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Jefferson Pepper - Interview

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 22 / 10 / 2006

Jefferson Pepper - Interview


Pennysylvanian singer-songwriter Jefferson Pepper took out a second mortgage to record his debut album 'Christmas in Fallujah'. Malcolm Carter talks to him about the biting lyrics behind its gentle melodies and its strong political message

The first time I heard ’Christmas In Fallujah’ I knew it was destined to become a favourite. For all the seasonal touches on the CD cover this was a ‘Christmas’ album like no other. For starters not all of the songs were about Christmas. There are some genuinely touching love songs on the album, and those songs which do touch upon the festive season do so in a way which hasn’t been done before. ‘Christmas In Fallujah’ is the title of the remarkably strong debut album from Jefferson Pepper who, quite rightly, has a lot to say about the country he lives in and who says it in such a way that you feel compelled to listen. In fact, everyone who I’ve played this album to has felt the need to talk about the songs and what Jefferson has to say. It’s all been favourable so this Pennsylvanian, who took out a second mortgage on the home he built himself to finance this recording, must be doing something right. The gospel hymns in the Baptist church where his mother sang in the choir were the musical background to Jefferson’s childhood. Further down the line he discovered the Carter Family, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Iris DeMent and artists like the Ramones and the Replacements. This all shows in his work. Take, for example, Jefferson’s version of Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’; he’s taken it by the neck, given it a good shaking and filled it with a passion other versions of the song lack. Jefferson writes about the things that affect us all, no matter where we live. At times he wraps his biting lyrics in melodies so sweet you have to play the song again to make sure you heard right. He’s a storyteller but this time we’ve got one who is worth listening to. The event which finally forced Jefferson to record and release his songs after writing for 20 years is a sad story indeed. His neighbour, 21 year-old David Maples, joined the army to train as a medic to fulfil his childhood dream of becoming a doctor. He was shipped off to Iraq. It was the push Jefferson needed to get his feelings out into the world. We’d all like to be able to get our message across about the wrongs in this world, our world, as well as Jefferson Pepper does. The truth is that few of us can. In Jefferson Pepper, and in ‘Christmas In Fallujah’ in particular, we have a spokesman who is more than capable of saying what many feel. The fact that he says it so well and delivers his songs in such stunning melodies is an added bonus. It’s well worth a visit to www.americanfallout.com to read the lyrics to the whole of ‘Christmas In Fallujah’ : they are not printed in the CD booklet and deserve to be read. Jefferson very kindly agreed to talk to Pennyblackmusic ; as with his songs his answers to our questions are nothing less than fascinating. PB : You’ve been writing songs now for more than 20 years yet 'Christmas In Fallujah' is your debut album. Why did it take so long for you to present the songs to the world? JP : For many years I wrote lots of songs and kept them to myself. I have all these notebooks of lyrics and notes on chord progressions and literally hundreds of dust-covered cassette tapes of ideas recorded on an old Tascam 4-track. I haven't listened to them in years but I still have them in a big cardboard box in the closet. Some of the early songs are really horrible. Probably most of them are. But every once in a while there would be a keeper. One of the reasons I didn't release anything publicly for so long was fear of rejection. Many of my songs are highly personal and the thought of putting them out there and having them critiqued and dismissed was just too frightening of a thought. Finances were also a barrier for me. I come from a working class background. I have had to work hard for everything that I have. Years ago making a record was an expensive proposition...way beyond my means. Today, because of digital technology, it's much more accessible to people of average income. That and the internet...It used to be that the major labels had a lock on distribution. Now with the internet an artist can record something this morning on his or her laptop and upload it onto the web the same day, or start their own website and sell CDs online, or go through one of the indie distributors like www.cdbaby.com . It has empowered people who have the technology available to them. We take it for granted now, but it used to be a lot more work and a lot more money to accomplish the same things. Still, I dragged my feet for a long time. I'm a perfectionist. But at some point I realized my record's never going to be perfect. I was using my perfectionism as an excuse to do nothing...therefore avoiding risk. I think what I needed was an inspiration...a defining moment where I couldn't NOT finally release the record. For me, there were three events which forced me to get up off my ass...The US invasion of Iraq, my neighbor, David Maples, being shipped to Iraq, and the unbelievable re-election (if you want to call it that) of George Bush. We were lied to, our soldiers were lied to, we knew it, and we still put him and his old boy's network back in office for another term. It really caused me to call into question the very concept of democracy and brought to the surface a lot of other issues that had been boiling for a long time. A lot of talking heads on the right like to