in the process Jim coined the phrase “the folk stance.”

Were you ever into the idea of being a hobo, like Woody is in his book Bound For Glory, and seeing the country?

I was never into the idea of being a hobo — but being a touring musician can take on elements of a hobo lifestyle. There have been episodes of touring in a van in the dead of winter with no heat and asking people for money to get home. This is the story of any band starting out.

Did you learn anything from doing this project?

The extent of Woody Guthrie’s creative output was staggering and that’s quickly apparent when at the archives—- art, poems, lyrics, journals, philosophy, kids songs, drug songs, prostitution songs and STD songs. Woody was working on so much more than just the songs he is known for.

Next: New Multitudes Interview: Will Johnson


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