It’s tricky to put a single hat on Joe Crookston. The musician is just as much of a painter as he is a storyteller and he seamlessly blends these three varied talents in each of his shows. Crookston is an Ithaca, New York-based artist who has released four full-length studio albums among countless other works — not all auditory. Most recently, he released a self-titled record that came out last March.
Now, he’s making his way over to Lansing by way of the Ten Pound Fiddle to showcase not only his talents, but to share a few of the stories off of his new album and his upcoming projects. City Pulse sat down with him to pick his brain about that.
You’ve got a lot of tour dates listed online, how long are you touring for?
I love playing. People ask if I’m on tour but this is kind of like the never-ending tour because I love it. I stay busy. I find time to be home quite a bit and write and paint. I’m at a good stride right now where it matters for me to get out into the world and tell stories.
What kind of stories do you tell through your music?
I love personal stories. I think that’s a place where we as humans, connect. It’s not about republican and democrat, it isn’t about left and right, it’s about a grandmother or a father. We share those and I think it’s a place we are drawn to, and I think it’s useful to have people come together around those issues.
My song “Brooklyn in July” it came out and is travelling right now at a bunch of film festivals. That came out about seven months ago. The song itself deals with racism in American and about personal stories. I’m really interested in the personal, human stories that connect us, not what divides us. I think that I also have another song called “Blue Tattoo” about a woman who was in Auschwitz.
So, it’s been kind of great to have narrative stories that are not about me and my breakup with my girlfriend, but they’re about the world we live in and the greater picture.
A lot of your music tends to be focused on issues outside of your own, why are you drawn to themes like that?
Woody Guthrie has a quote that I love: “A song needs to be more than good. It needs to be good for something.”
I always related to that. I always wanted my songs to be useful in some ways. I think that I didn’t really choose to be a folk musician, but I think I was just more inherently attracted to the human nature and who we are as humans, so therefore telling a personal narrative story was where I found the juice you know? That’s what a lot of the great folk songwriters do, but at the same time the truth of it is that I love it when people come to me and say, ‘I can’t stand folk music but I love what you.’ That means a lot, to not be a cliché of myself.
History is a big draw for you when you write your content. Were you always a history buff?
I think in some ways, the reason I feel passionate about it is because in school I could have cared less and it really was not interesting to me to learn the facts of history. I think what happened for me was that once I started hearing songs and connecting ideas and was inspired and a song gave me goosebumps and I listened to it 16 times in a row, it’s about World War I and I didn’t know that, that kind of was an ‘aha moment’ for me where the history started to become interesting and have relevance to what happened in the past and what is happening now. Maybe that’s the reason that I think it doesn’t have to be boring or about the past.
Are you working on anything new now?
One thing I’m working on right now is a project called “Ten Becomes One.” The general gist of that, is that I have a group of songs that are based on historical figures that were in World War I, World War II, the holocaust and so I’m a painter and I love painting on canvas and I’m making basically 10 portraits of these people and then I have the songs that then go with them.
Eventually, it would become a travelling exhibit that would be like these are the 10 songs about these people and here are the 10 portraits and it’s really something that I’m kind of trying to culminate in one complete package. To go from all these disparate parts and have it pull together as a whole.
I’ve been approached by people who teach in grade schools, eighth grade in particular, who would like to create a website where “Ten becomes One” is used as a website to teach people about history. There’s something about that that doesn’t feel educational and dry. It’s really good art that lights people up and I’ve had an eighth grader go, ‘I don’t even care about the Underground Railroad, I never even thought about it, but your story of John Jones and the way the music is — now I’m interested.’
Friday, Sept. 29
$20/$18 Fiddle Members/$5 students
MSU Community Music School
4930 S. Hagadorn St., East Lansing