Pokey LaFarge

After crisscrossing the nation for the last half-decade looking for a home, Pokey LaFarge found himself in Mid-Coast Maine. Upon arriving, the Illinois-born singer/songwriter/actor pursued a major life change, working 12-hour days on a local farm—a turn of events that catalyzed an extraordinary burst of creativity and redefined his sense of purpose as an artist. On his new album Rhumba Country, LaFarge reveals his newly heightened devotion to making music that channels pure joy. “There was a time when I glorified sadness because I lost sight of who I was, but now I understand that creating and expressing joy is my gift, and gifts are meant to be shared,” he says. Reclaiming his voice, LaFarge has recorded his boldest album yet. 

Rhumba Country was initially shaped from material that emerged while LaFarge was deep in work on the farm. “I’d be pushing a plow or scattering seeds, and the songs would just come to me,” he recalls. “It was tremendously inspirational and made me realize that apart from singing, farming is perhaps the oldest human art form.” But as he moved forward with his songwriting, something felt undeniably amiss. LaFarge then spoke with fellow Midwestern transplant Elliot Bergman (Wild Belle), who suggested he return to city life in Los Angeles for a season so that the two musicians could work together—a collaboration that soon brought the rhumba to LaFarge’s country. As he immersed himself in the album’s creation, LaFarge began dreaming up a kaleidoscopic sound informed by his love of music from far-ranging eras and corners of the globe, including mambo, tropicália, rocksteady, and mid-century American rock-and-roll. Co-produced along with Chris Seefried and Bergman and recorded in L.A., the resulting Rhumba Country is an invitation to come together to celebrate life and love. “The songs that naturally come to me are upbeat and make you wanna dance or at least bop your head—they’re all very colorful,” says LaFarge. “I used to think of my music in dark blue, but now I see it in technicolor.” 

On the album-opening “One You, One Me,” LaFarge offers a retreat into the charmed and rhapsodic world of Rhumba Country, sharing a breezy love song rendered with radiant simplicity. “The same way Picasso worked his whole life to paint like a child, I’ve been more focused on simplifying my music over the years,” he says. “The fewer the chord movements and simpler the lyrics, the clearer the message. It’s about trying to get

to the point where the songs are almost like prayers.” In the case of “One You, One Me,” that benediction centers on LaFarge’s belief in “evolving and working hard to love and be loved because that’s what we’re here to do.” And like all of Rhumba Country, “One You, One Me” serves as a prime showcase for LaFarge’s unforgettably distinct voice and ineffable charisma—an element he’s also continually brought to his work as an actor, including recent endeavors like his turn as Hank Snow on CMT’s Sun Records, as well as roles in the Southern Gothic thriller The Devil All the Time and the forthcoming rock opera O’Dessa. 

LaFarge pares his songs down to the essential throughout Rhumba Country, ornamenting each track with subtle details that immediately delight the listener. On “Run Run Run,” for instance, layered percussion and distorted guitar tones converge in what he describes as a “tropical-gospel song.” Graced with the heavenly harmonies of his wife, Addie Hamilton (a singer/songwriter in her own right), “Run Run Run” ultimately delivers an exultant call to overcome the obstacles and distractions that keep us from pursuing our calling. “That’s based on the words of Paul the Apostle, who said to run the race set before you,” LaFarge explains. 

Over the course of Rhumba Country’s ten effusive tracks, LaFarge dispenses hard-won wisdom in a way that’s never heavy-handed, often imbuing his songwriting with all the guileless magic of a fable or folktale. A perfect example of that dynamic, the ’60s-R&B-influenced “Sister André” was inspired by the true story of the French nun who recently passed away at the age of 118. “She lived through both world wars, the flu epidemic, all the way down the line through Covid,” says LaFarge. “After I heard her story, I started singing about a character who’s got a lot of sage advice to share, and it turned into a song of encouragement for those who are lonely and hoping for love.” 

On “So Long Chicago,” LaFarge slips into lighthearted storytelling as he muses on the cultural phenomenon of those in colder climates heading south for winter. Co-written with Hamilton, the playfully cheeky snowbird ode mines inspiration from ’70s-era Chuck Berry, unfolding in freewheeling guitar work and fiercely stomping rhythms. A bona fide musical eccentric, LaFarge further flaunts his idiosyncratic sensibilities on the magnificently loopy “Like a Sailor,” a dance-ready and dreamlike number that speaks to the inevitability of struggle on one’s path. 

As he documents his tireless journey toward finding his true home, LaFarge also reimagines a tune from reggae legend Ken Boothe. Spotlighting his supreme talents as a song interpreter, his take on “Home, Home, Home” infuses a heartfelt longing into every moment and, in turn, breathes new life into the late-’60s rocksteady classic. “The more you listen to music from around the world, you realize everybody’s got their form of country music,” says LaFarge. “It goes back to why I named the album Rhumba Country

in the first place: it’s poking fun at the futility of boxing everything into but a few genres, ‘What is folk music? What is country or soul?’ I’ve always bucked at all those boundaries and found it much more exciting to create my own genre.” 

