Jeffrey Foucault’s latest album, Blood Brothers, comes out on June 22 (available now for pre-order), and we saw the perfect opening to ask him a few questions for our Rule Breakers series. It’s an album that will carry you farther downriver than you expected to go in one afternoon and offers up songs that linger in the eddies of love and memory.
Foucault is known for his spare, literate writing style. As an example, these lines from “Cross of Flowers” (2004):
There’s a red barn in the half light
And a white frost on the shade
And in the bars down off the main drag
They’re drinking down what they got paid
And I wonder in all my leaving
If I ever could have stayed
I’m coming home
He took those lines and the others out on the road, covered countless miles, and cemented his status as one of the great songwriters. His songwriting keeps company with other greats like John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and Don Henley (who has said “Jeffrey Foucault… clocks modern culture about as good as I’ve ever heard anybody clock it.”).
The New York Times has said of his music, “Immaculately tailored… Sometimes his songs run right up to the edge of the grandiose and hold still, and that’s when he’s best…”
Take a look, have a listen, buy the album.
You’ve said “I don’t care about being famous, and if I did I would have made other decisions in my life until now.” How have you broken the rules or bucked conventional ways of making a living as a working musician and as a songwriter?
I tried to explain to my 9 year-old recently that fame just means that more people know who you are than you are personally acquainted with. In that sense a small degree of fame comes with the territory if you’re trying to sell records and get people into clubs to hear you play. But I was never willing to give up the rights to my master recordings to sign with a major label, or take a large advance that would lock me into a multiple-record contract, or give pre-approval to the use of my songs to advertisers. I like my independence, and the chance to have the kind of life that’s worth writing about.
I frankly barely exist out on the margins of the music industry, and I pay attention to it the way you might look at a wreck on the highway, not out of interest exactly but because it’s just hard to look away. I work hard, and I try to write good songs and make good records. I’ve played 100 or more nights a year for almost 20 years here and in Europe. I put one foot in front of the other and hope that every time I come back to a town there’s a few more people in the room than there were the last time. So far that’s been the case.
It’s a record about love and memory, and the ways we’re connected to certain people all through our lives, whether we know them anymore or don’t, whether we ever even get to meet them maybe.
In that sense the living I’ve made has been conventional—in the sense that I was raised to show up, work hard, and try to treat people right—but not perhaps conventional within the context of the music industry, which tends to try to build the attic on the house first, using money and the machinery of promotion to create fame out of whole cloth. I’m trying to create a body of work, not have a hit record.
Your new album, Blood Brothers, comes out on June 22 and is available for pre-order now. Comparing it to your last album, Salt As Wolves, you’ve said “We left the blues out this time and there’s a touch more light coming through the window.” Would you talk a bit about that?
The last record was, in conception, a blues combo record. We tried to approach it like an old Chess recording—live recording in one room, feel over form, no rehearsal—and even the country or rock ‘n’ roll songs are redolent of blues, because that’s the spirit of the enterprise. Life and death are the subject matter.
The Blood Brothers record, once the dust settled, just seemed to hew to another line altogether. I wrote the songs fast, mostly in the six weeks after the studio was booked, and they all seemed to fall into a more inward, vulnerable place. It’s a record about love and memory, and the ways we’re connected to certain people all through our lives, whether we know them anymore or don’t, whether we ever even get to meet them maybe.
Billy Conway, your drummer and the other half of your duo out on the road is your co-writer on the title track of Blood Brothers. How did the two of you end up playing together, and why does that partnership work so well?
Billy produced my wife – Kris Delmhorst’s – first two albums back in Boston in the early ‘00’s, just after his band Morphine ended with the death of lead singer Mark Sandman. I was hiring a band in ‘08 to work on a collaborative project with the poet Lisa Olstein—which became the band Cold Satellite—and I asked Kris who was the best drummer we knew. She said, “Billy Conway, hands down.” So I called him and we cut, and then toured, that project together in the states and overseas and got to be good friends.
A while later I was booked to play a live-audience radio show in Bozeman and I was staying with Billy at his place over the Bridgers in Wilsall, and asked him if he wanted to try playing duo, just drums and guitars. We got up on stage and I felt right away that I’d found the thing I’d been looking for without knowing it: the ability to cover all the terrain—country, blues, soul, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, folk music—in a novel way, that was versatile and dynamic, and unique.
We’ve been playing together ever since, it’s always me and Bill, sometimes with the full band but always the two of us as the basic sonic unit. And I’ll tell you that he’s the best musician—not simply drummer, but musician—I’ve known. Every night is a lesson in how to play, but also in how to be a gracious human who brings dignity to the work at hand. He’s was on the road 20 years before I made a record, played to hundreds of thousands of people with Morphine, and has played with, or opened for, or met, everyone from Johnny Cash to Bonnie Raitt, to Bob Dylan. I’m lucky to play with him, and to call him a friend.
Are fly fishing and music connected in any way for you?
They’re connected in the sense that done right they’re both concerned with the same things. In each the object at hand—catching fish, or playing a song—and the mechanics involved, are secondary to the practice itself and the spirit you approach it with.
Which writers have influenced your writing, and what are you reading right now?
I’ve been a compulsive reader since I was about 15, and I can’t take literature and poetry out of my understanding of the world. The writers who influenced me early and deeply were probably Steinbeck, Rexroth, Faulkner, McCarthy, Tolstoy, Cather, Sandoz, a number of others. In my 30s I read everything Jim Harrison wrote and thoroughly enjoyed it (I later got to meet and fish with him, have dinner with his family, and pepper him with every question I could think of, which was deeply rewarding).
Right now I’m on tour in Nashville and I’ve brought with me Joe Hutto’s book about the ecology of the mountain west and his study of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep in the mountains of Wyoming, called The Light in High Places. Also I have an early collection of Dennis Johnson’s poetry.
What piece or pieces of clothing do you always take out on the road with you?
Some of the best advice that I ever heard about the music business was in an interview with a long time member of James Brown’s band who, when asked what he would tell an aspiring musician, said, “Always pack the night before and leave your uniform on top.”
When I go on the road I bring a Levi’s denim jacket, a good pair of boots, an old pair of 501s, a Stetson Open Road hat, and three or four pearl snap shirts. I have too much gear to bring a lot of clothes, and anyway, I like to have a stage rig that reminds me, when I put it on, that it’s time to go to work.
Jeffrey in the Western Dress Shirt (No. 5649) from The J. Peterman Company. Photo: Kris Delmhorst
Tour schedule: https://jeffreyfoucault.com/tour/
Photo credit: Joe Navas