Interview with Singer/Songwriter Jeffrey Foucault
Born in the Midwestern bastion of Wisconsin, singer, songwriter and producer, Jeff Foucault brings a workman’s sensibility to his art that harkens back to stalwart balladeers like John Pine and Chris Smither, artists known to have inspired his own career. He is as matter of fact as they come, and that fact matters much to listeners across the globe who have come into the fold of his expansive fan base. His music often offers a seamless meld of rock, Americana, folk, blues and country, yet Foucault revels just as comfortably in any one of these genres, and has shown no fear of doing so in recent albums.
His perspective as an artist is just about as diverse as the music that inspires him. From singer to songwriter to producer, he sees his work from every vantage point, and that gives his listeners a wider birth from which to see the rich and varied stories he tells. And that storytelling is perhaps his greatest super power. He’ll tell you he’s just being himself, but it’s just that honesty that stands Foucault out among the crowd of artists performing today. The transparency he has shown in his music has invited audiences to get to know who Jeff Foucault is, and that is what keeps audiences engaged even in the middle of a pandemic, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
I got to know a little more about Jeffrey Foucault when I had a chance to interview him this fall. And it became clear just why so many listeners around the world are endeared to his music. Like any poet, he genuinely invites them in. And what listeners get for their trouble is something they can relate to, something familiar, something real and from the heart.
Who were your early influences when you were a young musician back in Whitewater, WI?
My earliest influences were my parents. Dad played trumpet, piano, and accordion, but mainly guitar. He picked up a guitar in college and I gather he didn’t do much else for a while. They both sang, and it was one of things that helped them to fall in love, singing together. When I was eleven or twelve I heard Big Mama Thornton sing ‘Hound Dog’ on public television and it blew my mind. I started searching out all the early rock ’n’ roll I could find on cassette at the local drugstore – Little Richard, Jerry Lee, etc – and then discovered my parents old LP collection in the basement and achieved a Baby Boomer musical education in a short time, collapsing 1955-1972 into about three years of steady listening, from Chubby Checker Does the Twist, to Highway 61 Revisited. Combine that with the kind of songs my Dad played – Don Williams, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor—and whatever was ambient on the radio oldies station out of Milwaukee. I learned to play guitar when I was seventeen, after hearing John Prine’s first record.
Your music is well known for showcasing your native authenticity. Your sound marries country, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and folk music, genres whose writing is quite transparent and where that trademark authenticity carries a great deal of the weight. Was authenticity a trait that always came natural to you on the stage or in the studio? Or was it something that had to evolve into what it is today for you on stage?
I’m not sure that authenticity is the word you’re looking for. Authenticity isn’t available to performers, unless it’s the illusion of authenticity, and that’s a complicated idea. The word implies a lack of affect, calculation, or deceit, and each of these is part of performance. You don’t get to be yourself on stage, and you don’t to tell the truth, or at least the whole or literal truth, when you write a song. When you get up on stage you’re a stylized version of yourself. Every decision you make about how to behave, speak, dress, sing, or play is freighted with exaggerated meaning. How could it be otherwise?
There’s always an element of the put-on in show business. The trick is to become the put-on, to inhabit it so fully that it disappears and you’re able to honestly communicate the contents of your heart from a defensible position, and become an open conduit for the expectations of the people in the room. You don’t get to be you, or not exactly.
I think perhaps what you mean is that what I do feels ‘real,’ and that’s what I hope for. To be real. Genuineness is beside the point. If you do it right, it doesn’t have that much to do with you, or your authentic self, whatever that is. To put it another way, I’m doing a job invented by Bob Dylan, the least authentic human in show business, a coyote and a trickster from day one, and also our greatest songwriter, and a fundamentally honest and forthright communicator about the human condition.
You’ve built your signature sound on the road, to be sure. Mile after mile, performing live in front of such a wide array of audiences has to have had an impact on your artistry. What has this lengthy exposure done to your artistry on stage?
I write songs and record them, and then go out on the road and learn to play them. The best songs have a flexible architecture that allows them to be played any number of ways. They have weight and balance. After years and multiple albums you begin to see the contours of a body of work, and to know which songs succeed, and why they’re reliable. At this point I’ve played thousands of shows with a variety of musicians, and it’s made me a better musician and, hopefully, a better person.
