Joseph Allred is an absurdly talented artist, but it’s the spirit stitched throughout their work that puts it in its own, singular place. Allred is an all-time great guitar player; I’m not sure there’s anything they can’t do with a guitar and even so, their playing is instantly recognizable. They have such character to their sound that as soon as those first strums resonate to life, the hooks grab me. Allred channels some kind of otherworldly essence that makes their work glow.
Incredibly, with their most recent album, Branches & Leaves, Allred broadens the scope of their work and the mark it leaves runs deep. A certain wisdom and thoughtfulness run through Branches & Leaves that echo through each picked note, each sweet holler. It’s an intangible core that silhouettes Allred’s nature into the landscape.
I spoke with Joseph in late November. They were also kind enough to record an exclusive video for Foxy Digitalis which is embedded in this piece. Branches & Leaves is out now on Feeding Tube. Joseph’s Bandcamp is HERE.
I always like to start interviews by asking about early experiences when you were younger with music and sound. When you were growing up, were there certain things that stuck out and grabbed you and left an impression?
I remember the first time my dad played “Stairway to Heaven” for me. I’ve still got his copy on vinyl. I grew up listening to some of my parents’ records. I was maybe only like four or five years old, and I remember hearing that and being kind of scared by it. It made me think of some strange world of wizards and trolls and magic. It wasn’t all scary, but I got this weird, fantastic kind of feeling from it.
He also used to play “A Horse With No Name” by America a lot. Just that one song. I’ve still got that album, which is okay. I remember listening to that all the time. So I had a weird combination of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and then other stuff like church music. I grew up hearing gospel and bluegrass and country all the time on the radio.
Were you involved in the church growing up?
Yeah. It was a pretty moderate kind of upbringing. As far as Southern, rural, Protestant kind of Christian denominations go, I went to a Methodist Church and actually liked some of what John Wesley had to say. But, my mom is not religious at all. My dad was, but he was always kind of private about it. So I went to church, but as soon as I got old enough to start asking any kind of questions about what I was being taught, there just wasn’t anybody willing or able to try to help me deal with any of it.
Around the time I was nine or 10 and I didn’t identify as religious. I just recognized that people around me were into something kind of dangerous and off-putting. The culture I grew up in is very religious. The county I’m from in Tennessee is one county beneath the county that is world-renowned for the snake-handling congregations there. So I’m from the land of snake handlers and speaking in tongues and all that kind of stuff. Most of that wasn’t going on at the church I went to, like I said, it was more moderate compared to some of the other stuff, but I was definitely aware of all this kind of weird weird stuff.
Mmhm. Growing up in Oklahoma, I relate to a lot of that. And my grandfather was a preacher his whole life but was pretty much shunned by the wider religious community here because he was much more open and welcoming in his thinking. He had church leaders telling him the cancer he had in his 60s was a punishment from God for that, so my relationship with religion has been pretty sour for a long time.
That kind of stuff is the exact kind of thing that made me decide that I didn’t want anything to do with religion for the longest time. It was these people who had a notion of a God that’s kind of sadistic or something. I realize now, since I’ve gotten older, and I’ve studied these things – I have a degree in philosophy and a degree in religious studies – being in an environment where you’re encouraged to ask questions, I found out there are lots of ways of being religious don’t have to do with that at all.
I think it’s one of the things I love about Branches and Leaves – this connection to gospel music and hymns – and why I wanted to ask about your history with the church is that I feel that kind of spirit is permeated throughout the album. But to back up a little, when did you start playing guitar?
When I was 10 years old, I got not exactly a toy, but it was kind of a toy guitar. I was born in 1983, so I’m old enough to remember when MTV used to play music videos all the time. I remember hearing Aerosmith on there, and then in the early 90s, bands like Collective Soul and Gin Blossoms and some of that kind of old rock stuff. And I wanted to get a guitar.
I took piano lessons a few years before that. My brother and I were both interested in music and my parents put us in piano lessons. I never really wanted to do it, though. I really wanted a guitar and finally convinced them to get me one. They also got me a copy of Fender Frontline Magazine. This was in 1994, which was the 40th anniversary of the Fender Strat. I remember on the cover of it was this 1954 sunburst Strat just like Buddy Holly played on The Ed Sullivan Show. We take that kind of thing for granted now, but in 1954 that might as well have been like a laser gun. So I was really into like rock and some heavy music.
