Interview: Jason Ringenberg (Farmer Jason)

fj_guitar_sml.jpgIn some small way, Jason Ringenberg is kids' music's Kings of Leon. Like his Tennessee compatriots, as Farmer Jason, Ringenberg has a definite United States fan base (and was big enough to play the Austin City Limits Festival a couple years ago) but may be even bigger in the UK and Europe. In this interview he talks about how his Farmer Jason career has slowly grown "across the pond" to the point of playing big festivals in Europe, challenges facing the artist creating a European fan base, and how to craft a show for a non-English-speaking audience.

Zooglobble: What music did you listen to growing up?
Jason Ringenberg: I grew up on a Midwestern hog farm. Most of the kids listened to corporate rock. However, I always loved American roots music, especially the classics like Dylan, Hank Williams Sr., Woody Guthrie, and Jerry Lee Lewis. On top of that, I had a fondness for the first wave punk rock, particularly the Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop, and The Ramones.

How long have you been playing music in Europe now?
I have been playing in Europe since 1984, when Jason and the Scorchers did our first tour there. Over the years, I have always performed in Europe with Jason and the Scorchers, Jason Ringenberg, and now most interestingly as Farmer Jason.

When you first started going to Europe, wasn't it pretty much lots of Jason and the Scorchers shows with an occasional Farmer Jason show mixed in? Has that mix changed at all over time?
Initially we piggybacked Farmer Jason shows on to the Jason Ringenberg solo shows that I was doing so successfully in Europe the first half of this decade. We would book Jason Ringenberg shows at night, then ask the promoters or clubs to try a kids show in the daytime to go with it. To everyone’s surprise, the Farmer Jason shows started drawing bigger crowds than the regular Jason shows, sometimes substantially so. It has developed to the point now where Farmer Jason is driving the tours, doing the real business, and generating the most attention. For example, in May we did Bergenfest in Norway, a prestigious festival in Bergen. In the review of the festival, the Bergen Times gave Farmer Jason the lead focus over the headliners Little Feat and Jackson Browne, with a big front page picture. It’s an interesting world being Farmer Jason…

How difficult is it to cross the language barrier in the non-English speaking countries?
It definitely took some practice and a lot of thought. These days I usually use a local translator/foil that we work into the show. He/she has a personality and role beyond just translations. However, I still sing the music in English of course, but they get the overall idea of the song with the translated introductions. It helps that a lot of my songs have a jumpy energy that the kids can physically get into. My European shows do tend to be more physical.

fj_kids_sml.jpg Where do you play most of your shows? Clubs? Libraries? Schools?
I do all those venues and festivals as well. The last few years we have been able to get into some major European festivals, since the promoters feel they have a better chance of getting rock fans with kids to come if there is a family show in the daytime they can attend with their kids. We have also had good success doing school shows where the teachers have used the cds to help teach English. Sometimes I have even done that in high schools. In fact I just finished a 10 day tour of Mallorca doing schools. To my utter amazement, the high school audiences were completely into it. They made up dances and merrily sang along.

Since you've been going to Europe for awhile now, do you find when you go back that you now have young European fans?
Yes I can honestly say that the little Euro kids seem to relate to the Farmer Jason character as much as US kids. I think there is something inherently appealing about a singing farmer.

Do you have any thoughts on the European kids music "scene"?
Right now I have to say that it is years behind the US scene. Essentially there isn’t a scene other than huge corporate releases and tours, or TV driven acts. The idea of an artist playing to kids and releasing cds on an indie level is unheard of. I have essentially had to create my own system there, but I have found an enthusiastic audience for it.

fj_chicken_sml.jpgAny advice for other North American artists looking to break into the European market?
You absolutely have to be prepared to create your own scene. You can’t go there and expect to just plug into a network. There is no network. You will have to build it.

What's next for you and Farmer Jason?
I have a very busy year ahead touring in the US and Europe. We will be promoting the new “IT’S a…Farmer Jason!” dvd, and further developing the video interstitial program I have been doing with the Nashville PBS station. We won an Emmy for that last year. I also am working on a book based on the Farmer Jason world. Most importantly, I will continue to take care of my farm. Those chickens can be a lot of trouble!