Jake Xerxes Fussell :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Jake Xerxes Fussell was born to be a finger-picker. Born to two folklorists in the country-blues rich environs of Columbus, Georgia, he grew up in a household where field recorders and blues pickers regularly turned up at dinner time and where Library of Congress LPs sat on shelves next to the Beatles and Motown. By early adolescence, he had learned to play blues style on his own guitar, and the study and practice of old-time music became a part of his identity.

Fussell has serious academic credentials—he earned a master’s degree from the Center for the Study of Southern Culture in Oxford, Mississippi—but he’s not interest in museum quality replication. Instead he looks at the way old songs have evolved through various times and places, finding the bits and iterations that best fit his idiosyncratic style of play.

For his fourth and latest album, Good and Green Again, Fussell worked with James Elkington to bring rich, subtle shadings to these reconstructed songs, achieving a melancholy clarity and modern-day resonance in music first conceived centuries ago. We spoke earlier this year about how he finds personal meaning in old songs, why he respects but doesn’t emulate the note-for-note recreators, and how the way you hear traditional music can change as you change over time. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve been listening to the old-time folk music for your whole life. Tell me what it was like growing up.

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Well, yeah, it was interesting. I don’t know what to compare it to, just because it was or is my upbringing. Both my parents were involved in folklore to some degree. My dad worked as a museum curator the whole time I was growing up, and in that capacity, he was also doing folklore work. His background and my mom’s also was more in the material culture part of folklore, having to do with quilting and crafts and basket making and that kind of stuff. Music was connected to that. My parents were friends with other people who were more serious music documentarians like Art Rosenbaum and his wife Margo and George Mitchell who made a bunch of blues field recordings in Mississippi and other places. I grew up in a household that was full of artists and art enthusiasts and folklore people, too. There were people coming in and out of the house all the time who were doing interesting things, and I got to be around a lot of that, which included some really great music. I was fortunate.

AD: Were there instruments lying around?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Oh, yeah. We had an old piano, and there were stringed instruments. My dad would keep a guitar around in case he would visit somebody who didn’t have one. Sometimes older blues musicians, their guitar was in disrepair. So, there was a loaner guitar, obviously a cheapie, and other instruments, too. There was that, and my parents had a record collection. In addition to the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan and Motown records, stuff that was popular for their generation, there were also a lot of Library of Congress field recordings that were a little bit deeper, a deeper brew than I got into when I was around 12-13, that age. I started really trying to dig through that stuff as much as I could.

AD: What was it about that old music that spoke to you at that age?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: I’m not entirely sure. I was always interested in music as a kid. When I was a young kid it was just music in general, including music that was on the radio or MTV. Like Beastie Boys or anything that people my age were listening to.But at a certain point, I don’t know what drew me in. There was probably some sort of romance about it, you know about the past.

At the same time, I made this connection with people I’d known. Precious Bryant was a blues woman and guitarist and singer from Talbot county. She didn’t drive, so my parents would drive her to her gigs. I knew her since I was a kid. She played this wonderful style, an older style of rural blues music from lower Georgia, and so I knew her, and then I started making connections. Oh, she’s doing that same riff on that song that I heard on that old Blind Lemon Jefferson record, somebody who was in the distant past.

I was making those same connections with country musicians as well, in this whole world of bluegrass and old-time fiddle music that I was fortunate to be around as well. I’m not sure what drew me in. It just became something that I thought was interesting because I liked music. It took a more serious turn at a certain point when I was a young teenager, the way certain things do for people. I don’t know if that happened for you for music or writing. Like some people are like, oh I like reading. And, suddenly, then they’re like reading is my identify. You start to take it on. That’s what you are. And I think that happened with me and kind of never left.

AD: You never had a rebellious phase where you went off into hardcore or emo or something like that?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: You know, it’s funny. Somebody asked me about that recently. I did not. I never was opposed to it. I had friends who played in punk bands and hardcore bands. I had friends who were really into hip hop in high school. I always had an appreciation for that stuff, and part of me likes some of it, but it never was deep enough for me. I don’t know if it was just the historical context of traditional music or maybe something about a sense of justice in some of the songs like Woody Guthrie. Maybe all of that together. Maybe some romance about the arcane obscurity of it all.

