On “Bandages and Scars,” from Son Volt‘s 2005 album Okemah and the Melody of Riot, Jay Farrar sang, “Thinking about the future, what to do then/ Words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head.” He wasn’t just turning a phrase. At the invitation of Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, he’d just begun poring over the archive of Guthrie’s unused lyrics with an eye towards setting some to music. As it turns out, Farrar had first been offered the gig nearly a decade earlier, working with Billy Bragg on what became the Mermaid Avenue album – collaborative duties went to Farrar’s former Uncle Tupelo bandmate, Jeff Tweedy, and his new band, Wilco – and it took years before the project finally bore fruit.
New Multitudes coalesced as a joint venture between Farrar, Varnaline’s Anders Parker (who also played with Farrar in Gob Iron), My Morning Jacket‘s Yim Yames and Centro-matic‘s Will Johnson, each of whom contributed three songs which they recorded together in 2010. The recordings have been on ice waiting for the four busy musicians’ schedules to sync up for a joint tour as well as Guthrie’s centennial, the occasion for a host of new recordings and events. With the tour getting underway, Farrar and Yames talked with eMusic – the former by phone, the latter via email – about the process behind the album and some of its songs.
Jay, your first contact with Woody Guthrie’s lyrics goes back to 1996?
Jay Farrar: That was when the request came through Warner Bros., which was the label Son Volt was on at the time, for me and the band to work with Billy Bragg, but the timing wasn’t quite there, so it didn’t work out. But the idea of working with Woody Guthrie lyrics stuck with me. Woody has been an inspiration for me since childhood. I grew up around his music, hearing it around the house, raiding my parents’ record collections.
Fast-forward to 2006, which was when I started visiting the Woody Guthrie archives with Anders Parker. Throughout the whole process, there’s never been a budget or anything – or a plan, for that matter.
Yim, of the people involved, your music is least obviously indebted to Woody Guthrie and the folk tradition. Is he someone who’s meant a lot to you?
Yim Yames: I think Woody means a great deal to each and every musician or artist, whether they know it or not. His words especially mean a great deal to me.
Do you normally write lyrics before music, or did this force you to approach songwriting in a new way?
Farrar: I write music first, maybe a line of lyrics or two. One thing that I’ve found in working with Woody’s lyrics is that I didn’t really feel intimidated; just because there was such a degree of familiarity with his work, I felt more inspired than fearful in any way. Normally throughout the process of writing my own lyrics, there’s a degree of self-consciousness about it, where you have to work through each lyric and decide whether it’s up to par or not. But with Woody’s lyrics, everything happened pretty quickly.
Yames: It’s always different. Sometimes the words come at the same time as the music. Most of the time they come after the music. This was definitely the first time they’d come first. It was a surreal process because it really all just happened, for whatever reason. The songs that popped out at me lyrically also just had music popping out of them in my brain. It all happened very fast.
What’s it like to collaborate with a dead man? There’s obviously no opportunity for the usual back-and-forth.
Yames: It was amazing. I really feel like he was there. I feel like he informed my choices throughout the process, telling me what he did and did not want. We would meet early in the morning at Murray’s bagel shop on 8th Avenue, which was around the corner from where I was living at the time. We would read through the song I was working on that day and he would give me his thoughts and constructive criticism. He never told me why he wanted what he wanted, but he was very vocal about what he wanted, if that makes any sense. We met for three days. I had never seen him before and I have never seen him since.
Did you come away understanding Woody differently?
Farrar: Just from going to the archives, and really only making a dent in it – I probably only got through not even half of it – you realize he was a very multidimensional writer. I think the most important thing is that he was one of the first guys to really put across the idea that music can change the word. There’s a passage in his autobiography, Bound for Glory, where he talks about playing shows around Oklahoma early on, realizing that when he started playing songs about topical subjects that people paid more attention. I still turn to Woody for inspiration sometimes, when the political pendulum swings a way that I don’t particularly agree with in this country or the world.
