Frank Fairfield may live in Los Angeles, but his heart and soul belong to the mountains, dusty roads, and open lands of another time. He was discovered on the streets in 2008, was picked to open for the Fleet Foxes and put out a couple of singles on the Tompkins Square label. The following year, Fairfield delivered his self-titled debut album, filled with 11 traditional tunes. Since his first record, he has toured extensively around the globe and is even the subject of a new documentary film.
Out In The Open West is Mr. Fairfield’s second full-length release, and it showcases a whole new dimension to the man’s work, most notably, as a songwriter. His debut was filled with traditional tunes, and without a doubt, proved his genuine love for the material, as well as his masterful versatility as a multi-instrumentalist of guitar, banjo, and fiddle.
For Out In The Open West, Mr. Fairfield offers up a handful of inherited tunes, but adds his own original compositions to the mix. Fairfield mostly went it alone on his debut, but here he brings in some heavyweight collaborators such as guitarist Tom Marion, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s own Willie Watson. With the added personal, the scope of Mr. Fairfield’s appeal just increases, and becomes irresistible listening.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Fairfield. It was an unpredictable, surprising, interesting, and lively conversation. It was one that ultimately, left me with even more questions about Frank Fairfield. As a fan of the man's music for some time now, I was curious to listen to him discuss what drives him to play, record, and perform the music he has chosen. This excerpt from our 45-minute conversation was certainly an enlightening glimpse into Mr. Fairfield's world, but somehow I feel as though I only managed to scratch the surface of this enigmatic artist.
When did you start playing music and what was your first instrument?
Frank Fairfield: I started with playing guitar.
What kind of music first drew you to learning guitar and playing music ?
FF: It was mostly just what I knew at the time. Mostly, it was church music. I saw my grandfather play and my father could play a few chords. That was really my first exposure to any kind of music and any kind of instruments. That's where it all started.
How did playing the guitar and listening to more music lead you to playing the fiddle and the banjo?
FF: Oh, it's hard to say really. I'm not really sure how anything leads to anything (laughing). Sometimes things just show up. One day my grandfather offered a fiddle to his grandkids to learn on, so I thought I'd take him up on it. I'd say that I really just decided to pick things up and play. Little by little I began hearing more and more good fiddle music too.
You were playing on the street before you were, for the lack of a better word, "discovered". Can you talk about your first experiences playing music in public?
FF: It's funny, I don't know what I was doing then. I guess I was just playing music. I was playing the old songs and at some point I decided to go outside and play them there. I'm not completely sure what really made me want to do that (laughing). I just kind of showed up and to do that and stuck a hat out.
Where in California are you?
FF: I live in Mt Washington
You recorded a couple singles for the Tompkins Square label, and hit the road to open up for the Fleet Foxes on their tour in 2008. Your first record followed the tour. Can you discuss your experiences doing that tour?
FF: Matt, who is now my manager, just said to me "Hey, do you want to play a show". I'm not sure how he got in touch with Josh at Tompkins Square, or who got in touch with who first. I felt pretty funny during that whole Fleet Foxes thing. I didn't really know about shows, or festivals, or anything like that.
If I had to be positive about it, I can say that it was a "learning experience", which you could say it was. It made me think to myself "Well, is this something I really want to do for a living?" I guess I decided "Why the heck not". At the time it was a funny kind of situation to be in. I was going through a bunch of things. It was such an uncomfortable time and I was uncomfortable with myself then.
Looking back on that time, what would you say has changed the most for you since then?
FF: I just don't know what to attribute anything to (laughs). I mean, I'd like to think that I am more comfortable in my own skin since I've had to deal with more things since then. Then again, I'm just a kid. And I think it's expected that I'll be learning things and hopefully I'll do a lot of growing up. Hopefully I'll continue to grow the hell up and keep learning more things. Sometimes I don't feel that I have any business doing anything yet. I'm still a kid, you know. Hopefully someday I'll have something to say. I'd like to think that I'm learning things and that I'm getting more comfortable.
