This summer will see the release of Blood Brothers, the latest collection of songs from the Midwest’s own Jeffrey Foucault. It is his sixth album of original compositions, a follow-up to the critically acclaimed 2015 album, Salt as Wolves. Jeffrey Foucault’s music has been a consistent blend of country, folk, blues and poetry – a form of escape, a soundtrack for life’s long and winding road. His music encapsulates that feeling of ease you get when gripping the steering wheel with the windows down as you cruise gently through the Midwestern countryside. We recently had the opportunity to talk to Jeffrey, getting a glimpse into his Wisconsin roots, life as a musician and the road that has led to Blood Brothers – out June 22.
MWG: What is your home-town?
JF: I was born in Whitewater, Wisconsin, the youngest of three boys: Jack, Jim, and Jeff. I think once they had two ‘J’ names going, when they had a third boy they didn’t feel like they could call me ‘Bill,’ or whatever. It’s a little farm town with a land-grant college, not an uncommon format in the Midwest. It was a good place to grow up, and most of my family are still there.
What about the Midwest has had the biggest impact on the music you write and perform?
The Midwestern landscape is lower-key than other parts of the country. It’s beautiful but you have to look harder, and there’s a plainness that forces attention to detail. I think that particular way of seeing creates a lot of great songwriters. Dylan, Prine, Greg Brown, Neil Young: they all came from the prairie, the big wide middle of things where nothing much seemed to happen. It also keeps you from being jaded.
If you grow up on the coast and you have access to everything – I never ate fresh garlic, or heard real Jazz (not Kenny G on the Lite Jazz radio station), until I was in my 20’s – you take a lot of cultural knowledge for granted and it might become a kind of weight around your neck. It seems to intimidate people, and give them the sense that everything has been done. If you grow up naive in the Midwest, it never occurs to you that you can’t write like Bob Dylan.
Who have been your biggest musical influences?
First, there were my folks. My Dad played the piano, guitar, trumpet, and accordion, and my Mom was a real good singer. When my Dad came home tired from work in the grocery business and loosened his tie, he’d often wander into the living room and take up his guitar, or pick his way through something on the piano. Sometimes my Mom would sing along. When they did that I noticed they looked like other people. I wanted to be one of those other people.
Then it was early rock’n’roll. Around the age of twelve, I rode my bike to the drug store and bought a cassette of Little Richard. I was looking for Big Mama Thornton – I had heard her sing ‘Hound Dog’ on a public television documentary and it made me want to jump out of my skin – but couldn’t find her. Then Jerry Lee, and Elvis, and I started going down into the basement and taking dusty LP’s from my parent’s collection one at a time, letting each one lead me to the next. Everything from Chubby Checker Does the Twist to Meet the Beatles, Aftermath, up through the singer-songwriter stuff on the early 70’s. I had a Baby-Boomer musical education compressed into about 4 years.
The prime movers were John Prine when I started to play, around the age of 17, then Townes (Van Zandt) when I started to write a few years later; I had to wade through the river of Dylan, and I’d guess I still have my waders on, as we all do. Greg Brown’s catalogue of songs is as important to me as anything. Both Kelly Joe Phelps and Richard Buckner were influences in my 20’s as I watched them both drift separately away from linear language and rhyme into a more complex dissociative style, while keeping within certain genre traditions of blues and country. Lots of others.
I feel sorry for youngsters now, because the whole world is a digital card catalogue: everything is available, but you have to know what you’re looking for. It used to be you might read a reference to an album in the liner notes of one you had worn out, and then you had to locate it, and then you had to have enough money to buy it, and go somewhere to get it, and once you’d made that investment you were by God going to listen hard. It might not move you, but that was a lesson too. Someone can listen to a playlist of music I make on Spotify or whatever, a list of songs it took my whole damned life to find. It’s cheapening to hear them all at once, and it won’t mean much.
How do you feel you have grown as a songwriter between your first album (Miles from the Lightning, 2001), and now?
I understand the mechanics better, have a deeper understanding of structure, melody, etc. I’ve lived longer so the particular wisdom I brought to that first record – the kind nearly undiluted by experience – has been replaced by another kind of wisdom, which is harder won, and far less sure of itself.
I started playing guitar when I was 17, writing songs when I dropped out of college at 19, and I cut my first record and was on the road around the country by 24. I didn’t have anything like the ten-thousand hours required for mastery of either singing or playing by the time I was getting paid to do both. There’s a charm to that kind of simplicity I guess, but I didn’t feel like I started playing or singing very well, or made records I was proud of, until I’d been on the road 8 or 10 years.
