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Jeffrey Foucault

Wisconsin singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault is playing the Top Hat on Friday, Nov. 16.

A number of singer-songwriters maintain far too much confidence, but have nothing new to add or say. Wisconsin-born troubadour Jeffrey Foucault would be the other extreme: His storytelling twists hearts and ties up emotions and his humble songwriting continues to accelerate faster than anyone anticipated.

The quiet, unassuming Foucault grew up in Whitewater, Wisconsin, and while attending college at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and then UW-Madison he worked various jobs, including maintenance and grounds crew work where he drove a hydraulic truck.

After he received an undergraduate degree in history he made his way out to California, where he helped run a YMCA camp, and accepted whatever work was offered to him: sanding, painting and plastering. All the while he’d been twanging his guitar and scribbling verses, acts of fulfillment that he never believed would translate into its own job.

“I’ve always had a love of doing it,” said Foucault, 42, who has released six full-length solo albums under his own name. “As a kid I had a $200 basic Washburn (guitar) and I’d polish it before setting it down, and I would jam with my dad and his Japanese mail-order guitar. I took a gamble and thought that I had enough fire underneath with me to stick with it. My friend went off to Siberia inspecting warheads and left me a Martin (D-18 Guitar) and that was the Holy Grail to me, and I made my first record on it.

"When I was 17 my dad gave me a John Prine record at about the same time I got the first guitar … in junior high and in college I’d listen to a Sears catalog turntable in my parents’ unfinished basement, where I got the whole baby-boomer musical education in two years. Working on the farm [in Wisconsin during his college years], the weather would be crummy, and it was a long drive to the farm, and I’d write songs. My parents would be at work, and I’d be drinking coffee and writing songs. Back then it felt abashed and embarrassed for me to call myself a songwriter before I’d even written anything.”

Foucault’s lyricism has since generated unprecedented opportunities. Indeed, his newest album, “Blood Brothers,” is a delivery of paradoxes, where promise and potential convene cheek-by-jowl with dejection and disappointment.

“Every record is different, and each reflects the different experiences of what you are living through, or reading, or thinking about, and some of the songs I’ve carried for two, three years or longer. About seven of the 10 I wrote fresh and they are interrelated and work thematically and musically as a piece. There were some I left off because I was not certain that they counted. If I could I’d go back and tell my young self not to lay it all on the table and to hold something back. Back then I’d write 20 songs, and 15 songs made the record. You feel as if you will never make another one when you are a youngster.”

Foucault said that his current songwriting process is usually more fragmented and less intentional. It’s a procedure of addition and subtraction and facing self-skepticism in the progression. But mostly what he is now experiencing as a writer is a state of perpetual permutation.

“Sometimes it’ll take seven, eight years before it becomes a finished thing,” said Foucault. “I’ve got a notebook full of poems, fragments, verses and prototype versions of songs and in the left side of the margin there will be all kinds of crazy sh--. I’m generating language and different sections of the tune, or the bridge, the refrain, or a line scheme, and the scaffolding. But there is something there and it doesn’t feel done or it is just begging to be finished. If it’s interesting enough, I will try to lean on it to get it done.”

While he’s still as ambitious as ever to create fresh songs, Foucault is more selective about the quantity of songs that he will place on an album.

“I am more comfortable with the process now and it’s more of a discipline than an art form. I sit down and show up and write stuff. I feel as if I’m a clearer, more confident songwriter now. …

"I was playing a lot of the new songs on the road and I wasn’t sure I could get a version [in the studio] that I liked. Six weeks later I was still tinkering and getting them into shape and going into the recording, I wasn’t ready but I felt like I needed to do it, using skills to make a record that was riskier with language I wasn’t sure about. I was actually ambivalent about the collection of songs going in. But the further away I got from it, the happier I am, and there is simplicity in the songwriting that I didn’t anticipate but I’ve learned something from. I’m trying to get simpler and simpler as I go along as far as language. “

Foucault said that he is still fascinated by the art of singing and the technical side of raising and timing his voice, maintaining breathing control, manipulating his pitch, and a whole bunch of other variables.

“I guess you could take voice lessons or just listen to Willie Nelson, Ella [Fitzgerald], Louis [Armstrong], or Bob Dylan. I’m always amused when someone says Dylan is a bad singer; you may not like the timbre of his voice, but he’s a great singer, with extraordinary phrasing, control and delivery. When you are a little kid you sing like you, whatever comes out of your mouth. You have no capacity for duplicity until about age 2, when you try to convince people of things that are not true, or start to lie convincingly. Singing is the same thing; at first you have no capacity other than the sound you make, and then the influences come immediately.”

Once the influences start to emerge, said Foucault, you arm yourself with all these inspirations — a rasp here, a honey falsetto there — grab them tightly and pull them at once.

“It takes years to jettison influence and at some point they all fall away, the scaffolding is gone, and that’s you, similar to the little kid without influences. On the last two records I felt more comfortable and my singing is better now than it ever has been — the control, the knowledge. … I’ve worked intuitively and pushed and it gets ragged, but now I know what a voice does in various registers. I don’t enjoy over-schooled singers; I like the ones who figure out how to sing all on their own.”

Frequently his testing ground for a new song is the live venue, where the crowd has front-row seats to observe and experience all of this, from the testing of the lyrics to the reshaping of the vocals.

“When you are live the moment you try to lay it out for someone else, you can’t just stop, tinker with it, or stop the riff if you don’t like it, the same way you can when you are in the kitchen. That’s when you can find out the quality of the song in a performance scenario, and that’s beta testing and getting the buzz out. You can try different keys or rhythmic styles.”

A night with Foucault requires a deeper, interactive and extra personal relationship with the audience. Storytelling — the word now seems a quaint relic of a bygone era — regulates the event.

“So many of the new songs are about memory and love, and the intersection between the two there. On any given night I’m ready to pull out a new song … 'Northbound 35,' well, I had played it for years before anyone started connecting with it, and the first time someone complimented it, it surprised me. I don’t know what everyone else hears and thinks, and I rely on their reactions.”

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