Around that time I made friends with somebody, I went to school with. He wasn’t the bad kid, but his cousin was very much like the notorious bad kid in town who everybody said was a devil worshipper and did drugs and all kinds of stuff. So his cousin turned him on to Pantera and Skid Row and Metallica and all that kind of stuff. Then, he would bring tapes to school and we would listen to them. We formed a hypothetical band when were in fourth or fifth grade. It wasn’t until a couple of years after that, that I finally got an electric guitar, which was a Fender Strat. It’s this really bad blue color. I don’t even know what it is. It’s not like Placid Blue and it’s not Daphne Blue. It’s some weird blue color and it just looks kind of bad. I don’t know why I was trying to play heavy metal on it, but I knew I really wanted a Strat.
Then in seventh grade, we finally started a band and played a couple of Metallica songs. We played “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath and some original stuff. I still remember the first riff I ever came up with actually, and it’s pretty good! I’m actually kind of proud of it
What was the band called?
We changed our name way too many times. Do you remember that movie Airheads? Where they have a really bad name? The Lone Rangers, which just doesn’t make any sense at all. We were Noise Pollution at one point. We were Hypnosis. I think that’s the name we stuck with the longest.
By the time I was in high school, I heard The Misfits. I think that had to do with Metallica because they always wore Misfits shirts. Cliff Burton especially. That got me more into punk music. That’s what I was mostly into in high school. I was in a kind of ska-punk band or something called Disoriented Superheroes.
[laughs] That’s pretty good, actually. I like that. That’s amazing, though, and sounds very familiar to me. I had some fairly similar experiences, I think. So at what point did you discover fingerpicking, solo guitar-type music and start to get into that world?
After I started my first band, there were about 10 years where I was always in some kind of band. None of it ever amounted to that much. I went from metal to punk to like a kind of post rock thing or something. There was a period for about 10 years where I was always in a band and had that as an outlet, so when this band I was in broke up I got interested in what all I could do with an acoustic guitar.
Nick Drake was somebody that was a starting point and some old blues stuff because I’ve read Guitar Player magazine for a long time. There were always all these bland people like Eric Clapton and so forth in there. They’re always prattling on about the blues and I thought, “What is this stuff really about?” I worked my way back into Robert Johnson and Son House and that sort of thing. And I thought about John Fahey, because he was on the cover of Guitar Player, and he had this really mean expression. It was after his reemergence, so he had a beard and this mean face, and I remember that sticking with me.
Then, there’s an issue of Guitar Player from 1996. I think the cover says ‘space rock’ or something. They’ve got these little dudes playing guitars on little space surfboards or something. But what they’re calling space rock is the kind of post rock wave that was going on at that point. So there’s an interview in there with like people from Labradford and Tortoise and Fly Pan Am, and also with Glenn Jones, when he was doing Cul de Sac. He talked about his American primitive influence and he talked about his partial capos and all that kind of stuff.
In that same issue, there’s an interview with John Fahey, too. It’s a separate thing from the cover story, but he talked about Skip James. You know, John is one of the people that went and found him. Skip was one of a bunch of blues musicians that made some records back in the 20s and 30s, and then they were just swept aside and were inactive for a long time. When John found Skip, he had been hospitalized for a while and some of the last recordings Skip made are about that. John talked about that in this interview and about the open D minor tuning that he learned from Skip. That was one of the first tunings that I used. This was in maybe 2006 or 2007 when I started to get into acoustic stuff.
I also saw Jack Rose play around that time when he was on tour with Mogwai. So for a little while, I was messing around with an acoustic guitar, and then the last band that I was in got back together, but with a different name. It was like a doom metal band. We were pretty good. We were called Fissure. But in that band, I used an open tuning on the guitar. So even though it was a doom metal band, I was really influenced by that kind of guitar playing.
Then that band broke up and got back together minus one member. And that was the first band I was in that kind of amounted to something. We toured around quite a bit and self-released a whole bunch of music. There’s even more of an American primitive kind of influence in that band. We were called Hellbender. There are a bunch of bands called that now, but I think there was only one that I was aware of other than us at the time. I was using an open tuned guitar and our other guitar player did too. Some of the recordings we did had acoustic guitar and banjo and mandolin and it was just a really heavy psychedelic mess, compared to Hawkwind, Sleep, Weedeater, or Acid Mother’s Temple. But I ended up leaving that band and we’re on pretty good terms now but we weren’t for a while.
