In a 60-year career, America’s ‘freak-folk’ outsider has gone from coffee-house obscurity to festival crowdpleaser. He talks about inspiring the likes of Cat Power – and making a beautiful new album in the pines of Oregon
Calling me an outsider artist … yes, I think it’s apt. It’s taken me a long time to join the gang.” On Thanksgiving Friday, Michael Hurley – freak-folk singer-songwriter and artist of nearly 60 years’ standing – is considering where he fits in. He’s calling from his little house in rural Oregon, among the doug firs and tall pines, where he’s just brewed 11 gallons of cider from his homegrown apples. “It’s really quiet here. Few cars go by. It suits me. It’s remote. It gets a little lonely sometimes.”
To celebrate his 80th birthday, Hurley is releasing his first album of new material in 12 years, The Time of the Foxgloves, named after his favourite flower and his favourite time of year. His band on it includes the left-field bluesy singer-songwriter
Josephine Foster, one of many contemporary fans. Other admirers include Cat Power (who has covered his songs Werewolf and Sweedeedee), Devendra Banhart (who released two Hurley albums on his Gnomonsong label), Lucinda Williams, Yo La Tengo, Violent Femmes and Will Oldham. “He’s a real hero,” Oldham said in 2017. “Seeing him singing and smiling makes me think I can get through this life doing what I do.”
You hear some of their influences in Hurley’s eccentric, pared-back, bluegrass and blues-inspired back catalogue. At times his songs are sparse and tender (Be Kind To Me; Valley of Tears) at others spikily surreal (and with titles to match, like What Made My Hamburger Disappear?). The music’s playfulness is underscored by his records’ cartoonish cover art, featuring werewolves inspired by his childhood pet collies Boone and Count, psychedelic sunrises and women in bars drinking beer – “my favourite thing to draw”, Hurley says.
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