Integrity is a hard won commodity in the music industry. It has to do with an artist’s core beliefs; in themselves, in the world around them, and in what, and why, they’re picking up a guitar or singing into a microphone, the process of giving themselves for others. Some artists are more see-through than a telescope, their every move a magnified calculation in the perennial hunt for visibility.’ It’s all about me!’ they scream, diving for the next endorsement. Thankfully, there are plenty of artists out there who balance the scales.
Jeffrey Foucault steers the true, if not the straight, course. Whether on his early albums, mostly just him and the muse, or later releases with increased instrumentation and collaboration, the music is a distillation of the matter-of-fact, everyday trials and troubles that occur between waking up and going to sleep. His latest album, Salt As Wolves, will be released later in the year.
Ahead of a UK tour with his sticksman Billy Conway, including a sold out London gig at Green Note on February 8 (read the live review here), Folk Radio got in touch. As on record, Foucault was refreshingly honest and forthright.
FRUK: Were you always going to be a musician?
Because I am now we can say yes, definitively, but that was not plain to me at all until it happened. I was pretty sure I wasn’t cut out for a normal job though, and it troubled me.
FRUK: You’re married to a songwriter (Foucault is married to Kris Delmhorst); is there a mad rush in the morning to secure the best chord progression?
No. There’s a mad rush for coffee. There’s nothing remotely competitive. It’s comforting to have someone at home who knows exactly what it feels like to do this job, has played all the same rooms, and understands the vagaries of process.
FRUK: Who do you write for?
Foremost other musicians, alive and dead. Then everyone else.
FRUK: The imagery of the American Midwest runs through your bio and your songs. Is your music defined by its roots or do you see it as having a wider remit than that?
It’s defined by the landscape it grew from, and also has a wider remit, as you say. These things aren’t mutually exclusive. A sense of language is determined by place. But I’d like to think no one has to speak English to dig my records.
FRUK: The people and communities of the American Midwest are a deep well for songwriters. Why do you think these stories continue to attract our attention?
As to why the Midwest breeds the kinds of writer it does, Bob Dylan has spoken about this more elegantly than I can, but let’s say there is a sense, when one comes from a place that seems unimportant to the larger culture, of always having arrived slightly late to the party. There’s also a freedom in not being oppressed by the feeling that everything has been done. You’re simply too naive to think that way, and that can be useful.
FRUK: The New York Times says you’re a ‘..young man with an old soul..’. Do you identify with that or is it just good copy?
I’m no longer a young man, but they go on to call me ‘contemporary and timeless,’ which is nice.
FRUK: You contributed (with Mark Erelli) ‘Song For Susan’ on the recent Chris Smither tribute. Do you feel an affinity with Smither’s work?
I can’t help but feel an affinity. He’s a friend and an influence, though I had written and released a record before I ever heard him. His ten best songs stack up pretty well against anyone, and there was a year where I opened about 60 shows for him, everywhere from London to Houston to Anchorage. He never let me pay for my supper.
FRUK: Tell me about Salt as Wolves. Where does the title originate from?
It’s a line from Othello, a passing reference to boldness, for a record that I wanted to be bold and loose. A blues record, essentially.
FRUK: What was the impetus for recording the new album?
I wanted to bring together Bo Ramsey on electric guitars and Billy Conway on drums, and cut a lean record. They’re two of the best players in the world and they both have an aesthetic that relies on economy and negative space. And though they’re friends they had never played together. It was magic.
FRUK: And the songs; was there a trigger for Salt As Wolves or do you write constantly?
I write constantly and finish things occasionally, often in great sprints leading up to recording. These songs all seem to be to or about people; letters nearly.
FRUK: Your online biography states ‘I take the small roads when I can.’ Is that where the best stories are?
I don’t know. It’s just where I feel most at home.
FRUK: It’s your 5th solo album under your own name since 2001. You’ve also recorded a collection of John Prine songs and collaborated twice with poet Lisa Olstein as part of Cold Satellite. It’s a healthy return in that timeframe; do you feel prolific?
I feel busy, but I take my time with things. This record is my best – the most coherent expression, and one that ties together all of my influences. It’s only the last few years that I hit my stride as an electric guitar player, record producer, band leader, and singer. For a long time there were things I wanted do in all those categories that I could not do. I don’t feel that way anymore, though this could be an illusion. I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.
FRUK: Is there a point where you say to yourself, ‘I’ve got an album here’, or is the album planned before the songs arrive? how does the process work?
I write songs, fragments. At some point I read or hear a phrase that leaps out at me as the framework that binds together all the ideas in the songs that have shown up, and then I start thinking about process, personnel, and timing for a session. I believe in grammar, and deciding what to leave out, and that requires some thought on the front end.
FRUK: Has that process remained the same throughout your recording life?
No, it’s been an evolution.
FRUK: Has expanding the instrumental palette on your more recent albums forced you to change the way you work?
Well, sure. You don’t bring a hammer to a job with no nails. The sonic palette changes to meet the needs of the songs, the moment. My older records didn’t always reflect my interest in rock ‘n’ roll, though early rock – Little Richard, Jerry Lee – was the first music that really moved me. One of the things I’ve always admired about Neil Young is that he made a lot of different kinds of records but never lost the through-line; his vision is remarkably consistent.
FRUK: What do you enjoy more, writing and recording or performing the songs live?
Making records is my favorite thing, hands down. I haven’t been away from performing long enough to miss it in 15 years.
FRUK: UK crowds are notoriously quiet during performances compared to their US cousins. You’ve played here before; what’s been your experience?
I always enjoy touring the UK, and while the crowds are polite it doesn’t bother me. I get to play lots of different kinds of rooms – Hell’s Angels bars, prisons, cowboy bars, opera houses, symphony halls.
FRUK: It’s just you and Billy Conway this time. What can we expect?
Billy and I have been on the road duo for about a year and a half now, and it’s been a revelation to me. He plays a suitcase drum kit (the whole thing fits in the suitcase and the suitcase empty is the kick drum). I play acoustic and electric guitars, and we’re able to cover all our territory in this format. It’s primal and stripped down, and when we find the pocket and drop into it there’s nowhere I’d rather be.
FRUK: Will you be playing tracks from Salt As Wolves?
We’ll rely mainly on the new songs and then play some older things too, and take a request now and then.
FRUK: What’s next for you; tour; record; tour, or are there wider horizons?
I’ll keep touring and making records, both my own and as a producer for other people. I produced three records in 2013: The Reef by Hayward Williams came out this past December, Reckless Skyline by Caitlin Canty is out this month, and Tulsa by John Statz will be out in March. All young songwriters I met on the road. I couldn’t be prouder of these records and I had a ball making them. I think they’ll stand the test of time.
The ability to appear timeless washes through Foucault’s music, whether it’s the storyboard blues of Horse Latitudes, the rockier Ghost Repeater or the more acoustic Stripping Cane, to name only the most recent of his catalogue. Foucault is the real deal; go and find out why.
Interview by: Paul Woodgate