LaFarge’s boundless curiosity for music from other cultures played a vital part in shaping the album’s instantly captivating sound. “Listening to a lot of music from around the world helped simplify my approach,” he notes, naming Brazilian singer/composer Jorge Ben among his key inspirations on Rhumba Country. “When you scale back the chord progressions and get a good rhythm going, the musicians have more freedom to play anything or nothing at all. There’s so much space everywhere, and as a singer, it allows me to be that lead instrument and weave in and out however I want.” At the same time, LaFarge brought a more intense and focused rigor to his songwriting process. “I need to trust in what feels good to me, but I also have to ask myself, ‘Is the message coming through? Am I stimulating thought in a way that might shift someone’s perspective? Am I being honest in telling my story, and am I doing it in love?’” he says. 

Reflecting on the origins of Rhumba Country, LaFarge points to one of the most crucial revelations he experienced while farming: a newfound understanding of the uniquely human potential to be “conduits of continuous creation.” To that end, his effort to provide listeners with “medicine for the soul” has led LaFarge toward a deeper level of dedication when it comes to nurturing his own spirit. “You have to live the life you’re singing in your songs—no matter what you’re going through,” he says. “Everything will come out in your music whether you want it to or not. I’ve realized that the more I can pursue goodness and live in peace, the more I can make the music I was put here to make.” And by living with intention and fully connecting with his truest purpose, LaFarge might finally be ready to lay his head in a place he calls home.

 

This is the one where the style of music recedes, as the foreground swells with evidence of Pokey’s observations of pain, joy, confusion. This one is where his artistic character shines. And where we see that artistic blood on the page, unvarnished and raw. MANIC REVELATIONS is the second coming of an artist who, over the past decade, has taken the workaday approach to building a body of work, and a worldwide fanbase. After a decade of struggle, it’s all paid off here. And it’s all riding on this album.

“A lot of things haven’t gone my way,” says Pokey. “I’ve haven’t become successful in spite of the things I had to overcome, rather, I’ve become successful because of what I had to overcome. It’s all made me better. And now there’s no going back.”

True to this statement, there are no lookback songs on MANIC REVELATIONS. This album is all about looking outward, looking forward – and we’ve never seen Pokey’s observational craft in a more stark relief. This hasn’t happened by chance. Artists who write from real life experience have no choice but to change themselves if they want to progress their art. With this in mind, Pokey has been hard at work pushing out the corners on himself.

“This album is about confronting yourself,” explains Pokey. “It’s about confronting your city, its relation with the world, and all its people. In the pursuit of making myself a better person, I create better art. Which hopefully makes the world a better place. Still, at times, I need to get away from it all.”

III. THE MUSIC

MANIC REVELATIONS kicks off with a cold open.

A crack of the snare and an insistent upright bass riff are the clarion call. From there, “Riot in the Streets” throttles up, ripping MANIC REVELATIONS wide open.

Halfway through the song you realize this story—where the rich and the poor alike line up to riot, or peacefully protest, while TV news anchors somewhat unreliably narrate the scene—is reported judiciously; he isn’t swaying the listener to one side or the other.

“Look, I’m an opinionated person,” says Pokey. “But that doesn’t extend itself into my writing. I’ve always been an observer. Telling a story isn’t always about having an opinion. It’s about painting a picture.”

In “Must Be A Reason,” people fall into and out of—and back into—love. On this song, and all over the album, he shoves in the crying wherever he can. Not because he thinks it’s entertaining. Because he’s lived it. And he knows that others know this sadness, too. On an album filled with personal and cultural pressure release valves, this tune is the one about the politics of romance.

“In a relationship,” says Pokey, “you run out of stories to tell. You run out of excuses. You run out of ways to get her back. Sometimes you’re on the precipice—she’s getting ready to leave. But I always remember someone saying: the only way to stay together is to fucking stay together.”

“Bad Dreams” illustrates a classic “wherever you go, there you are” story: lovers leave home to travel the world. They want to escape the friction at home. Some call this “pulling a geographic.” When they return, it’s clear that changing location didn’t help; the real problem is still staring them in the mirror.

“You realize you’re coming home,” Pokey explains, “to the same problems that caused you to go away in the first place. It’s not the city. You can’t get away from yourself.”

Now, if you listen to only one of these manic revelations, it should be “Silent Movie.” He wrote this one in 15 minutes. 15 minutes! That decade of looking and writing and traveling and playing culminates in this song. And truth be told, we’ve never heard this kind of song from this guy.

“Silent Movie” is on par with the best social narratives of Nilsson, Campbell, Kristofferson. As a lone guitar line drags the song along, Pokey pulls focus on a kid adorned in headphones on a Chicago El train. He may be on his way to school, or he may be on his way home. Regardless of the position of the sun in the sky, the world outside the windows is too much for this kid to take in. “Cover your ears and watch the world go by,” Pokey sings, “That’s how we survive.” A clarinet drizzles a saddening pattern over the entire scene, and we begin to wonder: where are we headed if a whole generation is growing up feeling this way? Shoving in the sadness. The song goes on: “Growing up is a scam / The truth is a lie / Better off staying a child / Till the day you die / Stay inside your mind / Or go outside and find a place to hide.”

“The song is about shutting out the noise,” says Pokey. “Coming up with your own soundtrack, in this country where there’s more questions than answers, it seems.”

Never feeling satisfied. Always dressed in blue. Diving into the darkness. Turning the table upside down. Wherever you go, there you are. Fucking stay together. Better off staying a child. This album is an epoch for Pokey LaFarge. You feel it all over these 10 revelations.

“Now I’ve found my groove,” says Pokey. “I don’t have to overcompensate anymore. Nobody looks and sounds like me. And I’m OK with that.”

END