A Conversation with Luke Redfield: “I Think of the Land First” (Westword 4/3/2015)

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Luke Redfield On Being An American Songwriter: “I Think of the Land First”
by Adam Perry for Westword, 4/3/2015

Delicate-voiced Minnesota singer-songwiter Luke Redfield, somewhat of a nomad, has spent a lot of time in Boulder and Denver over the years. January found him headlining Shine and the Walnut Room, with his sometime-backup singer Patrycja Humienik, a University of Colorado graduate who lives in Denver, opening both shows as kismet&dough, with help from local collaborators Shilpi Gupta and Irene Joyce.

Jack Kerouac once wrote, “I pictured myself in a Denver bar, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged and like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was ‘Wow!’” Redfield, who draws as much from Kerouac and other classic American writers as he does Bob Dylan and other legendary songwriters, had quite a few more words than “wow” in a Westword conversation earlier this week about his brief upcoming Colorado-only tour. Redfield plays the Walnut Room on April 7 with kismet&dough as support, and opens for Nora Jane Struthers at the Fox Theatre on April 9.

Adam Perry: Is it still winter in Minnesota?

Luke Redfield: The sunshine made me think today is maybe the first day of spring. Our local celebrity, Scott Seekins, this kind of cult hero everybody follows, wears all black in the winter and all white in the summertime, and it’s always a suit. I saw him today in all black, which means it’s technically winter.

How does the change from winter to spring affect you as a writer and performer?

It greatly affects my levels of spontaneity and happiness overall. Whenever it goes from below zero to thirty above and suddenly it’s warm [in Minnesota] I’ll pick up the guitar and write some happy songs; all winter I’ve been singing depressing shit. It’s like the song emerges from the cocoon on the first day of spring. I know as a writer and just a creative person, spring puts a jump in my step.

I just listened to your recent Daytrotter session. Do you think their images of you are getting more accurate or less accurate?

[Laughs] I think this is a pretty decent one. They’re all caricatures, so I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I’m glad the hat is on this one, because I’ve been wearing this one for a while.

Is Jack Kerouac a big reason you feel so connected to Colorado?

Yeah, definitely. I don’t know if that was always a conscious thing on my part. I read On the Roadforever ago, and Dharma Bums and all those other classics but, even though I remember him mentioning Denver a million times, I never even really thought about him. But in the past few months I’ve been kind of noticing that connection, that Kerouac really did enjoy hanging out in Denver. And then Townes Van Zandt, who I also admire, he spent part of his childhood in Boulder, and then he went to high school in Minnesota really close to where I grew up. I didn’t realize until recently that Townes and Kerouac and I have shared some of the same haunts.

You identify so much as an American songwriter; you identify so much with iconic American writers like Mark Twain. What’s it like to identify as an American songwriter right now?

I think of the land first. I kind of gave up on politics six or even years ago. In terms of the state of the country right now, at least socially and politically, I think we’re pretty lost in general. In terms of the natural splendor and diversity that America has in terms of the land and different types of people and ways of life, I think it’s like no place the planet has ever seen. We’re still in the process of seeing what the American experiment really is; it’s still a very young country. I like guys like Whitman because they tend to be microcosms of the greater country. Whitman said, “Because the poet lovingly absorbs virtually all of America’s tastes, he in turn will be absorbed by his country.” All of the great ones absorb all of the taste of the country and are absorbed.

Who’s an example of that right now?

There’s a lot of great ones; some of them we don’t even know who they are. Back in the day, if you were a poet or musician and you had a hot record or book, it got out there because there just weren’t that many. I still like the classic bards that are still living, like Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen or Neil Young, even though those [last two] are Canadian. I can’t think of any current guys that are in that tradition.

And it might be a girl, not a guy.

Absolutely. Can you think of one?

Well, Neko Case, I think…she might not go down in the pantheon of Dylan and Neil Young, but she has one foot in tradition and one being musically and socially progressive. She’s amazing.

Yeah, I love Neko Case. She’s cool. I agree.

Your last time through Colorado was your first time on tour with a backing band. What was that like?

