THE REAL FOLK BLUES
FERAL FOSTER with Stephanie Joy Del Rosso
Walking into the Jalopy Theatre and School of Music feels a little like walking into a time capsule. Christmas lights and a red velvet curtain frame the stage. A barman sells cheap beer from behind an old-fashioned cash register. Patrons swap jokes beneath rows of dangling fiddles. But the Jalopy isn’t trying to be trendy or kitschy—there’s nothing pretentious about this little enclave perched on the edge of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. The place feels more like a tribute to some earlier, mythical age, when everyone left their backdoors open and called each other by nicknames. A man begins to play an accordion and I wonder: am I still in New York?
Every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m., Feral Foster takes the Jalopy stage for Roots & Ruckus, an evening of folk, old-time, and blues that he founded. Cradling his guitar directly beneath his chin, Feral might mumble some disclaimers or remind audience members about the tipping policy. It’s a paltry introduction for what’s to come; the first time I hear Feral, I find myself entirely unprepared. His voice is a singular boom of mournfulness and soul, paired with captivating guitar gymnastics and songwriting that is often devastating. Feral howls, “Mercy great God, I cry!” and we are rapt, leaning forward in the church pews that Jalopy uses for seats. It’s fitting: there’s something a little holy about this man spinning us stories with such ferocious beauty. I text a friend I haven’t seen in over a year: “I’m listening to this musician who makes me miss you. Can’t put my finger on why.”
Two weeks before the Village Voice names him New York’s Best Folk Artist of 2014, Feral and I meet to discuss the Jalopy, folk’s evolution, and how he manages making a career in this impossible city.
Stephanie Joy Del Rosso (Rail): Back in 2011, you told New York magazine that folk music “feels subversive now.” Last December, the Village Voice made a nod to the term “folk-punk.” I’m curious how these contemporary classifications push against or complement folk music’s tradition as a storytelling genre of the working class, often with a political bent.
Feral Foster: I was misquoted a little bit. I was trying to say that there are, and there always have been, people mixing folk music with ideology—way before Woody Guthrie. Folk music was tied to the labor movement in America. However, it’s been used for nationalist movements, fascism. I mean, people have co-opted folk music for a lot of purposes. It’s supposed to make people feel empowered in tradition and empowered in simplicity. And I feel that the subversive vibe comes from folk musicians rejecting a lot of things that they don’t want to take part in, in society. It’s reactionary.
Rail: What do you think you’re rejecting?
Foster: I think musically I’m making more of a statement than a rejection. Things happen in the world that scare me or make an impression on me—everything from vapid consumerism to religious fundamentalism to the futility of a lot of political causes. I make statements, but I purposefully don’t always connect all the dots. I leave things a little open-ended, because anybody who is that sure of himself when he’s making a statement is often not thinking enough.
Toward the end of my song “Black Friday Blues,” I’m addressing some people I met involved in Occupy. I’m not trying to discredit political action in any way, but I am asking people to question and maybe recognize their personal role in injustice. My friend Stephanie has a song that, to paraphrase, goes, “You can live in society and you can live outside of society, but you can’t live in between.” A lot of people feel like they’re totally detached from the system that they’re revolting against, even though it’s so intrinsic to every part of their lives.
Rail: Is there a certain degree of authenticity that’s necessary in order to call yourself a folk musician? If an inherent political or social statement is still critical to the form, do you ever get frustrated with, say, the kid who moved to Brooklyn on his parents’ dime, who’s learning the banjo, writing what he deems “folk” songs, and becoming a so-called “folk musician”?
Foster: That’s the world. There’s a lot of bad pop music with banjos and mandolins. It’s accessible. I think there are people jumping onto folk music and thinking, “Oh, this is a thing now. Overalls, banjos, mason jars, that’s good.” Folk is very apolitical today. There are so many people writing about nothing. Or themselves. In some ways, a lot of people can’t reconcile how insane the world is, so they’re “folky” in this spiritual way: “Good vibes,” but there’s very little social conscience. It’s remarkable how many people who are in a position privileged enough to do this kind of thing use it to romanticize poverty or sing about their girlfriend. There is a vapidness. And honestly, the vast majority of really bad stuff now is incredibly male-dominated.
Rail: What is causing this vapidness and what do we do about it?
Foster: I think it’s a little bit of the Internet age. People automatically want to be a product. People want to be a brand. People’s descriptions of themselves read like, “His songs sound like ghosts, dusty Victrolas, and old, rugged jeans.”
It’s easy to make music that doesn’t make people think, because people don’t want to think. People want to go out and have fun. I understand this. I do what I do because I have this weird need. I try to make music that is deep and meaningful, but I’m not trying to lift peoples’ spirits—which is kind of shooting myself in the foot. But if you can’t make them feel good, you can at least freak them out, or make an impression on them somehow. There has to be something. You’ve got to give me one of the things!
And that’s not to say that I am or anybody else is “an authentic folk musician.” Some of the greatest folk musicians are the biggest bullshitters. I sometimes think to myself: God, isn’t it selfish what I do? I just go up there and scream for hours, and people listen to me. It’s kind of ridiculous.
Rail: You recently finished a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign for your first album. Whether it means raising funds, landing gigs, or just making a living, how do you personally manage the more mundane practicalities of a career as a musician?
Foster: I’ve always had all sorts of odd jobs: going door-to-door, being a bus boy, a carpenter’s assistant. I supported myself busking for years and years, which was much easier while living in a sardine can flophouse in the Bronx. After a while you resent the hustle. Especially on the subway. Most people just don’t give a crap, some people are really into what you’re doing, and some people just vehemently hate you. I understand that mentality.
