Experimental Folk

Los Angeles Times | by Susan Carpenter

A song and dance man

Maybe it's just good, old-fashioned reactionary-ism -- the natural byproduct of a culture that's been saturated and subsequently weighed down by too much self-obsessed hip-hop and shrieking, aggressive rock. But a softer, gentler side of music is coming to the fore, one that's as traditional as it is contemporary. Call it the new folk.
More of a shared sensibility than a formalized genre or movement, it's being woven together by a growing collection of young artists from strains of bluegrass and jazz, country and blues and even vaudeville into stripped-down songs that sound strangely outside the present era.
Unwittingly nudged into the light by plaintive singer-songwriters like Cat Power, this new folk, or avant folk as it's sometimes called, is now being propelled by a diverse crop of artists. Singing spooky Americana with a quivering Marc Bolan spin, Devendra Banhart is often hailed as new folk's vanguard. Other male artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine are also getting a lot of attention for their modern takes on traditional music, but it's the lesser-known female artists who seem to be pushing folk beyond its acoustic guitar and banjo boundaries.
From the haunting and honey-voiced Jolie Holland to the Victorian throwback sister act Cocorosie to the mythologically minded harpist Joanna Newsom and yodeler extraordinaire Dawn McCarthy of Faun Fables, these artists are taking folk music in bold and intriguing new directions.
But don't call them folk musicians (even though many of them play acoustic instruments and cover traditional songs). And don't call them a scene (even though most of them know, or at least know of, one another).
"People say 'folk' a lot, but it's so meaningless. What does 'folk' mean? It means 'human.' I hope we're all human," said Holland, a sort of Appalachian jazz singer whose voice draws frequent comparisons to those of Billie Holiday and Norah Jones.
A San Francisco artist by way of Houston, New Orleans and Vancouver, the 28-year-old, self-taught multi-instrumentalist started racking up kudos a couple of years ago with "Catalpa." An unpolished but affecting collection of modern-day mountain music demos, the record was originally distributed among friends, then sold at shows and online, eventually doing so well that Holland said she was able to live off the record's sales. And that's before it was even picked up by a label.
Anti-, an Epitaph Records boutique label that is home to Tom Waits, rereleased "Catalpa" last fall, following it with "Escondida," Holland's spit-shined continuation on the same theme, this spring.
"I think it's a cultural case of eating too many bagels. People understand that for something to be interesting, there has to be yin with the yang," Holland said. "Artists who are trying to make work that is actually meaningful to people, you can tell that they've heard too much straight-ahead, white-flour music, so they're just trying to do something that's more organic andalive."
Back to basics
Indeed, the culture does seem ripe for the more sincere style of music Holland and her ilk are making -- and not just as a counterpoint to the harder-edged rap and rock that's dominated the charts of late. As in the '60s, when folk music experienced unprecedented commercial popularity, we are living in times of unrest, an era when people are trying to get back to basics, to the roots of what's important in life. And these new folk artists are doing just that, through simple melodies, and lyrics that are emotionally honest and evocative.
"The songs were natural like dreams. We dreamt in our own language and they were reflective of the past, perhaps some nostalgic homage to early American music," said Bianca Casady, 22, half of Brooklyn-based Cocorosie.
With its distant, megaphone-like vocals and echo-y piano, "La Maison de Mon Reve," the duo's debut on Touch & Go this past spring, could almost be mistaken for an Alan Lomax field recording of a backwoods revival meeting. A scratchy, 78-player sound is present throughout the album, which is riddled with religious lyrics and found sounds from unlikely places, i.e., farm toys from France, where the album was recorded on a four-track with Bianca's sister Sierra, 23. If it weren't for rampant sampling and some primitive hip-hop beats, the record could pass for something from the '20s.
When so many present-day artists seem to have almost no sense of history, it's refreshing to hear music that straddles old and new, commingling the distant past with the present to make something fresh yet familiar.
"I'm trying to relearn what our hands used to know. I really feel this kind of a loss of what a lot of civilization has taken from us: our knowledge and our connection with natural rhythms," said Dawn McCarthy, 32, guitarist and lead singer of Oakland-based Faun Fables.
The duo, which also features Nils Frykdahl, released its debut record, "Family Album," this year on Drag City.
During a live show at the El Rey last month, the high-energy group exuded an earthy, old-world charm that would have been equally appropriate at a Renaissance Faire. Dressed in neo-peasant attire -- McCarthy in a pixie-esque petticoat and Frykdahl as a Cossack-style Robin Hood -- McCarthy belted out robust vocals accented with occasional yodels, while Frykdahl backed her up on a panoply of instruments, from guitar and flute to autoharp and xylophone. Instrumentally, the group is folk, but performance-wise, Faun Fables borders on vaudeville. During one song, McCarthy encouraged people to follow her lead while she sang and danced in a style that was half old West saloon girl and half '60s go-go dancer. In another tune, about aging, she donned a gray wig and painted wrinkles on her face while looking in a compact mirror.
