Hail to the thief

Jim Moray's nu folk electronica aspires to be more Radiohead than 'Hey, nonny, nonny', discovers Simmy Richman
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There's a classic episode of the 1970s sitcom, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, in which Frank Spencer auditions for a job as a "bluecoat" at a holiday camp, and the song that he chooses to sing is "Early One Morning". No one who has seen that excruciating moment would ever believe that they could take that particular song seriously again.

But Jim Moray - who has already been hailed as both the Nigel Kennedy of folk and the poster boy of nu folk - is just 21 years old, so the name Frank Spencer barely registers on his cultural radar. All of which is fortunate for us, because Moray has rescued and reinvented "Early One Morning" and used it to open his debut album, Sweet England. And if you're thinking "Hey nonny nonny", stop there, because Moray's version mixes strings with the latest technology to dazzle and remind the listener of just how relevant these centuries-old folk songs can be in the right hands.

Rescuing songs is something Moray takes as seriously as he does defying expectations. There have been mass exoduses at some of his gigs, and more than a few raised eyebrows among folk-music folk due to his use of digital samples and loops to carry songs that are hundreds of years old kicking and screaming into the 21st century. "There are hardcore folk fans who can't get past their preconceptions of the songs I'm playing," he says. "But I'm not playing for them. I'm playing for people who may never have heard these songs before."

And not everyone has been unsupportive - Moray was nominated for the Radio 2 Young Folk Musician of the Year in 2001, and Best Newcomer a year later. "A lot of people respect what I do. Many folk fans came in through Fairport Convention, who were influenced by The Byrds. They realise that I'm the modern parallel - playing traditional songs that end up sounding a bit like Radiohead."

This building of bridges between folk and modern rock is something that Moray, alongside members of the Afro Celt Sound System, is keen to explore further. To that end, he is planning an album of traditional English folk tunes to be recorded by modern-day musical luminaries. Moray is particularly keen to work with PJ Harvey. Such grand ambitions make it surprising to learn that he recorded Sweet England while studying for a music degree at the Birmingham Conservatoire. When he entered, he was a drummer writing songs in a pop band. It was only when he got hacked off with organising rehearsals and gigs, and lugging equipment around that he decided to become a singer and guitarist. "The first thing that came out of my mouth were these songs that I was brought up on. I suppose I had a strange childhood - I thought it was perfectly normal to be around morris dancers, and I just picked songs up by osmosis."

Fascinated by those "songs that you know but you never knew you knew", Moray dug deep, and Sweet England is the result.

So, is Moray's haunting tenor going to change the view of folk music as something exclusively for real ale-drinking geography teachers? A glimpse at his website proves that this young man has already built up a small, fanatical and youthful following. "It's actually quite scary," he says. "There was one message that said, 'I saw Jim the other day outside HMV and he's had a haircut.' I mean, it's not like I'm Robbie Williams or something. It's just folk music. It's really weird seeing that kind of thing when the truth is you are a student sitting in a bedsit in Birmingham eating baked beans."

With his degree safely in the bag, the world of bedsits, beans and Birmingham will not hold Moray for too much longer.

'Sweet England' is out now on the Niblick is a Giraffe label