While Farewell Friend frontman Tom Troyer does give a brief introduction of himself in the first line of the title track on his latest EP, “Grandfather Clock,” he spends much more time describing what he’s not.
"I ain’t no grandfather clock damned to carrying chains while the bells are always ringing in my brains," Troyer wails over a chorus of strings. “I ain't no astrolabe charting ancient seas while my lucky stars are always out of reach.”
The brainchild of Troyer, North Carolina-based alt-folk group Farewell Friend has been evolving since it started in 2012. It’s gone through several iterations — including an almost complete overhaul in members — and has become more of a solo project for Troyer that expands across genres, creating a multi-layered approach to Americana, he says.
“One song will have a beat and drive like a bluegrass song and the other will be a slow burner with fuzzed out guitars,” he says in a conversation through email before the group’s upcoming performance at The White Hart Café on Friday. “One song from our latest EP … starts with an intro that takes me back to an old jazz funeral feel.”
Troyer has woven his far-flung musical passions into a tapestry of human experience with his ambitious project “Lineage,” a conceptual story told over six years, starting in 2012, and three EPs, all of which will be remastered and rereleased as a three-part album next month.
When not writing his own music, Troyer, a former teacher, is recording other’s work out of his studio, Black Rabbit Audio, a name he says was “carefully decided on as [an] homage to Binky, the Mini Rex black bunny who lives in the kitchen.”
Before his White Hart performance, Troyer spoke about his multi-album project and the meaning behind “Grandfather Clock.”
How did the idea for "Lineage" come about?
“‘Lineage’ was an idea of a conceptual arch or a cycle: someone gets off the boat in a new and different place, still smelling of the recipes of home, folk songs echoing in their lullabies and optimism all around them. Generations pass, the city life and culture change that family, they set out again for new places, taking on new names and ideals, old ideology no longer valid or practical. The family line ends with echoes of old hopes and ideals, themes and motifs come back around from the old world, haunting.”
It seems like quite a daunting task to make three albums all following one story. How did you approach such a project?
“This conceptual arch isn't the best way to see all of the songs but it has been one way of limiting which songs make the cut — does it at least, in one way or another, lyrically, stylistically or thematically fall into that arch? Then we record it. … That's how I'd like to hear it when I first pop this full CD in the car stereo. I like concept albums but I never wanted to write songs that had to be interpreted within the context of their album. A song is only worth playing if its meaning can change over time and, from telling to hearing it, can be understood differently.”
The latest EP, "Grandfather Clock," was your first full producing effort. What was that like for you? How did it differ from simply working as the artist?
“As an artist, the recording process was simply, listen to the click and don't lose time, play the guitar as perfectly as I can, and sing in character without being odd, canned or pitchy sounding. As I've taken the reins, I get to imagine more and more of the landscape and the story and let my ear paint the wallpaper. Do we double the guitar? Yes, if there is tension in the mind of the character. Do we drop back to just one for this instrumental? Yes, because that shows the resolve that the character has found and it seems like you can hear that just being played by a dude next to a campfire.
“I'm not saying I did much better of a job since it was me producing the songs, but somehow that just seemed to be the best way to interact with the characters and tell the stories in subtle, artistic ways. It was nice to have a more direct link between my imagination and the end result too.”
You've said "Grandfather Clock" is the most personal song on the EP. Why?
“It feels like the one that has the most to do with a really big change in my life and the reasons behind it. I know I've felt impatient to know what I'm supposed to do as an artist, I felt that same frustration coming from students in my classroom who I struggled to engage and motivate. It's also a prayerful conversation of sorts I've been having internally for a long time. In scripture, Jesus is referred to as Teacher; he had a lot to say about waiting and being patient but being ready too. The way I feel in that song is as someone or a group of people — again, that family who have waited, ready and patient, until their bones were long gone and the galaxy faded into some distant corner of the universe and all that remains is stardust.”
What do you think it means to not be a grandfather clock?
“To not be a grandfather clock means I am not stuck in one place watching time pass by as I count off the hours. It means we aren't flat characters without dynamic and surprising possibilities. … To not be a grandfather clock is to not be subjected to the most obvious interpretation of a phrase or held by the implications of a handful of events — not tossed [inconsolably] by a few waves. Instead we are welcome to an inheritance, which is a mastery of the sea itself. Change seems out of reach … but the mountains and the moon are themselves evidence of tectonic and celestial change and opportunity. If there is any moral to the story I've cobbled together it is we can't look to the short term if we want proof of our own human potential.”