THE QUIET REVOLUTION
Something's happening in acoustic music. Is it 'new weird folk' or simply 'new folk'? Jay Babcock explains all.The black-bearded, longhaired man in embroidered red robe and cowl, sits Indian-style, amidst candles, on a Persian rug, playing acoustic guitar. â€œItâ€™s a sight to behold/When youâ€™ve got some words to mold/And you can make them your own,â€ he sings, his voice an oddly dreamy warble. It feels like a scene out from a circa-1968 druid-folk-hippie documentary or ancient Old Grey Whistle Test; one half-expects a doe, or Marc Bolan, to bound by in the background at any moment.
But this is 2004. The scene is from a mid-May performance on the BBCâ€™s Later With Jools Holland by the remarkable 23-year-old American folksinger Devendra Banhart. Itâ€™s the UK home viewersâ€™ first real encounter with the powerful New Weird Folk current now surfacing in America, of which Banhart is both a member and a prime mover.
Call it â€œNew Weird Folk,â€ to distinguish Banhart and his eclectic cohort from your average American folksingers; theyâ€™re neither streetbuskers nor protest singers nor third-gen CSNY earnest sops nor smug anti-folkers. Their aesthetic, generally speaking, is more challenging, derived at least partially from the artists at the more outre, obscure ends of â€˜60s American and British folkâ€”Karen Dalton, John Fahey, Tim Buckley, the Fugsâ€”as well as Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, Donovan, Pentangle, Neil Young, the Incredible String Band, and of course Tyrannousaurus Rex-era Marc Bolan. If they have any contemporary antecedent or inspiration, itâ€™s Amerindie weirdies Will Oldham and Cat Powerâ€™s Chan Marshall.
Given the way bands have recently succeeded commercially by mining specific pop history periodsâ€”dance-punk, post-punk, garage rock, pop-metalâ€”perhaps something as outwardly unlikely as an outre-folk revival was inevitable. But other factors are at play, surely.
â€œPopular music, for the most part, is rock rock rock,â€ says Ben Chasny, the fingerpicking guitarist-vocalist for Bay Area psychedelic folk outfit Six Organs of Admittance. â€œSo it seems like a natural balance to have this underground pool of folk musicâ€”quiet musicâ€”that you can flop in. Rock music should be loud and a lot of things happening. With folk music, itâ€™s time to sit down and listen.â€
Chasny has been doing this for six years and can be regarded as part of the first wave of this new weird folk scene along with Tower Recordings, PG Six, Charalambides and Alasdair Robertsâ€™ now-defunct Appendix Out (See MOJO ***). But now themovement seems deeper and wider than before, with more song-oriented artists like Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Vetiver, Josephine Foster, White Magic, Entrance and CocoRosie joining the mix. Chasny isnâ€™t offering up any answers for this surfeit of emerging, prodigiously gifted talent.
â€œI donâ€™t really know why everybody is doing it,â€ says Chasny. â€œNobody is really making money off of it yet. Itâ€™s just going out there and playing music because you love it.â€
This is a movement seeking solace in older, quieter places, far from the din of urban paranoia, media hysteria, government idiocy and the bombastic, corporate angst-rock and hip-hop that accompanies it. These are times that arenâ€™t so far from the the â€˜60s, when the first folk revivals happened in the UK and in Greenwich Village amid political discontent and a youthful fascination with the pastoral and the fantastical.
The records by those artists are now easily obtained as reissues, everything from Donovan and Incredible String Band album to California psych-folk Linda Perhacs and obscurities by nomadic British folk singer Vashti Bunyan. Like the records, many of their creators are available: and many are now just just an email or two away. So, after Banhart heard Bunyanâ€™s 1970 classic Just Another Diamond Day in 2001, he sought her out for advice.
â€œI got an email saying â€˜hello â€“ Iâ€™m a little tick from San Franciscoâ€™ â€“ telling me about his shows in miserable places and wanting to know if he should carry on,â€ remembers Bunyan. â€œA few weeks later I got a package through the mail and there was something about the envelopeâ€”the drawings and the coffee stain and the carefully put-together feel of it that got to me immediately. His drawings reminded me of friends I had a long time ago. Then I heard the music and I loved it. Itâ€™s hard to know exactly what it is that I felt an affinity with. Maybe that he was homeless and a traveller, maybe that he didnâ€™t align himself with anyone else.â€
However Banhart was busy aligning himself with seemingly everyone he could find who has similar interests, encouraging reticent talents through both his example on record and personal advocacy. His live performances encouraged folksinger-pedal harpist Joanna Newsom, another San Francisco resident, to begin making her music in public. Newsomâ€™s work attracted the interest of Will Oldham, who brought her on tour with him. Her debut album was released through Drag City, Oldhamâ€™s American label, earlier this year to critical acclaim. And Banhart released Rejoing in the Hands, his second album, which features a hushed duet with Vashti Bunyan, and joined San Franciscan Andy Courbicâ€™s folk-pop Vetiver project, whose debut album was also released this spring. In the early summer, after his appearance on the Jools Holland show, Banhart embarked on a tour across North America with Newsom and Vetiver, playing as often as possible in non-traditional settings, places where people want to hear music more than they want to buy beer.
Watching Banhart's live performance on Jools Holland's show, Bunyan looks on like a proud mother. â€œI didnâ€™t consider myself to be part of any movement or cult,â€ she says, â€œbut I can see now that I did fit in to a certain phase in British music which is being reassessed. They've taken something from it â€“ but I think what they make is entirely their own. Just when I thought nothing new could come out of acoustic music along they come with this sweetly different approach. I am so enjoying that.â€
FOLK ART? LET'S DANCE!
Three of the best by the new folk acts, and an essential sampler. By Jay Babcock and Andrew Male.
The Milk-Eyed Mender
(Drag City, 2004)
Delicacy, poise, lovely melodies, lush lyrics-as-poetry and an unforgettable ancient-schoolgirl voice from a 22-year-old, 46-string harpist raised in a California Gold Rush town. Undeniable. (JB)
Debut album of gorgeously mounted, drumless mountainside acid-folk in the tradition of Pentangle, Incredible String Band and Ghost by a dual-sex Philadelphia chamber trio. Haunting, hazy, holy. (JB)
"Golden Apples of the Sun"
The essenital 20-artist limited-edition sampler of the contemporary weird folk scene, lovingly selected, sequenced and art-decorated by Devendra Banhart for America's Arthur magazine. Available from www.arthurmag.com (AM)
Six Organs of Admittance
(Holy Mountain, 2003)
Masterful fingerpicking guitarwork and harrowing, darkly melodic vocals by Americaâ€™s psychedelic folk lord, Ben Chasny. Think Fahey and Drake, camping out in Californiaâ€™s Redwoods. (JB)