After opening for the Fleet Foxes, why did Frank Fairfield quit music?

A block or two from the final resting places of music legends like Sammy Davis Jr. and Michael Jackson, nestled in a quiet suburban neighborhood north of LA’s donut shops and designer jeans retailers, you could hear the muffled three-fingered rolls of a banjo echoing off the stucco walls of nearby houses.

I’m in the Street by Frank Fairfield, a Californian multi-instrumentalist who draws his influences from his vast knowledge of Anglo-American folk music and a unique childhood spent in a Mennonite seminary in Central America. In years past, he could be found performing on the streets of Los Angeles, playing music for passers-by on the boardwalks and outside bookstores. You might also find him playing Kennedy Centerbehind NPR’s little officeor touring with popular indie band Fleet Foxes.

But after 2015, he became a ghost; he had “quit the music racket”, much to the chagrin of his fans. I visited Frank to ask him why. He agreed to give me a banjo lesson, so I met him at his house to understand how someone who was successful in a cutthroat industry went away when stardom is so often considered the pinnacle of success. I learned that public attention has a dark side and it takes courage to walk away.


I wander into Frank’s house, over the wooden floor and through a back door. He leads me under a shaded pagoda to a space that looks like something between a shed and a backyard barn. When the door is open, I can see two chairs carefully placed opposite each other, on a worn rug, under the exposed beams and lights.

This is where Frank practices for hours a day. I was struck by the fact that I hadn’t seen a TV or computer screen during my visit so far.

Frank is standing in his barn, flushed in the midday heat, wiping his face with a handkerchief from his back pocket. He hands me a banjo, with soft nylon strings and a faux animal skin head.

It feels like stepping into an old tradition.

Fairfield was born in Fresno, California, and he can’t remember a time when he couldn’t play an instrument. When he was 7, his father got a job at a Mennonite seminary and moved the family to Guatemala City. Much of his early life was music learned in church.

Many musicians begin in a place of worship. Spiritual songs have emotional power and an accessible community of music makers to provide a cradle for learning. Frank believes the love of music should lead to practice, not the other way around.

“Obviously we need to work on the actual practice of getting our hands to do what we want them to do,” he says, “and we might need to learn enough about the theory that your fingers know where to go, but at the end of the day – why are we doing this?

I’ve taken many music lessons in my life, but none have started with the “why” behind the game. And the “interest” of Frank’s music surprises me. He cites the writings of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg to illustrate that “all the other things that humans do; they write literature, and they paint, all of that is a representation of something else. So that the music can be itself.

“It’s just music.” he thinks: “It doesn’t have to be linked to anything, it doesn’t have to mean anything.” It’s just a human phrase and expression.

He dives into a song called “Spirit of the Morning” and brings it to life with animation. He describes musical phrases as voices and brings them together nimbly in conversation – one I’ve never heard before. And that was his take on music, he says, it’s purely communicated human emotion.


Frank’s family returned from Central America when he was 16 and settled in Pasadena. And perhaps because his most formative years were spent abroad, there is still something unknown about him.

Frank has a way of speaking reminiscent of the radio era, his cadence and choice of words suggesting an English a little out of step with our times. Her clothing is likely influenced by her upbringing in the Mennonite church; it’s simple and functional without branding.

From my perspective, Frank very intentionally cultivates an environment that reduces the noise and clutter of contemporary living. Her house, cabin, and clothes all seem carefully selected to build a reality you can touch, feel, and understand. They are not representations. It’s the things themselves, unfiltered by digital distraction.

We sat in the quiet of his barn, and he talked about what really convinced him to “get down to business,” practicing scales for hours a day. The secret is to fall in love with a repertoire. “You can’t put the instrument down because you want to get closer to it. You want to stay in there. You want to taste it and commune with it more deeply.

When Frank speaks of music, he describes an almost spiritual experience.

We start on a classic banjo tune, “Cumberland Gap”. Frank learned the version he plays from a rare vinyl in his extensive collection, one of the very first recordings of a solo banjo folk song with vocals in the 1920s by Land Norris.

Frank tells me that we as music makers should submit to the pain of practice in order to “learn movement and how our thoughts and intentions become actions.” We ask ourselves, “Where is the problem? Is it in the intention or in the manifestation of the intention? In this way, practicing is constantly separating to be reconstituted, so that our life is filled with a series of tiny but meaningful adjustments.

