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Story and photos by Arthur Wood
March 7, 2002

Joel Rafael at the 10th Annual Kerrville
Wine & Music Festival in Kerrville, Texas

I first saw the Joel Rafael Band perform at the 1996 Kerrville Wine & Music Festival. A couple of songs into their set, I was totally smitten by their percussive brand of contemporary Folk music. “America Come Home,” “Ballad Of Bellingham,” “Meanwhile The Rain”—the hits just kept on coming. Fast-forward five years—I finally caught up with Joel at the 10th Annual Kerrville Music Festival last August. Here’s what Joel had to say...

Arthur Wood for FolkWax: Tell us about your family.

Joel Rafael: My folks are from Illinois. My mom’s from the farm country south of Chicago and my dad was from Chicago. When I was three years old we moved to California. My dad was a businessman.

FW: What's your first musical memory?

JR: When I was five or six, I was given a toy saxophone. You could actually blow on it and make a noise. A few years later I began digging through my parents’ records. My mom worked with my dad and they weren’t home a lot. My parents loved Big Band music and were older than most of my friends’ folks. They had Classical records as well. As a child I loved to sing when I was alone.

FW: Did you ever have music lessons?

JR: My brother took accordion [lessons] for a couple of years. He was nine and I was seven. I took lessons, too. Then I joined the school band programme and I played the drums until I got to high school. During my junior high school years I switched to guitar because the Folk movement was strong in the States. I got caught up in it and saw an opportunity to sing. I went down to Mexico and got my first guitar. I learned to play it really fast [Laughs].

FW: Was Folk music still your principal musical interest?

JR: Yes. Where I expressed the Folk thing was at the hootenannies and there were some great clubs in [Los Angeles, California] County. They had no age limit. The Troubadour on a Monday and The Ice House on a Sunday had open-stage nights.

FW: Did you begin playing in local clubs?

JR: The Troubadour still had the Monday night thing. It had kind of matured. The Palomino had an open-stage night on Tuesday. The Ice House was all washed up. The Ash Grove also had an open stage. During that time I ran into Rosie Flores. We had mutual friends. One of them was Jack Tempchin, who wrote “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Already Gone.” Through him I met Rosie. Rosie and I started performing as a duo along with a guitar player, Lee Barnes. We played for about a year and a half around the San Diego area in the late ’70s. Eventually, she moved to Los Angeles. I had two daughters and a wife [and] a day job so I stayed in San Diego. I started playing solo from ’78 through into the ’80s and managed to find a niche opening up shows for national acts that were coming through town. My first opener was at the La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas for the Rick Danko Band, right after The Band broke up. I followed that path for 10 years and I’d also pick up little gigs. By the mid ’80s I was able to build a home recording studio because equipment became more available.

FW: Was it a conscious decision on your part to record yourself?

JR: I wanted to record myself. When I built the studio that was my intention. Once the studio was there I recorded other people. Finally, one of them told me, “Quit foolin’ around.” His name was Jim Hinton. His wife was Theresa Rochelle. I brought them in to sing harmony on my stuff. We sent the tape to a guy I had met years earlier—his name was Paul Rothchild. I met him when he produced Jack Tempchin’s Funky Kings record. Paul immediately got interested in my stuff. We had a showcase and Jac Holzman offered us a recording/publishing contract on a six-month “out” basis. Four months into the period they retracted their offer. Jim and Theresa and I were devastated.

FW: Where did you first hear about the Kerrville Music Festival?

JR: I won the L.A. Troubadours of Folk contest in 1994. At the event Paul Rothchild introduced me to Peter Yarrow, who said, “You’ve got to go to Kerrville.” We were New Folk finalists in 1994, but didn’t win. We went home, finished our album and I wrote a couple of new songs. The following year I was fortunate enough to get picked again. We won that year.

Joel Rafael and his daughter, Jamaica, at
The 10th Annual Kerrville Music Festival

FW: How did you record your first two albums [The Joel Rafael Band and Old Wood Barn]?

JR: The music was recorded live with some vocal overdubs. [On] the first album, after we recorded the tracks the burden of responsibility fell on me to mix those tracks. Jeff [Berkley] was like an assistant producer. I think it says, “Produced by Joel Rafael with Jeff Berkley,” on the liner [to The Joel Rafael Band]. By the second album we were really cohesive as a group. I felt that everybody was responsible for their parts and the arrangements, so that’s why production was credited to the band.

FW: There was a two-year gap between the first and second albums, and then there was a four-year gap before your third disc appeared. Any reason?

JR: During those four years we tried to make ourselves visible in more places. We started attending Folk Alliance. That was a big investment for us. With a four-piece band the economics is different for us than it is for the solo guys and girls.

FW: How did the record deal for your album Hopper come together?

JR: About three years after Old Wood Barn we recorded a live album. I had an auto accident two days before we were due to record the gig. I was in good enough shape to play and we recorded the show, but it was lacklustre. Within a week my injuries, mostly soft-tissue injuries, rendered me useless; it knocked me down for a year. That put off the album for the fourth year. I managed to save some money and found a couple of places to record. Jackson Browne, who we’d had an association with for a while, he’d known us and we’d known him, [but Browne] hadn’t really heard us play. It naturally evolved that he heard our music and became interested in us. Just as I finished Hopper, he asked me if I’d like to release it on his label, Inside Recordings.

FW: You co-wrote “China Basin Digs,” a song about the homeless, with John Trudell. Where are the China Basin Digs?

JR: In San Francisco. It was a rundown area where the homeless had camped for years. They built the new baseball park there [Pacific Bell Park, the Giants’ home stadium -Ed]. When they broke ground there was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about how the homeless had been given the heave-ho from their China Basin digs. I changed the story into lyrics and added music.

FW: You covered the posthumous Woody Guthrie/Billy Bragg co-write “Minor Key.” What do you feel about the recent projects using Guthrie’s lyrics?

JR: It’s what the Woody Guthrie Archives call the “living artist” concept. I like it, but I can’t be totally objective because the Woody Guthrie Archive has just given me permission to write music for one of Woody’s unpublished lyrics. They don’t hand these things out carelessly, so I am highly honoured. I’m working on an album of Woody Guthrie songs including that original co-write “Dance A Little Longer.”

Arthur Wood is contributing editor, UK Desk, for FolkWax.

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