Pokey LaFarge: Challenges labels, tours new album

By Frances Welch

Touring his most recent album, “Something In the Water,” Pokey LaFarge will be playing at the Highdive on Tuesday with Margo and the Pricetags. Originally from Bloomington-Normal, LaFarge spoke to The Daily Illini about being a misunderstood musician at times, and how growing up in central Illinois shaped him as an artist.

The Daily Illini: You grew up in Bloomington-Normal. When did you move from there?

The day after I graduated high school.

Pokey LaFarge: Where did you go?

Oregon. I went there because it wasn’t Illinois. It was green, had mountains and marijuana. I had fallen in love with it; I think I had seen some pictures of (Oregon). I think the West Coast in general is mythical.

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DI: Your sound is so unique, especially compared to other artists who have come out of this area. Did growing up in central Illinois have any influence on your sound?

PL: Yeah I think so. There’s a certain amount of mentality; I think I can only explain so much of that. I think a lot of who we are comes from obviously our parents, and where we grow up, and a lot of that stuff gets buried in the subconscious. How do we necessarily put words to all the things that we’ve seen and heard and felt and experienced in our life? All of which go a long way into who we are, especially with how I sing or the songs I write. I mean how do you ask how a person gets their singing voice? Everything you are as a person comes out in the way that you play and the way you sing. Going back to the things that I can explain, I know that there are a lot of similarities between me and some of my elders, in terms of our interests, in terms of our personality traits. I had great guidance from my parents in terms of somewhat sound, but especially in ways of being motivated and inspired by my family. I did feel very much so that I had something inside me that I needed to express from a very young age, and it was sort of bottled up and tumultuous for a few years in high school. And also in response to lack of self-confidence and depression, no doubt stemming from any average adolescence, and also some rough family things going on at the time. Musically, I really had to search it out on my own. My mom’s step-dad got me my first guitar and took me to some bluegrass festivals. No doubt that was a huge catalyst, but I’m not sure he would’ve done that had I not already expressed some interest in music. But my first love was writing. That was my early escape, but not necessarily just an escape. I like to think that I was born to do that, and continue to do that ’till the day I die.

DI: So in high school then, were you playing music at all similar to what you are now?

PL: Well I’m 32, so it’s been 15 years since I’ve been away from Illinois. I was definitely getting into that stuff, but I certainly wasn’t as knowledgeable, and especially not as experienced as I am now. But that early classic rock that was really easy to listen to on the radios, you know, your Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, CCR and things like that. That was my first step, and then into that, digging back the roots of that music and digging back and digging back and digging back, and really just getting specific with it, very detail-oriented. Looking at the discographies of specific artists or looking up record labels and seeing what else they had to offer. This was the day before we had Internet so the library was a pretty big tool.

DI: What move in your life do you think brought success and helped you shape your image?

PL: That’s a great question. I don’t know, I think raw determination was really part of it. I’ve always sort of had a chip on my shoulder, so that’s part of it, but I think that’s sort of negative motivation. I do think there was a lot of positive motivation, but there’s more positive motivation now then there was before. I think there was a lot more angst, a lot more motivation to prove people wrong. And that was when, and I still am, in figurative and literal stature, the little guy. I’ve always had to think twice as hard to get half as what everybody else gets, I’m not really taken seriously. I think that really did motivate me, and it still does motivate me. But I think I’m coming at it from more of a place of love now as opposed to fear.

DI: So you knew you always wanted to leave.

PL: I knew I always wanted to leave before high school, hence me leaving so early after high school. At this point I had been reading a lot of early American literature, which no doubt was the most influential thing on me painting a picture of a country that I hadn’t seen. It’s not that I hadn’t seen it, we went on a lot of road trips as a kid, I think that really did plant a seed. I think thanks to my father — my mom’s a homebody — but my dad would get us out of the house a lot. Go on road trips — Texas, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia. I think that really did plant a seed. But reading Steinbeck, and reading Kerouac, and reading Twain, and reading Hemingway and Faulkner. It really did say ‘Man look at this this county out there, this world out there, and look at the experiences you can have when you get out there and immerse yourself.’

DI: Would you say music is a positive outlet for you?

PL: Well yeah, sure. Looking back at some of the things I’ve recorded, while the initial output was positive, I think, well yeah sure. To be nonjudgmentally speaking about my music, I think there is a lot of positivity in my music, but I think happiness-filled music comes from a deeper, sometimes darker place. One can’t really live without the other I don’t think.

DI: It seems that when people listen to your music they often say, ‘Oh wow, this is so upbeat.’

PL: Well, that’s good that you say that. I don’t know if I’ve necessarily been in touch with my audience maybe as well as I feel like I am now. I don’t necessarily mean my current fans; I mean the conversation with the audience at large. I very rarely spoke so directly to them, as I feel like the material and the vantage point that I’m writing from now, I feel like I’m having a more direct conversation. I think that will be represented in the groove. I think that the rhythm in the groove is the foundation of the song, but set up better for a standpoint of a conversation, therefore my words are to shine more and hopefully have a little more depth for thought, for thinking. While that may not necessarily mean it’s going to be less happy, I do think that on the surface it will seem to be a little darker. Some would consider it a bit more mellow, but definitely some different grooves and some different subject matters. Certainly more lyrically-oriented.