Music is conversational, and playful. It should be fun. Playing alone is like praying alone. I enjoy both. Music is one of the strangest and most human things we have, and pursuing it as a life you find an endless supply of humility available on the road. One night you might play a real nice theater with pro sound and lights and a fancy green room, the next you’re loading into a dirty little bar in the rain, carrying your gear through the audience, asking the engineer how many channels actually work on the mixing console. You learn that the man being brings dignity to the job, and not the other way around. Artistry is what’s left after your illusions and expectations have worn out, and it’s a kind of readiness.
As a writer you’ve become a master at storytelling. Storytelling in music often involves an arc transporting the listener from point A to point B, and doing that musically is one of the most magical elements of the relationship between an artist and their audience. Tell me about that process for you, telling the stories you tell in your music and taking the listener from point A to point B emotionally onstage.
Stories create meaning and tension by what they leave out, and succeed by harmonizing the real and actual world with our interior worlds. The outer landscape and the inner landscape. There’s a small shelf by the bed in our guest room at home, and we don’t put much on there because my wife contends you have to leave room for people to inhabit the place. That’s storytelling: leave room for the life of the listener, and the independent life of the story to fill in the frame.
Speaking of writing, you’ve said of your 2011 album Horse Latitudes that you’d, “never felt so unsettled making a record, or more unsure that what I brought to the table was any good,” that you’d never struggled so much through the process, but when the dust had settled, it felt like “one of the more coherent things” you’d ever made. Looking back, what was it that you struggled with that you hadn’t experienced in other projects, and did that struggle ultimately contribute to the quality of the project?
I don’t know if the struggle made the record better. In every project you wrestle to a certain degree with a basic question, which is, “Who the hell do I think I am? Why do I think anyone should care?” It’s a question worth asking and it doesn’t stay answered. Raised in the Midwest, a more collective ethos at least historically, that question is always there. Sometimes it’s just hard to believe that what you’re doing is any good. But you have to front it, even when you don’t feel it. If don’t believe, don’t find some genuine conviction that you’re the one who ought to be behind the microphone, you shouldn’t be there. Go do something else! the world will be fine.
You’ve suggested your artistic perspective evolved after the birth of your daughter. That was around the time of Horse Latitudes. Tell me about how that change in life changed your music.
Having a kid is like seeing new colors in the visible spectrum, or seeing another dimension in space. You life doesn’t become necessarily more painful or more joyful, but takes on new depth and dimensionality. I think that filters into the work.
You seem to have developed a very deliberate performance career with solo tours, collaborations and band engagements neatly separate and distinct. How deliberate was the approach to your performance career?
It wasn’t deliberate but experimental. There were things I needed to learn that I couldn’t learn as a solo player, and types of music I couldn’t deliver without the right players. At this point I travel duo with Billy Conway on drums as a bedrock fact and that’s my default, but he has been unwell for a couple of years so there have been some solo tours. When a record comes out I like to tour it in the major markets around the USA and Europe with the band. I have a great band and they are all dear friends, and I can’t think of a more charming way to simultaneously make and spend large amounts of money. Given my druthers I’d play about a hundred shows a year, and maybe ten would be solo, the others divided evenly between duo and band shows. The other two hundred plus days I would be fishing.
How has that helped to shape your audience?
I haven’t got the slightest idea. I guess some people wish I’d play solo all the time, some wish I was always with the band, or with Billy. That doesn’t really matter to me, and my guess is that most of them aren’t losing any sleep over it. I try to make music I believe in, and which feels valid. A great show is a great show, and everyone can feel that. I get tired of being alone on the road, which can be alternately beautiful and brutal. With Billy or the band, every tough thing that happens is a punch line later, and every great thing savored in company. Alone, it’s not so funny, or so grand, but there can be an inward, meditative quality to the time.
You wear quite a few different hats in your industry. As a musician, you’re most visible to the broader public, but as a producer we primarily see your work, particularly when you produce for other artists. Tell me about the difference in dynamic here. What are the challenges and rewards you experience as a producer when another artist is in focus for your project.
I like hats. Making a record should be the most fun you can have. If it isn’t, you’re doing something wrong. I could have used a producer on the Horse Latitudes record, to take some of the extra stuff out of my hands, like remembering to eat. A good producer has a unique vantage point, even when they’re playing on the record, they are able to function at a remove and think about the whole thing, not one song at a time. They pay attention to mood, and they know when to ask for another take or tell everyone to go outside for ten minutes. They shape the work flow, and allow the musicians to play without distraction. Half the time I cook dinner and breakfast too.
