Interview: Jay Farrar Talks the Blues, Guitar Tunings and New Son Volt Album
"Music, and blues in particular, can lift you up and transcend your current situation and surroundings."
It's with that perspective and sense of hope that Jay Farrar approached the writing and recording of Son Volt's latest record, Notes of Blue. Considering it's an album soaked in the foundational values of the blues, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
"Redemption is definitely in the fabric of the blues," the Son Volt frontman says; though it's present throughout Notes of Blue, that theme seems to be best captured (and contrasted) on the track "Midnight."
"That song references the traditional theme of hell and redemption. In the studio, I played guitar through an old bass amp that was laying around in the studio," Farrar explains. "It was a solid state amp, which I think all guitar players agree is the sound of hell because it gives you a really unnatural-sounding distortion. You can hear that on the recording."
For Farrar, the ethos of the blues isn't merely captured in the words he sings on Notes of Blue, but in the sound he and the band created.
"With "Sinking Down," that was a Mississippi Fred McDowell tuning," Farrar tells The Boot. "It's tuned down about as low as you can go with a C-based tuning. The slide part on that is using another C-based tuning that is all C notes, all C octaves.
"I hope to pitch that one to ZZ Top someday," he adds with a chuckle (and a bit of truth in his voice).
"I wanted to learn the three distinctive guitar tunings of those guys," he says. "Even though Nick Drake may seem like, on the surface, he doesn't have a lot in common with Mississippi McDowell and Skip James, I felt like, ultimately, they're all folk music with a commonality of purpose and theme. I wanted to get inside of those tunings and see what was there."
It's within those tunings that Farrar seems to be most comfortable on Notes of Blue.
"Those tunings determined where the melodic structures would go, especially within the finger-picking itself," he recalls about the recording process. "That determined a different feel for the album, and it helped me when I focused on the electric guitar. It's been a long time since I've played electric on a recording."
As he returned to the electric guitar in the studio, Farrar also made a slight return to Son Volt's earliest roots: "I brought out the amp I used for the first Son Volt record, Trace. It's an old Wesbter Chicago amplifier. It was originally an expensive speaker for an old wire recorder — this recording technology from the '20s and '30s — and then it was modified to become an amp."
I was forced to focus on the legacy of Son Volt ... it inspired me to do this new recording.
Farrar tells The Boot that he first picked up the amp in Los Angeles in the '90s and felt like it fit the aesthetic of Notes of Blue. But that amp wasn't the only return to Son Volt's Trace for Farrar: Around the time of putting the songs together for the new album, the alt-country pioneer also went through the process of releasing a 20th anniversary reissue of Trace.
"I was sort of forced to focus on the legacy of Son Volt," he says. "I enjoyed that, and I do think it inspired me to do this new recording."
In addition to finding inspiration by reflecting on the history and sounds of Trace, Farrar was also inspired by the history and sounds of his hometown, St. Louis, Mo.
"There is a rich history of blues, and there is still a vibrant scene here," he says. "I've seen some really amazing performers that came up through many trying, but probably amazing from their perspective, circumstances."
That inspiration wasn't only rooted in the blues; it also came from early country legends.
Even when discussing the history of country and blues, Farrar can't seem to get away from the influence of Trace, though.
"Back in the Trace era, I was driving a lot of the back roads in Mississippi and seeing some of those towns for the first time," he remembers. "So in the last two years, I spent more time in local blues clubs and getting ideas about what I wanted to do with Notes of Blue."
Farrar and company are also preparing for Son Volt's spring tour, and there's no question that he's putting a lot of thought into the shows' setlists.
"I started out with a fair amount of acoustic songs that I had not played in year," Farrar mentions. "I've slowly been crossing them out and reinserting more uptempo rock songs. That's the way the set is shaping up."
As for the future of Son Volt, Farrar admits that he's not sure what's in store, but he does provide a bit of hope for fans: "I just follow where the inspiration goes," he says. "I'm currently writing a handful of songs, which could become a Son Volt record in the next six months or so.
"I just kind of have to see how it plays out," he adds. "We'll see where it goes from here."
Top 10 Americana, Alt-Country and Folk Albums of 2016