There’s no doubt about Jay Farrar’s legacy in modern music. As a co-founding member of one of its genre-defining bands, Uncle Tupelo, and then as the creator behind one of its certifiable masterpieces, Son Volt’s Trace, his body of work ranks among the finest in contemporary country and rock and roll. His unique voice and image-laden lyrics have become a mark of quality in art that isn’t easily put away. With Son Volt’s sixth LP, American Central Dust, due out on July 7th, Jay took the time to sit down with Aquarium Drunkard and talk about shifts in his writing style, why ending an album on an uptempo song can be a good thing and why ‘oppressive’ just doesn’t seem to be the way to describe the new album.
Aquarium Drunkard: I had always felt that your songwriting was very imagist in nature, but starting with your Terroir Blues solo record and definitely with Okemah and the Melody of Riot, your songwriting seemed to change in a certain sense – it took on a more purposeful tone and had a more direct injection of political themes as well. Was this a conscious effort in changing songwriting, was it a natural evolution or do you even feel there was a change?
Jay Farrar: I guess, more recently, I have turned to different methods of writing – a song like “Cocaine and Ashes” and probably, especially, “Sultana,” [two songs from the new album] where “Sultana” is more of a historical narrative type song. In the past, and still now, the predominant mode for me is more of a stream of consciousness style. It’s working backwards where I’m feeling out ideas and making a structure out of that, as opposed to a song like “Sultana” where I started with a theme or concept and built the song around that.
AD: It’s interesting that you mention “Sultana.” The immediate thing I thought of when I first heard it was some of the songs on the Uncle Tupelo March 16-20, 1992 record – it seemed rooted in traditional disaster songs and songs like that.
JF: I guess in some respects, yes, this record was getting back to a more traditional aesthetics. The previous record, The Search, was more about trying out some instrumentation that had not been tried out before.
AD: The new record also seems like it’s a combination of everything within Son Volt, all the way back to Trace – it seems like something that spans the 13 or 14 years of the band.
JF: That’s interesting. Perhaps that’s true. I’m not sure. [laughs] All I do know is that I follow wherever inspiration takes the writing and you have to get away from certain kinds of instrumentation, like violin, in order to really feel like starting to use it again.
AD: What’s the songwriting process as far as putting the songs together in studio with the band?
JF: This time around I went into the recording knowing I wanted it to be a more focused record than the previous one. One way to do that, from my perspective, was to just play acoustic guitar and concentrate more on the structure of the song. So all the songs were written and played on acoustic. Everyone gets a rough demo of the song before we go into the studio and from that point it’s just a process of seeing what works and what doesn’t.
AD: The new album has this prevalent dark feel to it – in a certain sense – even though there are songs that escape that. There’s this sense of, as one of the songs says, that there’s “no turning back.” You talked about this being a more focused record, but can you explain how the album title ties in with that?
JF: Basically they are three words that were pulled from three different songs – “American,” “central” and “dust.” I’ve done that before, but it seems like that’s the best way to come up with a representative title for all of the songs.
AD: And do you feel like the title represents it well? I felt like the album has this kind of oppressive feel to it..
AD: Yeah, in the sense that it’s kind of a weighty, heavy sounding title.
JF: That wasn’t the intent. I haven’t necessarily heard anyone else say that, but certainly your interpretation is valid.
AD: [laughs] Well, how would you describe the overall feel of the record?
JF: It is just more getting back to a familiar aesthetic. Like I said it represents the chemistry of the band. We’d been with this current line-up for eight months when we recorded it, so it reflects the coalescence of this particular lineup. We’ve been doing a lot of shows together and you can hear a lot of interplay between Chris Masterson on electric guitar and Mark Spencer on pedal steel and keyboards. And I would say also that there was a conscious effort to keep the song arrangements and structures more straightforward as well. I probably learned that from Tom Waits – just sometimes the simpler method can be the best way to go.
AD: Like I’d said, the record has this heavier feel to it – to me at least – but the last song on the record is kind of an anomaly. You rarely think of people ending a record with a sort of rousing song like “Jukebox of Steel,” but it ends up being this note of redemption at the end of the record. There’s a line in the song about “throw the calendar away / go and find a jukebox of steel.” This is maybe an encouragement that the calendar is less a definition of what matters than what survives and what is created by humanity in art.
JF: I like your interpretation. For me, it was probably just coming off of ending a couple of records with a down-tempo song and I guess that’s more of the norm, sort of bringing things down at the end. But yeah, I felt like it this time. Why not? “Jukebox of Steel,” last song.
AD: At this point, you’ve been involved in music for over 20 years. Has the goal of your art changed? After doing something for 20 years, maybe your reasons change for doing something. So now, what’s the goal? Why do you do what you do?
JF: Essentially the same reasons as when I started. Music is the motivator and it’s become a way of life. I really can’t think of doing anything else. words/ j. neas