Jeffrey Foucault’s roots are his musical identity. These roots still hold sway over his life, and they impact the style and mood of his harmony.
His songs are his search for answers, solutions, and for rectifying.
“The influence of growing up in Wisconsin mainly has to do with language and imagery, and the sense of space,” said Foucault. “The place you’re raised stamps out the template for your perceptions, and ties them to language. When I think of a tree I don’t think of anything but a Burr Oak like the one in my yard growing up, the ones that the farmers leave standing in the field to bring the deer in.”
Foucault wades through old country, bluegrass, and blues, on a course which closely links Foucault with the southern Iowa crop and soil folksiness of Greg Brown. Add in lyrical content inspired by Bob Dylan’s intellectualism, and you’ll hear the sweet clarity of intense words and frank melodies.
These are the mechanics of the consciousness of a folksinger born and bred in Whitewater, Wisconsin, a small college town in the center of rural America’s heartland.
After college and a brief stint spent living in the San Bernardino Mountains of California, he returned to Wisconsin, assembling the resources to record his first album. Many albums later, the collective human psyche of rural Americana is still rooted in the fiber of his lyrics and verve, such as in the song “Cross of Flowers,” a cut off the widely acclaimed 2001 Stripping Cane.
Cross of Flowers
“There’s a cross of flowers at the roadside
Where some fool bought it two years back
There’s an orchard gone to hell
Beside a burned out one room shack
There’s a thousand sparrows falling
In a thousand shades of black
I’m coming home”
In a place such as Wisconsin, where fields and pasture merge together, the drama of inspiration ensues. As Foucault admits, one can find their own beauty in ordinary places when one no longer remains subordinate to the demands and expectations of the mind, and accepts what is.
“The Midwestern landscape is stark and open, with a plainness that adds up to deep beauty in accumulated detail. But you have to take time to know it, and to look for it.”
It’s taken Foucault ample time to get to this point in his journey. He didn’t begin playing the guitar until age seventeen, when he belted out John Prine songs on his father’s beat up mail order guitar. At eighteen, he discovered the world of Texas songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Within a few years, Foucault was experimenting as a songwriter and performing regularly at the Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.
Upon completing high school, he settled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where, after two years, he realized that he didn’t know how to “do anything useful.” He quit school, moved home, worked as a farmhand and house carpenter, and began writing songs. Eventually, he returned to school and earned a history degree, all the while dividing his time between “the local tavern and whatever book” he could lay his hands on.
“I dropped out for a while and worked on a fruit farm and then did some house carpentry,” says Foucault. “That’s when I started writing songs. Nice thing about being a farmhand is when it rains they send you home, so I had some time to write and play. I ended up going back to complete my degree after a while. Carrying drywall up a ladder in the rain has a clarifying effect on the uses of education.”
There is some magic in the Cafe Carpe, a sweet little bar, a dingy bohemian oasis in a fairly staid small town
“I moved to Fort after college and a summer in California,” said Foucault. “(It was) an autumn spent doing some odd-job carpentry on a cottage on Pewaukee Lake. I moved there because the Cafe Carpe was there, and the folks on the circuit I wanted to travel came through town to play. It is a sweet little bar, a dingy bohemian oasis in a fairly staid small town, and it became the hub of my universe, which it was, and is for a lot of people. I always wished I’d written a book about those characters. Some magic there.”
He returns frequently to Fort Atkinson and Cafe Carpe. It’s those early days that jog the most vivid memories.
“I remember walking down the centerline of Main Street at three in the morning with my guitar in its case, crossing the river from the bar back to my little upstairs flat. No traffic, no noise, streetlights flashing yellow, and I’m coming down after a show. That scene comes back to me. A feeling of real happiness, and the sense that I’d have to leave sometime … I was a bachelor and I lived on coffee, beer, sandwiches, and cigarettes. I’d go a week at a time without drinking a glass of water. I wrote my songs and letters on an old typewriter, taught school at the local high schools as a substitute, and read a lot.”
Foucault’s music focuses attention on the feelings inside, inside himself, inside all of us. Similar to a drive through rural Wisconsin’s hauntingly introspective and isolating roads, Foucault takes listeners through the back roads of lingering emotion, halfway between sentiment and physical sensation. The rambling troubadour dissolved his old identity as a teacher and history student, and radically changed the course of his life; he isn’t necessarily aligned with any particular region.
“Once you leave home and find yourself really gone,” says Foucault, “you realize that the reason they say you can’t go home again is not that home changes, but that you no longer exist. It’s someone else coming back.”
“I could live happily in Wisconsin more easily than most places, and I’d like to think I will again someday. You could take a wider Zen approach and substitute any place or situation and the quote would stay true.”
Since the 2001 release of Miles From The Lightning – a collection of narrative ballads, love songs, and allegories, told in plain verse – Foucault has deepened his artistic transformation. Indeed, one of Foucault’s strengths as a musician is that he can smoothly relate his state of comfort or discomfort. He can do this with a cohesive undercurrent or edge that feels both positive and creative. His music is an evolving experience, a continual flow. While labels are constricting – it was Kierkegaard who once wrote, “To label me is to negate me,” – audiences still crave labels in their music markets. Some of which are highly inaccurate or global to the point that they communicate nothing.
“Kierkegaard probably didn’t sell many records. If we’re speaking widely about musical forms derived from American blues, country, and rock n’ roll in all its variety, Americana is likely as good a general term as any. The problem is that like folk music – which means the music that everyone knows and sings, a category that no longer exists in our culture – it’s a genre so broadly inclusive as to be useless as a descriptor.”
Sterilely homogenized culture can triumph the beauty and inner essence of life, if you let it. Not Foucault. He is in touch with that place within where true creativity and beauty arise.
“What I find right about American music is that there still is some,” says Foucault. “It happens most nights in little bars and clubs all over the country and the real deal is out there if you’re looking. Now and then something really great gets some attention, but the music business – the apparatus that cuts the wheat from the chaff and perpetuates our culture and musical heritage – is broken.”
Foucault is a man who understands that there is a big difference between wanting and needing. By maintaining a more realistic inner dialogue with himself and by looking at his own professional strengths, by honing the things that he has obtained on his own, he has developed a sense of confidence, and direction in his ability to handle what might come.
“I’m only involved it the music industry to the extent I have to be. I’m an indie and I own my master recordings, so I pay attention to the wider industry the way I might look at a wreck on the highway, not because I want to but because it’s hard to look away.”