It was interesting. It was a lot of fun and also challenging, because everyone’s on their own schedule. It was super fun to not travel alone, that’s for sure. You get to share some of the good stories with other people. I’ve had a lot of really hilarious things happen to me while I’ve been touring solo, but when someone’s there to experience it with you it’s a whole other story.

Was it easier or harder musically to play with other people?

Just different. I enjoy both for different reasons. Certainly I feed off of other musicians; when there are other musicians on stage and good synergy, then the energy is shared, so I prefer to play with a band for that reason.

What’s it like having Patrycja Humienik singing with you?

It’s cool, man. We actually had her work out some three-part harmonies with a couple other [band members] for some of the shows, so that got really fun. We had four people singing on some of the songs; I’m a big fan of harmonies.

What’s it like seeing a member of your band flowering on stage as the opening act?

I’m a big fan of her solo act [Denver-based kismet&dough] that’s being birthed. It’s really good. There’s a lot of potential there. I love it. I want everybody to flourish and to do the projects they’re compelled to,
that their hearts are telling them to do. I think every one of my bandmates has a solo project. I’m very supportive and encouraging them all.

What’s it like transitioning back to doing solo performances?

Like nothing had ever happened. Like back at home. I’m pretty versatile in that regard, I guess. I like to do both because I like variety, and I think other people do too.

WORDS FROM THE ROAD: Luke Redfield’s Life in Music (Boulder Weekly 1/15/2015)

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Words from the Road: Luke Redfield’s Life in Music
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly, 1/15/2015

“It’s just like me singing in your living room with a three-piece band, or in some little dive bar,” indie-folk singer-songwriter Luke Redfield told me about his new album, The Cartographer, by phone from Minnesota just after spending Christmas with his family there.

Redfield, 31, grew up a preacher’s son in small, humble and peaceful Minnesota and Nebraska towns, and is quick to quote memes about the morality of work, such as “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.”

Redfield consciously recorded The Cartographer in a more stripped-down, expedient fashion than his four previous releases. With a vocal style heavily influenced by Blonde On Blonde-era Dylan and Conor Oberst and lyrics steeped as much in folk and blues tradition as classic American literature, Redfield had been more of a patient perfectionist with past recordings. The Cartographer, the result of isolated woodshedding at a comically tiny house in Austin, is essentially Kerouac-style “first thought, best thought” set to music.

“It was a special time and a magical time, one of those magical moments when it all just comes together,” Redfield says. “And that’s what it was like for me in this little house. I enjoyed it while it lasted. I was working at a food cart while I was writing, and every day I devoted myself to five to 10 hours of playing guitar and writing these songs. I was ‘in it’ for a couple of months, where these songs would just come to me. “

Haunting, spacious tracks like “Frida” give Redfield the chance to muse — along with gentle harmonica, piano and acoustic guitar — on “making love to some actress” and being “just stardust.” Lilting folk-rockers such as “Sweetest Thing” find Redfield, playful like a young Bruce Springsteen, waxing romantic with the spirit of a troubadour: “I’ve been around this country and fucked it up and down / but you’re the sweetest thing I ever found.”

Growing up on Mark Twain, baseball, ice cream and fireworks in the conservative innocence of the Midwest had a deep effect on Redfield, but the wandering tales in his songs aren’t just for style. When he’s not on tour, Redfield (who has lived everywhere from Nashville to Alaska) works in food service — “waiting tables, cooking, working as a barista, whatever I need to do in the moment” — and when he’s traveling around America playing shows, he feels connected not only with his music but also his ancestry.

“My family is musicians as far back as we can trace the family tree,” he says. “That’s something that I always think about when I’m on the road: ‘This is in my lineage.’ My dad actually played folk music and rock ‘n’ roll [before becoming a preacher]. He was a flower child in the ’60s, served in Vietnam. I learned a lot from my dad about music and life and spirituality and work ethic.”

According to Redfield, recording The Cartographer, which was released Jan. 7, included choosing 10 songs out of approximately 100 he’d written in Austin.

