Interview: Jay Farrar Hopes to Influence Some Change With Latest Son Volt LP, ‘Union’
"Okemah really was the last recording where there was a good bit of topical songwriting, so I guess I'm on the 10-year plan."
"I guess it's more of a visceral thing," the frontman says of writing political songs, though he admits he's not sure if Union is Son Volt's most political album. "It seems comparable to Okemah in some ways. I was raised on folk music, and political content is a common thread in folk music, whether it's Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan.
"I felt like I had to write these songs, I felt like it was my job in a way," Farrar adds. "What else can a musician do than to hopefully influence some kind of change? Maybe it's, in a small part, making someone think twice about what's going on around them."
Whether or not it's Son Volt's most political album, Union is indeed one of their most focused and cohesive. It's also a careful maturation from their previous record, Notes of Blue.
"I always feel like it's important for a new recording to be a contrast to what came before," Farrar tells The Boot. "With this one, obviously some of the lyrical content is different, but it was also a conscious decision to write most of the songs in standard [guitar] tuning — there were a lot of alternate tunings on Notes of Blue."
"What else can a musician do than to hopefully influence some kind of change?"
Another difference is that Chris Frame stepped up and took on a lot of the lead guitar solos. "There's a different flavor," says Farrar, "and there's more of a band chemistry on Union than Notes of Blue." As Farrar puts it, Union is the ultimate result of him and his bandmates — the aforementioned Frame on guitar, multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer, bassist Andrew DuPlantis and drummer Mark Patterson — hitting the road and performing live together.
"There's that added chemistry that you get only from hanging out and playing shows," he explains.
That chemistry fuels Farrar's writing, and throughout Union, especially on tunes such as "The 99" and the title track, it's obvious that he's comfortable covering topical issues with the support of his bandmates. "It just feels like what I'm supposed to do," he confesses. "When there's turmoil and your societal way of life feels threatened, I think everybody has to pitch in and do what they can to right the ship."
Farrar isn't quick to say whether or not Son Volt have righted the ship, though.
"I don't feel like I can answer that," he says, "but I think I've probably asked some relevant questions along the way. There's definitely a cultural divide now. I was too young to experience the '60s and the Vietnam War era, so experiencing this red vs. blue cultural divide is disconcerting, to say the least. In some ways, I'm just carrying on the tradition of reporting what you see around you."
That reporting took Farrar and company out of the studio for a few of the tracks on Union: They recorded a handful of songs at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Okla., and the Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, Ill.
"We've done shows at the Woody Guthrie Center over the years," Farrar recalls. "I was writing about topical and societal issues, and I felt like some of these songs needed to be taken outside of the studio to these places. I felt like it would be important to get out of the comfortable aspect of the studio and record in these different environments. It might be more challenging, but it also might inspire what I was doing along the way while bringing attention to the contributions that people like Mother Jones and Woody Guthrie made."
This was the first time Farrar actually recorded in either space, though, and he admits it the engineering side of things proved to be tough. Fortunately, Son Volt's engineer, Jacob Detering, put together a mobile recording rig and, as fans can hear, did a superb job.
Though Union will often be heralded as a political album, Farrar intentionally ensured it wasn't that from front to back. "It's by design," he says. "I set out with the idea to make a focused statement, but midway through the writing, I felt like the album needed a healthy balance of non-topical songs as well. That's where songs like "Devil May Care" come in, where I was just trying to think of what the essence of rock 'n' roll meant to me. I was thinking of bands like the Replacements and the [Rolling] Stones and the Who. That's where that song came in — thinking about the attitudes that those brands bring."
Rock 'n' roll history isn't the only thing that influences Farrar's writing. He acknowledges that, to some degree, his location plays a role in how and what he writes.
"St. Louis is obviously urban, probably the biggest urban area in the region," Farrar expounds. "It has more in common with New York than New Yorkers might think."
He pauses to laugh at that sentiment.
"After the 2016 election, when you saw the colors on the map, and you realize you live in a sea of red," he continues, "it certainly makes you think about things a bit differently."
There is one particular story on Union that stands out as a clear and present issue that Farrar attempts to look at differently: On "Reality Winner," Farrar minces no words as he elevates the life and whistleblowing work of Air Force veteran Reality Winner. As he explains, Winner is a "merchant of truth" who needs more and more awareness brought to her plight.
"After the 2016 election, when you saw the colors on the map, and you realize you live in a sea of red, it certainly makes you think about things a bit differently."
That kind of unadulterated devotion to speaking the truth has always been important to Farrar — dating all the way back to the early days of Uncle Tupelo — but it seems to have taken on a completely new life for the songwriter in 2019 and is proudly celebrated on Union.
As Son Volt revel in the release of their new LP, they're also preparing for rehearsals for their spring tour in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Beyond that, Farrar is looking ahead to Record Store Day, when he will celebrate the release of a 7-inch with Gob Iron, his duo with Anders Parker. (Word on the street is that Thirty Tigers will eventually reissue Gob Iron's debut album, Death Songs for the Living, on vinyl as well.)
Aside from bringing Gob Iron back into the spotlight, though, Farrar is deliberately keeping his attention on Son Volt.
"I'm focused on the band right now," he says with confidence. "I've slowly started putting stuff together, so I imagine I'll get back to recording some solo stuff eventually ... but there's nothing on the schedule yet."
He pauses, almost asserting an unspoken recognition of all the different work that's kept him busy over the last 30 years.
"Right before Notes of Blue, I was writing, writing, writing, writing, trying to focus on that and get it all done. This time, not so much," he shares. "I'm sitting back and contemplating some other things. It's cyclical, I guess, but it's unpredictable for sure."
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