Gettin’ By on Central Time: An Interview with Pokey LaFarge
Pokey LaFarge might have been born 70 years too late. The 29-year old singer-songwriter dresses like he wandered out of a speakeasy. But it’s not just his wardrobe that’s influenced by Prohibition Era America; his infectious sound blends jazz, blues, country and ragtime.
For his first full-length album on Jack White’s Third Man Records, LaFarge enlisted Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor to co-produce (Secor also co-wrote a pair of songs for the project); the result might be his strongest release to date, with well-written originals like “Central Time” and “Close the Door” feeling at home alongside a snappy cover of “The Devil Ain’t Lazy.” We got the chance to chat with LaFarge recently about his new, self-titled record, his work on the recent Eddy Arnold tribute compilation, and, for last week’s Friday Five, his favorite musicians from St. Louis.
Pokey LaFarge is the first album you haven’t produced by yourself. Why did you decide to bring in Ketch Secor to co-produce?
It’s good to have different opinions, and with a producer, you’re going to get a different perspective and a different touch. I’ve known Ketch for about 10 years, and I knew that what he would bring would be a nice addition to my sound. A producer who’s lyrically minded, like Ketch is, can see things that are between the lines of the original composition. I’m a pretty controlling person, but I want the songs to be the best they can be, and some of the best songs ever written were co-writes.
It seems you’re branching out and writing about different topics that you haven’t tackled before, like health care issues on “Close the Door.” How did you write for the new record?
I guess I’m growing up. I travel all the time, so it’s hard not to write every song about traveling and the places I’ve been. Being in a different city every day is at the forefront of my everyday life.
I don’t get a lot of writing done on the road, which is a shame. I don’t have the time to just go at it and knock out a bunch of material. I’m just scribbling little, random notes from time to time. I’ll get home and just cut loose; the songs flood out. That’s the good thing about coming home: you know you have that to look forward to. You have to tell yourself to relax, and that’s when the words start coming out. I feel that’s the most natural way to write songs; you can’t force it. It can get frustrating, though. Writing songs and performing are like a drug: if you don’t have it and you’ve been used to it for a long period of time, you starve for it. When you’re out on the road, running on little sleep and little time to write, you feel a little under-accomplished, I guess. So you look forward to going home so you can write songs and feel like you’re doing well.
What was the recording process like?
We started recording last December. Some stuff was live in the studio, sometimes we recorded instrumentally and I’d work up my vocals separately so that we’d have a little more control over those. Ketch really wanted to have control over the vocals and make sure they were put out in front. There was a pre-production sit-down, which I’ve learned is very effective to make sure the musician, band, and producer are on the same page.
You’re not a preservationist. You’ve got knowledge of and respect for the artists and songs you cover, but you put your own stamp on songs like “The Devil Ain’t Lazy.”
I love the guys who blur the lines of music. A song is a song, you know? The thing I love about country music is that it’s a huge blend of styles, whether people realize it or not. I want people to realize it so they’re not so damning to what they think is a certain genre or style of music. People will ask me, “What genre do you classify yourself as?” But I want to blur the lines. I like so many different kinds of music, and it’s natural that they come out in my songwriting.
It’s hard to explain and hard for people to understand sometimes, but you do what you can and hopefully open up some minds every night.
How’d you end up covering “The Lovebug Itch” for the recent Eddy Arnold tribute album?
I wanted to do “Just a Little Lovin’ (Will Go a Long Way),” but that was already picked, so then someone suggested this one and I was like, “Oh, yeah!” It was a perfect choice. I put a bit of my own touch on the arrangement, and I got to have an incredible band play with me on that – Chris Scruggs played steel on it, Marco Giovino, the drummer for Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, was playing, Glen Duncan—he was on a lot of early Larry Sparks records; I don’t know if you’re into bluegrass, but I’m a huge Larry Sparks fan—and Dave Roe were there, and so was Steve Patrick, this incredible trumpet player. We recorded at Cowboy Jack’s legendary Sound Emporium in Nashville.
How’d you get into music that was made more than half a century before you were born? What did you grow up listening to?
I was into bluegrass at a young age. The stuff that really got me was Sleepy John Estes and early Muddy Waters. When I first got into music, I wasn’t playing any instruments, but I wanted to start, and I wanted to do something that was a little bit different, but not for the sake of just being different. That’s no way to do it. When I started playing music, I picked up the mandolin because of Bill Monroe; I didn’t know anybody my age who was doing that. I got into the fiddle and was playing old-time and bluegrass, but I was always into music that had more of a bounce and more chord changes. My bridge from the bluegrass world back into jazz was Western Swing. So I got into the guitar and I started singing. Once my voice started to come together, my songwriting started coming together, and I realized that the guitar was probably a better instrument for me.
You released your first record in your early 20s; how has your music evolved over the past few years?
In some ways, I put more and less pressure on myself at the same time. I think I’ve got more confidence now as a songwriter and performer. I know not to push a song that won’t come together. Sometimes you’ll hear the melody—a lot of the time, I’m a “melody first” guy—or you’ll have a verse, but you just can’t finish it. Back then I would try to force it because I didn’t have that much material to play, but now, I can let the song fragments just sit there. If they’re worth it, they’ll always come back and get finished.
A lot of people will see the new record as me going in a new direction, but I don’t see that at all. It’s interesting what instrumentation will do for people. If I took the horns out and played the same songs, some people will think it’s a bluegrass band, even though I have no bluegrass instrumentation whatsoever. If I have “jazz instruments,” then I’m a jazz act.
But I have the same goals now as I did then: strong lyrics, catchy songs, and good hooks.
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