Photo: Ismael Quintanilla III
Jay Farrar On Son Volt's New Album 'Electro Melodier' & The Lifelong Draw Of Electric Guitars, Words & Melodies
When the Americana heroes Uncle Tupelo broke up during the Clinton administration, they left two unbelievably different rock institutions in their wake. While Wilco spent album after album racing to the brink of experimental chaos before pulling back in the 2000s, Son Volt remained staunchly devoted to the core components of rock 'n' roll storytelling — words, melodies and chord progressions.
Flash forward more than 30 years: The pandemic has given Son Volt’s leader, Jay Farrar, more time to write songs and check out vintage gear. "I had more time to be looking at equipment," the singer/songwriter tells GRAMMY.com. "I came across two amplifiers — one called Electro, the other one Melodier — and I felt like that was emblematic as a title for what I was going for with this record: An emphasis on electric, uptempo, melodic songs."
Farrar couldn't have found two words that better sum up Son Volt's latest, which arrives July 30 via Thirty Tigers. The album is a sequence of well-crafted, warmly-recorded tunes for fans of Tom Petty, the Replacements and Bruce Springsteen. And it's bound to be catnip for those who believe a guitar, a tube amp and a pen comprise the ultimate form of human expression.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Farrar to discuss the road to Electro Melodier, dive into every song on the record and discuss everything from COVID-19 to his 25-year marriage to the civil rights upheaval of 2020.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You mentioned in the press release that the title comes from the names of two vintage amplifiers. Is an electric guitar through a cranked-up tube amp all one needs to genuinely express themselves?
It is if you had the background I had, yes. If you had the background I had, all you need is an acoustic guitar and a small amp and an electric guitar. It took me a while to realize what I would call the Keith Richards method of using small amps to record. You know, you get a bigger sound. On the very first Son Volt record, there's a small amp pictured on the cover.
This time around, with the pandemic, I had more time to be looking at equipment. I came across two amplifiers — one called Electro, the other one Melodier — and I felt like that was emblematic as a title for what I was going for with this record — an emphasis on electric, uptempo, melodic songs.
What other gear have you been checking out lately?
On the new recording, I used a baritone acoustic guitar, which is an Alvarez. I've also adapted some new guitars to my live [performance] — when I get back to playing live. I recently had some rotator cuff shoulder surgery from playing too much guitar. Forty years of acoustic guitar took its toll, so like a pitcher in baseball, I got the rotator cuff repair.
I was told to maybe find a thinner-bodied guitar, so I came across an old Kay Speed Demon guitar that I just put some acoustic pickups in and it sounds like an acoustic guitar. So, that's what I'll be going for whenever we start playing live.
Your debut album Trace just celebrated its 30th birthday. What feelings or memories about its making come to mind?
You know, I was living in New Orleans at the time and I had a lot of my equipment in St. Louis. Some of the other guys in the band were in Minneapolis, so I spent a lot of time driving north to south, up and down Highway 61. I used to take the 55 and the 35, just kind of soaking up those parts of the country.
I also remember that I think I hooked up a U-Haul trailer to a Honda Civic — one of the hatchbacks — so I would fit all the equipment in there. Crazy things like that that I wouldn't do now, but I did it. [Chuckles]. I put the expenses for that record on my girlfriend's credit card and away we went.
When you mentioned Highway 61, I remembered that tune ["Afterglow 61"] from Okemah and the Melody of Riot. Is that a place you continually return to in your mind?
Yeah, it runs right along the Mississippi here, near St. Louis, as well as in New Orleans and all the way up from Minneapolis. It's a thread that follows the river and, usually, good music follows the river and the road.
To connect the timeline to Electro Melodier, where would you place this record on the arc of your overall development?
That's a good question. It's hard to put it in context, I guess. Since it was a pandemic record, it was a much more hybrid approach to recording. We started doing this Zoom, remote-type recording on the song "These Are the Times," and sort of realized that some of that synergy and chemistry was lost over recording through a computer in a remote location.
So, some of us got together with masks in the studio and brought that chemistry back. Yet, at the same time, it made sense for Mark Spencer, who's the multi-instrumentalist, to add his parts because he has his own studio in Brooklyn. It was kind of a hybrid approach that I felt worked on this recording. I think the pandemic made the ingredients for this record to sound and be different.
At the very least, remote recording means the bassist and drummer can't look each other in the eye. You lose the pocket.
Yeah, absolutely. There were myriad communication-type problems since everyone had a computer with speakers and you're in different studios with audio monitors. We were just trying to mute the feedback loops from the microphone to the speaker, whether it's a computer, headphones, microphone… It was just too much.
Son Volt. Photo: Auset Sarno
Think we could go track-by-track to see what each song kicks up in your mind?
Sure, we can give it a shot.
Let's start with "Reverie."
I think that song represents what the recording is about: Getting back to basics. It starts with a melody. The song itself is just an exercise with wordplay. There's a baritone electric guitar on that song kind of inspired by Glen Campbell's work on "Wichita Lineman."
What can you tell me about "Arkey Blue"?
There's a bar in Bandera, Texas, which is outside of San Antonio, that I visited once. Its claim to fame was that Hank Williams, Sr. played there and carved his name in a table. So, I had some time off, went there, took a photo of the place. I have a sign in my music room where I play music. So, when I was writing that song, I just sort of used that Arkey Blue bar name as a placeholder title for the song itself.
