Mike Farris is no stranger to the Americana Music Festival. He won the Americana Music Association’s 2008 New/Emerging artist award following the release of his album Salvation in Lights, an album that established him as a distinctive voice in both gospel and soul music. Farris would follow up the LP’s 2007 release with over three years of touring, which saw him travel all across the United States, as well as some hops across the Atlantic to Spain and Scandinavia.
“It was pretty brutal over there,” Farris says about Scandinavia. Although anyone who has either heard Farris on record or especially in a live setting can attest that he, with whichever talented musicians join him on stage, performs music that lift one’s spirits and gets the body moving, the Scandinavian audiences were stoic to the point of being inert. Those performances were tough, but Farris doesn’t linger on that trip. Indeed, he performed numerous times throughout the 2014 Americana Fest, each show building upon the intensity and joy of the previous one. Whether in the packed-to-the-brim Basement venue or to a small audience in a recording studio, Farris always brings a potent dose of soul to his shows.
Yet, interestingly, it’s not something that’s deliberately plotted out. Speaking about some of his early solo performances, he says, “I didn’t really think about ‘show’. I was usually in my own little world.” Of course, this doesn’t indicate a lack of forethought on Farris’ part, but shows just how natural he is as a performer. Outside of his solo output, he founded the successful ‘90s rock group Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies and served as frontman for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s backing band, Double Trouble. The ‘00s found Farris exploring his solo career, beginning with 2002’s Goodnight Sun for the Mean It! label, which was followed five years later by Salvation in Lights.
Salvation in Lights is important for Farris’ career not only because it served as a breakthrough, but also because lyrically it reflected his conversion to Christianity, which was joined by him kicking his past problems with drugs and alcohol. The album, released on the Contemporary Christian label INO, distributed through Sony, is remarkable in its eschewing of the sterile, overproduced religious music that dominates Christian airwaves. Farris is always open about what he believes, but he never proselytizes. He belongs to no church and chooses to forge his own path. Through his art, he shares the uplift and healing power of the music itself.
Farris ties in his frustration for the way the Christian music industry is run to a recent encounter he had with the soul legend, Sam Moore. “I met him recently. Sam’s one of those guys that when you meet him, you’re instantly best friends. And he said that even though people always want him to play ‘Soul Man’ and stuff like that, what he told me was, ‘All I really want to do is play some old gospel music. And I’m not talking about the shit you hear at church nowadays. I want to hear some of that old style stuff.’”
PopMatters editor and publisher, Sarah Zupko (who made the Sam Moore comparison when she introduced me to his music, and is determined to help get the word out on this artist), managing editor, Karen Zarker (also a big fan), and I meet with Farris and his manager, Tyler Pittman, at Compass Records in Nashville for a long, pleasant interview, which extends into breaking bread over Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. Indeed, Farris follows in the legacy of Moore in numerous ways; if one was to play a song by each of them in juxtaposition, it’d be impossible to deny the similarity in their voices and soulful styles. But more importantly, both take on the task of making gospel, a genre that to many denotes music that can only be appreciated by religious people, into a universal experience and lord, does he succeed.
We ask Farris if there’s anything he specifically does to achieve that end. He replies, “I just do it. There’s no formula to it; it’s all just there. Gospel was delivered through these people who were in literal bondage. It was a gift to them. It didn’t exist before them. They were making music from the rhythm of the chains that were keeping them down. They took the thing that was supposed to kill them and made it into music.”
“A lot of stuff has been co-opted by a lot of people,” he says. “But the bottom line for me is that if you actually look at what Jesus was teaching, anyone can get behind that. He wouldn’t exclude anybody; we’re here to serve everybody.” Nevertheless, while the tendency to conflate gospel music with religious fundamentalism is problematic to say the least, Farris recognizes that this has in large part to do with the way religion itself has been “co-opted”. “There’s been so much damage done through religion from the Anglo-American world,” he says.
