Jeffrey Foucault Finds Beauty In Small Towns And Simple Truths

Dec 10, 2015
Originally published on December 10, 2015 1:29 pm

Jeffrey Foucault picked up a guitar when he was 17 and just couldn't put it down. Coming of age in Wisconsin, he used every spare moment cooking up new songs and immediately making recordings so he wouldn't forget the details.

Today, at 39, Foucault is a respected musician, if not a huge name, and makes his living by spending lots of time on the road. He's also the parent of a 7-year-old — and if you listen to the lyrics of a song like "Oh Mama," you can tell he's still trying to make the most of every moment.

"It's as much about my sadness or maybe my fear about giving my little daughter to the world as it is about any relationship with my mom," Foucault explains. "There is a kind of intimate knowledge that you have with your child, that you feel fading as they get older; little bits go away all the time. They won't always crawl up in your lap. They're not always going to be as open to you as they are. And at some point, you know that that transaction is necessary to how the world carries on. But that doesn't make it any less difficult."

Foucault is wrapping up a concert tour for his latest album, Salt As Wolves. He joined NPR's David Greene between stops to talk about the small rewards of playing in out-of-the-way towns, and to perform a song from the new record in-studio. Hear more at the audio link.

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You know, a lot of the headlines about terrorism and fear recently make us just want to pause from time to time and listen to some music. We're about to meet a singer-songwriter named Jeffrey Foucault. He has a five critically acclaimed albums to his name. But he's not exactly living the glamorous life of a musician. His days and his music are mostly about small towns and simple truths. I caught up with Foucault in between road trips.

JEFFREY FOUCAULT: (Playing guitar).

GREENE: Jeffrey, are you there?

FOUCAULT: Yes, I am.

GREENE: Hey, it's David Greene. How are you?

FOUCAULT: I'm good. Nice to meet you.

GREENE: Nice to meet you too. It sounds beautiful.

FOUCAULT: Thanks so much.

(Playing guitar).

GREENE: Jeffrey Foucault joined me from a studio in Springfield, Mass. He was touring for his latest album, "Salt As Wolves."


FOUCAULT: (Singing) Slow talker. You know, I called, and I woke you up.

GREENE: Foucault is a musician who is pure songwriter.


FOUCAULT: (Singing) And I wondered just who I thought I was.

GREENE: He's 39 years old, well-respected - not a huge name. And he's really living the reality of 2015, when making music means touring.


FOUCAULT: (Singing) When I knew you for a little while.

GREENE: His songs are simple and powerful. They're about life, loss and the distance between child and parent.


FOUCAULT: (Singing) Oh, mama, I'm so sorry. I don't know how we fell apart. From the cradle to the curb, from the cross to the sheath, I knew you - mouth of hunger, hand to heart and born to lead.

GREENE: Tell me about the lyrics, oh, mama, I'm so sorry. Are you talking to your mom?

FOUCAULT: Well, I'm talking to my mom. I guess I'm talking to everybody's mom. I think one of the themes on this record is what it means to become a stranger. It's the feeling of separation. It's as much about my sadness or maybe my fear about giving my little daughter to the world as it is about any relationship with my mom.

GREENE: How old is she?

FOUCAULT: She's 7. She's 7 and a half. And, you know, the thing that I was trying to get at there is that there is a kind of intimate knowledge that you have with your child that will - you know - you feel it fading even as they get older there. And you - you know, little bits go away all the time. You know that they won't always crawl up in your lap. You know, they're not always going to be as open to you as they are. And at some point, you know that that transaction is necessary to how the world carries on. But that doesn't make it any less difficult.


FOUCAULT: (Singing) Did I know you? Is that just your style?

GREENE: Jeffrey Foucault grew up in Wisconsin. He picked up a guitar when he was 17, and he just couldn't put it down. He couldn't stop writing either, using every spare moment to come up with new songs, recording them on his phone so he wouldn't forget them in the morning. One of the songs on the album came to him after what sounds like a particularly tough day.

FOUCAULT: I was playing in a hot parking lot for an employee appreciation event, with a generator next to me that made it so I couldn't hear what I was doing.

GREENE: That - I'm not a musician, so I don't know. But that strikes me as just, like, a nightmare-ish thing to be a musician.

FOUCAULT: It was - well, you know what? I got paid.


FOUCAULT: (Singing) There's one note if you can play it. There's one word if you can say it. There's one prayer if you can pray it. And each one, each one is the same.

GREENE: These days, getting paid for a lot of musicians means small bars in small towns. Foucault has been playing little venues for years. And each has meaning to him, like the one where his career began.

FOUCAULT: Cafe Carpe is this beautiful old bar in an old Cream City brick building, that sort of blondie-colored brick that you see a lot in the Midwest in the downtowns. And it's spelled carpe, as in, you know, the Latin for seize the day, carpe.

GREENE: Like carpe diem, but it's (pronouncing as carp) Carpe.

FOUCAULT: Yeah. And there's a lot of carp in that river. And so there's a big stuffed carp, you know, hanging on the wall. If you really shoehorn them in, it's like a 75-seat room.

GREENE: If you really - if you really stuff people in.

FOUCAULT: Yeah, sure. Those are great rooms to play. Those are the places where music should be heard, you know?

GREENE: I've heard about the Hodag Bar...

FOUCAULT: (Laughter).

GREENE: And a woman named Judy. Can you tell me about that?

FOUCAULT: Yeah. Well, so the night that this new record came out, we drove all the way up to Rhinelander, Wis., which is sort of up in the Northeast.

GREENE: Like ice-fishing country we're talking about.

FOUCAULT: Yeah, ice-fishing country, right. And we checked into our hotel. And across the street was this little bar called Judy's Hodag Bar. And there's this little old lady named Judy, who - it was literally the last night that her bar was open. And she was moving to Florida - pulling up stakes and just going.

GREENE: Oh, man.

FOUCAULT: So we just sat there and drank beer and talked. And we played darts. And it turns out she knew all the lyrics to the Van Halen songs that were on the jukebox.

GREENE: Oh, that's great.

FOUCAULT: And we said, do you have any food here? And she said, you know, I don't, but I have food at home. So she just left us in charge of her bar and drove to her house and made frozen pizzas and brought them back to the bar. And those are the kind of nights, you know, you are more likely to have them in out-of-the-way places.

GREENE: God, I just want to be there - I mean, beer and frozen pizza on a cold night in a small town.

FOUCAULT: Yeah, it's even better at, you know, 2 in the morning.

GREENE: Yeah, yeah. Is there a song on the album that you want to kind of play as we say goodbye?

FOUCAULT: Let me do "Hurricane Lamp." It'll take me 2 seconds to tune.

GREENE: Yeah, take your time.

FOUCAULT: (Tuning guitar).

GREENE: And what's a hurricane lamp, for people who don't know?

FOUCAULT: A hurricane lamp is a lamp that doesn't blow out.

GREENE: So it's like one of those lamps you might see in Florida during a hurricane with wind howling and rain blowing down and - but that lamp's still lit.

FOUCAULT: Yeah. And I - an old friend of mine was having a hard time. And we were writing letters back and forth. And I remember writing this for her. She's just been undergoing treatment for cancer. And so she's been on my mind. So I send this out to her. This is called "Hurricane Lamp."

(Singing, playing guitar) You've got a heart like a hurricane lamp. And I see you shine anywhere I am.

GREENE: That's singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault. His new album is titled "Salt As Wolves."

FOUCAULT: (Singing) And you keep your light inside. Keep your light inside. Keep your light inside... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.