Son Volt: The State of the Union

On Son Volt’s latest release, Union, founder Jay Farrar has tapped into the social consciousness of the day, relaying the unwavering power of protest during these times of political turbulence. Drawing from folk influences such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan—no strangers to protest themselves—Farrar has crafted 13 songs that aim to make a difference in an era where the bizarre whims of a game show president place a firm stranglehold on democracy.

Recently, AQ spoke with Farrar about what drove the observant songwriter to make such a powerful statement with his group’s latest release.

Congratulations on Union. It’s fantastic.

Thanks. I’m glad you liked it.

I’ve been following your career since the Uncle Tupelo days, and I’ve always thought that you were a fantastic storyteller. On Union, though, I think this is the most overt you’ve ever been lyrically in addressing our leaders and institutions. Would you agree with that?

You know, I see it more as a companion piece to a previous Son Volt record, Okema and the Melody of Riot, which came out in 2005. I’m not really addressing anyone specifically, per se. It’s more of the collateral damage and the turmoil going on. I’m just trying to report on it as I see it. A lot of these songs were straight from the headlines, like “Reality Winner” and other stuff like “The 99,” where it’s referencing the Dakota Pipeline protest, and the Ferguson protests… even going back to the Occupy protests.

In confronting our turbulent politics through music, it seemed as though you really embraced your folk influences a lot. Was there any particular songwriter or musician that was driving your artistic vision of Union, either subconsciously, or otherwise?

They’re all out there…. Whether it’s Neil Young or John Lennon. It used to be so much more prevalent, that the topical content made its way into mainstream music.

You mentioned Reality Winner earlier. What was it about her story that prompted you to write a song about her?

I just found Reality Winner’s story to be compelling, and I figured the least I could do was write a song for others that might not know her story. I mean, I kind of view her as a merchant of truth. She leaked the document just saying, ‘Yes, there was interference in the 2016 election,’ which we were being told there wasn’t.

That confluence of truth and lies comes through in the music, and certainly in the lyrics. But on the other side of that, “Rebel Girl” was a song that almost brought me to my knees. It was so beautiful. I was just curious, where were you coming from in your mind with that track?

Over the years, just through knowing about Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, a dug a little deeper and came up with this guy Joe Hill, who was sort of a union organizer and folk singer from an earlier era. He’s sort of a precursor to Woody Guthrie. I had one of his songbooks at one point, and that particular song lyrically always jumped out at me, but I’d never actually heard the song itself. So, I just wrote new music to Joe Hill’s lyrics. It’s sort of a co-write.

I think one of the biggest takeaways from Union is that music can offer comfort in these very dark and scary times. Was that what you were hoping to achieve with this album?

Yeah, you know… I don’t have any allusions about what my songs, or how my songs will affect people. I think it was just sort of adding to the discussion… to ask questions and be aware. But, my wife brought to my attention this quote from Bertolt Brecht, which is ‘In the dark times, will there also be singing?’ And the response is ‘Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.’ So, it’s been thought about before, I’m just kind of carrying on the tradition of singing out.

Some artists feel it’s not their place to comment on politics, while others do. You clearly felt that it was. Conceptually, in the writing of the songs, how much did you sit down and plot it all out, or did the songs come naturally just because of where you were and where our society is at currently?

Yeah, you know… It’s coming from the background of where I come from, growing up listening to Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Woody Guthrie. It’s just sort of commonplace, it’s the tradition of the bard. It’s the way you look at things, that you can put pen to paper and put out your viewpoint. So, it didn’t strike me as odd to be doing it, really. I was just caught in the moment. My original concept was to make more of a focused, statement record. But probably midway through the process, I realized I just had to get back to I guess what you could say is more of the essential Son Volt-type songs, which are non-topical.

For the actual recording of the album, you placed yourself in some pretty challenging environments. Can you expand on the process a little?

I wanted to get out the studio, and there was sort of a field trip aspect to it, going to the Woody Guthrie museum and the Mother Jones museum. I felt like I wanted to highlight those contributions to where we are today, and hopefully challenge and inspire along the way.

Do you think with the way those recordings came out, there’s an added dimension beyond what you’d written?

I think there is an added dimension in there somewhere. People have mentioned to me that some of the songs that have more of a protest element to them don’t sound angry (laughs). People have said that to me repeatedly. Maybe that has something to do with it, by taking (the band) to those recording locations.

I think back to some of your earlier songs like “Whiskey Bottle,” for example, where you really capture the strife of ‘the everyday man,’ and I really felt like if there was anybody who could capture what is going on today, it would be you, because it’s something you’ve been doing for a really long time. What do you think?

Probably within the last ten years or so, I’ve been experimenting with writing from another perspective, and “Reality Winner” is definitely one of those songs, and the song “The Symbol” is one that has more of a storytelling narrative. I guess just over the years I’ve just expanded on the types of songs I write.

Son Volt has such a deep catalog, but now that Union is out, and it has such strong context, is there any urgency on your part to play as much of the album live as possible?

People have asked us to do just that, so right now we’re probably playing about half of it [in our sets], and we’ll probably keep adding songs as we go along—and that works out for everyone, as the set gets longer.

Be sure to catch Son Volt at the Ardmore Music Hall in Ardmore, PA on May 1, at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, NY on May 3, and at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY on May 4!!