Once in a while, something magical happens to a local music scene, something like Eric Ian Farmer.
Farmer and I met for breakfast at The Corner Room in State College last Saturday morning to talk about his music. It was a characteristically deep, steady and thoughtful conversation, as conversations with Farmer often are.
Five years ago, Farmer returned to the area to pursue a doctorate in educational leadership at Penn State, and to possibly start a self-sustaining school, which he said he felt compelled to do after teaching high school students in alternative urban and rural settings in California and Colorado. It didn’t take long, however, for Farmer to realize his messages of love and hope, and his affinity for social justice and education could be more clearly communicated through his gift of singing and performing.
“The school idea, that evolved. I started seeing that this music life was bringing me more toward the people, with the people, and I was really liking that,” said Farmer, who was born in State College and grew up in North Carolina.
Farmer then emerged on the scene in 2011 playing Friday night gigs at Kaarma Indian Cuisine Redefined, with the ambition of performing locally as an expression of his musical talent and his philosophical leanings. But he soon found himself paired up with local improvisational ace Ely Byrne, and his vision for music expanded into something he first witnessed in churches he attended when he was growing up, churches that welcomed performers from diverse musical backgrounds, and that encouraged an improvisational approach.
“I had seen playing like that in my church growing up,” Farmer said. “People would be invited to sing, and the piano player wouldn’t know the song. The singer wouldn’t know the song. I remember watching that, the musicians putting it all together, and pretty soon (Byrne and I) were too.”
As time went on, Farmer secured a weekly Thursday night gig at The Tavern, bringing in mercurial drummer Josh Troupe and one of Farmer’s former professors, guitarist Eric Burkhart. Accordion player Denise Strayer was soon added to the mix, and that became the heart of the Thursday night band that now also includes bass player Simon Gomez.
“Performing with Eric is always exciting,” Troupe said. “He is one of the most dedicated musicians I’ve ever performed with. His energy alone is captivating and his vocals and rhythmic style almost seem to hypnotize most audiences.”
Although Farmer decided to remain a musician after recently earning a doctorate in education at Penn State, he sees his music career and his academic credentials as complimentary, and they also tie into a spiritual aspect of his performances that can be discussed to an extent, but can really only be experienced.
“The human part of the journey, of this journey, seems like just one part of the journey,” he said. “I agree with the people who say we are spirit. The music is one of the things that helps remind me of that. It’s similar to (how) some natives say the earth doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the earth. I feel similarly about music. So, I’m trying to honor where I am in that scene. I’m trying to submit to this music that’s in the making, and the better I do at submitting to the music, the more likely that which is coming forth from the music will be able to come forth, whether it’s some sort of healing, or nostalgia, or hope or perspective.”
Farmer’s present-day show occurs about four days or nights per week and can include him performing solo or with any of the dozens of musicians he includes in what he most recently branded the Eric Ian Farmer Band. It’s an intentionally loose style with high upside, the beauty of which is in the fact that no Farmer show is ever the same. Songs like Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” or Farmer’s “Fortune” could last for eight minutes or 20 minutes, depending on what occurs in the moment, in the pocket and how much he and everyone else is listening.
“There are messages everywhere. It’s just a matter of how well I’m listening,” Farmer said. “There’s a lot being shared that I can choose to be open to or not be open to. In the music, there’s a heightened need for listening and openness.”
Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail .com.
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