DI: Do you think this change in your music has developed from you growing as a musician?

PL: Yeah sure, I mean relying less on my band and writing less for the soloist and writing more for myself.

DI: And also, describing your sound, you once said, “It’s not retro music. It’s American music that never died.” Is that right?

PL: I may have said that one time.

DI: What did you mean by that?

PL: I don’t know. That was a good two or three years ago when I said that and I’m not really that person anymore. I don’t know if I could really speak to that and do that justice, so much as I would borderline contradict that statement.

DI: How so?

PL: I would just go so far in saying that my music now, and the music that I’m writing now, is so much different than that, and I think even further from the qualities of retro or further from the defense of that statement, that American music never died and needs to be made. But I do think I’m closer in achieving the qualities of making timeless music. I’ve had a hard time, I’ve always had a hard time and will continue having a hard time, maybe even more of a hard time, describing my music for people, and describing what it’s not just as much. Just as much as I have a hard time trying to tell people what they say about my music is right and what is wrong. Although I do feel the need to be defensive about it because people do say some pretty ridiculous shit. But that’s the critic and journalist job, I guess that’s what they do and I do what I do. I talk enough and I say enough things, I just prefer to live by example, and continue to sing and write. I can’t really expect people to know or feel or say what I want them to say, or feel or do. People are going to do and say whatever the hell they want. That’s the only thing you can really trust about people.

DI: It’s clear that your music is unique compared to today’s music industry. So when you go on international tours, have you ever noticed your audience making a new discovery? I’m assuming some of these people have never even listened to early American music.

PL: You know that’s a tough question too because yeah, for that very reason, I wonder where all these people come from and what has brought them there, absolutely. I’ve been lucky enough to have some strokes of luck come along in my career, which has certainly given my career a shot in the arm at times and created what you would consider in the business to be a buzz factor. That’s certainly been the case for a lot of musicians out there that has catapulted them to success. Whether that achieves validity for people being true fans, only time will tell whether they will continue to come back and support you. There’s so many different things, I don’t know. I think some people have been getting into blues music, if you will, or underground music for quite a number of years now. Music has never really died, traditional roots music. There have been resurgences, if you will, every decade. If I had to explain the kind of resurgence in American music, which has been sustaining itself for a number of years now, I would say from even ‘O Brother Where Art Thou.’ That was a big symbol. I think it’s tied to a deeper, if you want to call it, a hipster aesthetic. Hipsters get a lot of shit, but to throw people in a category here, they are trying to make real things again with their hands. Local foods, farming, rehab old buildings, making clothes by hand, jewelry, woodworking, blacksmiths, glass. It’s pretty incredible, and the music goes hand-in-hand with that. These are all the things that are the pure essences of our culture. I really tie the music into the resurgences of these other things.

DI: This aesthetic is so clearly captivated in your music, fashion and your stage presence. Does it affect any other areas in your life in addition to your music?

PL: I think if there was something in my face that was more time-period correct, or the sound of my music, I think I’ve moved pretty far beyond that, two or three years ago. There may be lingering images on there that may be my style that is reminiscent of an earlier form of music. I think I’ve moved on from that now. I don’t really wear even so much vintage clothing. I don’t even think I have for a year or two.

DI: What about your Bonnaroo performance? It seemed like it was very different from other artists who performed. 

PL: Certainly that’s a good thing. I would attribute that more to being an expressive, original personality and taking in certain influences and developing and making it into your own persona, as opposed to being a person who just gets up there and wears what they wore off the street. Fashion and style is definitely an expression. I think we can all adhere to that, and that’s certainly something that I feel very passionate about. The quality of clothing is an important part to me, where the clothing comes from and that is ethical. There’s so much great stuff being made today, so I’m more supportive of wearing a lot of things being made today. It’s funny, people like to draw lines in the sand with music. They like to say ‘It sounds like this therefore it has to be from this period,’ or the same thing with fashion, ‘It looks like this therefore it’s from that period.’ Really when it comes to fashion, we’re just recycling the same patterns for 100 years. Just because it’s sold at Forever 21 doesn’t mean that it’s exactly reminiscent of a 1930’s piece. I think it’s important to not take things too literally. I think I may have been a victim of that at some points, maybe in my portrayal, which is completely innocent at times. I think people’s portrayal of me has been a little too literal at times as well. I’m sensitive to it because it certainly goes in the way of people not taking a certain artist seriously at times. I think it’s gotten in the way of people perceiving what I’m saying, and I think people come to a show or listen to a record with predispositions or they have a checklist of things that need to be met for it to be OK in their book. I think there’s a certain amount of ignorance in people’s historically musical mindset and it is effective in conversation that my music is had with them. I use a classic example like Leon Bridges, who is way more specifically retro than any artist I’ve seen in a long time. Everything he wears is completely, authentically vintage ’50s. Every photo, his songs, have no originality. It’s beautiful music, it sounds great, but to merit the buzz that he has been getting, as a person from my perspective having things said about me, it’s hard for you to take the music listeners seriously when that kind of thing happens. I guess I would ask you, if you have heard his music, what do you think makes him so different, then if not so different, then why so accessible?

