Jefferson Fox has been making independent records for 11 years, and in that time, this humble, unpretentious Missouri-based singer/songwriter has amassed a small, but loyal legion of fans worldwide who find his heartfelt, crepuscular and slightly theatrical take on the roots-oriented Americana genre to be of exemplary quality.
A tunesmith of great skill, his lyrics are often deceptively deft, his acoustic guitar playing clever in its composition and with tremendous precision, and his vocals highly evocative and instantly recognizable without lapsing into mannerism. In other words, he’s an almost criminally underappreciated musician who lives on the fringes of the recording industry and deserves far more listeners.
As long as Hurricane Dorian doesn’t cause too awfully much interruption in these parts, Fox will play a free concert Sept. 7 at the Sentient Bean Coffeehouse. It’s a homecoming of sorts, as Fox came of age in our area before heading to the Midwest, and many of his formative memories of hearing live music and then attempting to make his own are linked to that period of his life.
In anticipation of his first area appearance in half a decade, the singer spoke with us at length from his home in Missouri, and highlights of our conversation are below.
Do: Tell me a bit about your upbringing in the Coastal Empire. How did you wind up in Missouri?
Fox: “I was raised military. My family was from Missouri and we ended up in Georgia during my high school years. My stepfather worked at Hunter Army Airfield as an Army pilot. After high school I went home to Missouri to visit my biological father and some friends and I met a girl. That girl was my drummer for a while and then my girlfriend and then my wife. We raised two beautiful daughters and have traveled a little, but keep coming back to Missouri to be near family.”
When did you first start composing your own songs, and what led you into that pursuit?
“I had a great-uncle who one Christmas gave each of the young kids in the family guitars. He was a successful guitar player who probably peaked as a backline guy on the Grand Ole Opry. He’d made some money that year and that was his big gift to us. I started writing songs almost immediately.
“I’m sure they were pretty terrible, but they were original works — a few chords strung together when I was nine or 10 years old about mom or the dog or a girl. Around the time of high school I started seeing original bands perform, and especially in Savannah those bands were extremely creative and some of them inspired me greatly.
“That was about the time I discovered Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits and some other great poets who prompted me to dig a little deeper and try to write more meaningfully. Most of my close friends who were influential were musicians as well. Not necessarily songwriters, but that kept me going too. I’ve always needed an outlet to get things off my mind or into my heart and before songwriting, poetry was a way to do that. Later on, it became important to me that those words were set to music.”
Was performing in public and/or making records a goal right from the start?
“When I started, I wanted to play live in front of people but I never really dreamed about recording anything or making a record. Seeing live bands was just awe-inspiring and I had the usual rock and roll fantasies. So, I joined and formed bands and tried to get in front of people as often as I could. It was just fun. Making records happened kind of by accident for me.
“A former bass player of ours by the name of Eric Weaver went on to become a great recording engineer out in California. He heard my first solo release which I think was pretty terrible, and called me immediately and said ‘let’s make a better record.’ I didn’t know how serious he was or if we could actually do it, but I said ‘sure.’
“A couple of weeks later he let me know that someone had canceled some time at Conway Recording Studios in Los Angeles, and we could use that time for free or very inexpensively. I flew out to Los Angeles and Eric, another friend of ours named Joshua Blanchard, and several other people that I didn’t know at the time all converged to make what would become ‘ANIMULE.’ That was my first real record. It is still one of the best works I’ve ever been a part of.
For you personally, how has making and releasing independent records changed from the time you first started doing so?
“As for making things like that happen, things have changed a lot. Back then it was about talking to people and getting those people together and all of the endeavors took a lot of coordination and patience. Now, if you’ve got a computer and you can sing a little bit or tap on a pad you can make a record.
“Today, the whole process seems a little disconnected and impersonal. But it’s also very approachable. I don’t know that that’s actually a bad thing, because lots and lots of creative work is being accomplished now that wasn’t possible in the past. It’s definitely different. For me it just seems a little lonely for all those involved. Everybody’s on their own boat. Maybe it’s because of where I live, but it seems like it’s very difficult to get groups of people together on any kind of project because everyone is so busy on their own thing.”
Tell me a bit about your VIP Room offering, and explain it simply for folks who won't be familiar with that concept at all.
“VIP Room was just the result of me and my sister-in-law, Bernice Allen, staying up way too late one night and drinking way too much. We were talking about a lot of music that I had never released that only a few people had ever heard and I wanted to get some of that out in a different fashion than I had in the past.
“We cooked up the idea that night. The whole point of the VIP Room is that my biggest fans and closest friends can get access to everything creative that I want them to hear without me having to try and contact every one of them every time I want to share something. And I didn’t want them to have to pay a fortune for those things.
“So, in the end I decided to give people all of my releases: past, present and future, for the subscription price. If you’re new to it and want to know how it works, go to jeffersonfox.bandcamp.com and click on VIP Room subscription and you’ll get basically eight or nine records immediately and then everything else that I release this year (or for the year after your subscription starts) and you’ll also get some free stuff and free shows, etc.
