“Dedicated Thespian Has Teeth Pulled to Play Newborn Baby in High School Play”
“Embarrassed Teen Accidentally Uses Valuable Rare Postage Stamp”
“Retired Grocer Constructs Tiny Mount Rushmore Entirely of Cheese”
“High School Shop Class Constructs Bicycle Built for 26”
These waggish tabloid-headline song titles, and the whimsical lyrics that go along with them, can all be found on Strange But True, the 1998 collaboration between renegade songwriter/vocalist Jad Fair and alt-funsters Yo La Tengo. Each song consists of Fair singing and speaking mini-stories which expand on the title, backed by Yo La Tengo’s avant-indie-pop grooves and soundscapes.
Jad Fair has been a prolific artist and mischief-maker for over three decades now, starting in the ’70s with Half-Japanese, a band he founded in Maryland with his brother, David Fair. Over the course of the last 30 years, the Fair brothers have been hailed as archetypal, out-there popsters/rock ultra-deconstructionists by critics and in-the-know fellow musicians (including Kurt Cobain, who was reportedly a big fan), while remaining relatively unknown by many mainstream music fans. Their sound is an intense, chordless (detractors would say tuneless) amalgamation of earnest singer-songwriterism and primal skronk, decorated with often-tortured lyrics about girls or monsters/imaginary creatures. The result is the kind of raw-nerve honesty (in both a sonic and lyrical sense) which compels some folks to listen more closely, other folks to run for the hills, and still others to wax hyperbolic over the genius inherent in such a nakedly unfeigned artistic emission.
Since in the past I’ve occasionally been faked-out by hipster-chic critic endorsements of various “underground geniuses”, I should make myself clear: I believe Jad Fair deserves a respectful ear not because of some kind of cool-kid/quirkier-than-thou fetishization of his “unschooled” music. Rather, it’s his obvious love for creating and exploring, his prolific output, and his utter fearlessness in expression that is most striking, and quite undeniable.
The 1993 documentary, Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King is a good place to begin for those who are intrigued. I also recommend the reasonably accessible, above-mentioned Strange But True as an introduction to Fair’s lyric and vocal style, though diving right into one of his solo albums, or any of the 25-plus Half Japanese releases, is a more completely immersive experience for those with a burning desire to go full-on Jad right away.
What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
I was a big fan of the Beatles when I was a kid, and really liked “I Saw Her Standing There”. Beatlemania was so huge. It all seemed so modern, and so cool.
Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Hedy West is one of my favorite singers. She was a banjo player and released some great albums. It’s difficult to find much by her.
Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
Vic and Sade was a radio show in the ’30s and ’40s, and is by far my favorite comedy show. It was a 15-minute show which had five shows a week. The show’s writer was Paul Rhymer. He was a comic genius. I have all of the shows I could find on my iPod and listen to the show almost every day. I’m not sure how it influences my music, but I’m sure it does, because it has such a strong hold on me.
Do you view songwriting as a vocation/calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
I used to make my living off of music, and song writing is a good part of that. For the past seven years I’ve focused on my art. My main vocation now is paper cutting. I’ve had six books published and several exhibitions.
Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
Amy Allison‘s song “What’s the Deal?” is great. She’s one of the best songwriters around. There are many musicians that I like, but it’s hard to find a good songwriter. Amy gets my vote.
As Fair notes in his answers above, as of late he has been concentrating on his visual artwork. Visit jadfair.org for lots of information on Jad Fair’s art, music, and other activities.