As a solo artist in charge of a piece of work all your own, complete with the final say, the task can be daunting, says legendary musician John Doe. It can also be great. When you’re working with a group, there are many voices in this mix. This can lean toward consensus or compromise—or disagreement. But, as with his past two solo releases—The Westerner in 2016 and now his 2022 album, Fables in a Foreign Land—Doe has been the ultimate voice when it comes to the direction (and the singing). Thankfully for him, though, Doe found his vision and his centerpiece song to the record.
Now, as the album is set for release on Friday (May 20), the musician, who rose to fame with his punk rock band X (with musician Exene Cervenka), knows there is heft and meaning to the work he’s set to unleash into the world. And the anchor to it is the album’s first track, “Never Coming Back,” a song that’s all about fleeing and knowing that there’s no returning to the past.
“You have a few songs floating around,” says Doe, “and then another one comes along and you think, ‘Oh, okay, here’s my center. I like this song, this song is saying something a little different than what I’ve said before.’ But that for me allows the rest of it all to fill in. And that’s an incredible and wonderful moment when you get that. You go, ‘Fuck yeah!”
Ahead of putting together the opening track, Doe had other tunes in the mix, including “The Cowboy and the Hot Air Balloon” and “Missouri.” He was already moving towards a “pre-industrial” theme for the record. But when he got “Never Coming Back,” it all crystalized.
“I think we all have had enough of virtual this and electronic that,” says Doe. “Moving into something that’s more elemental and life-or-death situations is exciting. So, that’s kind of where that came from.”
Whereas many know Doe from his band X, which was and continues to be a seminal punk-rock standout, his new album is more on the folky side of the road, with more acoustic-driven storytelling and narratives than guttural expression. Yet, while this may seem a surprise to some fans, to Doe, it’s very much in line with his original entry into music. As a kid, around seven- or eight years old, Doe remembers receiving and listening to folk records, which he got from his parents. He heard Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie (or, what he says, were songs about murder and socialism; ie “kids music,” he laughs). Later, he fell into the songs of the British Invasion, and more specifically by The Animals. At 15 years old, he began to love The Doors and Janis Joplin.
“A friend of mine played guitar, another friend played piano,” he says. “So, I played bass. I thought, ‘This has only got four strings, it must be easier.’”
He began to write his own songs. Doing so, he says, “scratched some sort of itch.” He enjoyed performing. (Doing so today, he says, keeps him feeling young.) When he began diving head-first into punk rock, he did so because the genre, to him, was about “freedom.” It was a musical style born from the heart and the gut, not the brain. He knew he’d never be a virtuoso. But he could be a misfit, speaking his truth. He found fellow like-minded misfits on the west coast after moving from the east.
“It was freedom,” says Doe. “And it was coming from your gut rather than something you contrived. [Punk rock] had a lot of similarities to country music or the blues or early garage rock. Like, yeah, just fucking do it!”
While a lot of ink has been spilled highlighting the impact of X, today Doe simply says that he’s grateful for the band’s existence in his life. (The group continues to play, too, having performed a few gigs in California just last week.) Further, Doe adds, he and Cervenka are lucky to have a style of communication together as singers that “very few people have ever experienced.” So, he says, the two are “pretty damn lucky.” Yet, Doe also appreciates the chance to work on solo material, like his new LP.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he says of the forthcoming new album. “That song ‘Never Coming Back’ gave it a center but I’d been trying to do this for a while.”
The album is about an era in life before technology truly took hold. It includes themes from the 1800s, themes about departure, and stories about people who met and left along their journeys. On the next single, “Destroying Angels,” Doe worked with Cervenka and Garbage’s Shirley Manson. Whereas some albums are collections of solid songs, this album has real restrictions to it. It has a theme and limits.
“You have to be disciplined to keep it within the narrative,” Doe says. “You also have to be disciplined to make sure each song has a beginning, middle, and an end. And hopefully, the ‘end’ is a little bit open, so that people can relate to it or interpret it.”
It’s the 69-year-old Doe’s first real “concept album,” he says, but at the same time, it’s not a contrived work for which he, say, had the title first and filled in the appropriate blanks. Instead, it was born of his songwriting intuitions. In a way, it’s taken him years to trust this intuition fully, he says. As a result, Doe says he’s tapped into things that have “more gravity” on this album. He expressed feelings about mortality and spirituality that he perhaps hadn’t dug into prior. When it comes to mortality—and legacy—Doe says he’s worked consciously to stay contained and humble (though, not falsely so).
“You can’t write a song,” he says, “if you’re thinking, ‘I’m so-and-so from such-and-such. That’s impossible. Then I think you would just make a bullshit… But as far as mortality, it’s inevitable. Everybody dies—you just want to transition as peacefully and gratefully as you can.”
As for the future, Doe jokes that he hopes someone will turn his new album into an “Off-Broadway” performance. But aside from that, he’s looking forward to playing the songs live and having the flexibility to do so. With his folk trio, with which Doe recorded the songs essentially live in about five days, he can be flexible. The three can play on a massive stage or in an “Irish Pub.” Change. That’s the key. That’s the operative term. Flexibility in expression.
“I love the transformation that music allows,” Doe says. “That it encourages.”
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson / Park Life Unlimited