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A Conversation With Gary Louris

Hard to believe, but Jump For Joy (Sham) is just the second Gary Louris solo album in 25 years. At least partial credit for that goes to his unfailing loyalty to the Jayhawks brand. As both the leader and co-leader of that group, he’s been responsible for 11 albums, including a pair of classics—1992’s Hollywood […]

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Hard to believe, but Jump For Joy (Sham) is just the second Gary Louris solo album in 25 years. At least partial credit for that goes to his unfailing loyalty to the Jayhawks brand. As both the leader and co-leader of that group, he’s been responsible for 11 albums, including a pair of classics—1992’s Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass three years later—that helped define the alt-country sound. Louris last went solo with 2008’s Vagabonds, a succinct, conceptual piece of work with a lush vibe courtesy of Thom Monahan (Pernice Brothers, Fruit Bats). Jump For Joy, on the other hand, is a self-produced mixed bag with its own offbeat charms. “I’m almost embarrassed that I’ve only put out two solo records in my entire career,” says Louris. “That’s changing now that I have the ability to make the records myself.”

Louris had plenty more to say in a recent MAGNET interview.

Jump For Joy is a homegrown, self-played, self-produced affair. What inspired you to go in that direction?
A combination of things, really. First, the whole music business has changed since I made Vagabonds. For someone like me, it’s really cost-prohibitive to pay for a top-notch L.A. studio and hire a producer and session musicians. Second, I fancy myself a producer, and I’ve come a long way since 2008 in my abilities to run musical software and create a virtual studio in my own room. There’s certainly a tradeoff. The musicians I worked with on Vagabonds were so accomplished, and a certain synergy happens when a group of humans assemble to make music. But it is liberating to know that you can get up in the morning with a cup of coffee, still in your robe and slippers, and create this aural world all by yourself, with no budget, travel or scheduling constraints to limit where and when you work. I love the role of mad scientist tinkering in the lab—and learning something new each time I do it. 

What are the origins of Jump For Joy’s 10 songs?
Most were written in the last few years, but there are a few outliers. “New Normal” was recorded in 2009. It was one of my first dips of the toe into the waters of digital recording, so it’s a bit more primitive in execution—and yet it has a certain charm that I couldn’t re-capture with my new knowledge of recording techniques. “Too Late The Key” is a demo I made for the Jayhawks’ Paging Mr. Proust record. But by the time it emerged, the pool of songs was already pretty set. “Almost Home” began as an AT&T commercial. When they passed, I decided to write a verse and make it a real song.

“Dead Man’s Burden” was another song written for Proust that never quite fit. The song is a true stream-of-consciousness composition. One section just led to another. When I tried to edit it down to a more manageable pop-song length, it just didn’t work. So now it stands, with all its multiple movements and epic-scope glory. 

Would it be accurate to describe Jump For Joy as your most personal album?
To make a record all by yourself in your little room almost has to be more personal than one made in a big studio with multiple musicians. Vagabonds was my attempt to emulate one of my favorite records of all time—All Things Must Pass—albeit in a much humbler way. Perhaps I was insecure about baring my soul, but I felt the need for an ensemble cast, a support system and a bigger sort of production. Looking back on the lyrics to that album, I’m impressed with the poetry, but there’s a lot of imagery to sift through to get to the point. I still do that, as I find it more interesting to leave something to the imagination. 

Your son did the illustration for Jump For Joy’s album cover. What’s the story behind the piece?
Henry is my hero, really. He’s one deep dude. He just graduated summa cum laude in the fine-arts program at Boston University, so I’m busting with pride right now. Henry is a true artist’s artist and not really a commercial or graphic artist, per se. After wrestling with finding the right art to match the music, I started looking through some of his sketches and found the one for the cover art. We cropped it a bit to make it work, but it just fell into place—and I absolutely love it. Check out his website at henrylouris.com

You picked Fort Apache alum Paul Kolderie to mix the album. Vagabonds producer Thom Monahan also has roots in the New England scene. What are your ties to that part of the country?
I don’t know if I really have any particular New England connection, although our music has always done well in that region of the country. I was living in upstate New York at the time of the mixing, so I was able to make the drive to Paul’s place to sit in the same room for the mixes, which was really, really important. I’ve known Paul for years. He’s worked on some of my favorite records, and he certainly gave me the friends-and-family discount, which I thank him for. He’s truly an intuitive mixer who respects what the material is saying but isn’t afraid to push it and put his own spin on it—which he did. 

The title Jump For Joy would seem to imply a certain contentment with life.
I think the title is intentionally misleading—or at least it’s meant to send mixed messages. The song itself is dark and moody—brooding even. And when I sing “Jump For Joy,” it sounds anything but happy. In fact, “Jump” has a certain suicidal connotation, if one wants to go into that darkness. I did quite awhile back, when I almost didn’t make it. I did stand on a ledge and look down and give the idea some thought. However, I’m an example of someone who lived through a period of utter hopelessness and found my way back. I’m married and in love, my son is on his way to a great career, and the songs keep coming—so, yes, I am happy. Am I content? I don’t think I’ll ever just sit back and release a sigh of utter contentment and say to myself, “I’ve really figured it all out and I’ve accomplished what I want.” But the periods of happiness are getting longer and stronger, so that’s progress. 

We’ve all had to cope with the pandemic in our own ways, but it’s been particularly hard on musicians. How did you manage?
As David Bowie once said, “You used to tour to support your record. Now you make a record to support your tour.” The only way for a typical musician to make a living is by touring. And with live shows being such communal events, touring may take longer than other forms of work to make a comeback. On the other hand, musicians as a group tend to have a heavy dose of social anxiety, and I know that I’ve, at times, welcomed the excuse of not having to do something social because the pandemic has made it unsafe. Musicians and artists in general tend to be better at isolation than other people. 

For my mental health, I need to create on a regular basis. It’s an existential need. So I’ve been doing some livestreams. I started last year with my Sh*t Show on Facebook Live. Now I’ve moved the operation to a Patreon page, where I do live mini-concerts, post archival materials, do deep dives into old songs and premiere new material. I’m currently working on a children’s record, which is really rewarding. I’ve begun writing my next solo record, and I began producing my son’s first record. Did I mention that Henry, on top of being an amazing painter, is a fabulous songwriter and singer? I want to finish that up with him and put it out later this year. 

Beginning this month, I’ll be hosting a series of songwriting workshops for the Old Town School Of Folk Music. I’ve also discovered that I have a love—and a bit of talent—for making videos. My wife, Steph, and I have been making them for the singles on the new record. 

The Jayhawks have been consistently productive over the past three decades. How do you explain the band’s longevity?
I’ve always joked that the Jayhawks’ lack of success has contributed to our longevity, but I believe there’s a bit of truth in that quip. Although we’ve been extremely lucky in building a loyal audience and finding people who want to put out our records, we’ve never had that huge hit that joined us at the hip with a particular genre or time period. Our audience is not reliant on one or two singles—it’s been built by a strong body of work. And we’ve always been that band that falls in the seams between genres—hard to define, hard to market, but invariably hard to typecast and dispense with. We’ve always said, “We mean so much to so few.” But those few seem to stick around—and the ranks seem to be growing. If we hang on long enough, we may even achieve “legacy artist” status. But, seriously, as long as good new material is there, we can get up onstage unassisted, and there are enough people who want to hear us, we’ll exist.

—Hobart Rowland

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