My brother and I went through losing our dad, which is one of the main things that got me really serious and more focused on playing acoustic music because I needed this world that I could create and not have to rely on anybody else or on electricity or pedals or anything like that. So that was about 10 years ago.
So I had just completely bottomed out with some personal kind of demons that I’ve had to wrestle with a lot. Then right as I was getting back on my feet from that my dad got diagnosed with cancer and died a few months later. So that period is when I got serious about writing guitar music for the first time. Some of the songs that I wrote during that period are on the Mandorla Valley album. It was the first thing that I ever recorded. It wasn’t the first thing I released, because I did two tapes, I think, before that, but I did that on my own.
How many guitars do you have now?
I don’t know, I have too many. I have seven acoustic guitars and then a couple of electric guitars. There are really only three that I play. Well, four when you include the slide guitar. I’ve got a little oval square neck Hawaiian thing from the 30s. So I’ve got my main 12 string, then I’ve got another 12 string that I had before. I’ve got my main six-string which I’ve had for 13 years now. And then a small kind of parlor-size six-string that I got after I got to play a show with Richard Bishop when he was on tour behind that Tangiers Session record that he did. Hearing him play that little guitar that he has got me interested in getting a smaller guitar. They have a really interesting sound, so they’re kind of different. I tend to not like just having more stuff than I want to use, it’s just that I’ve been playing forever so I’ve accumulated some stuff, but I think I probably need to get rid of some of it.
So are you self-taught?
Yeah, pretty much. I haven’t ever studied classical or flamenco or jazz stuff at all. I took piano lessons for a while, like I mentioned, back when I was seven or so, and then played in bands until I got out of high school. But other than that, everything is just been kind of self-taught.
I’ve watched tutorials and things on YouTube sometimes. I do like a dozen things kind of wrong all at the same time. I’ll hear something and think of some way to approximate it, but not really do it right according to some tradition.
The way I play the lute, for instance, isn’t exactly the same as the way I play the guitar. The lute has a different timbral quality. It’s a lot quieter, and it’s really easy to overpower compared to the guitar. But if you read all these old books on lute technique from the Renaissance period, everybody was incredibly adamant about not using any fingernails at all, which I use for my guitar playing. So my lute playing is not traditional. The lute community is very ornery. Like Julian Bream, who was probably my favorite classical guitar player, he also did a bunch of stuff on the lute. He played the lute exactly the way he played the guitar pretty much and the more traditionalist lute community really went after him and said he shouldn’t be playing the lute that way. And his instrument, I think had a saddle on it, which isn’t traditional, but he played some wonderful music on it. If those people heard me – a guitar player who already plays the guitar wrong – I’m sure they would be after me.
[laughs] So what made you want to play the lute or the oud? I didn’t even realize you played the oud, has that been on any recordings?
I’ve posted some videos of me kind of dicking off on oud, but I haven’t done any recordings with it. It’s out of respect for oud players. I don’t want to go into somebody else’s culture and act like I’m somebody who’s obtained this mystical knowledge of the east or something. I played for a couple of semesters in a Middle Eastern music ensemble here at Boston College. So I got to sit in with people who are very good at oud and who were from Arabic music cultures. It was nice to be able and kind of sit back and let them kind of carry it, and just go along as much as I could.
I think what got me interested in it was just trying to go back a little further to try to get a sense of rootedness. Even though the guitar didn’t evolve from the lute, it has kind of a separate ancestry, but they kind of intermingled a lot once they encountered each other. The lute is barely even an evolution of the oud. It’s pretty much just an oud with frets tied around it. But that’s how it started. It was kind of forcibly brought to Europe when parts of Europe were part of an Islamic caliphate.
The guitar doesn’t have as much history. During the Baroque period and from then on, there’s the presence of the Baroque guitar, but even that is quite a bit different than the modern guitar. So I wanted to go back further than that, and that got me kind of interested in the lute and the oud.
Going back even further, I have a tanbur, this Iranian instrument. It is like even in even older form, kind of this bowl-shaped thing that ultimately originated in Central Asia somewhere and that’s as far back as you can trace it. So the oud is not originally Arabic, it started out further to the east, and then it evolved into the pipa in China and the oud to the west. But everything starts to get murky once you get back to a certain point trying to trace the ancestry of musical instruments. I’m not a professional musicologist or instrumentologist or something, but from what I can gather, I haven’t looked into it as much as a professional. It’s hard, with these questions about ancestry or ownership over instruments. Usually, you just get to a point where you don’t even know anymore where something was or what form it was in.
