From the time I clicked play on “Fresh Flowers,” I knew there was something special about John Fatum’s project Jacksonport. The acoustic guitar was excellent, but there was something in the vocal that felt familiar and comfortable that almost cried out for connection. I was hooked. I featured several of the tracks from the album in 2022 and eventually included it on my album of the year list. I reached out to Fatum for an interview and he graciously agreed. Here’s how it went:
At the beginning of our call, Fatum seemed to be a calm person, conveying a peaceful and grateful energy. After exchanging pleasantries, I began with a question about his musical background. He was from the Chicago area and grew up playing music, especially piano, as a kid. His mother encouraged him to pursue music. He told a fun story about getting an opportunity to play on a drum set (rather than a simple snare), which was a bit of an awakening for him. After that point, his career trajectory took him down the route of become a professional jazz drummer.
After attending Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY and performing music in New York City for several years, Fatum and his brother started a band called the Rad Trads playing a New Orleans style high energy form of jazz. (The band more recently rebranded as the RTs, but that was beyond the scope of this interview. We’re focusing on Jacksonport here.)
We quickly moved to talking about the Scenes from Bellevue Park album that I had loved so much throughout 2022. Fatum graciously explained his decisions for finding collaborators on the project through being “drawn to a specific artist on stage” and feeling a spiritual connection, seeing their art and musicianship. He said, sincerely, that all of the folks on the album are his friends. It was a collaborative project put together during the Covid-19 pandemic, that allowed them to continue making music together while also allowing Fatum time to develop out some of the original music ideas that he had. In the recording, Fatum played many of the instruments himself. The resulting collaboration is nothing short of superb, as I’ve written about here.
With each response, Fatum took time to provide a careful and well-thought answer. It is no surprise that he has a great deal of thoughtfulness behind his decisions all while being buttressed by a spiritual purposefulness. So, I had to ask about the name. Why Jacksonport? Why not release the music under his own name? Well, it turns out he has released music under his own name before this, but Jacksonport is named after a small town in Wisconsin where his family visited when he was younger. He always felt super grounded there, so it seemed like a natural name for this new project that differs greatly from Fatum’s earlier solo releases or the RTs band-based music. In fact, he said, it is “the yin to the RTs yang.” Clever. Jacksonport is meant to be a longer term project, where Fatum can chronicle his songwriting and his own journey making music with friends well into the future.
For those who haven’t heard this record, Jacksonport has some beautiful folk melodies and harmonies that harken back to earlier eras. I had to ask more about the influences that helped to shape the sound. He mentioned familiar styles like gospel, folk, and pop. He included predictable names like Pete Seeger and Paul Simon, but he also mentioned the king of pop, Michael Jackson. In terms of drummers, he discussed specifically Elvin Jones and Mitch Mitchell. A formative influence on the Jacksonport project specifically was Gabby Pahinui, a Hawaian guitarist. Fatum explained the significance of Pahinui’s nylon string guitars with unique tuning that created a beautiful, resonate sound. Pahinui’s iconic album Pure Gabby (1978) was formative in Jacksonport’s development. It doesn’t take more than about a minute of listening to the album to hear the connection. He mentioned that after years of performing as the drummer for the iconic bluegrass and folk artist Sarah Jarosz, that her music has a formative influence on his songwriting as well.
One of the Jacksonport tracks that has a similar folk-influenced guitar style is the opening, “Fresh Flowers,” which was one of my favorite tracks of 2022. I asked about the story behind the song. Fatum explained that he was living near Bellevue Park in Los Angeles and would pick fresh flowers for his wife. This was in the wake of the George Floyd murder in the context of the pandemic. He was asking himself, “what can I hold onto right now?” Those fresh flowers, a gesture of love and support for his help mate, seemed a tangible expression. Musically, he described the racing guitar as being heavily influenced by Pete Seeger, specifically the track “Bells of Rhymney.”
Near the end of the interview, I asked about his cover of John Prine’s “Boundless Love,” another gem from the album. He described his affinity for the Chicago native, but in particular for Prine’s last album Tree of Forgiveness. Fatum said the album had a major impact. When he heard “Boundless Love” on the radio, “I was driving and literally pulled over.” As a writer, it was the kind of track that proved how good writing can be, the power and meaning that it can have. Fatum cut his version of the track immediately after hearing that his grandfather passed away, so there’s a lot of emotion in the specific cut that we all are blessed to hear on the album.
We concluded with a brief discussion of the impact of Scenes from Bellevue Park and the future of Jacksonport. It’s evident that it’s a bright future, with plenty more songs that document Fatum’s life of songwriting. It’s also a vehicle for him to build his own fanbase, separate from the RTs and his other work as a performing musician. His next album is going to be a full band in a room, rather than the layered tracks that gave Scenes its distinctive sound. I look forward to that album and hope you all will as well.
Image courtesy: Jacksonport Website