Musician Pokey LaFarge was set to perform two shows this weekend at Off Broadway. But the coronavirus pandemic has put a stop to concerts, plays and sporting events.
“I’m making the best of it,” LaFarge said on St. Louis on the Air. “You wish you could do more. You wish you could help people. I wish people weren’t suffering.”
LaFarge, whose real name is Andrew Heissler, grew up in central Illinois and made St. Louis his home in 2008. It was in the Gateway City that he first teamed up with musicians Ryan Koenig, Joey Glynn and Adam Hoskins — forming Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three.
LaFarge performed with his band around town, with early venues including the Missouri Botanical Garden and Tower Grove Farmers’ Market. By 2012, his career began to take off. He toured with Jack White and played venues such as Red Rocks in Colorado, Radio City Music Hall in New York City and the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. His band made appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “A Prairie Home Companion.”
But then he suffered what he frankly acknowledges in the album’s promotional materials as “a fall from grace.” LaFarge left St. Louis [and his band] for Los Angeles in 2018, and then later left LA, though he doesn’t want to talk about that, or where he is now.
In promotional materials for his eighth studio album, “Rock Bottom Rhapsody,” which is out now on New West Records, LaFarge also said: “Things started to unravel in my mind. I was letting evil spirits and demons rule me, and I came into certain agreements with them, and it took me down.
“I was giving too much power to darkness, and I got in too deep, and I made some bad decisions. The reality of the situation is that I hit the closest to rock bottom that I ever had, and I’ve definitely had some hardships in my life,” he said.
Even the upbeat songs on the album — “End of My Rope” and “Storm-A-Comin’” — are unequivocally serious and reflect a darker time. As for “F*** Me Up,” the first glimpse fans got of the new album, its furious instrumentation and opening lyrics make clear there’s more to LaFarge than, as its lyrics note, a “wholesome Midwestern boy.” The music video features LaFarge singing from the coffin during his own funeral procession, with LaFarge himself later portraying the devil.
Surprisingly, LaFarge said most of the morose songs on the album were written before his downfall. In promotional materials for his new album, he said that the man singing the songs isn’t the same man who wrote them.
In conversation, he resisted revisiting that idea: “The same person who said that quote isn’t the same man you’re talking to now. I don’t know. We say things all the time and then we’re expected to talk about them.”
LaFarge freely admitted he doesn’t like doing promotion or, at times, even performing songs from an album that reflects a darker time in his life.
“It’s not easy. I don’t really like it, to be honest with you,” he said. “Anybody who has seen me perform over the years, I don’t do a very good job at performing the songs off the record that just came out.”
He added: “You write to attempt to communicate what it is you’re feeling. I don’t know if you ever quite get there. I don’t know if you quite ever know what you have gone through and what you are going through.”
In addition to songwriting, LaFarge credited his faith for helping him turn the corner.
“God [is] the biggest catalyst in what has been a personal transformation for me, definitely in pursuit of humility, clarity and honesty within myself but also affirming once again why I feel like I’m here and that is to write music, to sing and to perform,” he said. “That has been a huge burst of energy, positivity, and confidence in me in the last year, just writing like crazy.”
Not all of the songs on the new album are pessimistic. The ballad “Lucky Sometimes” highlights LaFarge’s stylings as a crooner.
“I just felt like I needed to write a love song for the girl I was with at the time,” LaFarge said. “She deserved much more than just a song, but the song was what she got and that’s what I have, and that’s what people have from that time.”
These days, while the pandemic continues, LaFarge keeps busy performing virtual sets. “It’s a quick fix. I definitely find that I enjoy [virtual shows] more than I guess I thought I would,” LaFarge said. “There’s so much more that would go into performing an actual show.
He said he’s staying healthy and focused on good habits. And these days, he’s out of that dark place.
“I would say [I’m] feeling more free than ever. I had a great run with the South City Three, and I’m sure they would probably agree — and I’m sure we would all agree — that we’re better off doing our own things right now and moving on,” he said. “And us all having moved on, I think, has brought a lot of freedom and peace to our own lives respectively.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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