The Joys of the Blues
Jeffrey Foucault returns to McCabe’s riding a wave of praise (and a No. 1 iTunes ranking) for his bluesy new album
Jeffrey Foucault is one of those singular artists whose music can speak to you during a cold, dark night of the soul, and also inspire jaded listeners to share their discovery.
Elders such as Chris Smither and Don Henley, who’s said Foucault “clocks modern culture about as good as I’ve ever heard anybody clock it,” have long been championing him.
Raised in Wisconsin and based with his family in western Massachusetts, Foucault is a literate craftsman whose work and conversation express wry humor and an innate curiosity, and the influences of blues and rock heroes as well as songwriters who “occupy a place” with him: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Prine, Jessie Mae Hemphill.
His music’s equally informed by the poetry that fired his lifelong love of language. “Des Moines,” the opening track of “Salt as Wolves,” sets the new album’s vibey sound and tone with pensive guitar and tough imagery: “That night in Des Moines/ The goner’d streets and dying/ Sunset buildings/ Cut with Shade/ We sent our smoke/ Up through the street lights/ We sent our prayers out/ Through an old P.A.”
It’s followed by the bluesy stomp of “Rico” and compelling songs like “Slow Talker” (“Deep water/ Like a river underground/ Speaks thunder/ And never makes a sound”) and “Oh Mama” (“I’m your wind-heeled son…/ I was born to shake the world/ For a sound”).
Charged with Foucault’s intensity and Bo Ramsey’s eerie guitar atmospherics, “Salt as Wolves” is being lauded in blues circles as well as the Americana and folk communities where Foucault’s consistently found warm welcome. Recorded in three days with Ramsey, Morphine drummer Billy Conway, bassist Jeremy Moses Curtis and backup vocalist Caitlin Canty, it’s a musical and career game-changer.
— Bliss Bowen
During your PledgeMusic campaign for ‘Salt as Wolves,’ you sent 20 acoustic demos to supporters, but only 12 tracks made the finished album. Were songs set aside due to sequencing issues, or are you saving them for a more lighthearted record?
It’s a professional surprise to me how deviling sequencing can be. There were five tunes that I couldn’t make fit. On tour we’re opening every night with ‘There’s a Destruction on This Land,’ written by Gary Davis, and it’s amazing as an opener, but it’s such a heavy track that I felt I couldn’t open the record with it and it couldn’t go anywhere else.
‘Any Town Will Do,’ we already had that feel with ‘Des Moines,’ [which] felt like the opener thematically, because it’s talking about playing a show for no one, essentially, and knowing it was one of the better shows you’ve ever played and nobody got to hear it [chuckles] — and that feeling of why you do what you do. Are you doing it because you want people to clap for you, or are you doing it for yourself? At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter if nobody was there if you played it right and with some openness and humility and for love of doing it. Then nobody can take anything from you. It’s like that old line about how you can’t cheat an honest man. If you’re trying to do it with the right spirit, you can’t afford to get upset [because] nobody came tonight. That’s a logistical difficulty but it’s not an existential proposition.
“Salt as Wolves” is being tagged folk, Americana and also blues — We’re No. 1 on the iTunes blues chart. How funny is that?
— and may be changing preconceptions about your music. Does that matter, or do you shrug that stuff off?
We only do those things in order to sell music, and to give people some marker that they can lay down and identify. For me what matters is this record is the first totally complete thing for me, because it’s sort of unified. Blues was in my records before, to some extent; go back to ‘Stripping Cane,’ in 2003 — there’s a bunch of fingerstyle country blues, not unlike Chris Smither, where I was playing basically a mixture of Piedmont and Delta fingerstyle stuff, some flowing syncopated stuff like Mississippi John Hurt, some dark modal blues.
I want people to listen to this record and not be able to ever say, ‘This is a country song, this is a blues song, this is a rock ‘n’ roll song.’ It all shows up in there. I will say, as a starting point, I wanted to make a blues record. I wanted that to be the organizing principle. I listen to a ton of blues. To me it’s the most distinctly American music; it informs country and it informs rock ‘n’ roll and jazz and almost everything else. To me that’s the bedrock and that’s what I always wanted to get to.
Who’ll be playing guitar with you at McCabe’s?
Eric Heywood; he’s a monster of a musician. He and I went out last year with all these songs. And Van Dyke Parks is going to come sit in. Oh, man, Van Dyke, there’s no beating him. He is just a class act, so sweet. He sends postcards to my 7-year-old daughter with little drawings. Funny guy, and a titanic, national treasure-level musician.
What writers resonate with you?
I read a lot of poetry and an even mix, pretty much, of fiction and nonfiction. My reading informs my singing and my approach to life — I believe it’s called the confirmation of philosophy [laughs]; you try to make sense of a world that’s largely unintelligible. Last night I went out with James Galvin, who’s one of the best poets in the country. He wrote a book called ‘The Meadow’ … I read it and wanted to meet him, so I called up and we went out for drinks. I love Jim Harrison’s books … Jack Gilbert. … Kenneth Rexroth. I’m friends with a writer named David James Duncan. A couple years ago I decided if I read or heard something I liked, I’d just drop a line, and say, ‘Hey, I read this thing and I thought it was great and you and I should be friends.’ And they write back and you’ve got a new friend and someone to have a drink with when you get to their town.
Great approach to life. Old-school.
Yeah, we love the work. Every night I’m playing with Bo Ramsey and Billy Conway, two of my heroes. Show me another line of work where you get to hang out with your heroes.
Jeffrey Foucault headlines and Caitlin Canty opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6, at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $20. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit jeffreyfoucault.com.