“What you have written, and written well, obviously came from the heart and, for me,“A Farm in Indiana” has that same haunting quality as Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”. And it’s not because it’s about James Dean, it’s just a great song. I have now listened to it repeatedly and I don’t tire of hearing it.” — Jim Hayes
Ilona Pal has travelled the rails between Montreal and Ottawa many times over, but in November of 2017, that train ride, and a movie about friendship, love and loss inspired a song that gave her wings to fly.
The movie was the 2015 feature film “Life”: the story of photographer Dennis Stock’s historic 1955 photo shoot of iconic actor James Dean in Fairmount, Indiana, for that still famous spread in Life Magazine.
“The song was a gift,” says Ilona. “I wasn’t looking to write a song about James Dean that day, the song was looking for me.” But when the last frame of the film faded to black and the words ‘James Dean died 6 months later’ appeared on the screen, she felt a wave of emotion well up in her chest. That wave soon reached her creative spirit, and all at once, most of the lyrics and melody that would become A Farm In Indiana were born.
Pal, an insightful singer-songwriter from Montreal, first emerged as an independent Canadian New Country artist with her debut single, Hold On Heart, and self-titled album. She landed a spot on the roster at Peter Asher Management in LA, alongside such notable artists as Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. French recordings of her songs have ranked #1 in Quebec and received ADISQ award nominations. Film credits include the closing theme song for Time At The Top (Showtime, HBO).
Produced by Les Cooper (The Good Lovelies, Jill Barber, Andy Stochansky, Craig Cardiff, Meaghan Smith, Madison Violet and David Myles, among others.), a Juno award-winning producer, Les is a songwriter, arranger and multi-instrumentalist, whose arrangements have frequently been compared to those of past greats such as Nelson Riddle and Duke Ellington, earning him a reputation as a composer with a classic and timeless sound.
A Farm in Indiana is their first collaborative writing effort.
Les brought in the magnificent Drew Jurecka to play violin. His soaring emotional solo was a first take, and captured the essence of the song beautifully. His passionate playing conjures up images of love and loss, as well as the sweetness of home and longing to be there. Stylistically, the down-home feel evokes genuine feelings of comfort. The solo is the heart of the arrangement, which features Cooper on guitar, lap steel and banjo, rounding out the ‘Americana’ folk tune.
“The train had a huge influence on this song. It was born on a train, inspired by a train ride when at the age of nine, James Dean brought his mother’s remains back to Fairmount, Indiana from LA, and it was the train that took me to Les in Toronto to produce the song,” mused Pal. “One thing I knew for sure was that the train had to be represented in the rhythm of the song.”
Pal then contacted the Main Street Fairmount organization in Indiana to propose a partnership. She would attach their fundraising initiative to her music video to aid the town of Fairmount in its ongoing effort towards the restoration and preservation of James Dean’s hometown. This was a complete leap of faith on their behalf, but the proposal was met with incredible enthusiasm and excitement, and soon, plans for a performance at the annual James Dean Festival in September were also underway.
“The highlight of making this connection for me was the day I called Marcus Winslow,” says Pal. Winslow, James Dean’s cousin, was like a little brother to him. To this day, he lives on the farm that both inspired the song and figures prominently in the photos of Dean from 1955. So, on a lovely summer afternoon, she called Marcus and told him all about the song. “He’s a gracious man of few words. He listened intently as I explained what I was trying to do,” Ilona recalls. It all seemed to come full circle as she recited the lyrics to him. The song had ultimately ‘come home’, to the place of its inspiration—the dream of every songwriter.
In September 2018, Ilona performed A Farm in Indiana at the James Dean Festival in Fairmount, Indiana. Appearing on the Main Street stage and at the James Dean memorial service at the Back Creek Friends Church, a huge privilege and honour!
According to Ilona, “this song has legs and it’s moving on a mission unto itself.” She’s just very grateful to be along for the journey and happy the song chose her.
Today would have been James Dean’s 88th birthday.