“Limiting myself to a genre has never really been my thing,” says Pokey LaFarge. “I’m most purely a rambler. I’m traveling the world all the time, and my songs have been directly influenced by my travels. You’re liable to hear something in my songs that sounds like traditional jazz; next thing you know, you might be hearing something that sounds like Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline mixed with the chanson singers of France, or a waltz mixed with cumbia, or soul mixed with swing.”
Ever since his first record, 2006’s self-released Marmalade, LaFarge has been a difficult specimen to pin down, indeed. Though he was raised on a healthy diet of blues, bluegrass, ragtime, Western swing and old-time country — and though he has consistently demonstrated a decided affinity for pre-1950s menswear — the Illinois native is by no means a throwback or a museum piece. Timelessness, and refined good taste, is LaFarge’s raison d’être, and his influences are as multi-hued and wide-ranging as the rhythms that buoy his starkly poetic songs — rhythms that are steeped in the very essence of jazz.
“With me, lyrics are the most important thing,” he explains. “But when it comes to music, it’s just as much about the groove — something about the groove that makes me want to move, you know? There’s always a little bit of swing to it, something that’s got a bounce. I mean, people have been swinging for hundreds of years!”
LaFarge’s deft way with words and music — as showcased on such dynamite discs as 2008’s Beat, Move and Shake, 2010’s Riverboat Soul, 2011’s Middle of Everywhere, and 2015’s Something in the Water — has won him raves from critics, and inspired a devoted following on both sides of the Atlantic. Jack White, recognizing LaFarge as a kindred spirit, asked him to sing and play mandolin on White’s 2012 album Blunderbuss, took LaFarge and his band the South City Three out on tour as a supporting act, and signed him to Third Man Records for 2013’s Pokey LaFarge LP. LaFarge also performed the White-penned “Red’s Theater of the Absurd” in a saloon scene in Gore Verbinski’s 2013 film The Lone Ranger, an appearance which eventually led to landing the recurring role of country legend Hank Snow in CMT’s 2017 series Sun Records. LaFarge has played big stages like the Ryman, Red Rocks and Bonnaroo, but he’s equally at home ripping it up in any small theater, nightclub or roadhouse that’ll have him.
With each of his albums, up to and including 2017’s critically acclaimed Manic Revelations, LaFarge has evolved and reinvented himself as an artist, preferring to continually refine his sound and tinker with his approach instead of resting comfortably in one spot. “Early on, I was into leaving things open to interpretation,” he says. “It was like me solo, performing as if I was a full band. Or it was me and three other guys — the South City Three — all string instruments, performing as if we had a horn section. And then I got the horn section and the drums, and everything was so loud and all the space was filled, that I had to dial it back. Maybe it’s hard for the fans to keep up sometimes, but my favorite composers are the ones that you can’t describe what their music is, and every single record is different from the one that preceded it.”
LaFarge switched gears again in 2018, uprooting himself from his longtime home of St. Louis, Missouri, and settling in Los Angeles. “People know me as being a midwestern boy,” he says, “but I really needed a change of scenery, some new challenges, new inspirations, new routines, things like that. St. Louis being a small town, I was well known there. You’re kind of under a microscope, people put a lot of weight on you, and some of them are looking to hate on you seemingly because you became a successful artist — you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Out here, I’m more anonymous, and that’s great. There’s freaks everywhere, you know? I’m with my people now!”
The West Coast has always held a special allure for LaFarge; after graduating high school, he hitchhiked to Southern California and supported himself by busking. But Los Angeles has also been the home of two of his biggest heroes: Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski. “It’s kind of cool to be living where my favorite music composer is from, and my favorite poet is from,” he laughs. “I’m loving hanging around this place. There are some cool ghosts here.”
There’s also a palpable sense of freedom in L.A., something that’s brought about a further recalibration of LaFarge’s creative vision. “I think in some respects in the past, I was playing a character,” he says. “I created that character, but then people got used to me, and they wanted me to play it; and when I didn’t, they said I was out of character. Yeah, I want to create characters in my songs, but I would also like to be honest about who I am, and have my work chart the progression of that exploration. But is that even possible? I don’t know. When you’re changing all the time, maybe the trick is just to do whatever you can to keep the demons away.”
After a decade spent mostly touring, recording and touring some more, LaFarge is looking forward to easing up on the gas pedal, and taking a more considered approach to his writing. A book of poetry is in the works, something he’s been wanting to do for years. “As a poet first, I’ve had a hard time getting my poetry into my music,” he says. “The forms of American song that I’ve come up playing, they have distinct chord progressions and structures, and then I’m trying to fit my poetry, which is very fluid, into these boxes. It’s almost like living a dual life. I’m gonna keep trying to fit my poetry into my music — but I also wonder, because poetry has become so damaged by the academic world, is it now dead in the minds of most people? So that’s going to be an interesting thing to play with.”
There will be more Pokey LaFarge music, as well, though its sound and format have yet to be revealed. “I’m messing around with different ideas of how and when to release songs,” he says. “It may be a song a week for a couple of months, or maybe some EPs. I’ll be experimenting with different musicians and collaborators, different producers and backing bands, while I continue to play solo shows and write new material with my acoustic and my electric guitars. And, who knows, maybe the occasional acting thing.”
It’s an exciting time to be Pokey LaFarge — and the next few years are going to be an exciting time to be a Pokey LaFarge fan. “You’re going to hear a myriad of different styles and presentations,” he promises. “Hopefully more piano, a little more electric guitar. A lot more minimalism, a lot more space between rhythm and melody. A lot more poetry. And it’s going to be weirder and darker and more beautiful and sexier going forward. That is my pursuit.”