Farris’ understanding of Jesus, one that invites anyone and everyone to join in the soul of the music, is best captured by the title of his new record, Shine for All the People. Released through his new label, Compass, the record is a testament to the universal power of gospel music. Farris even does a version of the classic tune “This Little Light of Mine” throughout the festival, each time delivered with a gusto that anyone from any background can appreciate. “This is the kind of music that bypasses all of this,” he says, pointing to his head, “And goes straight for this,” he says, pointing to his heart. Based on the reaction that Farris has already seen from the music, people are appreciating the music in this way.
Pittman recounts an instance where an atheist sent a message to Farris through Facebook, describing how moved she was by his music, their religious disagreements notwithstanding. These experiences are ones that Farris has more often than one might think. The problem of music being labeled as “Christian” or “religious” frequently comes not from Farris’ audience, but from those tasked with marketing his music. “That’s been our problem from the get-go,” Pittman says, “We’ve been told ‘That’s too Jesus-y’. Stuff like, ‘That’s too soulful to be Christian.’ But when you see him live, you don’t have to explain it to anyone. They just get it.”
For proof of Farris’ fan base to “get it”, one need only look to how Shine for All the People was funded. During the seven years that span Salvation in Lights and Shine for All the People, Farris garnered funds through two Kickstarter campaigns, a decision that, while successful, was not easy for him to make. “I came to [Kickstarter] kicking and screaming,” he says, shifting slightly in his chair.
All kicking and screaming aside, Pittman points out that the Kickstarter campaigns revealed just how devoted Farris’ fanbase is. “We did two campaigns, and between the two of them, just over 300 people donated. Mike’s audience still has a large cross section of people who still want to have the physical, tangible good at the end of the day. In the age of streaming, we’ll take that as long as we can get.”
The fan response to the Kickstarter campaigns was exuberant; each campaign received substantially more than the initial asking amount. But while much was set in place for Farris to make another record, numerous obstacles came up.
The first had to do with the recording process itself, which began off on a note that, curiously, went a little too well. “We went to Kevin McKendrick’s [keyboard player] studio; he has a really good studio here in Nashville. Kevin’s one of the best piano players on the planet. He has this group of guys he’s been playing with for a long time, and they’re a unit. They’re pretty comfortable with each other. We did one session, did four tracks, and when I got sent the rough audio the next day, it sounded amazing. I went, ‘This is too fucking good. It’s too perfect’. After that I had to ask myself, ‘Do I want to make that kind of record?’ So then we moved it to my house, using some fairly shitty gear, and cleared out my living room to record.”
The decision to move the recording to Farris’ house is not incidental to the quality of the music on Shine for All the People; it’s a record that feels homey and familiar. As is the case with his live performances, on this album Farris is a gregarious, joyous presence. His fashion choices would not unreasonably lead people to believe he thinks himself a rockstar; with his regular uniform of fedora, dark glasses, vest, and band t-shirt (he wore a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt at the Basement show during his first 2014 Americana Fest performance), he undoubtedly still carries with him the rock ‘n’ roll energy of his early music. But while Farris might be as tough as a rock star, in person he’s sociable, sweet, and enthusiastic, and happy to talk at length about all kinds of subjects. If you’re lucky, you can get him started on his seemingly endless knowledge of Memphis soul music.
He incorporates numerous other pet genres of his throughout Shine for All the People, as well. The stunning opening track, “River Jordan”, kicks things off with a Cuban-influenced horn section, an idea that Farris got from two key sources of inspiration. “With ‘River Jordan’, I was sitting on a plane somewhere in the Midwest, and on my stereo came an old version of Louis Armstrong’s ‘St. Louis Blues’. There’s a slow, later version of the song that’s just so strong. I said to myself, ‘That’s it!’, then I got my recorder and started writing some notes And I’ve also loved Cuban music, so that became a part of it, too.”
Although the seven year gap between Salvation in Lights and Shine for All the People was a creatively fertile time, it was one that also saw him face some of the most difficult events in his life. When we talked about the success of Salvation in Lights he hedged, “Even though the record got named an album of the year by iTunes and a couple of different newspapers, all throughout the praise I was mourning the death of my best friend.” Here he refers to his late manager Rose McGathy, who was diagnosed with cancer before the release of Salvation in Lights; she passed shortly after its release. Both Farris and Pittman take on a somber air when talking about her; the influence she had on Farris’ life is obvious to anyone who talks with him about her.