DI: Do you really think that your audience doesn’t associate your music with a certain time period?

PL: Well yeah, sure, absolutely. I have no question of that whatsoever. But I think that at times, because of that specific time period that they sometimes mistakenly associate it with, not always, I think the problem is that they overall, wholeheartedly associate it with a certain time, and don’t give it the relevance that some of the things that I’m saying, and the way that we’re playing for today should have. But I guess my point is that time period that I’m supposedly encapsulating is not to be taken seriously, but if you rehash the ’50s, almost to the ‘T,’ then it’s OK. Or if you rehash the ’60s, or the ’70s or the ’80s like a lot of the young kids are doing today, then it’s OK. Why is it OK to completely rip off the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, but to go back even further, why is that not OK? I don’t think you can put my music in a genre, so if my music doesn’t fit in a genre, why should it fit in a time?

DI: So if you don’t want to be associated with a certain time period, then how do you want your music to be associated?

PL: People get too bogged down with the image, people get bogged down too much with the style that is supposedly being portrayed, and they don’t listen to the song itself and how it makes them feel. Because the singer’s voice, and the way an instrumentalist plays, that’s far and none, that’s the final solution, that is the music. It’s not the genre, it’s not the tempo, it’s not the key, it’s how it makes you feel. Because how it makes you feel, that is the human being. That is the work of the person. That is the experience and the life that they’ve lived that comes out in the subtleties of the music. And I think that the subtleties are lost on the listener, especially the American listener, who has no sense of irony and takes everything too literally. I think that’s what needs to be felt, that’s what we should judge upon. If there is no feeling in the music, if you don’t feel anything from it, fair enough. But people get bogged down with saying it’s this, and it’s not that, then when they say it is what it’s not, then they basically have written their final synopsis of what the artist is and what they will always be. They don’t give him any opportunity for evolution to say ‘This person, he just is, ‘you know?’ But as a songwriter, as an artist, you put yourself out there and people will judge and you have to stand by that, or not stand by it.

DI: It’s clear that you feel that your music has been misunderstood, and it’s not simple music compared to what’s popular in today’s industry. We’ve turned into a generation of immediacy and simplicity, which has affected music, so do you think that’s part of why you’re misunderstood? 

PL: I do think that people are scared of something that’s different, and they’re scared of originality and something that has a lot of personality. I’ve been a person who has intimidated people throughout my entire life because of my passion, because of my raw expression, because of my originality, because I do think differently. The way I speak, the way I look, the way I act, the way I sing, it’s very different. I’m proud of that because everything in my life is a part of that. My family, my friends, my girlfriend, where I’m from, all of this goes into it. You wear your life on your sleeve and in your voice. So when people don’t take that seriously, yeah it’s hurts sometimes, but I think it just needs to be understood. When people don’t understand what something is, they will blindly throw some classification on something just so they know what it is and they can easily shove it aside. If they don’t want a challenge, they’ll dismiss it, so I’m proud of that. I’m proud of it, and I think that the success that I’ve had, I’m so fortunate for that, and because of the fans that I have, while I’m not selling out arenas, we’re doing really well, and that just means there’s a lot of people out there who are willing to give it a chance. It means a lot.

DI: And with your new album, Something In the Water, do you want to talk about how this record experience has been different comparatively?

PL: I think every record has been pretty different. I think (this record) has been a bigger stepping-stone than previous albums. I think the two major things musically would be the drums especially, but also the harmonies; that’s been a pretty big addition from previous records. I think some of the grooves; some of the tempos we’re experimenting with are definitely different. Hopefully I’ve achieved a closer sense of authenticity on this record, more so than the others. I certainly think the production was fantastic. Jimmy Sutton produced it, who plays bass with JD McPherson’s band, did an awesome job. I’m pretty proud that we recorded the whole thing in Chicago, but pretty much everyone was from Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin. Which you can’t really say too much about records these days. It’s either Nashville, LA or New York.

DI: To wrap it up, what would you say has been the biggest accomplishment for you personally, and is there an accomplishment you hope to achieve with the rest of your musical career?

PL: I’m going to say that my biggest accomplishment has been, and probably still will continue to be, hopefully for a long while, just making a good living off my music. I remember that was one of my early goals, I just want to be able to make a living off my music. That’s pretty important.

DI: Anything else before I let you go?

PL: I just want to say that I’m so psyched to be playing Champaign. I don’t think we’ve ever played Champaign as this band. I think we did the Roots festival, maybe four years ago, but as a band playing a club show, this might be the first time.