From Sun Volt to Guthrie with Jay Farrar

Multitudes of challenges
By NICK A. ZAINO III  |  March 14, 2012

NEW MACHINE Led by Jay Farrar of Sun Volt, the New Multitudes project features the work of a team of musicians inspired by the lyrics of Woody Guthrie.

Putting together the New Multitudes project, singer-guitarist Jay Farrar had access to a treasure trove: thousands of lyrics from the Woody Guthrie Archives. He and his cohort — Anders Parker, Yim Yames, and Will Johnson — unearthed love songs, gritty tales of urban life, and songs of social consciousness. Most of the lyrics were written in perfectly even verse, ready to plug into the rhythm of a song.

Farrar found himself drawn to Guthrie's journals, from which he drew inspiration for the opening track on New Multitudes (Rounder), "Hoping Machine." Guthrie would write about something mundane like breakfast, says Farrar, "and then right after that it would say, 'Music is the language of the mind that travels and carries the keys to the laws of time and space.' It struck me as some of his most profound writing."

It's a beautiful verse, but unlike those readymade lyrics, it doesn't lead to easy melodic choices for a songwriter. Farrar, however, often employs unusual rhythms and melodies in his own work. "I think that's probably another thing that appealed to me," he says. "In Woody's journals, he was getting into a bit more freeform writing, even more stream-of-consciousness stuff."

New Multitudes didn't have an easy birth. Farrar was first approached through his record company in 1996 to collaborate on Guthrie lyrics with Billy Bragg. "I was busy on the road at the time, and I didn't accept or refuse it," he says. "I just sort of put it in the back of my mind as something that I would maybe want to do down the line."

Bragg went on to record two Mermaid Avenue albums based on Guthrie lyrics, with Wilco, led by Farrar's old Uncle Tupelo bandmate, Jeff Tweedy. Farrar picked up the thread again a decade later as a possible project for Gob Iron, his collaboration with Parker. Both had other obligations, and with no record company or budget, work was sporadic. "Things were done very ad hoc," says Farrar. "In one case, I remember I traded a guitar and a mixing board to another fellow to help out with the mixing. It was all based on a belief in the music and the message of Woody Guthrie."

With the Guthrie project in the background, Farrar recorded two albums with Son Volt (2007's The Search and 2009's American Central Dust) and collaborated with Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard on One Fast Move or I'm Gone, inspired by Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur. Back home in St. Louis, he played pedal steel with his brother's band, Colonel Ford.

But New Multitudes took a step forward in 2010 with the addition of Johnson and Yames, and the four musicians got together in Brooklyn to record. "Everyone acted as de facto producers at that point," says Farrar. "There was definitely an element of being at music camp."

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