Past, Present, Pokey
STLs 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.
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. We traded stories with LaFarge in advance of his late April appearances at Off Broadway, Vintage Vinyl and Euclid Records— and it went a little something like this…
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.”
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.
ALIVE: Congratulations on the new album, “Something in the Water.”
Pokey LaFarge: Thank you. Yeah, there’s been I don’t know how many photo shoots, rehearsals and a music video. Things are crazy. We tour until August and then we get a few weeks off, which I’m looking forward to. We’ll get to enjoy some summertime, get in the studio and mess around with some ideas.
ALIVE: Would you rather be touring or recording?
PL: It’s hard to say what you’d rather be doing. [Music] encompasses both sides of you. The touring encompasses the performance side and then the recording encompasses the writing side—the creator and the artist. That’s something that ultimately ends up getting set in stone. The performing is so much freer because it’s fleeting. If you make a mistake, a lot of times people don’t know. Of course, with touring you get to travel. We were just in Australia and New Zealand, and who’s to say I would have gotten to go there if I wasn’t touring.
ALIVE: This is your seventh album and you’re stepping into new territory with your sound. How do you feel you’ve changed?
PL: Well, I think that for the first time ever, at least in the entirety of an album, I was able to retain a lot of space in the music, which is a very difficult thing to do without making it sound completely stark and empty. The goal, for me, is to make music that has good grooves and good harmonies that accentuate the melodies and lyrics. I sometimes sing a lot of words, but still, to be able to retain a lot of space and let things breathe makes it seem more natural and not forced.
ALIVE: You covered a couple of standards on this album, in addition to writing originals. Did you do a lot of writing when you were in the studio?
PL: I did write in the studio a decent amount, more so than the other records. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m so excited about this record, because it documents a progression. You get to this point where the album is done, but we could have kept writing and recording. The music itself was evolving. I think it’s a kind of a clue into a new chapter in my music life. It makes me even more excited for the next one.
ALIVE: Tell us about the people you recorded with on “Something in the Water.”
PL: It really started with Jimmy Sutton, the producer. He’s the face of underground roots music in Chicago and has been for decades. The core of the record, the rhythm section, was Beau Sample on bass and Alex Hall on drums. Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough were the other main harmony singers [with Beau and Alex]. All those boys are Illinois boys. There are some Wisconsin boys on there and, of course, some of the Missouri boys in my band. We’re pretty thrilled that it was almost an all-Midwestern record and we were able to showcase what we can do.
ALIVE: We love that you’re such a champion of the Midwest.
PL: Well, it’s the underdog thing. I’ve had to work twice as hard as everybody to get half of what everybody else has. Nothing comes easy for me in my life. I think in a lot of ways, this region that we live in is showcased in that same light. I think growing up between St. Louis and Chicago made joining the two cities together for this album a big deal for me.
ALIVE: So let’s talk a little bit about St. Louis, where you’ve lived for the last seven years. If you’re in St. Louis on a Saturday night, what do you do?
PL: Do I have to do anything? [Laughs] My friends will say, “Let’s go out to a bar! Let’s go hear some music!” I’m like, “Eh, I don’t know, I’ve been doing that for 30 days in a row. I kinda want to sit home and read a book.” No, that’s probably not true, but gosh, it sure does depend. You know, I do have my go-tos in town. Maybe start in the daytime, go see some music at Blues City Deli, eat a sandwich. Before that, for breakfast, I might go to The Mud House or to Southwest Diner or Sump Coffee. Maybe go to Off Broadway for a show, The Whiskey Ring for a nightcap. But at the same time, I do like to go to a place called Stovall’s Grove out in Wildwood. It’s the oldest roadhouse in Missouri: a great old honky-tonk where people are really sweet. You can still smoke in there. It kind of goes hand-in-hand: If you’re going out to a sawdust floor honky-tonk that’s 100 years old in the middle of Missouri, you oughta be able to smoke, maybe get in a couple fights, have sex in a bathroom, ya know?
ALIVE: Cards or Cubs?
PL: [Laughing] It’s a really complicated issue. If you look up here (points to a shelf in his studio covered in memorabilia), you’ll see Cardinals and Cubs. I was raised everything Chicago—pretty much raised-up that way. I’ve lived in St. Louis for seven years. I’ve loved baseball more than music. Also living in a baseball town, [I have] a deep respect for the organization, for what they do for the city. I’m probably one of the only people you’ll ever meet who is a Cubs and a Cardinals fan.
ALIVE: There was an Instagram picture of you at a Cardinals game with Jack White. Can you talk a little bit about your career trajectory after meeting him?
PL: I think it’s fairly simple to document the trajectory of my career before Jack and then after working with Jack. I’m also happy to say that it’s been a concurrent relationship. I don’t know if you’ve heard about “American Epic?” It’s a five-or six-hour music documentary that’s gonna be on PBS and BBC, produced by Jack, T Bone Burnett and Robert Redford. It’s sort of a pre-war music extravaganza and it’ll have a couple of my tunes recorded on there that were produced by Jack.
ALIVE: Do you feel like your abhorrence of trends and sticking with your own style plays a role in your music’s 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 things that came before you.
Photo credit: Wesley Law