If you’re a jazz musician, or a great stand-up bass player, or a great guitarist who can play many styles, you can really just gig for a living. I know many people who do. Doing what I do you really can’t. People will pay to have background music in their restaurant, but nobody’s gonna pay me to do what I do in a bar four nights a week. I could if I was touring, which I want to do more of, but it’s just logistically difficult for me because I don’t have a vehicle and I don’t know how to drive. But I really want to be back on the road. It’s a lot of fun.
Rail: Do you ever think about leaving New York?
Foster: I was born here, my parents were born here, my grandparents were born here. I’m so ingrained. It’s hard. Although I do notice that my anxiety goes down a lot when I leave the city. I’ll be out of town for a few days and say to myself: I just feel fine! How do I just feel fine? But then I get intensely bored, even in New Orleans. It’s a wonderful city, it’s my second favorite city, but after living there for two months the pace just killed me. I was like, come on, let’s just run around and have things to do and be busy. Even fake busy—we’ll just pretend to give each other packages and go to work at jobs we don’t have. There’s that thing where I kind of get antsy everywhere else I am.
Rail: Even though Red Hook remains in a sense your artistic home, you have performed all over the city—from Williamsburg, to the East and West Village, to Governor’s Island, to the Upper West Side. Have you noticed marked differences in audience responses to your work, neighborhood to neighborhood?
Foster: My first gig was in Bay Ridge at the Wicked Monk—which was a disaster. The Sidewalk Café in the East Village is New York City’s most famous open mic. So many people gravitate toward that stage, but I didn’t identify with the anti-folk scene going on there. I used to hang out in Tompkins Square Park with a lot of punks, playing there like everyday before I really started busking.
Things change—that neighborhood changed so immensely. When I was a kid, Avenue C was not flooded with people with so much money. By the time I took over Eli Smith’s show at Banjo Jim’s, it was. That can be an awful crowd to play to: people going out on the Lower East Side on a Saturday night, being loud and obnoxious. Jalopy filled the void for a lot of people who lost the folk coffee houses. It’s a very, very pro-musician atmosphere. They’re not concerned with making money off the door. And they’ve created one of New York’s greatest cultural institutions. There’s very little like it anywhere in the country, let alone just here.
Rail: Last year, the Rail interviewed folk musician Bruce Molsky, who hesitated to support the claim that old-timey music is primarily “white music.”
Foster: It’s not. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a band that continues that tradition. The banjo is an instrument with roots in Africa.
Rail: Yes, he said that too. He then went on to describe how, despite the obvious persistence of racism and suppression of black culture during its beginnings, folk music was a platform for synthesis between the races—including but not limited to a number of integrated bands. How do you see this playing into current folk music culture, if at all? Is there a sense of a missed opportunity?
Foster: There is more and more diversity, but it tends to be a white-, male-dominated thing. And incredibly heteronormative. At least in New York. Because those are people in society who are usually in the position where they can say, “No, I don’t have to support anybody. I can just go out and do my thing.” Our culture encourages certain people to go out and “be individuals” as much as possible. My high school in Brooklyn was the most unbelievably diverse place. It’s weird for me when I look around at a show or folk event and realize, “Oh, everyone’s the same color and vaguely of the same demographic.” It’s disheartening.
There are a lot of privileged, young, white guys coming around and saying: “Look at me. I’m interesting!” And that’s kind of what I do to an extent. I’m not going to live in a bubble and not understand that. But I at least try to keep my mind out of that split space of complacency, and celebrate diversity within musical communities as much as I can. I hope more and more people from all different backgrounds explore traditional music from all over the globe. Unfortunately, however, music scenes tend to find their way into certain demographics. It’s hard to say.
Rail: We talked about dealing with logistical struggles, but how do you cope with just the plain impossibility of being a musician in New York? How do you handle the sheer difficulty of what you’re pursuing?
Foster: I don’t. I think people should spend a lot more time trying to be good at what they do. And I don’t do it enough. Practicing is one thing, learning the licks or the movements, a certain riff, is one side of it. To write, constantly, that’s—I have to drink coffee, and smoke, and think. And then it kind of builds up in a ball. It’s very hard to sit there and be like: I’m going to be creative now. Here I go! I’m of the mind that you can’t force yourself to be creative. Some people don’t think that’s true. I force myself to sit there and try to be.
It is important for people to express themselves. I feel that if some people in my life had a way to relieve their neuroses and hysteria, or if they had a way to make that white static noise in their brains into something outside of their bodies, then they would be less self-destructive. I think it’s important for people who are wrought with anxiety to find venues, or ways, to relieve themselves. It’s very important to have some sort of goal. It’s like a discipline, almost. And a way to take care of all the extra crap going on in your head, all the time.
Rail: Is that how you handle the self-doubt of being “just another guy on stage”?
Foster: I’m too self-critical all the time, but I think it’s important that the stuff you’re writing comes from a very real, very sincere place. That a lot of thought and effort is put into any given thing. And then when you go up there, your mentality has to change a little bit. You have to perform. I think the duality of writing material from a very sincere place and then making it a show is a good balance. My job overall is to entertain people. Because you can’t enlighten people without entertaining them as well.
ContributorStephanie Del Rosso
STEPHANIE JOY DEL ROSSO is the Dance Editor of the Brooklyn Rail.