What would you say sets the Midwest music scene apart from the rest?
I have no idea. I’ve never been attached to a scene. That is, the scene I’m part of has as many dead people in it as living people. I think of myself as part of the tradition and continuum of American music. I love to tour in the Midwest because it feels like home and I understand the people. Billy Conway, who plays drums with me and grew up in Minnesota, says when his band Morphine used to play Los Angeles and New York, they wouldn’t start until everyone agreed to uncross their arms from their chests. You don’t run into that sort of thing in Hayward, Wisconsin.
The life of a musician has its ups and downs. What outside of music gives you balance?
I fly fish about 75 days a year around the country. Billy and I will pack our rods into our rolling suitcases, and I think I bought licenses in 7 states last year. I like to hunt upland game birds out west. I read widely – in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction – and I try to get outside every day. I also have a wife, a nine year-old daughter, and a mortgage, and that provides plenty of balance.
Do you have a favorite place to perform around the Great Lakes? What makes the place special?
I learned how to perform, more or less, at the Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, which is the town I lived in after going back and finishing my degree at UW, and then running around the country a little bit. It’s a great little bar and restaurant, a genuine community hub, and the back room holds about 70 people seated, an ideal space to hear music. That’s always felt like the home stadium. When I was younger my family and friends would take up half the seats and happily harass me. They didn’t even necessarily like the kind of music I was playing, they were just there to support me, so I had to try to be entertaining between songs.
Do you have a song that you are particularly proud of?
I don’t. I like some of them better than others. Every record has a few that prove themselves deeply reliable on the road, and over time those become the heart of your work, but you have to write them all to write the good ones. As a rule the simpler ones are better.
On the road, what artist is on the radio that people might be surprised by?
I don’t listen to music on the radio unless I’m trying to keep my eyes open late at night and there are no other viable alternatives. This country has been caught in a cultural back-eddy for about 25 years, and nostalgia is the only thing that sells. Even the new stuff coming out of Nashville that’s supposed to be a return to ‘real country’ is just weak tea, pale copies of Waylon Jennings, or Loretta Lynn. The attention I pay to the major-label music industry is the same attention I might pay to a wreck on the highway: I don’t really want to look, but it’s hard not to.
What can fans expect with “Blood Brothers”?
Blood Brothers is my 6th solo record in 17 years. There were other records I could have made but I wasn’t ready, so I booked the studio (Pachyderm, in Canon Falls, MN) and then wrote the songs mostly in about 6 weeks, and made a record I knew how to make, with both versions of my long-time band. I thought after the USA put a man-child into the Presidency I might be moved to write a bunch of angry cultural critique, but instead the songs turn inward, and pay attention to love, and home, and what matters. It’s sort of a collection of reveries: looking back at life from the present and examining how love and memory interact. It’s a lighter-feeling record than my last one. I’m even smiling on the cover.
When will you be back in Wisconsin?
We’re going to release Blood Brothers in the Midwest first, which has become a kind of tradition for me. The night the last one came out we were on stage in Rhinelander. It’s formally out and available everywhere June 22nd – the night we play the Des Moines Street Festival – but people can pre-order copies on vinyl and CD from my website, hear the various single on the streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify, and we’ll be on the road in WI, IA, MN, IL, and SD for about two weeks that month. I think we’ll play Colectivo in Milwaukee, and the Shitty Barn outside of Madison this time.
My favorite beer is cold and simple. The craft brew movement has created a hops arms-race that I don’t much enjoy, and if I want to drink something complex I’m going to buy French wine. When I want beer, I prefer that it taste like beer. I recently played Portland, OR., and a waiter spent 5 minutes describing the ‘mouth feel’ and ‘notes’ of various beers. Then I ordered a can of Rainier.
I’ve had a lot of nice meals and late drinks at the Tornado steakhouse on the square in Madison. When we travel in the Midwest Billy and I basically eat Mexican food twice a day. To tell the truth the inside of a Mexican restaurant is about the only place that feels like America to me anymore.
Favorite fishing spot?
As a fly-fisherman I wouldn’t tell you my favorite spot in a print interview if you had me at gunpoint. That said, I grew up fishing the seasonal walleye and white bass runs on the Bark River between Whitewater and Fort Atkinson, and sometimes on the Rock. There’s a place off of County N where I used to park my truck and get my camp chair and tackle-box out of the bed in the spring, and on any given night I might meet up with one or both of my brothers, or my Dad, or all three. That was pretty hard to beat.
We want to thank Jeffrey Foucault for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to look out for Blood Brothers – out June 22 or better yet, show your support and pre-order your copy today.
All Images: (c) Joe Navas