“I generally have enough material to record an album every year,” Redfield says. “A lot of my favorite artists don’t make a lot of albums, but then there are singer-songwriters like Dylan or Johnny Cash who always seem like they’ve got more songs that I’ve never even heard of. And I think I’m more in that category. I got to a point where I thought, ‘I gotta just start recording.’ The Cartographer is really down-to-earth in a way that I hadn’t been on previous recordings. Our mind gets in the way so much when we are artists who care about what we do. I think just based on previous experiences, [I was] just spending too much time and too much money in the studio and just sitting with the songs too long. The Cartographer is more of a stream-of-consciousness thing. But I’m happy to have made albums on both sides of the spectrum.”

Redfield, who is also a semi-pro Frisbee-golf player, is on tour with a band for the first time, and is excited about bringing a fuller sound to his live performances. He’s also looking forward to sharing his love for the road with good friends.

“I’m pretty stoked. It’s been a long time coming. They’re musicians I’ve been working with for a while, friends of mine and people I feel comfortable living with or going on the road with, people who are enthused. I’m all about the right enthusiasm, because I have that about traveling and touring and I want people who will have that same sort of mindset and enjoy the adventure of being on the road in what I still think is an amazing country we live in, in terms of its natural beauty.”

Redfield might allude to “a bed of darkness in my soul” in his gentle, sometimes bleak songs, but he’s an optimistic, self-described “nature boy” whose only New Year’s resolutions are to “be kind and loving…eat better and make more money.” And, as evidenced on gorgeous tracks like “Holy Ghost, NM” on his last album, 2013’s East of Santa Fe, Redfield is proud of his Midwestern roots but has a distinct affinity for the West.

“I love it; there’s something about the air and the water and the mountains,” he says. “There’s something about Colorado that just draws me. I feel like I come alive when I’m in those spaces. It’s hard to really articulate. I think because I grew up in farm country, I really do connect with the earth. My soul is just happier; my heart feels happier when I’m in the kind of lush scenery you find in Colorado. I love that drive from Colorado to New Mexico. It’s one of my favorite parts of the country.”

Redfield is self-deprecating when it comes to his poignantly unassuming voice. He says he identifies more as a songwriter than as a singer, and even plans to write a book in the next year or two about his experiences living on the road.

“Probably because I have never been super amazing at playing an instrument or singing, I think my lyrics are definitely my strength,” he says. “And if I don’t want to be just another folk singer I have to think of myself as a writer. For some reason, I decided to write songs.”

Luke Redfield plays Shine in Boulder on Saturday, January 17 at 8pm and the Walnut Room in Denver on Sunday, January 18 at 7pm. Kismet & Dough opens both shows. 

Jen Marie Davis: “Sometime Soon Ago”

Filling the Gaps of Experience
Former Boulderite’s New Book of Poetry Focuses on Life’s “White Noise”
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
9/16/10

There must be something in the mountain air. More and more young writers are coming to Boulder from far-flung American locales, unlearning who they thought they were as artists and people, and then (usually) moving on, spreading the cool, creative calm of Colorado elsewhere.

Naropa University graduate Jen Marie Davis, author of the beautiful new hand-stitched collection Sometime Soon Ago (Shadow Mountain Press, Golden), is a great example. Davis, an Ohio native, initially thought of herself as primarily a prose writer—and then primarily a self-chronicling poet-essayist when she first began dabbling in poetry. Davis’ time in Boulder, she says, taught her to slow down and not only appreciate but also chronicle what she calls life’s “white noise”: ordinary details we tend to overlook as unimportant but actually come to define our experience over time.

These days, Davis lives in Santa Fe, where she works as a book artist, co-edits Fact-Simile Press and engages in fairly complex poetic exercises that bloom out of the intense passion and focus she affords her craft. Sometime Soon Ago, however, presents both Davis’ debut solo effort and a time when she was just getting acquainted with her voice as a poet.

In brief moments such as “After Taos,” which we’ll include in full below, Davis deftly and pleasingly opens the reader’s imagination vis a vis place, time and subject. Instead of pointing us toward a concrete setting with a fixed meaning, Davis succeeds at conveying a feeling, and a range of possibilities.

After Taos

What separated
the morning from
noon was not the stretch;

instead, proximity:

the well-placed promenade
and song between drags
of riverbed.

