Connely Farr went to Alabama to study architecture and ended up learning the blues.
Now 33-years-old and based in Vancouver, he considers himself a musician by choice and an idealist by design, craft and calling coming together like a tongue-and-groove joint.
More curious, however, is how they met.
Farr grew up across from a cotton gin in tiny Bolton, Miss., a no-stoplight speck of a town once home to Bo Carter and his influential blues band, the Mississippi Sheiks. But Farr only recently discovered that the Sheiks hailed from his hometown – surprising, since the Hinds County Economic Development District lists Bolton’s current population as 687.
And at one time, the blues were news to Farr. “I just rode a skateboard, listened to KISS, Guns N’ Roses, played football,” he says with a slight southern drawl.
He didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 20 years old. “Then I picked up Neil Young’s Decade album and just fell in love with acoustic guitar.”
Then came what he terms the obligatory brush with local law enforcement. “I was just having fun,” he pleads. “It’s different down there. I got pulled over and I had a joint in my car and they’re like, ‘You’re going to jail’.”
“That probably wouldn’t happen up here.”
It didn’t take long for Farr, who’d already taken some art classes at the local college and whose grandfather had been an architect, to see the drawing on the wall. So he applied to Auburn University, got accepted and headed for Alabama to study architecture.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” he says. “I mean, I didn’t even know what architecture was. I knew it was creative, I knew I liked that process, and I knew it was going to be challenging.”
What he didn’t know was that Auburn had a world-renowned design-build school called Rural Studio, a non-profit organization mandated to improve the living conditions in some of the poorest communities in rural Alabama while imparting practical experience to architecture students. Money and materials are raised, houses designed, built and given away. Larger community projects are undertaken as well.
Farr got involved with the program in his second year and was a member of the team that designed and built the Hale County Animal Shelter, a project that received an honorable mention at the 2008 World Architecture Festival in Barcelona, Spain. He also worked on a house for Jimmie Lee Matthews, an impoverished man from Greensboro known around the community as “Music Man” because of his obsessive passion for soul music.
“It was an amazing experience,” he says.
Dissolve to a summer montage featuring Farr whiling away long humid nights on Music Man’s back porch, drinking hooch and learning the blues.
Well, not exactly.
“Once I graduated, we were still working on the animal shelter out at Rural Studio, so we weren’t being paid,” Farr explains. “So we had these little side jobs and every Thursday night I basically covered songs for three hours in this Mexican bar.”
For 30 bucks and a “damned good meal” Farr covered artists like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Ryan Adams, Nirvana, Metallica and … “Who sings I Will Survive?”
“Yeah, Gloria Gayner! Any time I’d hear a song I’d be like, ‘I wanna learn how to play that song.’ And so I’d learn how to play it.”
And the blues?
“The first blues song I ever wrote was Going Down,” says Farr. “I didn’t know how to write a blues song so I YouTubed ‘how to write a blues song’ and this guy showed me how … I was like, ‘Okay, I like those chords.’ So I hit pause and wrote the song.
“Then we recorded the song and I’m thinking there wasn’t enough put into it, it needs to be more complex, or it needs to have more depth. But then you get to reading about these blues musicians and what they were playing … there’s a spiritual aspect to it that comes out in the music.
“Listen to early Muddy Waters,” he adds. “It’s so organic.”
Listen to Going Down:
Farr’s music has that too. Effortlessly evocative, his songs amble across many genres, but their roots remain firmly planted in the Mississippi delta’s fertile soil.
His feet never were. Disillusioned by what he terms America’s infatuation with violence, Farr considered relocating to Italy or Spain before heading north to visit a friend in Vancouver in 2008.
“It was just a happy accident that I ended up in Canada,” he says. “I fell in love with Vancouver the minute I was standing out on Kits Beach. I said, ‘This is where I want to live.’ And I’ve never had that feeling before.”
He landed a job at an architectural firm, cut an eponymous debut album under the moniker Mississippi Live and independently released it in spring of last year. A week after that he returned to the studio with respected local musicians Jay B. Johnson, Jon Wood and Ben Yardley.
Mississippi Live & the Dirty Dirty released Way Down Here this past December.
For Farr, songwriting and architecture share the same creative spirit. “I think that the creative process is inherently the same,” he says. “You come up with something, and nothing’s ever set in stone. Songs can change over time. And I like this idea of coming up with something, walking away from it and revisiting it… Life begins to shape what comes out.”
Currently an intern architect, Farr one day sees himself volunteering with Architecture for Humanity, a worldwide non-profit organization founded in 1999 to promote architecture and design that seeks solutions to global social and humanitarian crisis.
“They went out to Africa to build a school to educate kids about AIDS and STDs,” he says. “That’s what architecture is for me. They said how are we going to best educate these kids? And so what they did is they built an athletic facility then hired doctors to be the coaches.
“And you kind of interweave these things. It’s about education. It’s about edification. Bringing people up rather than pushing them down.”
Original story by Graeme McRanor appeared in the Vancouver Sun.