Clip: Jay Farrar enjoying the journey
Jay Farrar enjoying the journey
MUSIC | Sometimes-solo Son Volt frontman grooves on the spontaneity of
April 8, 2007
BY MARY HOULIHAN Staff Reporter
After the completion of Son Volt's 2005 release, "Okemah and the
Melody of Riot," singer-songwriter Jay Farrar had time on his hands,
something rare for the busy musician. So for several months, he dove
right back in and worked on a batch of 22 new songs, 14 of which would
comprise the band's next CD, "The Search," released last month.
Having so many songs to work with early on was the key to creating the
diverse sound found on "The Search," which for the most part steps
away from Son Volt's usual brand of alt-country rock and instead
features a balance of new textures and instrumentation.
"Just having that many songs to work with allowed the whole process to
be more expansive and go in different directions," Farrar said, from
his studio in St. Louis. "I feel that good things can happen from
pushing things in different directions."
One of those directions is actually kind of startling. Horns are
something never usually associated with the straight-ahead Son Volt
sound. Farrar was inspired by the '70s Rolling Stones horn section --
Bobby Keys, Jim Price and Jim Horn.
"I actually wrote the song ["The Picture"] with horns in mind, and I
usually don't work that way," Farrar said. "Actually, it was very
One thing that over the years has drawn fans to Farrar's music is his
voice -- a reserved and somber baritone. Its aching tone provides an
anchor for his work, which may be stretching in new directions but
remains stamped with his own personal imprint.
Professionally Farrar has traveled a winding road since his days with
Uncle Tupelo, the seminal alt-country band he founded in 1987 with
high school friend Jeff Tweedy. Visions clashed, the relationship
soured and the band dissolved in 1994. Tweedy, of course, went on to
fame with Wilco; Farrar stepped in with Son Volt.
Farrar, a man of few words, doesn't enjoy rehashing those stormy days,
but he will admit to a moment of indecision after Uncle Tupelo's
"I didn't immediately know I wanted to start another band," Farrar
said, pausing. "I think I even considered leaving music, but it only
took a couple of months to fully realize I couldn't do anything else."
Along with former Wilco drummer Mike Heidorn, bassist Jim Boquist and
multi-instrumentalist Dave Boquist, Farrar was back in the spotlight
in 1995 with the release of "Trace." Quiet, thoughtful ballads
alternated with Neil Young/Byrds-influenced rock numbers on two more
albums, "Straightaway" (1997) and "Wide Swing Tremolo" (1998) before
the new band went on hiatus.
It was nearly two years before Farrar returned with "Sebastopol," his
first of three solo albums. He recorded with neo-traditionalists like
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, raised eyebrows with a dance remix
of "Damn Shame" from "Sebastopol" and scored the independent film "The
But Farrar says he missed the band dynamic forged by Son Volt. The
band reformed in 2005, this time with drummer Dave Bryson, bassist
Andrew DuPlantis, guitarist Brad Rice and keyboardist Derry deBorja.
"When you're working solo, you're more aware of what your limitations
are and you know where things are headed," Farrar, 40, said. "But with
a band there's a lot of spontaneous things happening ... and that
keeps things interesting."
Minus a year spent in New Orleans, Farrar has lived in St. Louis since
1991 not far from his hometown, Belleville, Ill. He loves being
"plopped down in the middle of the Midwest" in an ethnically mixed
city that has an easy, old-time feel. He devotes much of his time here
to his family: wife Monica and children Ava, 4, and Ethan, 8.
The youngest of four boys, Farrar grew up with a wide array of musical
influences. His parents were fans of Woody Guthrie; the older brothers
offered just about everything else from jazz and bluegrass to punk,
rockabilly and garage rock. He started playing guitar at 12.
The soft-spoken Farrar is a man of quiet confidence. His songs
sometimes are home to his introspective musings such as on the new
album's title track, "Always dreaming / It's the search not the find."
Farrar offers a quiet laugh when asked to elaborate.
"I think what I was getting at with this song was a kind of loosely
made philosophy I've fallen into over the years. It's more about the
journey than the destination, especially as it relates to the music
business. That's something you can't fully realize at 18. But at 40,
I'm very content with my creative outlet."
Gob Iron side project gives folk a fresh sound
Nowadays, every self-respecting singer-songwriter has a side project.
Jay Farrar is no different -- he has Gob Iron.
When plans for a Son Volt recording session fell apart in 2004, Farrar
and Anders Parker, from the band Varnaline, instead took their mutual
love of traditional folk music into the studio. They recorded songs by
the likes of A.P. Carter, the Stanley Brothers and Stephen Foster.
Last year, Gob Iron (British slang for a harmonica) released its stark
debut disc, "Death Songs for the Living."
"We loved the music, but at the same time we wanted to update it a bit
and try to get a more contemporaneous sound," Farrar said. "I think
sometimes there's too much importance placed on the traditional part."
To put their own mark on the project, they rewrote lyrics and melody
in certain songs. It wasn't until after they had chosen the songs that
the duo realized many of them dealt with death.
"That was totally unintentional," Farrar said. "I guess death is
something every generation of songwriters before us has struggled to
understand. Lyrically, these songs left an impression, and songs about
something compelling and serious like death resonate."
SON VOLT; JASON ISBELL
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: The Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield
Call: (312) 559-1212
- I had a great time doing my two-hour shift on WBNY 91.3 FM Alumni
Weekend from 6-8 p.m. Saturday, April 14. I appreciate my lovely wife
Val coming in with me and helping with information, music and the
phones, and I appreciate the telephone calls from people listening over
the airwaves and online. I changed things a bit this year and played
newer local and national music, and found the strength to play no
Clash, Gang of Four, Sex Pistols, PiL, Hank Williams, X, Jason and the
Scorchers, Husker Du and the Replacements from back in my days at WBNY
in 1984-1985. Here, in order, is the music I played between nasal
6-7 p.m. - Elvis Costello and Alan Touissant, Tears, Tears and More
Tears; Honky Tonk Confidential, Hangover Boogie; Tom Waits, Lie to Me;
Willie Nile, Cell Phones Ringing (In the Pockets of the Dead); Jim
Whitford, Poison in the Well; Loomer, Bang the Nails; Stoll Vaughan,
Alright; Graham Parker, I Discovered America; The Silos, Top of the
World; Mike Oliver, Little Miss Oblivious; The Ramrods, I Got a Full
Tank of Gas/I'm in Love with My Car (live); Mark Norris and the
Backpeddlers, Walk Out; Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3, Wired.
7-8 p.m. - The Flaming Lips, The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song; Rosanne Cash,
Black Cadillac; This Is Now, Planet Why; Terry Sullivan, Blow Out on
the Thruway; The Old Sweethearts, Arms of the Town; Kathleen Edwards,
Hockey Skates; The Bottle Rockets, Better than Broken; Mark Knopfler
and Emmylou Harris, Red Dirt Girl (live); The Transonics, Get On!; The
Bird Circuit, Maryann and the Bridge; Rob Lynch, Smoking Accident; Los
Lobos, Done Gone Blue.
Sadly, I ran out of time while "Last Seen in Gainesville" by Audrey
Auld Mezera was sitting in the CD player.
Damn, I wish I got to do it more than once a year.
- My review of last week's Lucinda Williams show at the University of
Buffalo Center for the Arts is posted at http://Buffaloroots.com, as
are a couple new CD reviews.