Can you talk about your Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts compilation that was released on your own label, Pawn Records, but distributed by Tompkins Square? How did it come together?
FF: Josh at the label knew that I liked collecting records and he has done reissues before. He said "Hey, could we put a little collection together of your records?" We just had to avoid all major record labels, so no Victor's, no Columbia's, no Brunswick's, no Okeh's. That narrowed down the choices of records of mine and didn't leave too much left to choose from.
How did you go about choosing the selections?
FF: Well, I started looking at the smaller labels that were left. I went through the records that I could work with, and I was just trying to make some sense of them musically. I took things that I liked and tried to connect them. I guess my intent was to try show how music is the same wherever you go. There's places where culture is preserved, but unfortunately those places are getting fewer and farther between. I really wanted to try to show different things while also showing some similarities too. For example there's a song with a harp from Mexico, one with a Chinese saw, and also a fiddle tune from Tennessee. Things like that. I was just trying to parallel things a little bit, which may be more of an underlying connection.
I like all different kinds of music and a whole bunch more things than just what is on the collection. I guess, overall, I was just trying to show a little bit of the bigger picture of music. For me, it's not just about going back and hearing the records. The beautiful part of it all is getting a big picture of things. Sure, I like collecting records and having the physical objects. I get to hear this music and I'm glad that things get reissued, but sadly, often times when things do get reissued, it is very poorly.
Your new album, Out In The Open West, has a variety of guest players such as Tom Marion, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Willie Watson. Can you discuss what it was like working with them?
FF: Well, Willie Watson was just someone I used to play music with. I didn't really know anything about the band he plays in. I think my wife rang him up or something. We met and we started playing fiddle tunes together. At the time he was living here but then he moved out to Tennessee. So we played every once in a while and I said "Hey, you want to do a song on the record."
Tom Marion is one of the best musicians that I know. He is brilliant. He used to play with Robert Crumb And His Cheap Suit Serenaders. He is a really, really phenomenal musician. He plays fiddle, mandolin mostly, and banjo. He plays the mazurkas and scottishes and music that no one cares about anymore. Tom plays the proper stuff. He plays waltzes, mazurkas, and rags. He's just phenomenal. He is a real musician. I'm just a kid who sings songs. He is the real deal. It's always fun to play with Tom. He's a very nutty guy, but I like Tom a lot and really respect him.
Is Tom based out in California too? Is it easy for you guys to get together and play?
FF: He lives out in Venice or Santa Monica somewhere. He lives practically right down the street from another great musician, Brad Kay. There's a lot of great musicians in Los Angeles. Particularly when it comes to ragtime and jazz and those kinds of things. There's Brad and John Reynolds- who is a tremendous banjo player and guitar player. In LA there's some really sharp gentlemen who play some real, seriously good music, particularly with jazz. LA, a couple of hundred years ago, had a whole lot more roots than a whole lot of other things. Some of the first real New Orleans jazz records were actually made in Los Angeles.
Do you go out and see a lot of music?
FF: No, I just go to people's houses. I don't really go out to shows. Most of these guys don't play shows, they just play music. A lot of these people just get together and play music and listen to records.
For Out In the Open West, you collected traditional songs along with your originals. How did that come together?
FF: I think that these terms that get used a lot are very modern terms. I don't think they really apply to music as a whole. I don't think in terms of "covers". When I think of Stephen Foster, Chris Smith, or Charles Harrison, I think how those "penned" songs are just copies of things you can't trace back. These guys didn't write these songs to own them, they wrote these songs to put into sheet music so they could be sung across the whole country.
So, to me it's funny to hear something called a "cover" or a "traditional" tune. You don't "cover" a Chris Smith song. You just sing it. These guys wrote popular songs and everybody knew these songs. They were intended to be sung by everybody. So I don't know what "traditional" or "whatever you want to call them" songs are. I mean, "Arkansas Traveller" and "Turkey In The Straw" is about as common as any music you can think of. Then there's "Haste To The Wedding", which is an old, old jig. I don't think anybody has the rights to that. It's one that can be traced way back. The other things I've been doing are just mashing things up out of boredom.
