“Songs have very curious existences… they live lives of their own outside and beyond us”
So says American kind-of-folklorist Jake Xerxes Fussell, whose new long player is crafted from history and musical posterity. We got him started on his focus and listened in.
Jake Xerxes Fussell’s current self-produced album What in the Natural World is, much like his 2015 eponymous debut, built from folk songs and tunes he has collected along the way; but that’s not to say he’s a real folklorist. “Well I did Southern Studies, which I guess is a sub-set of Cultural Studies, and folklore is a part of that, but I wouldn’t consider myself a folklorist as such,” he tells us, once we’ve settled. The location for our interview and a double bill show later that evening with American primitive guitar player Daniel Bachman is an art gallery and studio space up the oldest cobbled street in the heart of Bristol. The room we have landed in is a wonderful printing space full of old machinery and beautiful materials; it’s a collector’s dream grotto and all very apt for this conversation. “I have grown up in a folkloric environment,” Jake continues. “Because my father was a folklorist from the sixties and both of my parents were involved in that sort of work. My mother was an English teacher, but she took folklore into the classroom because she studied a lot of material culture in the sixties, stuff like basket making and quilting and pottery. Both of my parents were part of this revival of interest in home-made crafts and rural craft work in the late sixties and early seventies. There was a revival of interest in that stuff that drew parallels with the folk music revival around that time. They were tangentially part of that movement.”
Conversely, Jake’s approach to gathering material is very different to what he is used to, in that it is very immaterialist. “I’m a collector because I’m interested and I do incorporate traditional songs into my work, but I’m not a record collector,” he says. “There are people who dedicate their lives to folklore, and they have a much better methodology than I do; my method is through the music that I play and my interest, but I’m no authority. It’s hard to answer because my intellectual interests so overlap my artistic world. They seem like two different things, but they’re very much intertwined, if not synonymous.” It’s a typically slippery answer from Jake, but it feels very much like there is an enormous amount of respect and love for his craft and many others that underline it, not to mention the modesty. At this, he chuckles and adjusts his baseball cap. “It’s one of those things where people will ask if you’re an architect and you’ll say ‘well no, I’ve just worked on buildings forever as a carpenter, but I didn’t go to architecture school.’ So I guess I’m not a folklorist, but I am very much interested in it and collecting, and a lot of the work that I’ve done has been heavily influenced by it.”
Jake’s upbringing in Georgia was also heavily influenced by music, so much so that it became his ingredient, but again it was of the variety that was absorbed directly into the bloodstream, rather than through any rose-tinted specs. “I guess the idea of playing music wasn’t some kind of abstract far away concept to me,” he explains. “Because there were everyday musicians around when I grew up that weren’t so famous, but were really fucking good.” It’s very much a learning on the job mentality that has informed this player, but it’s an environment he believes is less common these days. “I think for some younger people growing up a musician is viewed as some kind of star, much like a film actor,” he ventures, “but I never really had that. [In Georgia] there were people doing music who were carpenters or office workers by day, but then at night time they could damn sure play the fiddle. So, I knew that music was something tangible and to get good at it you had to work really hard. I was very fortunate and privileged in that I could approach these guys personally; if I wanted to learn how to finger-pick a song, I could sit there and watch Precious Bryant play it and learn it from her. It just wasn’t so mediated; I guess many people’s experience of music is through records, which can be quite an insular process. I listened to a lot, but I also knew people who I could learn directly from.”
In many ways, not much has changed in Jake’s mentality and approach to learning from other artists. What in the Natural World takes nine songs, collected mainly from parts of America but even venturing as far as Wales, like for his take on ‘The Bells of Rhymney’, written by Welsh poet Idris Davis and made famous by The Byrds and Pete Seeger, who recorded it first. The set is certainly darker than the debut, tackling tales of poverty, notably on key track ‘Furniture Man’ (‘a devil born without horns’), a character dating back to before the 1920s and cropping up in many folk songs along the way, collecting debts. “Part of me does think this is a darker record, but I didn’t really set out to make it one,” Jake admits. “On my first album I was working with William [Tyler, producer], which really dictated things in a certain way, because he had ideas on how to elaborate on songs I had been playing for a long time, and it worked really well. But on this one, it was more intuitive because I hadn’t played the songs out much, which made it a more intimate and personal record.” And a more serious one, at the same time as it being unsettlingly funny; take opener ‘Jump for Joy’, from a 1941 Duke Ellington song, with it’s laconic ‘Don’t you grieve, little Eve/all the hounds I do believe, have been killed/Ain’t you thrilled?’ “It’s funny,” he smiles, leaning on the print table. “I certainly didn’t mean for it to be too serious, and I do feel like there are moments of light in there and even absurdity. I didn’t want it to sound oppressively dark, that’s for sure, but some of my favourite records contain a lot of darkness mixed with humour and light.”
It’s a fine balance, but more importantly, it is a musician and collector who makes pains to look for these old songs and tunes and, in a way, brings them back to life. “Well, you know, I don’t necessarily think of what I do as keeping songs alive,” he frowns after a pause spent scratching his chin. “I don’t think of music as either alive or dead, but I do like to look for things that are a little obscure, or underappreciated and bring those to light in my own way in whatever little arena I have.” If this sounds like a slightly terse answer, then don’t be fooled; the impression is of a musician who is very careful with the artefacts he considers and very modest about his contribution. “People have said that to me about keeping them alive, but songs don’t have lives really, although I do I think they have very curious existences of their own outside and beyond me and us. I don’t know man; I’m going off on a tangent!” He sits back, adjusts the cap again and composes an answer. “I think it’s important to find something that I really like and stick with that. The song has to strike me emotionally before I play it, and for this album, I had a certain amount of songs in mind that I really liked.” As simple as that then.
What in the Natural World is out now on Paradise of Bachelors
Photo Credit: Brad Bunyea (via Paradise of Bachelors)