“It’s worked out extremely well for me and I think everyone who’s joined is really happy with the way it’s gone. I’ve just released one major work that is a subscription-only piece, but there’s lots in the works and we’re having a good time. The best part for them is everything just appears in their email box and they can download it in any form they want, and they don’t have to work at it. The best part for me is I don’t have to talk about it. I just have to make it. But of course we do talk about it a lot, because it’s fun. It’s music!”
How would you yourself describe your own music to someone you might meet on the street or in a bar who has never heard any of your work?
“People always ask, ‘What kind of music do you play?’ and I always say ‘Unpopular music.’ Then we laugh… I never put any thought into what genre I am in or what style of music I am ‘supposed’ to play. It makes no difference. I gain fans very slowly but always for the right reasons.
“I just write what I write, and it is what it is. I suppose I’m probably an Americana artist, but they don’t like me over there either. It’s thoughtful and provocative at its core and usually very rhythmic and simple. Occasionally, it’s catchy as hell. I’m not the best guitar player I know, or the best singer that I know, or the best songwriter that I know, but I do the very best with what I have and most of the time it’s fairly musical. Just do what you do and someone will like it and some of them won’t but if you don’t like it it’s not worth doing.”
How rare is it for you to hit the road play shows outside of your immediate area?
“I guess it’s extremely rare now. I kind of quit playing music about five years ago and haven’t played out of my immediate area since. This trip to Savannah will be the first time in five years that I’ve gone farther than 50 miles.
“I went through a phase before that when I toured the country extensively and just sort of burned out on it. I kept playing and writing at home those years but had no desire to travel. I didn’t even want to promote my work. Oddly enough, I think I did some of my best work in that period. I don’t think I’ll ever try to tour like that again but I’m hoping to get to a place where I can do three or four small trips a year to various parts of the country and maybe Europe or South America.
“I don’t think I’ll get rich at it and I don’t want to be famous, so as long as the music keeps finding new ears and I can occasionally get out and get my fix playing it for people I’ll be satisfied.”
What is currently the single biggest challenge you face at continuing to be a performing, traveling and recording musician?
“I guess the hardest part has always been just figuring out what you really want. I just really want to keep creating music and occasionally share it with other people. I love the recording experience and I love knowing that once the songs have been recorded they’ll outlive me. That’s probably my favorite part.”
What precipitated you coming to town to play this gig at the Bean? It’s a free show, so will you pass a hat for donations, or simply hope folks buy some CDs or merchandise to help with your travel expenses?
“Oh, the last thing I want is to make any money at this! (Laughs) I just use any excuse I can to come to Savannah. The Sentient Bean was always good to me in the past and they’ve always been good to other artists who need a venue in Savannah and didn’t have a huge following, so I thought I’d try that again.
“This year I just started thinking about playing out in front of people and the first thing that crossed my mind was coming back to what feels like ‘home’ to me, and playing for old friends. I don’t even try to sell CDs anymore. I just put them out near a sign that says ‘donations,’ and if people put money in there that’s great. If not, I encourage them to take the CDs anyway. I need the closet space back.”
What are some of the most notable ways in which Savannah has changed since you lived here?
“That’s a tough one. I don’t know if I’m around enough to even say. It seems like everything’s a little bit more formal and not quite as quirky as it used to be, but that may just be because I’m hanging out with old people and we’re sober more often.
“I still love coming here and still love the art culture SCAD brings and the legacy of great culture Savannah itself brings. I still like finding out what’s going on down at Elevated Basement Studios or at the music festivals or at the Jinx. I still love picking up good food and the old, majestic beauty of the city. And of course, my best friends are from the area, so for me it’s always good.”
If someone were interested in purchasing just one of your CDs, in hopes of getting a good idea of Jefferson Fox as a songwriter and recording artist, which one album would you point them towards as an introduction to your talents?
“I guess if I had to pick one, I’d say ‘Modestine’ is the best representation of what I do. It’s the newest thing and I know that artists tend to like their newest work better than their older stuff, but I truly feel it’s a happy medium between the rocking affair that ‘ANIMULE’ was, and the solo acoustic work that was on ‘Little Epiphany.’ I believe it’s fair to say that there is good work on all the records but there’s also bad work on all of the records, (Laughs) and maybe “Modestine’ has the fewest flaws in my own mind.”
What should folks expect from your upcoming show at the Bean?
“No smoke or mirrors, just me and the acoustic guitar doing our very best to squash in as much original content and heartfelt notions as we can in a two-hour set. There won’t be any breaks. There will be a few stories.
“I don’t tell jokes but I’m sure I’ll wind up doing something you can laugh about. I may throw in a couple of covers just for fun. It should be intimate, thought provoking and pleasant to listen. Plus, if I’m on my game I will make you squirm uncomfortably at least once when we find that topic you’ve been avoiding talking about in your own life. You’ll cry, you’ll laugh... All that sh!t.
Anything else you’d like to add?
“Just that I’m really excited to come to the Sentient Bean and to Savannah, and I’m very grateful for them, for the town, and for people like you who will listen to strangers like me.”