Frank Fairfield‘s own biography could constitute one of the dusty, forgotten folk songs he has breathed new life into over the last number of years. Born in the San Joaquin Valley in California, his inspiration was his grandfather, who was a wandering musician and fruit picker.
“My grandfather was a great guitar player and him and my grandmother would sing together, mostly just church music at that point. My father learned to play some chords on the guitar from his father and also played a bit of church music in a purely functional way. So from them I learned to manipulate the instrument. My grandfather also had his old fiddle around – which he no longer played due to a finger that he lost, and I used to scrape around on it a bit but never got ahead much on that instrument until quite a bit later. So I messed around with instruments from a young age, I don’t know if it was music or not though.”
As a young man, Fairfield moved around a lot, dipping in and out of school, taking up odd jobs, and eventually finding his way to Oakland, where he has previously talked of “wild times and strong experiences”. This period led to a crisis of sorts, and eventually saw him travel to Los Angeles, where family tried to help. At a low ebb and in need of money, Fairfield began playing music again, busking on street corners, and farmers markets, where eventually Matt Popieluch (Big Search, Foreign Born, Fool’s Gold) saw him, and brought his work to Tompkins Square, perhaps struck by the way Fairfield seems so possessed when he performs.
“I don’t know about possessed, but music is certainly on my mind a great deal of the time. It’s important to me somehow… but it’s just something to pass the time. As far as playing in farmer’s markets years ago, I had a lot to learn then. I often regret having gotten mixed up in public music when I did. I had no business being in front of anyone. I’d like to hope that I’ve learned a bit since then, and I hope I still have a lot to learn.”
Fairfield is quite contrarian, at once suggesting “I’m not concerned with the past, I just play the music that I like” and then releasing the work Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts (2010), on his own imprint, which is a celebration of other people’s work from Nairobi to Appalachia, celebrating these interesting, underappreciated artists, and work that spans decades. And his own releases have been a mingling of original composition and interpretations of other artists work, from his debut self-titled record of 2009, to 2011’s Out on the Open West.
“I learn to play songs that I hear and think that they could fit me to play them. It makes no difference to me where or who I hear them from. At this point a large part of my current repertoire is not really “folk” music but, common sheet music songs. Some have been handed down in the oral tradition, but again it doesn’t make too much difference to me. I’m really not a “traditionalist” in that sense, I just like to play music that I enjoy and that I feel suits me.”
Fairfield suggests that he is not interested in the past, yet the atmosphere of his world and work is caught up in a genuine love of older traditions, the vast American canon of folk music, which is complex in its identity, full of so many influences, with the Irish tradition as a radiant component.
“Yes, a lot of American music is Irish, because a lot of Americans are Irish. A lot of American music is also Scandinavian, Dutch, Spanish, French, West African… that’s the beauty of America, or rather one of the many beauties of America. I’ve met a few really wonderful musicians in Ireland. There are loads of great musicians all over the world, I have met only a few of them. Some of my favourite musicians are the men that play bajo-sexto and accordion everyday at El Mercadito in Los Angeles.”
Another of Fairfield’s favourite musicians is the brilliant Jerron Paxton, known as Blind Boy Paxton, a musical virtuoso, immersed in the older American folk and blues traditions, and who collaborated with Fairfield on his last record, with Paxton’s harmonies on “But That’s Alright” illustrating a clear sympathy between the two musicians, “Jerron is my good friend, I think he’s a very special young man with a great musical gift.”
Fairfield is a musician whose work might never have reached us, if it hadn’t been for Matt Popieluch’s encouragement. This encounter led not only to the releasing of records, but touring with Fleet Foxes, which in turn introduced his work to a whole new audience, yet it is clear that Fairfield remains slightly uncomfortable with the attention, and of the documentary that was made about him he says, “that I’m not very fond of and rather wish I hadn’t gotten mixed up with”, and he is wary of the music industry in general, regarding his work as more “music-music” than “art-music”.
“Perhaps the point I may have been making in talking about the difference between art music and down-home music is that there isn’t too much history of down-home music, nor of down-home people. I don’t think any one is better than the other. I love great art music, although I don’t feel I have any business playing it. People will do whatever they feel like doing I suppose….others will do what they’re told. Someone’s got to do it.”
There is something really genuine and arresting about Fairfield, carrying on a tradition set in motion by his grandfather, and so many before him, with a sense of natural rhythm and perhaps the idea that whatever is meant to be will. When I ask him what plans he has for the next while in terms of music or traveling, he simply replies “whatever shows up, I’m watching the world go by”. His life seems based purely on intuition, and real feeling, with an emphasis on real. While saying that he “rarely reads books”, in the next breath he mentions that he is reading Charles Fletcher Lummis’ A Tramp Across The Continent, and perhaps it is because – “he lived right down the road from me.”
Frank Fairfield plays Cleere’s in Kilkenny on Thursday 16th, The Spirit Store in Dundalk on Friday 17th and The Grand Social in Dublin on Saturday January 18th.