Shining for All
When Nashville-based roots musician Mike Farris picked up a Grammy in 2015 for his album, ‘Shine For All The People,’ few were surprised, save for Farris himself, it seems. When I ask about the Grammy Award and how he feels about that, he is clearly phlegmatic – grateful, but in no way, shape or form overwhelmed or over-effusive about it all:
‘Sure, it’s great to have that sort of respect from my peers, I guess. But music isn’t about getting awards. It’s more about trying to make the best record possible, for me, at any rate. I didn’t set out looking for a Grammy. It just kind of happened,’ he laughs at the recollection of first learning about the award.
Words: Iain Patience
But Farris now has another superbly soulful and thoughtfully delivered album out on the streets. ‘Silver & Stone,’ (read the review here) again gaining international acclaim, is a sparkling release that seems more focused in its execution in many ways. So, where did the idea for it come from, I ask:
‘Well, after ‘Shine for all the People,’ and the Grammy, I felt I was entering another chapter of my life. I was ready for another journey. I had lots of influences around, competing for my interest, pushing me into this new chapter, if you like. In some ways it felt kind of scary and I wasn’t sure just what might come out, where it might lead me. But in the end it all turned around, revolved around my life and my wife. All the songs were written here at home for her and for us really. She’s used to me sitting around, working with my guitar, but I’m not really sure she knew just what was going down at the time.’
‘I didn’t know how it was all gonna come out. But I found the electricity, the energy to put it out and now that it’s out there, it feels like the album is the record I really needed to make,’ he adds with a thoughtful smile.
From his early years in Memphis, Farris considers himself to be essentially lucky, fortunate to be living in some comfort in a town he now loves and sees as home. Nashville has become his anchor, with its remarkable range of sidemen and top-rate musicians almost everywhere:
‘It’s been one of those things. Nashville’s now my home, my whole life revolves around the place. The music business doesn’t have to be all about New York or L.A. There’s so much here for comparison. I’m surrounded by an embarrassment of riches in Nashville. I like to think all these great musicians, all these people are my friends. When I needed people to come into the studio, they came through. It was all pretty easy, they agreed to help. That’s important to me. These are guys who take a pride in their music.’
Although Farris has been now been around recording for a few decades, he is not noted for regular releases and views the current music industry as being a difficult game. He says he prefers to think of his material as being more about quality than quantity and is content to take it easy and turn out an album only when the time is right for him:
‘I know some of those kids, artists who put out an album like every year. It’s often all shit. I’m not naming any names here, but that’s how it seems to be right now. But what do I know…..they’re all more successful than I am!’ Farris laughs self-deprecatingly, before adding: ‘ I get it, but see it as a bit of an indulgence, much of their independent material.’
Turning to his love of general roots music and blues in particular, I suggest that Gospel clearly also has a hold of his own soul in many ways, as appears evident from his recent recording history. Farris immediately agrees:
‘Old spiritual music really resonates with me. It goes far beyond those of a simply Christian faith. These are stories of personal struggle, of hope and longing for a better day. Old spiritual music is pure in that way. It’s beyond religion to me. It’s more of an essential thing to me.’
On his current offering, ‘Silver & Stone,’ Farris has an outstanding tribute track he wrote about the now legendary Chicago spiritual-gospel diva Mavis Staples. I mention this to him as perhaps a reflection of his thinking and he bursts into a smile and confirms:
‘That was a song that just about wrote itself! I had the chorus in my mind for a long time but when I sat down to flesh it out, well, I only had to look at Mavis’s own amazing life for it all to come together. It’s just her life story, really.’
For some time, Farris fronted Double Trouble, Stevie Ray Vaughn’s band. Looking back at those years, he now reels at the thought of the hard life, the over-indulgence in almost everything that came his way from drink and drugs on. Though he sadly – as he now believes – never personally played with the band when SRV was still around, those years changed his life and when he eventually shook free, he cleaned himself up and turned a corner:
‘There were times when there was just so much going on back then. It was amazing. The amounts of drink and the like. I’m lucky to have survived it really. It was all a blur, a madness in many ways but also great fun at the time. I ended up with a drink and drug problem. Those were tricky times. I can think back now on all those steps, those things I’ve done in my career. Now, everything is good. I’m in a better place and while ‘Shine for all the People,’ was a sort of sentimental song-thing – still a record I love, they’re all my babes – ‘Silver & Stone’ is more personal, it reflects where I am now, settled with a wife I deeply love and a life that’s solid and secure.’
‘With “Shine’, I honestly thought it was the best record I’d made in my career. But with ‘Silver & Stone’ I think I’ve moved on. I bounced many of the ideas off my wife, Julie, as I worked on it. When it was all sort of ready – or as ready as it was gonna get (he again laughs) – she gave it the green light. In reality, it’s an album where I’m doing it all for Julie. What I’m trying to say, what I want to say there is all for her.’
For now, Farris remains anchored in the roots music tradition he so clearly loves with thoughts of a follow up album in his mind but not a pressing demand on his thinking or time:
‘I was just drawn to roots music, music that began in the early 1920s. I started to dig into it. I dig into old catalogues, soul music from the Deep South really. There’s always a drama to it. That Tennessee – Memphis thing maybe. It leads me to that southern church soul thing, my roots too. It means I might find something, dig up something, an album I never heard before. It’s just such a rich area to explore. I might pick up my guitar, or maybe turn to the piano, and work on a theme that has my attention, that hooks me. With “Silver & Stone’ I had the idea for the album, with several things already lined up. So, now, I’m there again, with stuff already written, ready for the next one, the next record. One thing’s for sure, there won’t be so much time between this one and the next,’ says Farris with a confident, almost cheeky grin.
Website Mike Farris
Photography Mike Farris by Sebastian Smith