Reed Foehl isn't a household name yet. But you've probably heard his work just the same. Every song from his last record, 2004's Spark, and a few tunes from his latest, Stoned Beautiful, have been licensed by a slew of TV shows — everything from Dawson's Creek and Joan of Arcadia to The Biggest Loser and Breaking Bonaduce — as well as the feature film Just Friends, a 2005 comedy staring Ryan Reynolds. You'd think that kind of exposure could be parlayed into airplay or maybe even some label interest. Not exactly.
"I've gotten new fans," Foehl says, beaming. "But I think you have to have a machine. And my whole thing is, I don't have managers and booking agents. I do everything myself. Really, I also think it depends on the show and how the song is used. Like maybe a Grey's Anatomy or something — something like that can turn into record deals and record sales. And I just haven't gotten that show yet."
Fortunately, the music has always been the motivator for Foehl. Growing up in a small burg just outside of Boston, he got his start playing guitar when he was around ten and his dad, who'd decided to learn how to play himself, took him along on a lesson. Foehl only attended one session, but that was more than enough to convince him that he wasn't a fan of formal instruction. He was still interested in the guitar, though, so he learned to play from watching his dad practice.
With Putnam Murdock, Gregory Alan Isakov and other special guests, 8 p.m. Wednesday, August 8, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $10, 303-443-3399.
"That's what I've done my whole life, is learn from other people," Foehl declares. "He was learning all these folk songs, and there were all these writers he'd turn me on to, like John Prine, and I was just hooked." By the time he was in sixth grade, Foehl and a friend were entertaining folks on the street outside Boston's Faneuil Hall with Prine songs and scores of other tunes like "Wasted on the Way," by Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Dion and the Belmonts' "Teenager in Love."
"It was busking," he says, "but you had to have a permit to do it. So you had to be semi-talented to get one. My dad organized it and would take us there because we couldn't drive. It was amazing. I mean, we made money! It was really lucrative. But then I got too cool for that in seventh grade."
That was right around the time Foehl started focusing his energy on sports. Although he was still surrounded by music — his parents had formed a bluegrass outfit that practiced at the house every Thursday night — hockey was more enticing. But toward the end of high school, Foehl's earlier inclinations resurfaced, prompting him to hang up his skates and pick the guitar back up.
"It was always in the back of my mind," he says of his early days busking, "just performing and receiving the applause. Since I did that at a fairly young age, it got me used to performing in front of people. And that's something I'm still doing to this day. It was always just in me. I did sports and some other things, but just came back to it."
After high school, Foehl attended Hartwick College in upstate New York, but he was more interested in playing than studying. So he took a year off and moved with a friend to Aspen, where between gigs around town, he was basically a ski bum. But he found that that life didn't suit him much, either, so he headed back to Boston to take some classes and get a little more grounded. "I figured I should just go back to school," he remembers, "at least for a little bit, to grow up some and be around education and intellect."
After graduating from Emerson College in 1988, Foehl planned to spend a few months in Europe with his girlfriend. But the couple split up during the trip, leaving Foehl alone with a guitar and his thoughts. That's when he began writing songs in earnest. "I was in Greece, I remember, in Crete, in November, around Thanksgiving," he recalls. "I was all alone, and it's like the end of the earth there, you know. I was so inspired. It was like, 'Wow, there's a big world out there.'"
Or a small one, as it turns out. Back in Boston, Foehl formed a duo called Acoustic Junction, which later became a trio with the addition of his brother Stewart. After gigging around Beantown, the band decided to take its act to Boulder, where Stewart was attending the University of Colorado. Four years, one percussionist and thousands of miles of road work later, Acoustic Junction landed a choice gig warming up for Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic at Red Rocks. While that sort of thing is commonplace these days, back then it was unheard of for locals to grace that storied stage.
"That really elevated us," Foehl admits. "We did really well, really fast. We played a lot around town, and people really took to us. David Graham, Bill Graham's son, had heard us on the East Coast, and he's the one who said, 'You guys are from Colorado? I want to have you play with us at Red Rocks.' He was managing Blues Traveler and sort of took us under his wing."
But with great achievement often comes great disappointment. Soon after the Red Rocks date, both Foehl's brother and the other member of the group took off, and Foehl had to decide whether to continue the band with new players or to move on. He decided to find new musicians. "It was a really good band," he says. "It was actually a better band. But there was something magical about the first. Even though it wasn't maybe as talented musically, it had that 'it' factor that you can't describe."
Three years down the road at a California festival, Acoustic Junction, which by then had released three successful releases on its own, attracted the attention of Capricorn Records, which offered to put out the outfit's next album. But almost before the ink was dry on the contract, the label urged the act to change its name to Fool's Progress, insisting that its current moniker was too limiting. Problem was, as Acoustic Junction, Foehl had spent eight years building a brand.
The Fool's Progress debut hit stores in 1997, but instead of bolstering the band's fan base, the name change simply confounded existing followers. Two years later, Foehl and company recorded Strange Days, which they then presented to Capricorn. The label opted not to release the disc and ultimately let them out of their contract, taking the new record with them. They promptly changed their name back to Acoustic Junction and linked up with Omad Records, which issued the disc in 1999. But the act broke up soon after.
As he entered the next decade, Foehl was faced with the end of his band, the dissolution of his marriage and the impending death of his father, who'd been diagnosed with lung cancer. He spent the better part of the next two years shuttling back and forth from here to Massachusetts, where he helped care for the man who'd had such a profound impact on him early on. He also worked on Spark, his first solo record. While that disc was well received, Foehl feels that his latest effort, Stoned Beautiful, truly captures him.
Written in the years following his father's death, Beautiful finds Foehl mining the emotional wreckage left by that pivotal event and his failed marriage in a way that's thoughtful, reflective and poignant. The songs that fill the album — many of which were penned with Putnam Murdock, a childhood friend whose dad had also been diagnosed with cancer and had played in the Centre Streeters, Foehl's parents' bluegrass combo — are imbued with a tangible, stinging pathos.
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With lines like "Stripped of his clothes and cursing the cancer/God's only got so many prayers he can answer/There's millions of eyes and millions of souls/Somebody's bound to be left in the cold," "Chances Are" will cause anyone who's experienced the loss of a patriarch to shudder and well up. "My Sweet Heart," meanwhile, with its gently swelling pedal steel and the words "If you can't find the magic, head for the door/'Cause it could be more tragic to live in this war/It's best to surrender than to hurt anymore," plays like an elegy to love not so much lost as mutually abandoned.
Like all great music, Foehl's songs have a bittersweet quality that's easy to relate to, which explains why so many music supervisors have placed his songs. But Foehl — who just returned from Washington, D.C., where he recorded a live set for XM radio and will begin working on a new record in November — is just grateful that his music is being used in ways that are meaningful.
"I've been very lucky," he concludes. "My music has been used in profound and audible ways. It could've just been played in the background. I mean, it's already a coup to get it on there, but then when it's used in a nice way — because you never know, they could chop your song up — it's wonderful."