The ambience, the tales, and the characters encountered throughout John Doe’s latest album, Fables in a Foreign Land, occupy a mysterious time and place in the imagination. They could have been plucked from the pages of John Steinbeck’s great dust bowl novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” Or they could describe the American landscape of the here and now — post the COVID-19 pandemic.
When discussing his latest solo album over the phone from his home in Austin, the co-founding singer and bass player for Los Angeles punk icons X clarifies that it’s the imagery of pre-industrialized America that lines up with his vision for this conceptual outing. According to Doe, the title for the record materialized after most of the songs had already been written, each one serving as different chapters from an unwitting hero’s journey across the country amid the late 1890s. The narrator, a 17-year-old kid, has left home because something there went horribly awry.
“There is nothing left of home to return to,” Doe says. “These songs are their adventures: what they do, what they hear, and what they see while making their way toward the West.”
All of the experiences and all of the places chronicled in songs such as “Never Coming Back,” “El Romance-0,” “The Cowboy and the Hot Air Balloon,” and “Travelin’ So Hard” are ventures into the great unknown. The narrator must keep moving forward to find food, shelter, and enough money to get to the next place.
“The reason this might resonate with what’s been going on over the last couple of years is because there’s a lot of isolation, loneliness, and hunger in these songs,” Doe says. “That was somewhat coincidental.”
The seeds for the album were planted in 2018. The song titled “Missouri” was the first to materialize, followed by the first single, “Never Coming Back.” It was then that Doe realized that he had a good song on his hands, one that could open up the rest of the stories that he wanted to tell.
And like all songwriters, there is a veiled autobiographical element hiding just beneath the surface of every note and every lyric.
“Like a lot of people, I am sick of modern devices, learning curves, and things like that,” Doe says. “I use them, I’m glad that technology is here and I can stay in touch with my friends and things like that. But I don’t think what we’ve gained through technology outweighs what we have lost. At one point, I realized that a lot of these songs could take place before there were cars, before electric lights, before all that stuff,” he adds. “I was disciplined enough to stay on that track, which became kind of an adventure in itself.”
Fables in a Foreign Land, out May 20, marks Doe’s first solo release with Fat Possum Records, following the label’s 2020 release of Alphabetland, his band X’s first album with its original lineup in place in 35 years.
For Fables in a Foreign Land, Doe is joined by bass player Kevin Smith, who’s on loan from Willie Nelson’s band, and drummer Conrad Choucroun. Together, they are affectionately dubbed the John Doe Folk Trio, crafting a sound that Doe quickly describes as his version of folk music. That’s not to say that he’s done an academic dive into creating traditional folk music by the numbers, but he does draw out a songwriting style that takes lessons equally from folk music, americana, punk rock, et al. — none of which are mutually exclusive.
Other guest writers contributing throughout the album include Shirley Manson of the band Garbage, Doe’s X bandmate Exene Cervenka, Louie Pérez of Los Lobos, and outlaw country singer-songwriter and painter Terry Allen.
One of the more poignant numbers from Fables in a Foreign Land taking place in the modern era is “Guilty Bystander.” Built around lyrics such as, “We came into town to watch the ponies race, we spoke not a word when a master whipped a slave, there was blood upon his back, he was trembling inside, we turned away from the terror and fright,” the song is a brutal account, written as a response to seeing George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020.
Doe explains, “I was thinking a lot about slavery, who’s a master and who’s a slave, and does it apply to people? Does it apply to relationships? Does it apply to the way people treat their fucking pets? That’s not to say these things are the same, but it’s about the idea of dominance, and it was sparked by George Floyd.”
“After the Fall” paints a picture of one of the album’s characters hiding in a pool of water, surrounded by reeds and cattails, and looking down to discover their own blood is dripping out into the water, and realizing that they’re in big trouble.
“Throughout the album, there are a lot of references to spirituality, leaving the earthly plane. I’m sure that’s because of my age,” says Doe, who turned 69 years old in February. “You have to confront mortality, think about what it means, and hopefully do it in a positive way.”
“Destroying Angels” is an honest-to-goodness murder ballad, the lyrics for which were mostly penned by Garbage vocalist Shirley Manson. X had done a tour playing shows with Blondie and Garbage. “At some point, Shirley said to Exene and I, ‘We should write a murder ballad.’ I thought, fuck yeah! You’re dark, why not? Then nothing happened.”
A few months later, they crossed paths again. Doe asked whatever happened to that murder ballad they’d talked about? Shirley replied, “I’ve got the lyrics,” and sent them over the next day. Originally, the song was written as more of a traditional folk-style murder ballad. Garbage layered it with chords, and imbued it with a big, heavy, gothic sound. “I wanted to reclaim it for this record, because the story was a good one, and it fit right into this, to this time, this era,” Doe says.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, the John Doe Folk Trio led the way in terms of playing numerous live-streaming shows. But now that the pandemic is receding, it’s time to take the show on the road, which is an essential next step as he prepares for the arrival of Fables in a Foreign Land. But getting back out there is easier said than done.
One of his first shows between COVID spikes was playing in the East Bay area near San Francisco, and the experience was somewhat overwhelming. “I was 30 seconds into the first song, and I had to stop playing, because I was so choked up,” Doe says. “This tsunami of gratitude and love coming towards me, and me feeling that back in the audience… It was somewhat embarrassing. But there’s a reason why people have done this for years and years,” he adds. “There’s a sense of community in music that you just can’t get anywhere else.”
Having time off and working with Smith and Choucroun to create the songs and the sound of Fables in a Foreign Land was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But the lack of scheduling and of traveling made the prospect of retiring seem all the more appealing.
“I could be very happy taking the money that I’ve got, buying a piece of land with a house on it outside of Austin, where I could fool around with my horses and just chillax. But I need to work,” he adds. “It’s a daunting task, and not having done it for so long, you get rusty. But now people can go out and see live music again, and nothing can replace that.”
This story originally appeared in the May issue of Record Plug Magazine.