simplify the argument down to "if you speak out against the war you're not supporting the troops and you're somehow unpatriotic or anti-American." What a bunch of crap. Hey, I've got an idea...How about not lying to our troops about their mission ?...how about not putting them in positions of extreme danger unless it's absolutely necessary ? How about not having blatant conflicts of interest where your buddies can get rich off the backs of our soldiers ? How about bringing them home where they belong. These people are putting their lives on the line but the politicians and profiteers generally aren't sending THEIR kids because they have options. Is that fair? I love my country...America is my home...but I'm also a citizen of the world. I take my responsibility as a citizen of the world very seriously. As maudlin as it sounds, in some small way I guess I wanted to send a message of peace to the rest of the world and to say...hey look, don't hate all of us Americans. Most of us are peaceful people. We mean you no harm. Most of us are just trying to get through the day, work our little jobs, pay our taxes, feed our kids, pay our mortgages, figure out how we're going to pay for our kids' college. We didn't make the decision to invade the sovereign nation of Iraq...a nation that never attacked us or even threatened to attack us. Big money corporate business interests made that decision and a lot of us are pissed off. Too many people have died and continue to die every day. Here's an olive branch...I'm sorry our system failed to keep these greedy, heartless, immoral people in check. And by the way, here's a laundry list of other things that anger me about the country I love. I had to make this record. PB : Your next album is set to be released in the summer of 2007. Will that consist of entirely new originals or do you have a stockpile of songs built up over those 20 years which you will dip into? JP : Well, on 'Christmas in Fallujah' almost all the original songs were new ones, inspired by recent events. The only older songs were 'Bethlehem PA', 'Christmas Tree' and 'Deceived'. I included them because they fit into the Christmas concept. The next record will be titled 'American Evolution'. This is another concept album of sorts. It was inspired by the Dover, PA school board trial which took place last year, which you may have heard something about. Dover is just down the road from where I live. It is a very conservative area with a large fundamentalist Christian population. These are good, hardworking, country people. Basically, what happened was the Dover school board (made up of fundamentalists) decided that it wanted the science teachers to offer "alternative theories" to evolution in science class, including the concept of "intelligent design" (which is just creationism cloaked under a different name.) Some of the parents rightly sued the school district and it became a media circus out here in rural Pennsylvania. Even the BBC came over here to check it out. It was cool though, because I had the opportunity of meeting a lot of interesting people as a result. Lou Dubose (co-author of 'Bushwhacked' with Molly Ivins) and many other books, Margaret Talbot , a writer for 'The New Yorker", and Matthew Chapman, the great great grandson of Charles Darwin, were in town and all came to visit at my house. My wife is a journalist at the local newspaper and was the lead reporter on the story. She's now writing a book about it. Her book is going to be really good. I'm using this story as a jumping-off point for the next record. I find it fascinating and incredible that almost 150 years after Darwin's 'Origin of Species' and after all the scientific advances...antibiotics, DNA research, the genome mapping projects, the fossil record and so on, a staggering number of people simply refuse to believe in evolution. For them, it opens a Pandora's box that they'd rather ignore. Dogma over Darwin, faith over facts, superstition over science, evangelism over evolution, religion over reality. Don't get me wrong, I respect every individual's right to follow any religion they choose...it's a personal decision...as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. But don't force those views on other people, especially kids in a public school. The problem is, sometimes it DOES hurt everyone else. It can be shown that fundamentalist thinking blocks a person's ability to think critically. Lack of critical thought interrupts the democratic process, as we have consistently seen in this country. Look at the last election. I started thinking about the evolution of America...how this country became what it is. My next record will deal with that. Evolution of the individual, evolution of belief, evolution of my country, how that evolution has affected the rest of the world. Again, almost all the songs are new ones. I have written about 35 songs in the past two years which will have to be whittled down. I'll also likely include a few older songs which fit the theme very well. PB : Although originally released in 2005 there are many of us who have only just heard 'Christmas In Fallujah' through its release this November on American Fallout Records. Some of the songs cover the same theme as Neil Young’s 'Living With War' which was released earlier this year. Do you feel that album has stolen some of your thunder or actually increased interest in your album? JP : I have been a big fan of Neil Young for a long, long time. Neil has never been afraid of telling it like it is and I have the utmost respect for that. The man has integrity. I was in Nashville in September for the Americana Music Association conference. At their awards ceremony held at the Ryman auditorium, he was awarded with "Artist of the Year" by the AMA. I