AD: Do you wish you had been born earlier?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Not really. Sometimes I think like wow, what would it have been like to have seen the Carter Family play? There’s part of me that thinks about that. And part of me thinks about the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It would have been great to have been around for some of that stuff, to have seen Reverend Gary Davis. I have older friends who were around then. Art Rosenbaum was one of them. He was around for some of that stuff, and that must have been amazing to have seen those people play their first shows in New York City. The first time that Doc Watson played in New York City. So that’s amazing, and I like thinking about that era. But I was fortunate to be around a lot of good music. Maybe when I was younger I romanticized the past more. I think of all that stuff as a continuum. There’s still a lot of great music out there.

AD: Folk music is very far from all one thing. Are there periods or regional styles that you like more than others?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Sure. Growing up, I became interested in the traditional music from where I was from like Darby and Tarlton. Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarlton were a pre-war commercial recording act and country music pioneers from Phenix City, Alabama. That’s right across the state line from Columbus, Georgia where I grew up. It was actually my dad’s hometown. When I was a kid, I played with a couple of guys who had known Jimmie Tarlton and had learned from him, so I was lucky to get to hear some stories about him. So yeah, and then other people who my dad and George Mitchell, who I mentioned earlier, had recorded, like Precious Bryant.

There was also this duo Robert Macon and Robert Thomas who started over in Macon County Alabama which is nearby. Sort of a rural blues style. There was a regional style of playing, with different guitar tunings, and I became interested in that early on and kind of took all that in, because it was from where I was from and I thought…I started to think about things regionally as you do when you get into folk music, just because that’s often the way it’s presented.

I like all kinds of different things that have nothing to do with that. I like Texas fiddling. That’s not something I’ve studied deeply, but I’m aware of it. I also love Nortena music and cojunto from the Texas/Mexican border. I love Native American music of many types. I wrote my master’s thesis in cultural studies or southern studies on fiddle music from the Choctaw people. And so, I have a lot of interests. All that happened later, but when I was a kid, it started with having an interest in finger picking and guitar and growing out from there to other styles.

AD: When you’re presenting old songs to a modern audience, some of them must seem more relevant than others. How do you go about deciding what music from the past will connect with people now?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Well, I guess the way I go about deciding is if it speaks to me, first. I have to convince myself that it feels legitimate for my voice and appropriate. I’m fairly picky about that kind of thing. I wouldn’t necessarily want to sing—I mean I’ve done it before—but I don’t want to sing something that’s hyper specific about a certain group of people or a certain labor movement or something. Because sometimes those things are just so specific about…I love a lot of that stuff, but it’s not necessarily my story to tell.

AD: There’s also this whole issue of appropriation and black music.

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Oh, totally. There’s that. I wouldn’t want to sing a song about the experiences of slavery. I don’t feel that’s my business to be doing that. And so yeah, I can be fairly picky about that kind of thing.

My main criteria other than those obvious consideration is: I have to put it in a musical setting that makes sense for me and my voice. It has to feel right in an intuitive way. It’s usually guided by emotion or if there’s something in there that I feel is interesting musically that I can hook onto. That’s more of an intuitive process than it is intellectual. But I also try to have those other considerations. Like do we really need another white boy singing this song? With his guitar? I do try to think about those things.

Also, you know, it’s a weird thing, because I take some license with rearranging things musically. I’m not somebody who is always super faithful to the source melody. But at the same time, I was one of those people, so I see the value in that. I like when people learn a really complicated fiddle tune note for note and try to make it sound just like the recording from 1924. For me, I find it’s not necessarily doing a song less justice if I try to draw something out of it that’s my own.

AD: This is the first album where you’ve included some originals. Want to talk about the three instrumentals and why you felt like it was time to do that?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Yeah. It wasn’t like a real big idea that I had, like “This is where I’m going to bust out my original music.” It kind of just happened this way. I’ve always had that sort of privately or on the side. I’ve always been writing—writing is a heavy handed term for what it is, which is just coming up with some instrumentals that I play. Sometimes I play them at shows. Usually, I don’t because I’ve got limited stage time to get across what I do. Instrumentals feel like they’re a little bit less priority.

