Frank Fairfield, 24, made my favorite album of 2009 in a little house in Los Angeles, trying as best as he could to shelter his spare songs—interpretations of old-time standards and obscurities, sung humbly over ragged banjo, guitar or fiddle maneuvers—from the noise outside.
"I'd love to find a calmer place," Fairfield, who speaks with a lopsided mix of gee-golly cheer and foreboding solemnity, told me about the prospects for making his second record the second time we spoke this year. "This one was done at a friend's house, and there were buses going by and all these noisy things everywhere. I want to get in a cabin somewhere. I don't know what's the right thing to do, but it would be nice to have a quieter place to do it."
But maybe that house was the perfect place for Fairfield to make his debut, as it turned him into an embattled sort, having to fight against the elements to deliver and capture his music. That music, solo and largely unproduced, veers about as far from modern trends as one can imagine. His views on his work—he's not an artist or a songwriter or a musician, really, as much as a singer of song, relaying decade-old tales that he finds relevant even now—are a stark departure from the band-as-business model that seems to be everyone's aim.
These songs, then, are his fortifications: On the frantically picked banjo number "Nine Pound Hammer," Fairfield raises his slightly nasal tenor against the weight of the world's work. Above a lonesome fiddle that elicits strange, forlorn overtones, the raspy, ragged Fairfield sings "The Dying Cowboy" like a fallen hero confiding the truth of his past for the first and final time. And on "Old Paint," a mesmerizing cowboy song that's maybe 150 years old, he bids his favorite things adieu, systematically taking his leave: "Farewell, fair ladies, I'm leaving Cheyenne."
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Do you ever consider moving into the country?
FRANK FAIRFIELD: I think Kings County was pretty rural when I lived over there. That's the neat thing about California: You have just about anything you're looking for over here. There's some real country, oh geez. There's some real rednecks over here, and there's some real snob city people. There's cotton pickers and real estate moguls. There's about anything you're looking for—the biggest cities to the deserts and rivers and mountains and valleys and the ocean and the forest.
I happen to love Los Angeles. I never thought I'd ever say that, but as far as urban places go, this is a pretty neat one. It's got a lot of history and a lot of culture and a lot of ethnic diversity. I don't want to live here the rest of my life, but it's been good to me for now. I just got married, and my wife's going to school here. She wants to become a nurse, so she might go to nursing school here. She can take nursing anywhere, and I can take music anywhere. Once she gets her degree, we might want to look around and find somewhere quieter to live.
Do you have a job that's not music?
No, not right now. I'm just doing whatever shows up. That's what it comes down to—it's not about music and it's not about this and that. It's about doing whatever shows up. If it shows up and it's music, then do music. If it shows up and it's something else, then whatever. Stop trying to push life around. Just do whatever comes. It's been nice to live life without feeling like I'm putting forth any effort. I'm just sitting by and doing what shows up. It's a pretty calm, peaceful way to go about things.
That's a fairly interesting juxtaposition—living in "a pretty calm, peaceful way" while making such incredibly dark music.
I guess so. But being miserable and being happy, everybody likes both. We pretend to think we like one better than the other, but it's nonsense. As silly as it sounds because it's such a cliché or it's such a neat thing to say—"I'm dark," or "I've been through some real stuff, man"—I feel like I've been through some pretty rough stuff. I went through some times where I've seen the Devil. I feel like part of me wants to bring that part out. That's what brings depth to this stuff, and that's what we love to hear in the old songsters: You can hear that this man's seen something.
I tried not to make it seem gloomy and sing some old happier songs, too. I don't want to just be a downer, but I don't want to just show one side of the picture, either. I want to try to do a little bit of everything—happy little dance tunes, little nonsense songs, the heavier lonesome ballads. It feels like such a natural thing to do, too. We hear the owl hoot, and it just sounds so lonely. Everything mourns. The wolf howls. It's perfectly natural to make a mournful sound, just as well as making a real chipper one.
Whenever a musician plays something that's not modern or au courant, there's always speculation as to whether they've listened to more modern music. Do you listen to music other than music that relates directly to what you make?
I don't feel like I'm restraining myself or holding back or going, "Oh, I'd really like to listen to this but I can't because of some philosophical claim." I just do what feels right. I don't really care for any of this stuff. I think it's kind of silly. Man, you can get yourself in trouble by saying you don't like the Beatles. People have gotten so tied to the music they love and the band that they first made out to some girl with in high school in the back of their car. They'll fight you for it. It's tremendous!
But there are a lot of record collectors who care about the older ethnic or vernacular music, and they're very bitter, too. They're a bunch of jerks. It's because they're frustrated with what they see out there. But I'm just trying to make peace with everything. Everything's in its place: That's in its place, and I'm in my place. If I'm doing this, there's a reason for it. If anything, it gives people like me a reason to do what they do. They want to share this feeling with somebody and try to share with them how they feel music is. I don't know why I feel this way. It's just the way it is, I guess.