Son Volt | It’s All in the Search

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"I guess I'm inescapably a product of the Midwest," he says. "There's an element of wanting to write about what you know about. St. Louis just has a character and a history that interests me and, also, is familiar with me."

 

  

sonvolt2 Since pioneering the alt-country sound with Uncle Tupelo in 1989, Jay Farrar has developed into one of the finest and most distinctive songwriters of his generation, amassing a respectable body of work as both a solo artist and with Son Volt, the band he introduced in 1995 with the critically acclaimed album, Trace (Warner Bros.).

After opting to put Son Volt aside for five years to undertake a series of solo projects, Farrar is now two albums into the band's second incarnation. The Search, the fifth album by the St. Louis-based artist under the Son Volt nameplate, features Farrar (vocal, guitar, piano), Dave Bryson (drums), Derry DeBorja (keyboards), Andrew Duplantis (bass, backing vocals), and Brad Rice (guitar).

Farrar recently wrapped a tour with Gob Iron (a collaboration with Anders Parker), and is eager to hit the road again with Son Volt this spring. Son Volt, he explains, represents "a kind of aesthetic that I want to continue doing."

"Always dreaming, it's the search not the find," Farrar sings in the title track from what is easily Son Volt's most diverse album to date.

"More so than the road, the title signifies trying to find meaning in anything," he says. "And for me it's all about the search—that's what keeps me going more than actually having any specific goals to achieve; I think there's a danger in that because, if you achieve that goal, then where do you go?"

With the most dynamic sound the band has produced yet, Son Volt fans should hope he keeps searching for a long, long time. Each of the 14 songs on The Search has its own unique sound, that when strung together weaves a rich tapestry, filled with social and political commentary and anchored by Farrar's sublime and haunting vocals.

"Instrumentally, the electric guitar was the focus of the last record [2005's Okemah and the Melody of Riot], but for The Search, we wanted to try something new," Farrar says. "This time, we utilized different instrumentation to fit each song—from guitar pedal loops to various keyboard sounds to horns."

Horns? On a Son Volt album?

That's right—the first single, The Picture, an edgy piece of social commentary with lyrics like "When war is profit and profit is war," features St. Louis musicians Chris Deusinger on saxophone and Keith Moyer on trumpet, giving the song a decidedly upbeat feeling despite the somewhat downbeat subject matter.

"It's taken me a long time to get around to it, but I've always wanted to use horns on a song," says Farrar. "I think probably from listening to a lot of Rolling Stones, where there was a period where they had a lot of horns above the keys."

Further adding to the rich layers of sound is the addition of keyboardist DeBorja, a former bandmate of drummer Dave Bryson's in Canyon, which backed Farrar on the 2004 live solo LP, Stone, Steel and Bright Lights.

"This time around, with addition of Derry, there's just a lot of different sounds to draw from," Farrar says. "The electronic keyboard samples—banks—that he has, we can just kinda scroll through sounds and pick something that seems appropriate for the song. Ultimately, it adds a different texture and kind of fills things out."

DeBorja is also rounding out the sound of Son Volt's previous catalogue on the current tour. Farrar says he is playing about 98 percent of the songs, adding a new element to much of the older material.

A careful, poetic lyricist, Farrar says he subscribes to a writing approach similar to Jack Kerouac's. "Instead of formulating a concept and then trying to write around that, I usually go for more of a freeform stream-of-consciousness approach," he says. "Whatever's there comes out, and then try to put some structure to it later."

For The Search, Farrar says, "I started writing right after we finished Okemah and the Melody of Riot and accumulated more songs than usual. Because I got an early start on the material, it took a little bit of the pressure off and allowed me to experiment with different structures and think about using different instrumentation. Songs like ‘Methamphetamine' and ‘Highways and Cigarettes' revisit that aesthetic, but I didn't want to make that the way the whole record sounded, because I feel that good things can happen from pushing things in different directions."

The beautiful "Highways and Cigarettes," a duet with enchanting songstress Shannon McNally, is an instant Son Volt classic. The idea for the duet developed after Farrar and McNally did a brief tour of the South together last year.

"It's definitely another celebrational road song, acknowledging that it's good to be back out," Farrar says. "I like traveling in a van, where you have the freedom to see some of those forgotten or less conspicuous places."

Although Farrar has traveled the country and much of the world, his roots remain in the Midwest, in St. Louis, where he has lived the majority of his life. And much of the essence of Midwest and of the city he calls home can be felt and heard in the songs he writes.

"I guess I'm inescapably a product of the Midwest," he says. "There's an element of wanting to write about what you know about. St. Louis just has a character and a history that interests me and, also, is familiar with me."

When he's not on the road or in the studio, the low-profile Farrar concentrates on being a dad to his two children, who have had a significant influence on his music and his career in recent years.

"I think having children forms your outlook, or changes your perspective, definitely for the better," he says. "Essentially, you're just more aware of, perhaps, your place in society, through devoting yourself more to other people than yourself."

And his kids may quite possibly be his biggest fans yet. "My daughter listens exclusively to Gob Iron. My son listens to Stone, Steel and Bright Lights, my solo record," he says. "They're getting into their own tastes at this point. It's interesting to watch that develop."

Son Volt is hitting the road all spring on a 37-date tour, including an April 21 stop at home in St. Louis at The Pageant. Chris Masterson, former guitar player for Jack Ingram, is replacing Brad Rice in the Son Volt tour lineup, as Rice has been tapped to join Keith Urban on the road this spring.

If the new album and tour aren't enough for the diehard Son Volt fans, a deluxe edition of The Search featuring eight additional songs from the recording session is available exclusively through iTunes. For those who have already purchased the 14-track CD, the additional songs can be purchased á la carte. Now that's something to sing about. | Amy Burger

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