A lot of lines from that song are directly from a speech Pope Francis gave, talking about turbulent rains never before seen, essentially saying that the pandemic is Earth's way of fighting back. That just sort of blew my mind, the Pope saying that, so that wound up in the song. Ultimately, I just sort of felt like the subject matter in the song has kind of a Noah's Ark vibe, so "Arkey Blue" stuck even though it has meanings that go off in different directions.
Did Hank really carve his name in the table, or was that a rumor?
Ah… well, it's there. It definitely looks the right part. The whole place is straight out of a time warp when you go in there, so it's totally believable that it was Hank, Sr.'s name carved in there. They do have it kind of roped off so people don't mess with it.
How about "The Globe"?
That song, I think, was written through a period of turmoil, both in this country — George Floyd's death protests, Black Lives Matter — and looking at news across the globe. People in Belarus or wherever getting clamped down and their freedoms being curtailed. I think the gist of that song just came out of "We're all in this together across the world." A nod of solidarity to those in this country and across the world.
And "Diamonds and Cigarettes"?
I guess that one could have been called "Ode to a Long-Term Relationship." The clock just turned 25 years of marriage for me. I think the pandemic also made one realize the people around you are incredibly important. So, that was one takeaway. Laura Cantrell sang backups on that one. I've known her since about 1995. She was interviewing when we were playing the first Son Volt shows back in 1995.
What do you appreciate about her approach to the tune, or just her voice in general?
It kind of blew me away. Again, Mark Spencer, who's the multi-instrumentalist in the band, also plays with Laura Cantrell as her guitar player, occasionally. They had a rapport. I know Laura and her husband, Jeremy, so it was an all-in-the-family type of experience. I felt that she really did a great job.
Where does "Lucky Ones" fit into the puzzle?
There were always cross-currents of R&B, soul and country music that I've always liked, whether it was Dan Penn, Charlie Rich or the Flying Burrito Brothers. That was my take, or my attempt at tapping into that aesthetic via rhythm and blues and country soul.
I remember the old cover of the Burritos' "Sin City," so obviously, that DNA runs deep.
[Shyly] Yeah, yeah. For sure.
And "War on Misery"?
A couple of years ago, some kids in town in St. Louis had put a manifesto in my mailbox called "War on Misery." It was kind of a self-published socialist manifesto. I could concur. I could relate. So, that title kind of stuck with me. I was trying to go with a Lightnin' Hopkins type sound. Lightnin' Hopkins would often perform with a regular guitar tuned way down, so he had this deep, baritone sound.
How about "Livin' in the USA"?
It didn't start out as an intentional thing, but in retrospect, I see it as a nod to songs like Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" or Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World." Both of those songs have a similar thematic thing going on. I feel like those songs establish a thematic tradition, so I was just kind of taking it and running with it.
But yeah, again, a lot of turmoil going on and looking around and seeing things that don't add up and putting them into the song.
Both songs are antimatter national anthems. Widely misunderstood, too.
Yeah, exactly. There could be some of that that happens with this one as well.
How about "Someday is Now"?
We started to veer off into prog-rock land a bit with that one, but we consciously kept in check. There were a few times in the recording when we had to pull it back from sounding too much like Rush but I think it ultimately sounded more like Zeppelin.
Has prog always been part of your creative stew?
Not so much for me, but it's in there somewhere, I suppose. Once it gets in there, you can't shake it out completely.
Tell me about "Sweet Refrain."
There are some COVID-19 references, I think, in there. "Looking out the window panes" — I spent a lot of time doing that in the last year and a half. Again, there's some references to relationships and that kind of thing, but there's also a line in there: "Another hero is gone," which references people that passed during COVID, like John Prine.
That song is also an example of a stream-of-consciousness type, where it kind of goes from one verse to the next and jumps around. The final verse references some of the folks in Benton, Mississippi — [Jimmy] "Duck" Holmes and Skip James. I've used that tuning before and I felt like I wanted to tip a hat to that tuning.
And how about "The Levee On Down"? That symbolism weighs heavy in blues and country.
Yeah. I live close to the Mississippi River, so I've driven up and down the levees. They usually have roads on them. You can drive up and down. I was going to make a bad joke about a Chevy on the levee, but I'm not going to do that.
I'm going to say that from driving up and down Highway 61 into Cape Girardeau, Missouri, when you go about an hour and a half south of St. Louis, there's the Trail of Tears crossing where the Cherokee Indians crossed. Many died on their way to Oklahoma due to the Trail of Tears forced march, and the person that was part of that was Andrew Jackson. He's on the $20 bill.
Then, we've got "These Are the Times."
That was very much a COVID reference. Changing times, and this is where we're at. Let's try to find our way through this.
We're almost through with the record. "Rebetika."
I came across that word in reference to a certain kind of Greek folk music that was described as being close to blues. It had maybe a similar impetus as blues. I just found that to be kind of fascinating. I took the title "Rebetika" and just kind of ran with it.
Then, after "The Globe / Prelude," we close out with "Like You."
Yeah, that was a stripped-down version—almost like a demo—of "The Globe." We were recording that very much in the [midst of the pandemic]; I think it was when the Black Lives Matter protests were going on. We actually released, I think, on Bandcamp during that time frame.
I always tend to forget about the very last song, but then it sticks in my mind. I guess the way I would summarize this whole project is that I had more time to work on the song structures and arrangements — the writing itself — and more time spent recording the vocals. Really, all of it.
It spanned the course months where often, in the past, the recording would happen between the gigs. With that song, Jacob Detering, who did the engineering, played a sort of drone, a Mellotron-type instrument on that. More time, more team. I think those were elements that went into the making of this record.