“I have the look, and I’ve created a stereotype for myself in a sense. I’d like for my music to be broadly accepted, yet I recognize that there is a stigma to being a folk singer.”
As he talks, Michael Farr makes huge, sweeping gestures with his hands. He seems to constantly adjust his long hair, play with his wire-and-crystal earring or straighten his necklace of rock beads. His eyes dart around the room, and his smile — though genuine — comes a little too frequently.
Michael Farr is nervous.
His upcoming CD-release party is at least in part responsible for the musician’s on-edge vibe. In a few days, the arrival of thankful (4 Elements Music) will be celebrated at an Orange Peel show.
And Farr is scared to death about it.
It’s not the quality of his music that concerns him — in fact, the performer, who writes light folk with a spiritual bent, is very proud of thankful. Instead, it’s his sudden success that has him rattled.
Until very recently, Farr was just another face in the crowd of open-mic-attending street musicians who call Asheville home. He’s been playing for more than 15 years now in various cities, releasing his debut, invisible gods (Autumn Moon Records), back in 1997.
Yet even as recently as last year, Farr was still busking, making a living playing where he could. At one point, he considered relocating to the even-more-singer/songwriter-oriented town of Burlington, Vt.
“I was on the straight-and-narrow singer/songwriter path … doing coffee houses and festivals, doing showcases in listening rooms,” he explains. “But all that wasn’t working for me, because my organizational skills are weak.”
After a few months of basically living the road, Farr felt the urge to return to WNC.
“I either needed to move on or settle,” he admits. “I’d been really transient for a while, and I came back with a really clear sense that this is home.”
And then, as soon as he’d more or less given up on being a touring musician, he met local entrepreneur Jack Bracewell at an open mic. The chance encounter led to a business partnership and a label — 4 Elements Music.
Bracewell, an enthusiastic newcomer to the world of music promotion, starting trying to make things happen for Farr. The first goal was an album that could really capture the essence of the singer/songwriter’s music.
To that end, a top-notch producer seemed warranted.
“I threw out Bil VornDick’s name,” says Farr, fidgeting with the handle of his coffee cup, “because my friend Dana Robinson worked with Bil [on Robinson’s album The Trade]. I just said the name to Jack, and I had no idea of [VornDick’s] credentials.”
In fact, VornDick has produced eight Grammy-winning albums, and has worked with the likes of Bob Dylan, Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Bela Fleck and James Taylor.
Obviously, having VornDick behind Farr’s record would open a great many doors for him, so Bracewell began trying to convince the acclaimed engineer/producer to take on the project: These initial negotiations eventually led to a full studio session in Nashville.
“It was a luxury for me to come in and only have to think about my performance, knowing that I could totally trust [VornDick] to get it on tape, and trusting the studio musicians to get the right notes,” says Farr. “It allowed me to be totally present for my part of the music.
“In my past projects,” he adds, “I’ve been so concerned about everything else — the production side. This way, I could let them do what they do, and I could do what I do. I’ve never worked in that kind of professional environment. It’s phenomenal.”
Within a very short time, and largely due to Bracewell’s promotional mojo, the album’s title track, “Thankful,” was chosen as a theme song by A Child Is Missing, a Florida-based nonprofit that helps find abducted and runaway kids.
Farr was soon experiencing other nudges toward success. Earlier this month, the singer/songwriter — a man many locals still knew only as a street performer — closed the Asheville installment of the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour, playing after national headliner Laura Love.
And then, inevitably, came the matter of a CD-release party. Initially, Farr wanted to go with a very comfortable setting, like the Grey Eagle; but at Bracewell’s suggestion, Farr began to explore other options — namely, Asheville’s largest club.
“I didn’t think they were going to book me [at the Orange Peel], because I’ve never even headlined a show in this town,” explains Farr. “I thought it was a little premature, but … Jack is a visionary.”
The events of the past year have come as something of a shock to Farr. Saddled with a high-profile album to promote, he’s still learning to manage his image. Classic-folk fans have embraced his sentimental style — but his sound is routinely dismissed as too sugar-coated by edgier factions of the local-music community.
“Angry isn’t the appropriate word,” he says about the perception. “I’m more frustrated.
“But,” he adds, “I also recognize that I take on that role. I have the look, and I’ve created a stereotype for myself in a sense. I’d like for my music to be broadly accepted, yet I recognize that there is a stigma to being a folk singer.”
Ultimately, Farr contends, he and his music are headed in the right direction. He might be a little nervous about exploring this new territory, but this is the very place he’s spent the last 15 years trying to get to.
As he thinks this over, his hand still toying with his earring, he seems to arrive at a decision. “I’m in a place where I’m very content doing what I’ve been doing,” he says.
The CD-release party for Michael Farr’s album thankful happens at the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Thursday, May 22. Showtime is 8:30 p.m.; tickets cost $7. For more information, call 225-5851.