I'd also like to mention Michael Kieffer. He's the person who produced my most recent recording, and he's someone who I tremendously respect and who I credit for any success of the new record. Michael runs a label with Cary Ginell for Origin Jazz Library, that was founded by the great Bill Givens and has been reissuing gramophone recordings of vernacular American music since 1960.
So, along those lines, and in your own words, how would you describe some of this music you play?
FF: What we call "traditional" or "American" music just doesn't make any sense to me. I don't think that the country is not old enough to have any "traditional" music. I don't think that this country is an ethnicity, it's a mishmash of all of these other traditions. That's what makes America such an interesting place! It's this mix of all of these different cultures and all of these different traditions, and I think that's what makes it what we can all call "American Music".
My family comes from southeast Texas, and it has been so very culturally diverse for over hundreds of years. I think of the colonial days, or even back to the Spanish colony days. I mean there have been Slovaks, Polish, Germans, and Scandinavians that have all been there, and they were playing polkas and mazurkas. Oh, I could go on all day (laughing).
So for you, it's really all connected, and all of the music makes up a much larger cultural and musical landscape?
FF: Music is all about getting a clear picture into humanity and getting a view of what this whole "thing" is. That's why I like collecting what they call "Ethnic" records, whatever the heck that even means! By 1903, His Master's Voice was on every single continent recording the people's music. They were in places like North Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. They were just doing it.
I couldn't tell you who the big seller was in 1934, but I'm sure it wasn't very interesting. But I can tell you that there were other very interesting things happening that were being recorded too. I just think that music really has nothing to do with time. You can say that a lot of guys playing old music were "discovered" in the 1960's, whatever the heck that means. But does that make it 1960's music or 1920's music? I just get so tired of it when people want to put everything, meaning defining music, in this box.
So what would you say is your role as a musician?
FF: I think music is something you do for its own sake. It is hard to say. For me, I think that the circularization of music is really what it is all about. Let me try to put it this way: in many of the early civilizations, music was something functional. You didn't play music for fun. You played music for ceremony, or to tell a story, or for a wedding. It was completely functional. It didn't get secularized. Now, it's just a commodity. I just try not think about it.
But you are producing records, which can be called commodities. As someone operating in the music industry today, simply by the act of making records and selling them to make a living, you're still in the system. The same system that you seem to reject. How do find a balance?
FF: It's funny to me to think that I do this for a living now. It's a funny feeling. Music was always something I didn't have to think about before. Now I have to think about it. I guess I can say that I make up my songs on my own because I really don't want to be just thought of by others, or even of by myself, as someone who is just re-creating something I hear off of a record. I mean, I care about the records and I really enjoy that.
I just want to keep playing music because I find that it's important because it reflects culture. It's like so many things. There's an environment. It's not just the music I care about, I care about the whole environment. I guess I just want to keep that going for my own sake because I really don't want to live in any other kind of environment.
I like the things that grow on the ground. I don't like the things that grow on the street. Garbage grows on the street. The things that grow on the ground are beautiful. The wild Lilies and the trees. I guess I just want to keep playing music because I like doing it. And if someone wants to stick a microphone in front of me and make a record, and people want to buy it to listen to it, well I hope that they enjoy it.
Lastly, what are your thoughts regarding the business of touring and performing live in front of an audience?
FF: I guess that's what it kind of becomes when I'm doing this for people. It's a funny thing. When I'm trying to do this on the road, it will just be like "At 8:30 you're supposed to have an experience in front of people". I just think that it just doesn't happen a lot of the time. So I feel as though I need to just remind myself that I'm trying to give somebody something. Hopefully, I'm giving them a feeling and giving them something because that is the reason why we sing these songs anyhow: to give ourselves feeling, whether they are lonesome or sad songs. It's like when we feel something sad, or when we sing silly nonsense songs, we do it to feel something silly. Or when we sing nostalgic songs because we can all relate to those things and that we all want to feel something. So I guess I just try to give something and hopefully people feel something and enjoy themselves.