Haw River Ballroom, Saxapahaw
“Do you want to come do this in my room?” I ask. “Or should we just do a phoner?”
“Let’s do a phoner,” Jay Farrar says. “Keep it old school.”
It’s no coincidence that Farrar, the frontman of Americana mainstay Son Volt, is packing his bags in a hotel room next to mine outside of tiny La Crosse, Wisconsin. A few weeks before, he had hired me to handle the band’s merch sales on its U.S. tour in support of its new album, the politically charged Union. Since then, we’ve been sharing a van bench, lunch menus, and hotel hallways as we slowly make our way through the first leg of the tour.
Offstage, Farrar is quiet—a measured observer of the world around him who prefers listening to talking. Perhaps it’s this facet of his personality that has given his extensive catalog a sense of authenticity lacked by many of his roots-tinged musical progeny, crafted in the image of Son Volt and Farrar’s legendary alt-country trio, Uncle Tupelo. Plumbing the depths of what it means to be an American with roots in a place as complex and central, both philosophically and geographically, as the Midwest, and how we might find a middle ground between our ever-deepening trenches, Farrar has created an album that echoes the sentiments of an exhausted proletariat.
If I’ve learned anything behind Son Volt’s merch table, it’s that Farrar and his revolving cohort—which currently consists of guitarist Chris Frame, bassist Andrew Duplantis, drummer Mark Patterson, and multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer—have cultivated a deeply devoted and passionate fanbase that sees itself reflected in Farrar’s tales of the American dream and its attendant struggles.
INDY: There are a lot of political undertones on Union. The title alone invokes the division our country is experiencing.
JAY FARRAR: I sort of see Union as a companion piece to Okemah and the Melody of Riot, which included a lot of topical songwriting. But I’m just drawing inspiration from a lot of what I’m listening to. Folk music, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie. It’s commonplace to be writing about what’s going on around you. It sort of comes with the job to put in the song what you’re observing.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but where you live in St. Louis is a bit purple, politically.
Right. It’s a blue island in a sea of red.
How did that inform the songs you wrote for Union?
It was actually my brother who pointed it out to me that there was a Midwestern sensibility to the album. Something where I was trying to see all sides. Being in the middle of the country does inform these songs because you have to see all sides. Half the people you know have a different viewpoint, so you just have to find a way to coexist. And ultimately, I think that’s sort of the message of the record. That’s why it was titled Union. There are so many forces at work trying to divide us that I think more focus needs to be put on what can bring us together.
Is it your response to the hyper-partisanism that’s been bubbling up since the 2000 election?
Yeah, absolutely. There are so many moneymaking forces at work, too. Like media conglomerates, ratings, and advertising dollars that are all built on dividing people, and that just seems wrong.
This is a more rocking iteration of the band than in the past. Was that intentional; was it happenstance?
A lot of it, at this point, is the coalescence of the band over the course of the previous record and this one. So it’s kind of new chemistry with Chris [Frame] on guitar and Mark [Patterson] on drums. We played a lot of shows over the last couple of years, so there’s just chemistry that comes with that.
How did that chemistry inform making your new album?
It helps to have a rhythm section that’s played together a lot. Patterson and Duplantis are both from Austin. The Austin Wrecking Crew rhythm section. With the previous album, it was more of a skeleton crew. But with Union, it was a chance to really reflect where the band was at after having played so many shows together.
Do you write with the band? Or do you write solo and then take it to the band?
I write solo and then bring it to the band. At that point, it’s kind of whatever goes on in the studio. A lot of the songs, especially ones recorded at mobile locations like the Mother Jones Museum and the Woody Guthrie Center, those were kind of me recording solo with vocal and guitar, then adding elements later. Whereas songs like “Devil May Care” and “Broadsides” were more or less live in the studio with just a few things added.
Are you always writing songs or is it something for which you block out time?
It’s kind of a rolling process, but when I’m aware that I may have a block of time that I can devote to songwriting, I’ll woodshed a bit more. I’ve found over the years that the writing is most productive when you’re doing a little bit every day. That’s what I did with most of the writing for Union. These songs were written over a three-month period.
You’ve been at this for some time, and I wonder what you’re still learning about yourself as you write these songs and make these records.
I would say that writing from a character perspective, kind of getting into a character’s head, is a kind of songwriting I started experimenting with about ten years ago, but I haven’t done that much of it. This time, there are at least two songs [“Reality Winner” and “The Symbol”] that reflect that kind of songwriting. With “Reality Winner,” I felt like her story was compelling, and the least I could do was to write a song to let others know her story.
That song was inspired by a real person?
Yeah. She spent time in the Army, learned three different languages. After getting out, she was working for an NSA-related agency. And that was during a time in which the word from the top was that there was no Russian interference in the 2016 election, which was contrary to what all the intelligence agencies were saying. So she did a whistle-blower thing, where she leaked a document that said there was interference and got caught.
As someone who has been doing this for more than thirty years, how do you feel about your place as a cog in the machine of the music industry?
At some point, you just kind of become the last man standing, right? But the catalyst, what has always motivated me, has been to have a creative outlet. You know, I feel lucky to be able to keep doing it. Right now, there’s just a focus on songs from the new album, more so than some of the tours we’ve done in the past. But we’re playing songs from the whole Son Volt catalog, so it’s kind of a representation of Son Volt going back over the years.