Year in Music 2017

Westerberg Indulges His 'Folker' Side

Rarely does a recording artist resist the urge to extrapolate in longwinded fashion about their latest project. When prompted, most will discuss both broad concepts and minute details with equal aplom

Rarely does a recording artist resist the urge to extrapolate in longwinded fashion about their latest project. When prompted, most will discuss both broad concepts and minute details with equal aplomb. But most artists aren't Paul Westerberg.

"I just play how I feel each time around."

Such is his explanation of "Folker," his 13-track album released Sept. 7 via Vagrant Records. Like his previous solo releases for the independent label -- 2003's "Come Feel Me Tremble" and 2002's "Stereo/Mono" -- Westerberg recorded the set in his home basement studio.

The increasingly ragged sounds of these releases fall more in line with the earliest days of his beloved Minneapolis-based punk act the Replacements, rather than the more produced output of their latter years and Westerberg's solo projects for Reprise.

"I'm not a stickler for high-quality sound if it means sacrificing spontaneity," he says. "I like one-takes. I like the first take of a vocal because it usually has the passion that you don't get on a third or fourth take."

That belief cuts to the aesthetic core of "Folker." On first listen, the album comes across as sparse and somewhat unimpressive. But repeated plays are rewarded with blossoming songs where choice phrases pop as hooks seem to continually tumble from the speakers.

"That's the intention," Westerberg explains. "That's where the 'folker' aspect comes in. If you listen to 'Mr. Tambourine Man' by [Bob] Dylan, nothing changes but the words. There's no new instrument that comes in on the fifth verse. It's the hallmark of folk music.

"So, I was sort of taking that and giving it a little bass and drum underneath and not being too worried about making, you know, ear candy kind of pop."

Westerberg's skewed version of pop comes through in the catchy tongue-in-cheek opener, "Jingle (Buy It)." With the lyrical refrain "Buy it now/ buy it now/ buy it now-ow," the song sounds ripe for a television ad.

"I was trying desperately to get Gap or Target or someone to use it," Westerberg says. "To see who was hip enough to actually take the thing. I suppose, in the back of my mind I thought I was going to be able to destroy the whole genre of using popular music -- you know, that's the only way you can get it heard is to use it in a commercial.

"That was 'Plan A' for the record," he explains. "['Jingle'] would come out and advertise Michelin tires or just something ridiculous and the record would come out with 11 fairly serious songs. But now it makes for a nice little opener, I guess."

A few songs -- "Looking up in Heaven," "Any Way It's All Right" and "As Far As I Know" among them -- are distinctly reminiscent of the sound Westerberg displayed with his first solo foray, his contributions to the 1992 soundtrack to Cameron Crowe's "Singles."

"Well, 'Lookin' up in Heaven' is an older tune," he admits. "I don't know if I re-recorded it or just sort of dug it up and maybe put a real drum kit on it, or something like that.

"To me, if you say, 'Well, this is reminiscent of 'Singles,'' or reminiscent of [1993's] '14 Songs' or even go back to the 'Mats junk, I would say yeah, cuz that stuff's still within me. I'm still capable of making a song that sounds like [the 1989 Replacements single] 'I'll Be You,' or whatever. It's just that I won't take the time to embellish it."

The album also features a long percolating song called "My Dad." Like most of "Folker," the ode to Westerberg's father was recorded and ready for release about a year ago, but was held back until now.

"I was thinking maybe there was a chance he might be able to hear it before he croaked, because at one time 'Folker' was slated to come out last fall and then all the other things sort of took over, took precedent," he says, referring to his 2003 album "Come Feel Me Tremble" and its companion DVD. "Everything's like a year late, so it just came out when it did.

"And no, he never heard it," he adds before taking a long pause from the conversation. "And I've... I'm, you know, I'm OK with that."

Westeberg is quick to admit that his father was never behind his career choice. "He always was sort of waiting for me to get a real job. He never understood the aspect of making records," he says. "When I would go off and perform, he understood that more as being like, that's what you do. You go, you play, you get paid and you play somewhere else.

"That's cool. Like the song says, I was never looking for his applause. I never needed it, never wanted it, and never got it," he says, laughing.

For his part, Westerberg is a doting father who has curtailed his road work in favor of being home with his 6-year-old son. "It's slowed down my traveling and it's made touring or the question of touring more difficult, because he doesn't like it when I leave and it makes it tough for me," he explains. Even so, shows in support of "Folker" are not ruled out.

"I've gotta find a new word for 'tour,' he says. "Will I tour? I don't know. Will I appear? Yes. I will be appearing places, whether it's television or big shows or little shows, I don't quite know yet."

In the meantime, Westerberg is passing his time working on songs for the Sony Pictures Animation feature "Open Season," which is not due in theaters until 2006. He's contributing several songs, and intends to score the film as well, his first such work since "Singles."

"I'm thinking I'd like to do that," he says of the prospect of scoring more films. "I wouldn't like to do that as a regular job and do five movies a year and all that, but it's a viable, I guess, alternative to touring. This [project] is going to allow me to make exactly the record I want to make next time again."