Session 170: Boom Forest // Frankie Lee<- Back
September 13, 2017
Boom Forest is the spiritual incarnation of John Paul Roney, a Nashville-based songwriter and an evangelist for a contemporary folk tradition forwarding humanism in the face of our looming techno-apocalypse. Begin with the acoustic introspection of Bob Dylan, add artful electronic production cues a la Kid A, and layer in multi-part harmonies that would be at home in a Southern Baptist choir, and you’re on your way into the sound Boom Forest makes from the Automated Woods of Tomorrow.
A son of Wisconsin, John Paul’s musical education began in his smalltown church, where he taught himself to harmonize to hymns so he could sing alongside his family. He never learned to read music, but whatever he did, it worked—he was soon traveling across Europe, the Americas, and Asia as the soloist for an internationally regarded boy choir. As he began writing his own songs, he quickly realized music could be a portal to people’s innermost sanctums, and that the right song could be a powerful vehicle for truth and beauty. John Paul’s whole artistic project centers on building authentic human connections: his live show features a rotating support cast of mutual best friends (most notably including members of Phox and Foreign Fields); a hush comes over the entire barroom whenever John Paul begins the subtle a cappella vocals of “No Lion”; and if he politely asks the audience to forget their smartphones for a minute, they do so happily, because the Boom Forest stage show is an experience so visceral and immediate that you’d hate lose a moment of it to mediated reality.
Such folk earnestness is central to John Paul’s approach to art. For years, he toured the country without recorded music, simply to practice the folk tradition of the wandering bard. He spent the entirely of 2010 allowing himself access only to the objects and technologies people had access to in the 60s, a sort of techno-cleanse for the purposes of artistic and spiritual development. The resulting music was heartfelt and observant, a meditation on what it means to be human in an increasingly automated world. Boom Forest’s forthcoming album “Post Knight Errant” is a new chapter in a world in which there is and eternal struggle between humans and machines: in the post-apocalyptic White City, techno-golems have imprisoned humans in a symbiotic stasis to feed on their life force. The Boom Forest canon serves as an evolving battle hymn to help humanity reawaken - the message: better to live and die a human than to sleepwalk through eternal digital slavery.
Frankie Lee: Born on the banks of the Mississippi river, Lee’s family later moved to Minneapolis. Following the death of his father in a motorcycle accident when he was 12, Frankie immersed himself in the city’s music scene, appearing onstage with local heroes Slim Dunlap (The Replacements) and Curtiss A at the impressionable age of 14. After inheriting records and instruments from his father’s collection, Lee was – as he sees it – “taught to play guitar by a ghost”. He continues, “I was raised on stage. These guys would bring me into the clubs, sit me behind the soundboard and give me all the coca cola I could drink until they’d call me up for a song or two at the end of the night.”
At the age of 20 Lee dropped out of college, re-invested his soccer scholarship funds in a Volvo Station wagon and embarked on a life-long love affair with America’s open roads. Lee’s first stop was Nashville, where he met Merle Haggard on the same day he drove into town. Lee then moved on to Austin, TX where he spent 6 years working for Townes Van Zandt’s son JT building cabinets. The two became good friends and Lee played his first show at a night hosted by JT. “Austin was a Mecca for me. The scene at the time was bursting wide open with everything from Western swing cover bands to Roky Erikson’s psychedelic garage rock. I was out almost every night for 6 years. There was never an excuse to stay in.”
Soon after he turned 22, Lee was diagnosed with narcolepsy, and was prescribed methamphetamines to counteract its effects. Over the next two years Lee struggled to find a midpoint between sleepwalking and speeding, and developed a serious drug habit in the process he has since kicked. “I ran out of pills for the last time, went to bed for a week, and I haven’t really woken up since,” he laughs. Returning to his nomadic lifestyle, Lee spent a year living in a farm truck and on couches in Los Angeles. Eventually, he was taken in by friend and famed engineer Patrick McCarthy (U2, REM, Madonna). The move proved pivotal in Lee’s songwriting career as McCarthy taught him how to listen and record the music he was hearing in his head.
In 2010 Lee moved back from California to Minnesota to be closer to his family. In a series of diners and motels during the long drive home he penned the songs which were later released on his DIY ‘Middle West’ EP. Lee has spent the last 3 years working on a hog farm in rural Minnesota and developing songs for his debut album. Many of these songs reflect his change in focus from the guitar to the piano, a move necessitated by a farming accident that crushed of the three fingers on his left hand. Of his return to the landscape that is the backdrop of so many of his songs, Lee says, “I’d been gone 10 years. I decided when I got back home, to really go back home, back to the land and the people who shaped me. The people I come from are North Dakota wheat farmers. Hardworking, soft-spoken, Scandinavians who moved to the middle of nowhere with nothing, and of that place made everything they needed. There’s a movement now to get back to that way of living, and if we’re gonna last a while then I think that’s the only way we’re gonna make it.”