That’s super interesting and makes a really interesting point as far as where things like that originated. So let’s talk a little about Branches & Leaves. What made you want to do an album like this that’s so vocal forward?
Nothing in particular. Some of these are songs that I’ve been doing for quite a while. The song “Branches & Leaves,” I actually wrote the lyrics to that in 2006 or so. It’s been around for a while. I never sang or did any of that until I got a harmonium, which was maybe eight years ago. That elevated my voice in a way that made me more comfortable trying to sing.
Before, when I sang, I always tried to be quiet. I thought it was mysterious or something. I don’t know why the hell I did that because it sounded like garbage. I’ve been self-conscious about my voice for a long time, whether it’s my speaking voice or my singing voice. I didn’t really decide I wanted to sing, it was just that I wrote these songs.
When I recorded Branches & Leaves, I recorded a whole bunch of music. Everything that I finished ended up being two albums. One of them is Branches & Leaves and another one is going to come out next year. So I didn’t even mean to make a mostly-vocal album exactly. I recorded everything that I had, and there ended up being twenty-something songs, so I decided to split it in two. One is a completely instrumental album – which is the one coming out next year. And the Branches & Leaves, I put most of the vocal stuff on.
With just the guitar, it’s like I’m in tune with something constant. I feel like I could sit down and record some music and put an album together at just about anytime. It’s something that’s kind of constant. It isn’t like that when I do vocal stuff. I don’t always write lyrics. It seems like most of my creative mechanism, in general, it’s more receptive. I don’t tend to just sit down and decide, “Okay, I’m going to write something right now.” It’s more like I start feeling kind of restless or feel like something needs to happen and come out.
Besides being the name of one of the songs, is there any particular significance to the title?
That was something that just kind of came out without me thinking about it much. There’s a lot of like kind of trees and rivers and natural features and so forth on it. It’s just filled landscapes that I grew up around. I don’t know, what I was about to say was going to be really pretentious, some kind of philosophical proclamation about human happiness and ends and so forth. It’s part of who we are, I guess.
Rivers and water also seem to be a recurring theme. I’ve written about the album and my experience with it. Even though a lot of it was written and done pre-pandemic, it feels quite timely to me. It has this feeling of a person finding their way through the darkness. Then, thinking about the two hymns or traditional songs build on that, too. I’m curious what was it about those songs that made you decide to record and include them on the record?
I think there’s a setting of “Can’t Feel At Home” that’s kind of different. There’s a version His Name Is Alive did that I like. It wasn’t a hymn we sang in church, but I think there’s just a feeling of being exhausted and wanting something better.
I’m in school this semester and I’m taking a theology class, and there’s a lot of people saying things like, “As Christians, what do we do for the poor?” And I keep thinking it, it’s not for the poor, it is the poor. Jesus was the poor. This music is something that came from people who were poor and hungry and sick and beat down. Whether it’s people in the Appalachian south, where I’m from who suffered from hunger and disease and hard working conditions all the time, or black spiritual music that created this extra layer of racial oppression on top of all of that.
It’s music that is by and for the poor and the hungry and the sick and so forth. I can’t stand seeing Christianity used to maintain these structures of oppression. So it was kind of trying to reclaim that and put it back in the context that it belongs in. There was something personal to it, too, like I said, just feeling kind of exhausted.
“When the World’s On Fire” – that one struck me because that was back when all those wildfires in Australia were happening and we had these wildfires on the west coast as well. There were literal fires breaking out all over the place. I don’t want gospel music to be so otherworldly that you end up just not caring or engaging with the world. It doesn’t have to be about that. It can be about trying to imagine a better world here. It’s like what Karl Marx said – and people have taken him out of context – he said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” but he also said, “It’s the sigh of the oppressed creature and the soul of a soulless situation,” which he thought would vanish if you were to alleviate the economic conditions that allow it to arise. And yes, religion is certainly used in the way that he says it’s used, but I don’t think it’s reducible to that. That’s what it ought to be. It is something that can have a transformative quality and potential for it and can try to imagine a better world and hopefully bring it about.