It’s just like me singing in your living room with a three-piece band, or in some little dive bar,” indie-folk singer-songwriter Luke Redfield told me about his new album, The Cartographer, by phone from Minnesota just after spending Christmas with his family there.
Redfield, 31, grew up a preacher’s son in small, humble and peaceful Minnesota and Nebraska towns, and is quick to quote memes about the morality of work, such as “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.”
Redfield consciously recorded The Cartographer in a more stripped-down, expedient fashion than his four previous releases. With a vocal style heavily influenced by Blonde On Blonde-era Dylan and Conor Oberst and lyrics steeped as much in folk and blues tradition as classic American literature, Redfield had been more of a patient perfectionist with past recordings. The artographer, the result of isolated woodshedding at a comically tiny house in Austin, is essentially Kerouacstyle “first thought, best thought” set to music.
“It was a special time and a magical time, one of those magical moments when it all just comes together,” Redfield says. “And that’s what it was like for me in this little house. I enjoyed it while it lasted. I was working at a food cart while I was writing, and every day I devoted myself to five to 10 hours of playing guitar and writing these songs. I was ‘in it’ for a couple of months, where these songs would just come to me. “ Haunting, spacious tracks like “Frida” give Redfield the chance to muse — along with gentle harmonica, piano and acoustic guitar — on “making love to some actress” and being “just stardust.” Lilting folk-rockers such as “Sweetest Thing” find Redfield, playful like a young Bruce Springsteen, waxing romantic with the spirit of a troubadour: “I’ve been around this country and fucked it up and down / but you’re the sweetest thing I ever found.”
Growing up on Mark Twain, baseball, ice cream and fireworks in the conservative innocence of the Midwest had a deep effect on Redfield, but the wandering tales in his songs aren’t just for style. When he’s not on tour, Redfield (who has lived everywhere from Nashville to Alaska) works in food service — “waiting tables, cooking, working as a barista, whatever I need to do in the moment” — and when he’s traveling around America playing shows, he feels connected not only with his music but also his ancestry.
“My family is musicians as far back as we can trace the family tree,” he says. “That’s something that I always think about when I’m on the road: ‘This is in my lineage.’ My dad actually played folk music and rock ‘n’ roll [before becoming a preacher]. He was a flower child in the ’60s, served in Vietnam. I learned a lot from my dad about music and life and spirituality and work ethic.”
According to Redfield, recording The Cartographer, which was released Jan. 7, included choosing 10 songs out of approximately 100 he’d written in Austin.
“I generally have enough material to record an album every year,” Redfield says. “A lot of my favorite artists don’t make a lot of albums, but then there are singer-songwriters like Dylan or Johnny Cash who always seem like they’ve got more songs that I’ve never even heard of. And I think I’m more in that category. I got to a point where I thought, ‘I gotta just start recording.’ The Cartographer is really down-to-earth in a way that I hadn’t been on previous recordings. Our mind gets in the way so much when we are artists who care about what we do. I think just based on previous experiences, [I was] just spending too much time and too much money in the studio and just sitting with the songs too long. The Cartographer is more of a stream-of-consciousness thing. But I’m happy to have made albums on both sides of the spectrum.”
Redfield, who is also a semi-pro Frisbee-golf player, is on tour with a band for the first time, and is excited about bringing a fuller sound to his live performances. He’s also looking forward to sharing his love for the road with good friends.
“I’m pretty stoked. It’s been a long time coming. They’re musicians I’ve been working with for a while, friends of mine and people I feel comfortable living with or going on the road with, people who are enthused. I’m all about the right enthusiasm, because I have that about traveling and touring and I want people who will have that same sort of mindset and enjoy the adventure of being on the road in what I still think is an amazing country we live in, in terms of its natural beauty.”
Redfield might allude to “a bed of darkness in my soul” in his gentle, sometimes bleak songs, but he’s an optimistic, selfdescribed “nature boy” whose only New Year’s resolutions are to “be kind and loving … eat better and make more money.” And, as evidenced on gorgeous tracks like “Holy Ghost, NM” on his last album, 2013’s East of Santa Fe, Redfield is proud of his Midwestern roots but has a distinct affinity for the West.
“I love it; there’s something about the air and the water and the mountains,” he says. “There’s something about Colorado that just draws me. I feel like I come alive when I’m in those spaces. It’s hard to really articulate. I think because I grew up in farm country, I really do connect with the earth. My soul is just happier; my heart feels happier when I’m in the kind of lush scenery you find in Colorado. I love that drive from Colorado to New Mexico. It’s one of my favorite parts of the country.”
Redfield is self-deprecating when it comes to his poignantly unassuming voice and guitar playing. He says he identifies more as a songwriter than as a singer, and even plans to write a book in the next year or two about his experiences living on the road.
“Probably because I have never been super amazing at playing an instrument or singing, I think my lyrics are definitely my strength,” he says. “And if I don’t want to be just another folk singer I have to think of myself as a writer. For some reason, I decided to write songs.”