‘Poetry is the best medicine’ — Pokey LaFarge talks past and future ahead of his Englert return

Pokey LaFarge, w/ Esther Rose

Englert Theatre — Friday, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m.

Pokey LaFarge at the Hinterland Music Festival. Saint Charles, Iowa. Aug. 6, 2016. — photo by Roberta

Known for his embrace of music styles from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, Pokey LaFarge returns to the Englert Theatre this week in support of his seventh album, Manic Revelations. He performs on Sept. 22 at 8 p.m., alongside opener Esther Rose. Tickets are $22 in advance, $25 at the door.

I had a chance to speak with him and was not surprised, in any way, to discover that his musical genius emerges from a literate, thoughtful, insightful and creative outlook on how to be human in the world today. Although he would undoubtedly claim that he is far from an exemplar and point to his imperfections, the rigorous quality of his rapid-moving mind juxtaposed with the serenity present in his voice speaks volumes concerning the integrity of his character.

For readers unfamiliar with your music, how would you situate your sound relative to artists from the early 20th century, or to contemporary artists who shuffle sounds in time: anyone from M. Ward to Squirrel Nut Zippers to Postmodern Jukebox or even Bob Dylan? Who would you identify as a kindred spirit?

I would say probably part Bob Dylan, part Jimmy Rogers.

You seem to intuitively resist an assumption that art is “progressive,” outgrowing earlier forms in order to embrace new and better ones. What is your alternative theory of art?

If you listen to my music at all, you would know that I’m a firm believer in progress and change. I don’t agree with that at all.

Let me clarify: I mean more resisting the kind of technological progress that seems to pretend that all the problems are solved and that everything is fine.

If you look at things that are progressing, and the social constructs, the institutions that we’re breaking down —
you can never completely disregard the past. You’re learning as much about it as you can to make the future better. If you disregard the past, how are you not doomed to repeat your mistakes?

So how do you see your music as promoting progress?

A lot of people out there, they expect the message to be literal. There’s so many people preaching and telling people what to do — I have no intention of telling anyone what to do. Life is wholly a personal experience. People’s experiences are distorted and controlled — or they let them be. I think that in order to be subversive, for me, poetry is the best medicine. It’s the best medicine for getting the message across, in fact. You don’t need to be that specific with the message. It creates a feeling, and gets people thinking and making decisions for themselves.

Your songs also defy a simple sense of nostalgia — you’re not a novelty act. Although we’re all conditioned by history, why do you choose to orient yourself around sounds and styles that represent an earlier time? And how do you keep from merely recreating what has come before in an empty repetition (like telling the same joke someone just told)?

Look at Tom Waits. It’s similar to a person like that. It’s not necessarily having an intention of writing pop music, or writing for the past/present or future, but creating music that’s beautiful and instills a feeling in someone, whatever that may be. It’s somewhat unintentional — just like a song. Songs don’t come from anywhere, man. You feel something form a song and say “Fuck, that’s beautiful” and try to recreate that. The thing in my work: I’m trying for timelessness. I’m trying to make something that will stand the test of time, long after I’m gone. And I don’t know if I have a day or another 40 years.

Your aesthetic also seems to be grounded in a certain sort of ethic, but you don’t seem necessarily inclined to “Make America Great Again” even as you return to sounds that evoke an earlier time in American history. What is the alternative America that you hope to share with your audiences?

There’s a certain romanticism to me that can be interpreted in what people think of what my music sounds like or where it comes from. When I started playing music, there was a romanticism that was attached to it that I put there from what I was listening to — it’s easy to romanticize things that come before you. But as I’ve gotten older, along with disregarding the bullshit that we’re fed in America, I’ve been able to strain some of that element out. I can see the art for what it is, and I don’t romanticize the time as much anymore. I can respect the artists —
poverty, no respect, no resources — who did it anyway. That I can respect. But not the time.

But how do your songs relate to 21st century America? Does your body of work culminate in a sense of what America could be?

Absolutely not. I don’t have a cohesive vision of what America could be. What is the new America? It’s always an ideal, but it was always for certain kind of people and not for everyone. We’re trying to figure it out. I don’t know that what I suggest in my music is wholly American. I read the great American novelists, and even they, I think, wouldn’t say what America is.

What’s an example?

I’m reading Saul Bellow now — Humboldt’s Gift. He’s a Chicago novelist. America is a contradiction or experiment in itself.

So what would you say to someone in new America?

The things I would suggest: I did a speech at the DIY conference last night, and it was really cool. But all my advice comes from a human level: Travel. Expose yourself to art at all times. Don’t let anything get in the way of beauty in pursuing art — but I’m stuck in an artist’s perspective. I can’t talk about even my family members who have jobs and kids. It isn’t life advice. I’m not trying to tell people what to do. There’s ways to be subversive and ways to inspire. I just do it through music.

Given your background in St. Louis and the racial tensions that ignited Ferguson, the notion of “Riot in the Streets” seems timely and terrifying. What sort of effect do you want your music to have on listeners?

With that song — I stand on the side of ending institutional racism in this country. Absolutely and firmly. When there was fighting going on, and both sides were entrenched, I wanted to look at it from a journalistic point of view. Some people thought I should have taken a stronger stance. But — it’s just one song. It was written. It is what it is. I don’t need to justify it.

The notion of Manic Revelations, the title of your new album, seems at odds with the really relaxed, smooth tone of it. If there are revelations on the album, they seem far from manic, even as there remains an undercurrent of unease that swims beneath your lovely melodies. Can you talk more about the title and how you curated the ten songs on the album underneath that framework?

That question is really me in a nutshell — there’s a manic quality in the creative process, the recording process, the writing process. But I come to a sense of ease, and I am pursuing calm the whole time.

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