was so happy about that. It's a sign that maybe the country is starting to come around. I believe that the success of 'Living With War' is a good thing, not only because it provides much-needed balance in the collective reality but...on a personal level... also it stirs up more interest for my record too. Neil has been very helpful to me and a lot of other artists who write protest songs. On his website (www.neilyoung.com) there is a list of 700 protest songs with links to MP3's, some by well-known artists, most by lesser-known artists. I was honoured that two of my songs, 'Christmas in Fallujah' and 'M-16', were included on Neil's site. That was just a really classy, cool thing for Neil to do...he didn't have to do that, but he did. He's like a Godfather to a lot of us younger punks. PB : A lot of attention has been placed on the ‘protest’ songs on your album, not least the title song, but unlike Neil Young’s latest there are a clutch of startling relationship songs. 'Bethlehem PA 'is particularly affecting). Can you foresee a time when you might be tempted to split your recordings and release a whole album of just ‘protest / political’ songs then follow that up with a complete album of songs concerning love and relationships? JP : I have a tendency to write songs about the things that bother me. Friends have described my songs as "depressing", which is depressing. I like to think that by writing sad songs, the listener is able to identify with the characters in the songs and that something cathartic might take place...something maybe even like empathy, which is a good thing in the end. With protest songs I like to think that I'm putting down in words the things that a lot of people feel, or that hearing the songs may enable the listener to think differently about the subject...to come at it from another direction that wasn't open to them before. Essentially, and I realize this sounds cliché, I write songs out of a desire to make the world a better place in some small way. And for me, that means not writing songs with lyrics like "la la la la la, she's my baby". I believe that type of song insults the intelligence of the listener and just enables people to continue on a very shallow level; to feel better just long enough that they don't get angry about the bad stuff going down. For me, it means exposing the bad stuff so people can rightly be pissed off and maybe do something about it. So, I can't imagine doing a whole album full of love/relationship songs. That being said, I guess it's not entirely out of the question...maybe in the future I'll be thrown into something that forces me to write those kinds of songs, but probably not in the foreseeable future. PB : Judging by the cover I think many people are fooled into thinking that 'Christmas In Fallujah' is just another run of the mill Christmas album. Until they look a little more closely! Did you have a lot of input into the actual design, it’s certainly eye-catching! JP : Thanks. Yes, I went to school for art. A lot of that was intentional. I'm a fan of the filmmaker David Lynch. A lot of his work deals with people, towns and situations which appear idyllic or normal on the surface, but just under that nice, sunny veneer is unspeakable evil. I was going for that kind of thing with the art. I used to do a lot of painting but then started doing more with music, so my art kind of fell by the wayside a bit. This project was fun for me because I got to do some of that again. A friend of mine from art school, Craig Simpson, did the graphic design on the CD. He and I discussed the concept at length and I think he did a great job with it. It was his idea to make the look like a Christmas wreath. When you look closer, the green is made up of torsos, limbs and disembodied heads of toy soldiers (the same toy soldiers taking cover behind the Christmas ornaments on the cover.) The art on the inside foldout is one of my combine paintings called 'Pilot Shrine'. I also took all the photos for the album art. I collect a lot of old stuff. My house is full of it. Two of the photos on the inside foldout are close-ups of old oil cans I have. The one with Uncle Sam shaking hands with Santa Claus is a detail from an old box of Christmas ornaments from the 50's that was in my garage. When I discovered that box, I knew it had to go into the album art...it was just too perfect not to use. PB : You’ve toured a lot over the past year or so even taking in New Zealand. Any plans to play in the U.K. or Europe in the foreseeable future? JP : I am really hoping to tour the UK and Europe in late 2007 or early 2008 in support of 'American Evolution'. That is the plan. I have some good friends in England, Scotland and the continent. Whether that will actually happen depends upon the fans in that part of the world. If there are enough people who buy my records and want to see my live shows, then yeah, I'd love to do it. And if there are enough people who email the record company and say "Hey, I've got some extra bedrooms and sofas and I'd be happy to put up the band if they come play in Manchester" or whatever, that would be really cool too. I love playing live and I love meeting people. Touring is expensive though, and I can't afford to play some club that's halfway around the world and have seven people in the audience. That actually happened at one of my shows in New Zealand. I'm not kidding. PB : Do you use the same musicians who played on the album when you tour or do you take a more ‘unplugged’ route? JP : It depends where I'm playing. Sometimes I do solo acoustic shows where it's just me and my guitar. I've actually done house concerts that way (in people's homes) and enjoyed that a lot. It's a nice, intimate setting with maybe forty or fifty people and lots