This approach was likely developed while Frank was playing the streets to support himself. Every day he was playing and training at the same time. He had to rely on his art for a living and was all the more careful about how his music was communicated to real people. Like a stand-up comedian listening to the laughs, he was able to dissect his acting and gauge it based on the reactions of people who stopped to listen or continued.

“It’s not just a predetermined thing, that we just watch the world go by.” Vibrant music is created by artists who believe in their own agency. But although the musician is producing the sound, Fairfield said, “you realize that the world makes decisions and the music makes choices. It feels like it is created right in front of you.


After the lesson, I hung out in Frank’s minimalist kitchen while he fiddled with his ceramic French press. I was eager to learn more about his life as a touring musician, even if he was hesitant to reveal the past. He seemed to think there were much more interesting things to discuss, but reluctantly shared what led him to leave public life.

After moving and working as a manual laborer, Frank began to take his music seriously. He started playing wherever there could be an attentive audience. It was at one farmers market in hollywood where Matt Popieluch, a seasoned singer-songwriter from Foreign Born, saw him perform.

Acting as Frank’s manager, Popieluch hosted shows and brought him to Josh Rosenthal’s label, Thomkins Square. With his old-school styling, Frank allowed marketing professionals to neatly package him up for sale.

He said to me “they wanted a story or some kind of myth or something like that. It wasn’t really about the music. They wanted an aura. It was a lot of pressure to put on himself.” And claiming he wasn’t a big enough personality to handle that pressure, he started to feel like a caricature of himself.

Although he enjoyed many aspects of the performance, he said, “I felt like my job was to hate myself every night. I hated myself in a different town every night. That was mostly how I felt. He was forced to focus on crowd pleasers and didn’t feel sincere as a performer.

The struggle to separate who he was from who people wanted him to be finally came to a head with his decision to step away from touring. “I feel like ever since I walked away from that, started doing construction and carpentry again, it’s helped settle me into actually wanting to study music as a thing. serious.”

After a tour, Frank could still be heard in surprising places.

He covered Orville Reed’s “The Telephone Girl” for the soundtrack to the 2012 film “Lawless,” starring Tom Hardy and Shia LeBoeuf. He performed “If the River Was Whiskey” by Charlie Poole for the American Epic Sessions. He even voiced an animated character on the show “Over the Garden Wall.” But he has been largely in the spotlight in recent years, only performing when he wants, with whom he wants.

He told me about his current job, keeping the Bob Baker Puppet Theater living. Frank helps build intricate sets and puppets for Los Angeles’ official historic-cultural landmark, seemingly beloved by celebrities like “Get Out” director Jordan Peele and generations of families.

There seems to be a newfound purity in Frank’s pursuits, as he follows divergent threads of curiosity for his own edification and enjoyment.


Frank leads me into a back room, where shoulder-high cabinets are filled with what appear to be old photo albums. Instead of photos, each volume contained torn paper sleeves with 78s inside, a type of record that has not been produced since the late 1950s.

He flipped through a section, showing me the rare recording containing “Cumberland Gap”, of the lesson. Then, he skilfully extracts a recording of Arnold Dolmetsch, playing baroque music with his daughters. Fairfield likes it because “it’s not too precious, not too embellished or sentimental.”

“It’s exciting to feel a new twinge in your heart from a direction you’ve never felt before,” he said. This is what he has now devoted his life to pursuing, through teaching his art and small performances with related musicians. “Music is a pretty good reflection of our value systems. What you invest in is what grows.

Frank dismisses most questions about his potential fame as inconsequential to the deeper investigation he is involved in. Know yourself by studying Mattisse, Thomas Morley or Pandolfi. He believes that every discipline should be a way to look within, otherwise the point is lost. “There are profound things to learn about ourselves from any study, any discipline. Everything must be deep otherwise what’s the point? What do we do?”

Frank might have cracked the code, moving beyond the pursuit of fame to something more permanent – ​​human nature, the divine bond we share with each other, and the lessons of the past.

It was hard not to see the irony in his self-effacing demeanor as he stood surrounded by countless historical records – the fruits of his deep musical explorations. “I’m in no way an authority on these songs,” Frank said. “I just sing them sometimes.”