In mid-December, Pokey LaFarge is tucked in the cool darkness of a van, motoring through the outskirts of Memphis. He and some members of his group are hustling back to St. Louis the evening after a tour-closing concert at the famed Tipitina's in New Orleans. Some of his crew stayed behind, spending time with loved ones for an extra night or two of non-playing, non-paying fun, while the bandleader speeds north on I-55 with the rest.
For the better part of 2015, LaFarge spent a lot of time in vans, not just around the United States, but around the world. Late in the year he played roughly two dozen European shows, criss-crossing the continent while only taking two days off along the route — an experience that stretched LaFarge's voice just shy of the breaking point.
"Traveling is a huge inspiration," he says. "I'm taking a break from touring so much right now. New surroundings have crossed my mind and new challenges. I'm wanting to not be comfortable. Being comfortable and complacent is evil — it's the end of creatively."
LaFarge has emerged from his hectic year with a lot to say, discussing his life and times in a free-wheeling, 45-minute phone conversation during that lonely drive, much of it centered on persistent rumors that either he or the entire band would be moving on from St. Louis in the near future.
"I think it's something that people have gotten wind of, and the game of telephone is going on," he says. "Of course I've thought about moving from St. Louis. No offense to it, but there's no industry there. There are not as many musicians to play with there. And when you're at the point that I'm at, looking for a new challenge, certain parts of the music business don't exist in St. Louis. My whole team lives in different cities, like Nashville, New York and LA. The opportunity to write for film... I've thought about that for over a year. I'm not from St. Louis, but it's the only place that's felt like home. Being close to my family up in Illinois is great.
"The band isn't relocating," he adds with emphasis. "The 'South City Three?' To get them to leave St. Louis is almost laughable. They'll never leave that fucking city. That's not to say that I haven't — and we don't — take pride in being one of the few bands touring out of St. Louis. Maybe even being one of a handful of bands to become successful outside of St. Louis. So as an artist, as a person, for myself ... I'll only speak for myself: I'm an ambitious person. But in no hurry. I'm wanting to become a better person, which will allow me to become a better artist. And that's what makes me happy. Writing, performing and singing. How do we do that bigger?"
LaFarge describes 2015 as a transitional year. 2016, he hopes, will bring bigger challenges and greater triumphs. "I've taken the biggest steps in my composition, my writing," he says. "It's more personal than it's ever been, and more experimental than I've been. I can't say for sure. I'd hope to look back and say I've taken my work to the next level [in 2016]."
That will take shape with a new horn section, with the departure of multi-instrumentalist Chloe Feoranzo — lately gigging with Tommy Halloran, among others — and TJ Muller, the talented and charismatic cornet player who is now fronting his own traditional jazz band, the Gaslight Squares. The moves, seemingly amicable on all sides, have come at a time when LaFarge is going deep into an introspective zone about his output, his style, his songs — his whole mode of creation.
"I'm trying to let go, and I'm trying to just free myself of what I think I thought I knew, what I've told myself about what's right and wrong," he explains. "And what's held me back and what's put me in my own little boxes. It's kind of ironic, because of how much I hate categorization, how much I hate order and rules. But I've made them for myself and didn't know it. I've slowly chipped away at them. I wouldn't say that I'm trying to become 'happy.' I don't know what the fuck that means. I just think the most important thing is that I've found, in every single way, that the things that are making me feel good aren't necessarily the most important things. Everything comes out in my music."
If the barrooms of Cherokee Street have been buzzing about the possible departure of LaFarge and Co., they're also the places where you're most likely to hear the cracks about Pokey's old-timey image, message and overall style. There's something uniquely St. Louis about its ability to both embrace local heroes and keep them in the crosshairs of criticism.
For LaFarge that's surely been the case, and he hears about it — even when half a world away.
"One day I feel on top of the world, that I can perform with the best in the world," he says. "Other days, I'm onstage and I want to get out of my own skin. It's a weird thing, to get caught in your own head. It's easy to become a caricature of yourself."
It's not as fun a parlor game to praise the man's contributions to the local scene. His ability to fill the Pageant on New Year's Eve. His using local support for that show — enlisting the Hooten Hallers and the River Kittens, rather than hooking another guaranteed ticket-seller. His ability to carry a three-nighter of sold-out shows at Off Broadway for his record release.
But he knows that a slice of St. Louis is always going to give him shit — and it's not exactly a sales point for digging deeper here. Presented that idea, LaFarge doesn't brush it off, but believes he's come to terms with it all.
"I can feel things from people that I shouldn't feel, then I internalize things from those feelings," he says. "Then you try to mull them over and I shouldn't. I can't control that or worry about that."
He points to this summer's LouFest performance in Forest Park as an example of his adopted hometown's dualities.
"It's the park that birthed our World's Fair, a historic place," he says. "It's a landmark in our city. So that's not lost on me: the fact that it's a national festival, run by C3, and has our name on it. There's a certain amount of representing you've got to do. Among these other national and international acts, you're there to try to represent St. Louis. ... I'm sorry, but I've lived there over eight years. I'm not from there — it's not my home, it's never been my home. I'm from Illinois. And as much as I've represented St. Louis, there's a certain amount of people that that have made me feel what it is and what it isn't.
"Part of what I do is remember that there are haters out there, but there are many more people out there I love. It's important to realize that most of the people have a love for the community, love for the world. In a smaller microcosm, a love for my music."
At a bright, summer's afternoon at LouFest, LaFarge feels that love, and knows it is his job to channel it — whether he chooses to stay in St. Louis or not.
"Looking at the crowd, seeing those smiling, sunny faces — you know that you have to reflect that love back to the world."
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