As if dealing with McGathy’s terminal illness wasn’t difficult enough, Farris was also dealing with his own health issues. During the recording process of Salvation in Lights, he fought his way through the pain of two ruptured discs, a problem which had to be remedied by serious surgery only a week after the release of the album. This pain ended up leading to a relapse into his once dormant problems with addiction.
“I realized I was in relapse this whole time [after the surgery],” he admits. “That’s the thing about addiction; your mind will make you think you’re clean and sober when you’re not. I had just changed drugs of choice. I got strung out on pain pills.”
This became an even bigger issue once the progress into making Shine for All the People slowed. During this time, he chose to keep his struggles quiet, but not without good reason. “I’m all about opening up and sharing my struggles with other people, because that’s how other people gain strength. But in the middle of all that was happening in my life, I decided not to do that. I thought that it would have felt like a pity party.” Pittman further remarks, “Life just got in the way.”
Farris’ move here is a smart one, for were that to have become publicized, Shine for All the People could have easily been sold simply as a “recovery record”, a narrative which does poor service to the rich and diverse sound of his music. Farris clearly has gone through a great deal in these past seven years, but he carries himself with a strength of someone who has found a way to make it through the most strenuous obstacles life can throw one’s way. His triumphant spirit is infectious to all of those around him.
The best example of Farris’ ability to overcome adversity comes in the form of the song “Mercy Now”, written by friend and fellow songwriter Mary Gauthier. He says, “The song had been hovering around me for a couple of years, starting in 2008. I heard it one time, and I could tell it already had an impact, a lot of people really took to it. Then when my father was dying, the song really weighed on me.”
Farris’ father was diagnosed with cancer during the period between Farris’ most recent albums, and passed away before he could hear any of the music on Shine for All the People. Throughout this trying time, “Mercy Now” proved to be a source of musical healing. “We actually recorded it before he was diagnosed. It ended up becoming special not just for me, but also for my brothers who were having a hard time with it.”
The song posed a challenge for Farris, however. Because the song so perfectly encapsulated all of what he and his family were going through, actually performing the song proved to be a weighty task. “When I went to the studio to record the song, I tried to sing it but couldn’t make it past the first two words. I lost it. The same thing kept happening the times I tried after that; I just couldn’t make it through. Then I finally got the courage to take it to my wife. Same thing happened again, though; I broke down. Then she said to me, ‘Well, whatever this is, you’ve got to record it.’”
Farris performed the song at each of his shows during the Americana Fest. Whenever he performed it, the room took on a special air; the importance of the song was easy to tell, even those such as myself who were relatively new to Farris music. “This damn song, man,” he says to me, “it brought us all closure.”
The striking thing about “Mercy Now” is that I would have easily assumed that Farris had written it, had he not told me it was penned by Gauthier. After hearing the details of the emotionally turbulent seven years between now and Salvation in Lights, the lyrics sound like they were inspired directly by Farris’ experience. When we ask him if he’s ever talked to Gauthier about what inspired her to write the song, he says, “I see Mary on a regular basis, and we have yet to get into all of that. It’s kind of an understood thing… you don’t really have to talk about it to know it’s there. But I do know that you can’t write something like that without feeling something real.”
“Something real” perfectly summarizes the experience one will have with the music of Mike Farris. To overcome the circumstances he has and make a record so full of life and love as Shine for All the People is no small feat. The record is an experience unto itself, but it’s one that also hints at something that should be experienced to the fullest extent in a live setting. There, not only will you hear the full blast of Farris and his band, but you will also see just how unique a performer he is. Laughing, Farris says, “When me and the band go play a place for the first time, my wife always says, ‘They never see you coming.’”
What lingered the most with me after my encounters with Farris was not our lengthy and insightful discussion, but instead an aphorism that he repeated at all three of his Americana Fest shows: “Music will be your friend when no one else can.” More than anything else, that’s what Shine for All People captures about this artist: no matter what the world throws in Farris’ direction, he has the ability to transform it into music that is redeeming not only for him, but for all of those who lucky enough to experience it. Music has a fine friend in Mike Farris, indeed.
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