I think a lot about the sequence and the flow of the record from beginning to end. On this particular record, I have at least one song that’s heavy narrative that goes on for a long time. The instrumentals give the listener a little bit of a break from that. I could have done that with traditional melodies, but at the same time, I’ve been playing these pieces recently, and I thought, why not just have these tunes that I know will work with the mood of the record? They are loosely based on traditional motifs, too, or at least chord changes and things like that, but they’re not directly enough sourced from any particular thing for me to write down it’s a version of some traditional tune. So, I guess they are original, but they don’t really feel like…

AD: What is original really when you think about it? We’ve got limited number of notes and melodies. This album has such beautifully rich arrangements, with lots of instruments. Is that something new for you?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: What was new for me on this record was being a little more deliberate about arrangements in terms of the production. Like on any given track on this record, there aren’t a ton of people playing on it. I produced my previous two albums myself. For better or worse.

AD: You had James Elkington this time.

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Yes, he was somebody that I’ve known for a couple of years. He’s a great guitar player and has great singer-songwriter in his own rite. We did a week’s worth of shows together in the Midwest a couple of years ago, and I really got to know him then.

I liked the way he talked and thought about music. He had unusual taste. He’s involved in some post-rock stuff, playing with Tortoise. And also, he talked a lot about this one Talk Talk record, which I went and immediately bought and listened to.

I liked how he thought about textures. For my first album, I worked with William Tyler and that was great. The next two I did myself and it was always like, “Oh I want it to sound like people playing in a room together,” which they did. It’s tricky to do that sometimes if you don’t have clear lines drawn from the beginning. It can wind up sounding like a mess. It will be all jumbled up and people are going to be playing on top of each other. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and other times, it’s just not. I’m not good at telling people what to do. For these songs I wanted there to be a lot of space and if we bring in a French horn, I want it to be clear that’s what that is there.

AD: I love the brass in “Carriebelle.” Is that French horn?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Yeah, thanks. That was Anna Jacobson who is a Chicago person, and did a great job. That was the idea with that. That we’d bring in some people to do very specific things on this record. Jim Elkington helped me with all that. I was very thankful to have his guidance.

AD: it’s really nicely done. As you say, the parts are very clear, but some of them are things you don’t really expect in traditional guitar strumming music. “Love Farewell,” the first song, seems like a very traditional song. Is that a Civil War song?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: No, I don’t think it’s a Civil War song. I think it predates the Civil War. You know, Civil War songs are interesting in that, considering what a big deal it was, not many people sing them. A lot of them have this Victorian gaudiness. There’s a lot of sap. There’s goop or wax or something. But the songs that predate the Civil War aren’t like that. I guess that’s the way with a lot of stuff that’s pre-Victorian.

That song is probably from — it’s a little complicated because there are so many variants of the same type of thing in different communities and settings — but I’ve found versions that went back to the 1740s. From text and different versions of the songbooks. Some of them are initially like a soldier’s song about going off to war and missing his lover. But then immediately, as it happens with a lot of folk songs, they get taken into a different setting. So, there are some childrens’ songs that repeat some of these lines. I took some of those, too. It’s kind of a jumbled up thing.

AD: Is that a common practice for you, to take elements of a song from different time periods and contexts?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Yes, it has become that. I didn’t set out to do a musical collage initially, but then sometimes when I’m working up a version of a song, I tend to think about other versions, especially with these ballads. I spend a lot of time looking at folk song books and looking through archives. I’m aware of other times a particular ballad might have existed. I’ll be like, “Oh, I wonder if there’s version of this in the next 100 folk song archive,” because I know that there’s a lot of things there and sure enough, I find one. I’ll dig up things from here and there. And again, that’s like taking some license that maybe more hardcore, puritanical folks would wag their finger at, but I’m not trying to recreate….

AD: I was wondering about “Rolling Mills Are Burning.” The title is kind of violent, but it’s such a pretty, serene song. Can you tell me a little about that one?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Yeah, that came pretty directly from one source, although I found other versions after looking into it a little further. I try to include all this stuff, the song source. I have this little bibliography type deal on the back of my LP. The works cited.