I wanted to talk about a few of the songs on the record with you. Let’s start with “Hoping Machine.”
Farrar: That one came from some of his journals. It just jumped out at me. His journals can be alternately routine stuff, like, “I made coffee, ate breakfast,” and then it would say something like, “Music is the language of the mind that travels. It carries the key to the laws of time and space.” Something that would be very profound, at least in my estimation. His journal writing was more free-form, and in some cases almost stream of consciousness. It reminded me of other stuff I’ve appreciated, like Jack Kerouac. It was mostly just from those two pages. I guess he had a particularly good cup of coffee that morning.
Yames: I love this song so much. It was the song that got me hooked into the project, and I feel so fortunate that Jay was kind enough to invite me in. Jay’s voice is just so classic. It is one of those voices that is so unique and natural, standing tall like an old redwood tree that has stood in the same spot for hundreds of years. I feel like I’m visiting my favorite spot in the woods whenever I hear Jay’s voice. He told me that Woody felt that folks really needed to hear that song now.
And what about “My Revolutionary Mind”?
Yames: This was one that Woody picked out for me, and I did not object. Woody told me that there was something else he wanted the world to know about this song right now, in our current political climate, and I was only happy to help.
Farrar: It’s probably evident Woody needed a break from the intensity of what he was surrounded by at times. Musically it’s reflective of some of what Jim was listening to at the time. We met up in New York, and he played me a lot of soul/Motown stuff.
“Talking Empty Bed Blues”
Farrar: It was fascinating to see the evolution of that one. Jim had a demo version, and then maybe the day before we went in to record, he totally redid it, so we had to throw away the old one. He used more of an open tuning.
Yames: Woody picked them for me because he knew that I was feeling the same thing at that time – well, a lot of people feel what this song says. The time between when I wrote it and actually recorded it was relatively short.
“Chorine My Sheba Queen”
Farrar: When Jim James and I started talking about joining forces on this project, we talked about bringing Will Johnson into the mix. I sent Will a package with some lyrics. “Chorine” was one, and as the story goes, he wrote the song within 40 minutes of receiving it. That phrase, “Sheba queen,” is something that my father used a lot, and that’s why I pulled that lyric. He used it in reference to my daughter, who was probably six months old at the time, and my father was a few months away from dying of cancer. It was a little too close to home for me to tackle it, but I feel like Will did a great job. It’s a deeply affecting song.
Yames: Will did a real nice job writing that one. We recorded it very simply together. Such a sweet song.
Yames: The sounds I used in the demo are the same on the final recording. There really was not too much thought as to why this song should sound like it did. Sonically speaking, Woody said he wanted it to sound like the dying breath of Jeff Bridges’s grandfather in the Tron world, if such a character had ever existed, and I was only happy to oblige. I took the lyrics from two separate poems Woody had written to me at a time when he was frustrated with me. He saw my life getting stagnant, he saw how much potential life had waiting for me, and wanted to help me see that I could change. I was capable of making the changes I needed to make to make my life better, and I’m very thankful to him for showing me that.
Farrar: When we all got together in Brooklyn, there was definitely an element of being at music camp. It was a symbiotic situation where we all learned from each other in the process of recording. Four-part harmony represented something new, kind of a challenge to me. It was a little bit out of my realm, and that was something that I learned to focus on in this project.
“Jake Walk Blues”
Farrar: The bonus disc is Anders and myself, recorded around 2007, 2009. I was getting more into some of the social issues, whether it was prostitution or cocaine. “Jake Walk Blues” is an interesting one. I didn’t know the full story when I picked up the lyrics, but when I looked into it, I found that “jake walk” was a reference to a particular kind of neural disorder that came out when people were drinking wood-based alcohol during Prohibition. The great thing about Woody’s lyrical ability is the way he was able to get his point across pretty succinctly. His command of poetic alliteration and things are still unequalled.