Producing is incredibly rewarding work, but it’s also time consuming and with the revenue streams of professional musicians down to streaming and road work, it’s awfully hard to get paid fairly for your time without asking for more money than I can feel comfortable asking for, so I haven’t done it much recently. But it’s inspiring when you believe in the work and believe you have something to contribute, and it’s nice to have a reason to be in the studio, without being on the hook yourself. It’s like using someone else’s money to pay my band to hang out with me.
You work with such luminary artists as Eric Heywood and Billy Conway. Tell me about some of your most memorable collaborations and how they’ve impacted your music.
I’ve been lucky to work with some of best musicians playing today. People like Bo Ramsey, Jeremy Moses Curtis, Van Dyke Parks, Jennifer Condos, and Erik Koskinen, in addition to Eric and Billy. Every solid collaboration deepens your understanding, but no one has influenced me more than Billy. He’s got twenty years on me, and he’s been on the road since I was about four. He’s my uncle, and my brother, and mentor, and my shaman. He’s the deepest well there is, and most of I know or believe about the road and about music I learned with or from him.
Your recent project, Blood Brothers seems a reflection of your most heartfelt and signature quality, that authenticity and transparency you’re so well known for. Tell me about the inspiration for the album and how working with your wife, acclaimed singer Kris Delmhorst, impacted the project.
I made Blood Brothers because it was time to make a record. I wanted to make a record I didn’t know how to make but I wasn’t ready to do that, so I made a record I did know how to make. I wrote or finished about twenty songs in six weeks, and meant to record them trio with Billy on drums and Kelly Joe Phelps on bottleneck slide and straight acoustic guitar. Kelly backed out for personal reasons late in the deal, and I decided to call up both versions of the road band, Billy and Moses on rhythm, and Bo Ramsey on electric guitars and Eric Heywood on pedal steel. Kris sang some back-ups – along with the partners of the rest of the band – but she wasn’t involved in the basic recording. That said, she’s the first sounding board for everything from sketches to roughs, mixes to masters, so her impact is like varnish: maybe you don’t notice it, but it deepens the proceedings.
Things are certainly different for listeners of music today with so very few opportunities to indulge in the kind of live performance that your concerts offer. How are things different for you as an artist with such a visceral connection to your audiences, performing in the time of COVID-19?
It’s been interesting. If you told me I could make a living for most of a year playing one show a month into my phone from my house, I would have been skeptical. But it works, at least for now. On the one hand I have no overhead – no flights, hotels, tour vans, band pay, food, gasoline – and on the other, I can reach thousands of people at once. If they all send a little dough along, we get by. It’s been a hell of a lucky thing to have that kind of reach and support. A lot of people are hurting, and many clubs will fail and disappear. It’s a hard time all around.
A lot of people go into performance from a desire for approval, and I don’t have that. What I miss about touring are things that no one sees, the sense of always approaching and retreating, that hones perception. A five hour drive across a landscape you don’t know. You see things more clearly in motion, and a constantly changing perspective fires the mind. I miss playing music with my dear friends.
How has the past eight months that we’ve been dealing with this pandemic impacted your writing?
I don’t know. I’ve been working on an acoustic retrospective alone, and collecting tracks for an album of unreleased studio material to come out this year. I write all the time – songs, poems, etc – but I don’t really know where it’s headed until I have to make a new record. Hard to know when that will be. I haven’t been on an airplane in seven months. That’s the longest stretch in the past twenty years.
Where would you like to go first when concert halls and performance venues open up once again?
Anywhere. I like theaters, clubs, bars, libraries, festivals. That a career like mine, on such a small scale, way out on the margins of the industry, works at all, is a kind of miracle. Will it still work when we the world starts spinning again? I don’t know. Should it? The world is on fire, and we’re in the middle of the sixth great extinction in the fossil record. It doesn’t feel right or responsible to fly all over the world to sing at people, and I’m trying to think of ways to tour less, for longer, with a much smaller footprint. If the pandemic has done anything, it’s enforced a retreat from a somewhat manic lifestyle that was not sustainable, ethically or spiritually, for me and for us. I hope we can all make some version of a reckoning.
What do you like to do most away from the stage and studio?
I fish and hunt seventy-five or ninety days a year. I’d rather be outside and paying attention than inside looking at screens. I like to be with my family, putter around the house fixing stuff, drive my truck around.
With all your touring, do you have a favorite road hack?
Always pack the night before and leave your uniform on top.
You can catch up with Foucault right now with some of his popular livestreams at jeffreyfoucault.com.