That song came from the singing and playing of George Landers, who I know next to nothing about, but who was a five-string banjo player and singer from Western North Carolina. He was recorded by that great documentarian, the late, great John Cohen. That was on this compilation of his field recordings called High Atmosphere, which I’ve had for a while. So, I was aware of that song and it has its own melody and there’s another verse in there, I think, I didn’t include. It has its own lilting quality and I always liked it, and I never knew quite what to do with it. It was maybe an example of the type of thing where I’d think, “Maybe this isn’t really my kind of song.” I love it, but I don’t know how to put it into the right setting that feels right. But then I had this other melody that I’d been playing with. That was the line that I’d been singing on top of it as a placeholder. And then it kind of worked. I was like, oh, maybe this does have this other melancholy quality that I can draw out here. That’s sort of how I did that.

AD: I was thinking about you in relation to Sam Amidon, who also interprets traditional songs, but really kind of turns them inside out and does almost a free jazz interpretation. Yours feel more like you’re presenting the song as it is. Though I get that it’s not quite the way it is historically. How do you feel about that? Is it important to present these songs as they are? How far can you go with them?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: That’s a good question. I’ve met Sam before. We played a show together in Massachusetts one time. He’s a really sweet guy, and I admire him and I like what he does, but I do recognize that there’s something different about us.

I’m not saying this about Sam at all, but some people will take a bluegrass song and then they’ll mix it with a rap song or something, and then it just feels clever. It’s like, well, you wouldn’t expect these two things to be together. Isn’t this crazy? And I think there’s some of that going on in some music that I hear. It’s like, oh wow, that’s a clever combo. Or they took this old country song, or this old Carter family song, and put electronic synths on it. Isn’t that crazy? It’s bringing it into the modern realm or something.

I don’t have any attraction to that on a conceptual level. That doesn’t interest me at all. It always goes back to whether I can sing it. It’s probably because I am so rooted in traditional music, just in terms of my interests and my musical background. I was one of those people for many years who just played acoustic guitar. I was a fingerpicker. That’s my base, where I’m starting from. I can branch out from there, but that’s where I start. It probably feels that way for that reason. I don’t have a free jazz background, though I love that stuff.

AD: I like both of your work. But it’s different. I know you’re playing some shows this months, or at least that’s the plan. Will that just be you and a guitar?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: It will. Yeah. At some point, I’m going to tour with a band. Because of COVID, it’s just sort of safer for me to travel by myself. But also, I like playing by myself. Much as I love having other people around and playing with a band. But I’ve traveled by myself a lot, playing guitar, and that guitar playing is as much a part of the thing as my singing. It’s pretty rhythmic and I have a lot of parts. The guitar parts are very essential. It’s its own dynamic. It works, and I’m able to do it, so I’m happy to travel by myself.

AD: How have you been doing with the COVID and the lockdown?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: It’s been crazy for me like it has been for everybody. At the beginning, I had these dates ready to go to Europe in the spring, and then I postponed them three times and finally canceled them. Hopefully, they’re happening this spring, but who knows? We’ll see. It’s all been kind of shaky and shifty, but of course, I’m not alone in that. Everybody’s going through it. I think it’s been particularly weird for musicians. It has been hard for people that make their living traveling and playing in rooms full of people. For a while there, there was all this scrambling around and doing live streams and then we all sort of discovered that a) we’re bad at that and b) it’s not a good substitute for live music.

AD: I hear that you used some of this down time to have a baby?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: I did, a little boy. He’s almost nine months. Born in April.

AD: What else are you working on?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: I’m always writing music, but mainly just getting ready for these shows and taking care of the young ‘un.

AD: What do you think makes a great song great?

Jake Xerxes Fussell: For me, it does a lot of the work that great art does, like a painting or a film or a piece of literature. It has the form of the thing that speaks in a way that words don’t. I don’t know how to put it. There will be some power in there. You can kind of feel it. I think that’s what some great songs do for me. I don’t know what they’re about, always, but I kind of do on one level that is maybe beyond verbal perception. Just below that line, below the surface, there’s something going on there. And usually if they resonate with me there, I know they’re about something, but finding out what they’re about is more complicated than saying what they’re about in the moment. You take it in, in a way, by having it with you for a while. I think about great songs that I’ve revisited when I’m thinking about them or have them in my head or I’m always singing them. Sometimes the meaning will change. That happens with a lot of songs.

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