of interaction with the audience. I would welcome anyone who wants to host a house concert to get in touch with my booking company at www.americanfallout.com. I'd like to try to work some of those in between bigger shows. For US shows the line-up has usually been Scott Fisher on drums, Mike Argento on guitar, Thom Bissey on bass and Ray Eicher or Mark Tomeo on pedal steel, with me on acoustic guitar and vocals. PB : One of the non-originals on the album, ‘This Land Is Your Land’ has been covered many, many times but I’ve never heard it played the way you tackle it. There’s a definite Clash / Pouges feel to your version. What inspired you to make such an unusual version of the song? JP : Thanks, that's a huge compliment...I love both the Clash and the Pogues. In America this song has been co-opted and is used as a classic, patriotic type standard. They always conveniently leave out the verse "in the square of the city, in the shadow of the steeple, near the relief office, I see my people, and some are grumbling, and some are wondering, if this land's still made for you and me." Woody Guthrie wrote that. So, of course, I put it back in. I gave it an angry tone because that was what I was feeling at the time. I'm saying "this country is supposed to STILL be a democracy...I still believe in it as a concept, even though it looks like it's not working...this is OUR land. It doesn't belong to just the wealthy. Or just the corporations. This country was built on the backs of working people. This country once was looked up to in the world. Our soldiers helped rid the world of Hitler. We have, at times, done some good things. We have, at times, stood for freedom. We have, at times, been a voice of reason. And we can be again. This is YOUR country, good people. Take it back. PB : All the usual suspects have been mentioned in reviews of your album, Dylan, Earle and so on. But now I’ve listened to the album on a daily basis I hear a lot of Billy Bragg in your songs. He also managed to ‘mix pop and politics’ and make people notice and also writes touching love songs. He is also a musician the average guy can relate too. Are you familiar with his work? If so would you consider Bragg a fair comparison? JP : Well, again, Billy Bragg is someone I can only hope to ever be compared to. He has done so much good work. I have a copy of his 'Mermaid Avenue' that he did with Wilco...it's simply incredible...historic. I was playing during South By Southwest in Austin, TX this past March and had the opportunity of seeing him play a set outside behind the Yard Dog Gallery...I believe it was the Yep Roc party. I was standing in the front row. He was amazing. I handed his road manager a copy of 'Christmas in Fallujah' and asked him to give it to Billy. I figured he might dig it. The guy was very gracious and thanked me but who knows if the CD made it into Billy Bragg's hands ? He probably gets handed something like a hundred CDs a day. He has a very likeable demeanour. He mixes pop and politics very well, in a way that is accessible. He's a true believer, I think. We need more songwriters like him. PB : One of the attractions of your songs is that they convey their message simply and powerfully. There are no hidden meanings and one doesn’t have to dig deep to understand what you are singing about. What songs come easily to you ? Are the political songs easier to write than the love songs? JP : Yes, for me, songs that delve into important issues that I can relate to personally are much easier to write than love type songs. I'm interested in music as a vehicle for social change. That's my thing. Love songs are just something I'm not very good at. They're really not important enough to me to spend a lot of time on. I'm not saying I won't throw one in every here and there to mix it up but... There are a lot of other people who can do it well so I'll leave that territory to them. I do find it curious that of all the things in the world to think about, to feel strongly about, to write about...from exploitation to global warming to economic disparity to government corruption to nuclear waste to corporate fraud to death and destruction to feelings of isolation to a million social injustices to mass extinctions by asteroids, most songs we hear deal with matters of the human heart..."she left me and I'm sad"...or "I love my baby and she loves me." It's kind of self indulgent, isn't it? For me, it's just not all that interesting of a subject. There are far more important things to talk about. I feel a responsibility to put work out into the collective reality that is going to balance the schlock designed to keep people in the dark, by the media conglomerates stuffing it down our throats...and to maybe empower people and improve their lives in some way. That's the goal. I know a lot of people respond to love songs because they can relate to them but it's all been done before and it's quite a trick to write something like that and have it come out not sounding incredibly inane and cliché. I believe a lot of listeners expect a lot more than that from song writers. I respect my audience. I believe that a lot of music fans are intelligent people who are able to see the bigger picture outside of themselves. I'm betting on it. PB : The last song, 'Plastic Illuminated Snowman', is not listed on the rear cover of the CD although it is in the inlay along with another track titled 'Little Boy Falling' which is 45 seconds of silence. Is there a meaning to this silence? JP : You're very observant. You're also the first reviewer to ask me anything about that...so your question deserves a full answer. I'm surprised it took anyone this long to figure out that something was going on there. The truth is, there's a lot more going on in this