Extended Interview With Hometown Musician Pokey LaFarge

By Rachel Brandt
In Culture

STL’s favorite hometown musician, the charismatic Pokey LaFarge, is right where he wants to be: perfectly poised to take on the world with his timeless tunes as the musician in the middle.

Pokey LaFarge by Wesley Law for ALIVE Magazine.

Pokey LaFarge by Wesley Law for ALIVE Magazine.

Nestled comfortably somewhere between rock star and Americana crooner stands the talented Pokey LaFarge. The Bloomington, Illinois, native has lived in St. Louis for the last seven years, but was raised with a decidedly Chicago influence—a combo that leaves him calling both St. Louis and Chicago home. He’s an eternally proud advocate for middle America, as evidenced by recent interviews with Rolling Stone and NPR’s “Fresh Air,” not to mention his countless tunes that pay tribute to the heartland and his band full of Midwest natives. A quick listen to “Knockin’ the Dust off the Rust Belt Tonight,” and there’s no doubting his originality and artistry are largely inspired by his Midwest roots.

Although LaFarge began his career inspired by America’s earliest country, blues and jazz musicians (he counts Sidney Bechet and Jimmy Rodgers among his top influences), he’s the first to note that he’s not trying to recreate the past (even if he does favor performing on a 1957 Gibson guitar). And with a world tour under his belt, A-list friends like Jack White, performances on the “Late Show with David Letterman” and a new album released April 7 on the notable Rounder Records (a label he shares with George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Gregg Allman and Alison Krauss), LaFarge has already lived a life far beyond the old back-porch singers who were his inspiration.

Sashaying into his Cherokee Street studio where we were scheduled to meet for our interview, he began apologizing. “Am I late? How late am I? When was I supposed to be here? I’m sorry about the mess.”

We were catching up one afternoon in late-April, in advance of his appearances at Off Broadway, Vintage Vinyl and Euclid Records. Within minutes, he had won over the crew, introducing himself to everyone, popping off jokes and generally embodying the Midwestern, nice-guy reputation LaFarge fans have come to know so well. One of our first questions for the singer, born Andrew Heissler, was what he likes to be called. “Pokey’s fine,” he responded. “Most people call me that.”

We followed up with, “Do you have any other nicknames?” Without missing a beat, he grinned and answered, “I don’t give away all my secrets.”

Our next move? Unearthing as many secrets as he would tell us, of course. Read the cover story in the June issue on newsstands now and find bonus interview questions below. 

Pokey LaFarge by Wesley Law for ALIVE Magazine.

Pokey LaFarge by Wesley Law for ALIVE Magazine.

ALIVE: Did you record all on tape for your new album “Something in the Water?”
PL: For the most part. It wasn’t necessarily something that I said had to happen. I mean, there’s so much great technology these days that can pretty much mimic all tape sound. But it was pretty much a tape studio. We did utilize Pro Tools, especially in the mixing and the editing department. It makes things more efficient, quicker.

ALIVE: One of our favorite songs on the album is the melancholy “Far Away;” can you talk about where you were when you wrote that?
PL: That was a song I wrote a number of years ago and I’ve performed it very randomly over the years. I’m glad I was able to remember to dig that back up. I wrote it when a friend of mine had gone through a tumultuous break-up. I wrote it, I guess you could say, in his honor.

ALIVE: What about the sultry “Goodbye, Barcelona?”
PL: “Goodbye, Barcelona” is an ode to the memory of my first time in Spain. We had toured there as part of a huge European tour. I was just thinking of the good times I had there and from there it sort of took the form of a woman.

ALIVE: How does it feel to be on such a notable roots label like Rounder with the likes of Robert Plant, Willie Nelson and Allison Kraus?
PL: It was a perfect fit. Growing up listening to older music, Rounder was kind of the label for that stuff so it’s been a really good partnership so far.

ALIVE: Who’s someone that you would love to collaborate with?
PL: In terms of a producer, I think it’d be cool to work with Ry Cooder. In terms of musicians, the list is awfully long. It’d be cool to work with Tom Waits someday or Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson, if they’re still here with us.

Pokey LaFarge by Wesley Law for ALIVE Magazine.

Pokey LaFarge by Wesley Law for ALIVE Magazine.

ALIVE: We really admire your abhorrence of trends and sticking with your own style. Your music has a timeless quality.
PL: That’s the goal anyway. I’m definitely not following a trend. I never wanted to follow a trend. It’s music of the past, for the present and of the future. It’s attempting to be all encompassing. We’re not attempting to reinvent the wheel, it’s learning from and being inspired by the things that came before you.

ALIVE: In your TED talk, you spoke about “Evolving Through Preservation.” What do you think about young musicians who may be studying music, but try to skip the basics and go straight for the meat, calling themselves professionals but knowing nothing of the past?
PL: Well, at the same time, I think that’s the problem with the curriculum, that’s the problem with academia these days. They don’t teach history, specifically in jazz; they don’t teach anything before bop. They don’t teach early ensemble playing. Now, it’s all about, “Look what I can do! Look what a great soloist I am.” I think that there’s a great lesson in early jazz.

ALIVE: You’re encouraging of people doing their own thing, but you’re an advocate for the history of music and knowing your instrument.
PL: There’s a huge disconnect. It’s like there’s no point of reference for what I do. People like Leon Bridges play ’50s and ’60s soul, or Sturgill Simpson plays ’60s or ’70s country, or Sharon Jones plays ’60s funk and soul. Or what about the kids playing straight-up ’80s music these days? They’re dressing like they’re fresh out of the ’80s. But it’s okay because it’s a fad, and I’m retro. Why? That’s the question that I have. It’s not a fad, it’s not necessarily cool. I’m sort of left on an island.

ALIVE: When you sit down and you’re writing, how does that disconnect affect your style? Because I know you’re interested in other genres.
PL: That’s true. I think in the past, personally, I was a bit close-minded. I feel like I made a mistake feeling like I had to sound a certain way or I wasn’t respecting the people who came before me. I felt a great responsibility to that. I think I’ve discovered how I can do that now by just being myself. I have a greater responsibility to be myself for the people around me today. That’s something I’m having a hard enough time trying to grasp because the world moves so fast. It’s such a confusing world.

ALIVE: What do you want your legacy to be?
PL: I don’t know. Honestly, I think I’m reinventing that. If you would have asked me that two years ago, I would have told you something completely different. These last two years have been some of the greatest changes I’ve ever made. So I think first and foremost it would be musically. I think I would want to be remembered for the music. That’s what I love.

And with that, LaFarge steps out of the interview and in front of the camera leaving the toothpick in his mouth, cocking his porkpie to the side and tapping his foot to the Jimmy Reed record spinning on the stereo …

“That’s how I rock it, man. That’s just how I rock it.”

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