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- Posted on Mar 9th 2012 4:00PM by Eric R. Danton
Farrar's latest project, 'New Multitudes,' involved setting previously unrecorded Guthrie lyrics to music with My Morning Jacket's Jim James (in his Yim Yames persona), Centro-matic's Will Johnson and Gob Iron partner Anders Parker -- just in time to help commemorate the 100th anniversary this year of Guthrie's birth.
"In a weird small way, we're kind of carrying on Woody's vision," Farrar tells Spinner, a few days before starting a short tour on the West Coast.
'New Multitudes,' out now on Rounder, actually started as two different expeditions through the sizable archive of Guthrie's unrecorded lyrics. Farrar and Parker had been chipping away at a group of songs when Guthrie's daughter, Nora, played some of their music for James, who got in touch with Farrar. They combined efforts, and brought in Johnson.
The album follows 2009's 'One Fast Move or I'm Gone,' when Farrar and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie fashioned lyrics from prose in Kerouac's 'Big Sur' for a documentary soundtrack album.
All of it filters back to Son Volt, the group Farrar founded after his first band, Uncle Tupelo, dissolved in 1994.
"From a creative standpoint, it's always good to step aside from the day-to-day routine and work in a different context, which is what these side projects like Gob Iron and working with Ben Gibbard and now working with Will, Anders and Jim, that's what it represents to me," says Farrar, who's finishing up a new Son Volt album that may come out this fall.
With so many Guthrie lyrics to choose from, where do you even start?
The pre-existing Woody Guthrie lyrics were in alphabetical order, so initially I thought, "I'll go in alphabetical order." After two days of only getting to the letter D, then I realized that I had to just start randomly picking a letter and going in and seeing what was there. That's pretty much the way it unraveled. I can't for certain say how much of them I got through, but it felt like there was a significant amount that I did not see.
What was it about these songs?
I felt like either there had to be some personal connection or some sort of frame of reference that I could draw from. Or, in other cases, it was just compelling subject matter. With [leadoff song] 'Hoping Machine,' there was such unbridled positivity coming out of those words that that I came across in one of Woody's journals that I could relate to. Or perhaps that I needed [laughs].
It seems like an optimistic album. Were you seeking a specific tone?
There was no scrutinizing songs based on tone or whether or not they were positive in essence. That's just the way it evolved. Nora did find out later that a lot of the songs we chose, especially for the main CD, were songs that Woody had written during a particular time period when he was in California.
You and Jeff Tweedy have taken pretty different paths since Uncle Tupelo split, yet Wilco did its own Woody Guthrie project in the late '90s. How much was that on your mind?
The backstory is that going back to 1995, 1996, there was a request that came through Warner Bros. for Son Volt to work with Woody Guthrie's lyrics and to work with Billy Bragg. Son Volt was on tour at the time, so that didn't happen, but that's when the idea took root for me. I knew that it was something that I wanted to do. As far as seeking out the project that Billy Bragg and Wilco did, I never did seek it out. I wanted to be sure that when I did work with Woody Guthrie lyrics that I had a clean canvas to work with and not be influenced to either do something a certain way or not do something a certain way based on what they had done. I didn't harbor any illusions that there would not be comparisons.
Were you able to put that out of your mind as you worked on the album?
That was easy. My familiarity with Woody from having grown up around his music, from hearing my parents play his songs -- a lot of people have asked me whether it felt intimidating working with the words of an icon like Woody Guthrie, but ultimately for me, it was just all about inspiration and not intimidation.
You had worked with someone else's words before, too, on the Kerouac project.
You know, chronologically, since I started on the Woody Guthrie project in 2006, having been at the archive and working with Woody's words did sort of give me the perspective and experience to take on the Kerouac project, which came later. That project was conceptually a little more difficult, just because it was pulling themes and concepts from a book. The two are related in a way.
Woody was a songwriter, so there must have at least been a framework to start from.
There were actual lyrics, as well. The words that I'd pulled form journals, like 'Hoping Machine,' those were a little more free-form, and not in a lyric structure, so in some ways, that was a similarity between Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac: in his journals, Woody wrote more in a stream-of-consciousness style. They were also both in the Merchant Marine at one time or another. I guess that was a profession that people could do if they didn't necessarily want to have a 9-5 job. I guess you had a lot of time to think. Or write.
So, what's the deal with Jim calling himself Yim Yames?
I don't know for certain [laughs]. And frankly, I'm waiting for him to bring it up. I imagine it's a record-company thing, but I figured, if it's important to him, he would bring it up, and he hasn't, so he must not think it's important.
You've now co-written with Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac. Anybody else on your list?
I'd heard recently there were some Hank Williams lyrics kicking around, but I think it's already been done, unless there's a round two of that to happen. I definitely would be interested in that. Hank Williams Sr., that is.
Yeah, probably nobody's looking for lost Hank Jr. lyrics.
You never know, you never know.