record than anyone has gotten. There are lots of surprises, symbolisms and hidden messages. I don't usually explain those kinds of things, but since you asked, I'll explain this one song. Yes, the last song on the record, 'Plastic Illuminated Snowman' is a hidden track. It is the bookend to the title track. When people leave this CD in their player, they think the record is over and it probably has scared the stuffing out of a lot of people when this song starts after 45 seconds of silence. It should scare them. It isn't listed on the back cover with all the others. The song is more cryptic than most of the other songs. I'm sure a lot of people, when they listen to it, think "what the hell is he talking about?" Even if you really listen to the lyrics in the first two verses, it isn't apparent until the last verse where it says "I got a dose of gamma rays that day in Japan and basked in the glow of American fallout" that the person telling his story is a double amputee, an elderly, widowed victim of the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima. "Once upon a time I had a wife and baby, where they disappeared to I don't know, But I saw a blinding light and then it all got kind of hazy, In my dreams it doesn't seem so long ago." Some of the other lines in the song give clues...Little Boy was falling through the clouds"...Little Boy was the name given to that atomic bomb. It took that bomb 45 seconds from the time the bomb doors on the Enola Gay opened until it exploded over Hiroshima. That's the reason for the 45 seconds of silence before the song. The 45 seconds of silence on my record is titled 'Little Boy Falling'. It is a song although it has no words, no melody, no catchy verses, no sing-along hooks. Imagine that bomb falling through the clouds, that awful silence...only the sound of the wind. The unsuspecting people on the ground...a proud, young mother nursing her newborn baby, parents picking up their kids at school, teenagers hanging out on the corner pretending to be bored, mothers making sandwiches...that bomb is still falling overhead...coming closer...farmers selling their wares in an open-air market, children skipping rope on the cracked, city sidewalk, workers riding the bus to the factory for another day's labour, a lonely, elderly man petting his cat in his tiny living room...real people going through their normal routines, people like us, completely unaware that their lives are about to change. The thought of that is just about too much to take. And then...the mushroom cloud. Destruction beyond our imagination. Imagine being the pilot and crew of the Enola Gay and having to live with that horrible image. At that awful moment, humankind unleashed on his brother a terrible technology. We can never allow that to happen again. Never. I love my country but I'm not proud that we Americans were the first ones to do it...not once but TWICE. Despite that, we (and I hate the term we), somehow managed to come out "the good guys." In order to do that and to buy into the idea of doing that you really have to be desperate or brainwashed into the us verses them mentality. I realize it was wartime, the nuclear race was on and these were decisions that were extremely difficult. It was us against them. But when you look at pictures of the earth from space, there is no them...it's only us. We did this to ourselves. This was done to people who didn't deserve it. 'In Plastic Illuminated Snowman' we're back to the Lynchian thing again...setting the story in a context that's traditionally viewed as festive or light-hearted or normal to describe a scene that is anything but...just like in the song 'Christmas in Fallujah'. The whole way I treated this song is symbolic of most Americans' reaction to that event. We brush it under the carpet. We certainly don't discuss it. On the rare occasion that we do, we like to rationalize it and quote some guy's statistics and believe that it ended up saving more lives than if the bomb had not been dropped. I don't know about that. A lot of people also tend to says things like "well, they attacked US first, so they had it coming". To which I say "so, the 83 year old lady making tea in her kitchen for her grandchildren was responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor?" There's just this desire to paint with broad brush strokes...to see those people as alien to avoid feeling anything that resembles empathy. It's easier and less painful that way. It allows simplistic thinking to continue. We want to believe everything done by one's own country is justifiable, right, moral, etc. The fact is, there's just no way to call the dropping of the atomic bomb on innocent civilians a moral act. There is no way it can be morally justified. That doesn't make me anti-American. It makes me honest. It might make me anti-murder or anti-military-industrial complex...I'm guilty as charged of both of those. I love America, I love the earth, I love humankind. We need to learn from history. But, in order to do that we need to face the horror head-on, not bury our heads in the sand and pretend it doesn't exist. We need to be constantly reminded that we humans have the capacity to use technology for good or for evil. I just wanted to remind us about that. PB : Thank you.

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American Evolution Vol. II (The White Album) (2008)
Eloquent and highly impressive second volume in three CD, fifty song set from Pennsylvanian singer-songwriter Jefferson Pepper which traces the history of American history and culture, and which in this second chapter covers the period from 1941 to 1989
American Evolution Vol. I (The Red Album) (2008)
Christmas in Fallujah (2006)

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