The short, succinct and unlocked poems of Sometime Soon Ago include references to New York cafes, dance classes, ornithology and the day-to-day struggle to keep a relationship vibrant. These passing flashes of a seemingly normal life stimulate the imaginations of patient, curious readers and suggest fluid and tantalizing implications that grow with each reading.

How Davis plays with tense, shape and sly pronouns—the word “she” is painted all over the proverbial walls of this book—nixed my preconceptions about poetry and meaning as I read Sometime Soon Ago last week on an airplane from New Mexico to Maine. In a brief recent chat, the poet herself told Boulder Weekly the profound elusiveness I discovered in her poems was no accident.

Boulder Weekly: It was surprising, after repeatedly hearing you read your more complex and abstract work in Boulder a few years ago—which I assumed was your older work—to read these charming Frank O’hara-esque koans

Jen Marie Davis: These were actually the very first poems I’d ever seriously written. I had been interested in the compression of time and memory and had written about it in longer [prose] forms. The synchroneity of form and content is very important to me; it seemed wrong to write about compression in a long form—I wanted to successfully communicate an idea or multiple ideas in as few simple lines as possible. At this time, I hadn’t read much poetry, either; certainly not Frank O’Hara—I’m glad to say that I have since. So I was moving from prose—to be more specific literary journalism/creative nonfiction—to these poems, which actually began as the seeds of essays. So, instead of developing these “seeds” into essays, I decided to see if the ideas or themes translated simply in just a few lines. Eventually, with more reading, writing and understanding poetry and language, I was able to move from these to what you referred to as my previous work.

BW: How did your time in Boulder affect you as a person and as a writer?

JMD: Before I moved to Boulder, I had the mindset that unless I was working—writing, reading, researching—I was not being productive as a writer. My time in Boulder slowed me down; I learned contemplative practices and mindful behavior. Noticing what I noticed and why I noticed became just as if not more productive for me as “working” and began to inform my writing. The poems in this chapbook all reflect what I would call short “non-moments”—the kind of things that regularly happen to a person or the thoughts that may cross a person’s mind that tend to go unnoticed. The “white noise” of life. Being in Boulder taught me how to be present and listen to and engage with the “white noise.”

BW: This writing seems much different from what outsiders generally consider the stereotypically free form and messy poetry Naropa writers produce. How did you transcend that style

JMD: I’m not really sure what “stereotypical Naropa poetry” is. During the time I spent at Naropa, I encountered such a variety of aesthetics. I remember one poetry class in which no one was writing in a similar manner, everyone had different concerns, but everyone responded respectfully yet critically despite the differences. That’s actually one of the reasons I really love Naropa and is one of the most important skills that I learned there—how to read and respond to a variety of work. If my work is different from typically Naropa poetry, I would owe it to a background in magazine journalism/creative nonfiction. I read a lot of MFK Fisher, John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Anne Carson and philosophy. [Before coming to Boulder] I had never read On the Road, any Ginsberg, really no Beats at all.

BW: One of the most striking moments in Sometime Soon Ago is an opening lines that reads, “She interrupts life to write it down.” Is the overwhelming urge to write ever a curse?

JMD: The curse of forgetting what I wanted to write down always outweighs the curse of writing.

BW: Who is she?

JMD: “She” is an eye, a lens and a position. After taking a lot of workshops in the personal essay and reading a lot of “I”s, I became bored with close personal experience, which led me to become interested in the gap that exists between a writer and third-person narration. Can I write essays in a third-person narration? What shift in perspective happens with the change of position?

BW: How did this project come about?

JMD: [Shadow Mountain Press publisher] Travis Cebula was familiar with my work and asked if I would submit a manuscript. I’ve wrote most of these poems two and half years ago and knew that Travis had read and enjoyed them, so I thought that they would be a good fit. I’m very pleased with the book—Marie Larson, a very talented poet and artist, designed the cover, which I think resonates very well with the contents. My biggest concern when I make a book through my press [Fact-Simile] is that the form resonates with the work. With Marie’s cover, the artisan paper and hand-stitched construction of the book, I think Travis achieved that aim.