Part folk, part performance art, Faun Fables isn't the sort of act that would go over well with fans of straightforward, modern-day folk artists, such as Iris DeMent. In fact, most of these new folk artists are finding their audience in the hip, young indie rock crowd and are played predominantly on college radio, alongside current flavors of the day in retro rock and electro.
Artists like Jolie Holland and Devendra Banhart have also garnered coverage in mainstream music magazines like Spin (where Banhart was recently dubbed an "artist to watch") and Rolling Stone (where Holland was named heir apparent to Grammy winner Norah Jones).
Clearly, the nonmovement known as new folk is gaining ground, even if it's far from being on a par with folk's '60s heyday, when legends-in-the-making like Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie first came on the scene, performing in folk-specific clubs and inspiring entire magazines devoted to the genre. But there's time. The gestation period for folk's first go-round in the limelight was about half a decade. New folk is still in its infancy.
On the younger end of the spectrum is Joanna Newsom, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter from San Francisco who is doing for the harp what Tiny Tim did for the ukulele -- taking a novelty instrument and putting it to popular use. Performing solo, with the 6-foot-tall, 36-string instrument propped between her knees, Newsom plays the harp as if it were as natural a folk instrument as the guitar, banjo, piano or fiddle.
In truth, she is redefining the instrument -- one that is most often associated with minor parts in symphonies or parodies involving angels. Transposing West African and Venezuelan harp technique to the Western classical instrument, she plucks instead of strums. With her right hand playing in the upper register and her left hand picking out the bass line, she sounds as if she's playing two guitars. Add Newsom's lyrics, which detail a personalized mythology populated with fairies and other magical beings, and her vocals, which she sings with a childlike glee, and Newsom is a one-woman folk trio -- one of the more pioneering and unique voices of the genre.
Invitation to tour
Like many traditional folk artists, and neo-folk artists, Newsom wasn't after commercial success when she first started recording in early 2003. After attending Mills College in Oakland, where she studied composition, ethnomusicology and creative writing, she decided to archive some of the songs she'd composed "just for my own records, but I started giving them to friends to see what people thought."
It wasn't long before one of the CDs she'd burned found its way to Will Oldham, the cracked-voiced frontman for the 1990s' quintessential alt-country outfit, Palace. Oldham, who now records under the moniker Bonnie Prince Billy, was so impressed with what he heard that he asked Newsom to tour with him. He also forwarded a copy of her CD-R to his label, Drag City Records in Chicago. Newsom agreed to the tour and, later that year, Drag City signed her, releasing her debut, "The Milk-Eyed Mender," this past spring.
In addition to Newsom and Faun Fables, Drag City is also home to White Magic, a female-fronted trio that takes its cues from lesser-known heroes of the '60s folk scene -- artists like Karen Dalton, an enormously talented singer whose skittishness left an unjust legacy of a scant two records, and Fred Neil, best known for "Everybody's Talkin' "
Layered on top of its classic folk foundation is a healthy dose of jazz. Most of the songs on its recent five-song EP, "Through the Sun Door," begin with elementary piano and drum lines that are then mirrored with alto vocals recalling the Delta blues and gospel.
Based in Brooklyn, White Magic is part of the new folk's unintentional bicoastal scene. Where the '60s folk movement was centralized in Greenwich Village, which became a magnet for up-and-coming talent, the new folk has no center. Like the '60s, it is still an urban movement, but most of the artists in the genre seem to be hailing from the coasts, specifically Brooklyn and San Francisco.
"It's kind of mind-boggling to think of people making music that emulates such rural perspectives in big cities, but it really does have to do with things having saturated down to where you could be living in the middle of nowhere and making some sort of futuristic techno," said Drag City sales director Rian Murphy. "It's all out there. As the planet resembles more and more of a refuse pile, everything is just scrambled together."
In the end, that may explain why these new artists are so leery of identifying themselves as folk musicians. With every new genre rooted in the old, the term "folk," much like the term "rock," has lost its meaning, even if its presence is very much in evidence.
On the surface, the juxtapositions of sounds and styles in the new folk movement may seem contrived, but they're coming from a sincere place. We live in more complex times and are therefore subject to more complex influences. Folk music is still the music of the people, but the people have changed. According to Banhart, often painted as the movement's pied piper: "None of us who are making it are traditional, purist people. I've been called a folk singer, but that's not what I call myself at all. I just like to go with what Dylan said -- a song and dance man."