Syntax Issue 10
Denver Syntax

“All means everything.”
- Reed Foehl

Stretching his arms up and out into the streams of sunlight, Reed Foehl quotes his father in an exhale. “Today,” the troubadour sighs, “I’m going to do whatever I want.”

Foehl smiles. And then the willows quake and rattle in the invisible wind down by the creek.

When you’ve received national acclaim and stood before theaters of adoring fans for most of your adult life – when that curtain falls, one has to wonder: what does Reed Foehl do with his day?

Certainly, whatever you do – you never stop working. And working, for Reed Foehl, is playing. Playing music.

Set to release a staggering album in June entitled, “Once an Ocean”, Foehl’s latest work stands as a testament to the idea that – whatever he is doing, he’s doing the right thing. For Foehl, one with nearly ten albums in his history and several of those having been recorded on major labels, this album feels like his first.

Sitting in front of him as the day is falling toward the night and I can hear it in his voice. There is something about this light and its descent that makes sense as we break bread together. There is something exalting about Foehl, but also reserved and a bit nervous as we talk about the album’s release date. And rightfully so, it’s not as though he recorded this new album in his home studio and nobody is looking, or paying attention to the release show. No, Foehl took five trips up to Vancouver to record the album with the internationally-acclaimed group The Be Good Tanyas and their producer John Raham. And he’s going to release the album with the Tanyas to perform a set of their own and with Reed at the Boulder Theatre on June 11.

For some reason the collaboration with the Tanyas in the studio makes all the sense in the world. For I’m not sure we talk about things in these terms as much as we should – but in Foehl’s case, I think somebody needs to finally bellow from the Flatirons: Reed Foehl is, indeed, one of Colorado’s absolute best songwriters. I will go so far to say that his bust should adorn the rocks above Boulder.

Yes, I just did say that. And I left it in writing on concrete paper.

Your heart will memorize this beat if you’ve ever had the fortune of sitting in front of him on an empty stage, with only his guitar and harmonica draped over him as his cape: Reed Foehl has that kind of power to move entire theaters of minds and hearts.

If you haven’t heard much of Foehl’s catalog, you should. Because he lives outside of Boulder, I don’t think much of the Denver community has taken the time to sit before Foehl.

As a songwriter, he is powerful. His voice, mournful and redemptive in that kind of way that feels as though he somehow has pushed his breath into the afterlife and then sucked it back for translation in this world.

For the life that Foehl writes of is predicated on simple complications, and the complexities found in simplicity. Foehl sings about a real world, where your blackened, working hands ride alongside your pumping, churning heart. Foehl’s words are the poetry of life. They are literal, but also satirical and playful. Like some of his instrumentation, it’s the mistakes and the moments slightly askew that make life so beautiful.

From “Good Company”:

Go tell Aunt Rita/She’ll tell everyone/I’m leaving tomorrow/My days here are done/No need to worry/Or wait up for me/I’m imagine where I’m going I’ll be in good company.

I’ve done all I can here, I set out to do/The rose on the table, I picked it for you/I’m keeping my secrets, because that’s what we do.

If anything, being alive is about movement and remaining engaged with the world around you. Life is also about overcoming. Triumph. Success in the small things before your grave.

And if there’s one small photograph I will always keep of Foehl in my mind’s flannel pocket – it’s the one of him and his father. The one which is lacquered with gratitude for all the years they spent together and the successes that his father witnessed, of Foehl and his siblings – notably, his brother who began Acoustic Junction alongside Reed.

Several years ago, after the conclusion of Foehl’s highly successful Acoustic Junction project, his father passed away. And while his supportive, charming mother is still alive, it is the ghost of his father’s death that Foehl still hasn’t shaken. And maybe, never will.

When Foehl’s father was forty, he decided to learn how to play music. The young Reed learned alongside him. Foehl’s mother was the accomplished one, however – an accomplished pianist and singer. And so it may be no surprise, or of some surprise at all, that Foehl’s father began playing in a bluegrass band, which he would do for the rest of his days. Reed, already with a background in playing in front of people as a street performer, honed his skills on the guitar. Then, just before his teens, Billy Conway of Morphine, a friend of the family, encouraged the young Foehl to write songs.

And so began the life of Reed Foehl as a songwriter. Acoustic Junction came quickly after Reed began playing out in Aspen at the age of eighteen. Their cult status was established in Boulder and only branched out as the band, under many formations – toured incessantly. For ten years the band played to thousands of people, hundreds of venues and theaters and festivals. After a couple kiss of misfortunes with their last label, Foehl decided to can the project. But not before selling hundreds of thousands of copies of their albums and receiving some notable national attention.

As a solo artist, Foehl has had the fortune of playing with multitudes of great artists, cultivating relationships with some great musicians, including The Be Good Tanyas and Gregory Alan Isakov. Foehl has sold myriads of publishing rights, his work has appeared in film and on television. He’s made some money and imparted his wisdom to up and coming songwriters around town. As a songwriter, Foehl is just about as successful as one could be – yet he’s not done, with eyes and ideas for the future. Bigger ideas. And while Foehl’s father did not get to see these successes, and while Foehl himself does not dwell on that notion of absence – there is only a sense of graciousness and reverence to his father’s influence on his life.

Afterall, his father saw him get a great education back east, earn musical success, raise his son, be smart with his investments and work hard.

And why his father bears mention to his songwriting, is not for any sensationalism – but rather, is to this end, where Foehl’s songwriting and his voice intersect – in that place where, especially in front of his stages, I feel his transcendent breath coming back from the other side of life. As though it is being shot back by somebody that’s already on that side of the grave. As though it’s somebody he knows, who is polishing his thoughts clean with wisdom and good tidings and sending it back with love. From “Goodbye World”:

Little slap, baby cries/Eighty years later, somebody dies/ It’s a Goodbye world, just passin’ through it/It’s a goodbye world, I always knew it.

For every reason, Foehl has every right to be a bit anxious about the release of “Once an Ocean” (release at Boulder Theater, June 11 with Be Good Tanyas and Jefferson Hamer). Some of the songs on the album are years old, revamped and made-over, under this oceanic spotlight. Others are brand new, the results of finding the ghosts in the barns of his life, grabbing them, and pulling them in for a look-see. For there is a certain fearlessness that one needs to stomach in order to write songs and share them with the world. Especially for as many years as Foehl has been doing it. For most: Inspiration doesn’t last this long. Ambition dies and haunts you like those daytime ghosts.

But when you’ve spent so much deliberate time learning your process, how to write, when to write and what to write – you also harbor a sense of confidence in continuing to walk down those darkened, midnight paths where only the only sounds are of life beyond the grave and your beating heart – alive and ready to leap from your body in supreme joy at the hands of revelation.

It is with this kind of revelation that I feel the heat behind my eyes, when listening to Reed Foehl. And in the quiet of my body’s solace I can feel the rhythm of my heart, like claps, applauding everything here and there. Everything, absolutely everything.

Keep up with Reed’s releases and forthcoming shows and tour dates, here: www.myspace.com/reedfoehl.