Monsters of Folk: Folk has a new supergroup

Monsters of Folk could upset the purists. Elisa Bray reports on a change for a usually unassuming scene
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The Independent Culture

It's been a while since we had a new folk collective. Since Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in the late Sixties, the last folk supergroup was probably Pentangle, starring Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Danny Thompson, back in the Seventies. By the end of that decade, folk was failing to attract new listeners and slipped into the underground

Until recently. Folk is ostensibly cool again and it was only going to be so long before a new folk supergroup was born. Meet Monsters of Folk.

Our new supergroup stars Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, My Morning Jacket's Jim James and M Ward. While, in America, the genre of folk applies to any singer-songwriter picking up an acoustic guitar, from Bon Iver to the sun-drenched harmonies of Fleet Foxes, over here, Oberst or James would not be considered folk artists. There may just be a spoonful of playful irony in the title that these luminaries of contemporary Americana and indie rock go under – and not only because folk and monsters are not usually uttered in the same breath. Monsters of Folk is not even likely to cross the paths of the folk purists.

The editor of the folk magazine fRoots, Ian Anderson, said: "I haven't heard of any of them [Bright Eyes, Jim James or M Ward]. There's a habit of calling anything fey, wimpy, retro and vaguely psychedelic, folk, when it's really acoustic rock. It's something that comes over here from America – the whole thing of calling singer-songwriters folk goes back to Bob Dylan, but even Dylan had good knowledge of roots."

Colin Irwin, who has been reviewing folk for 30 years, says: "Brilliant though he undoubtedly is, Conor Oberst would be unlikely to be recognised as a 'folk' artist by anyone in this country. It's interesting what he is doing with this project but I have to say, the very name Monsters of Folk fills me with some dread.

"There's been a glut of sub-genres invented in recent years – 'nu folk', 'acid folk', 'wyrd folk' – and most of them are fairly meaningless. It suggests a few people are trying to muscle in on folk's growing popularity."

Even if there are disagreements over their self-labelled music genre, Monsters of Folk are certainly harking to the folk tradition of musicians collaborating and performing in each other's groups. The three acts have been performing together as far back as 2004, when Oberst, Ward and James went on tour together, each doing their own sets before ending with a jamming session. The tour was called An Evening With: Bright Eyes, Jim James and M Ward, but to their fans became known as the Monsters of Folk – and the name remained.

"It's a very common thing on the folk scene that musicians will pop up in different groups," says Anderson. "The folk scene is much less straight down the line career-oriented than the more mainstream music industry. In the folk world, being able to make a living out of performing is a bonus. Jon Boden is in a duo with John Spiers, they're both in Bellowhead, they also play in Eliza Carthy's band the Ratcatchers, and Jon has his own band the Remnant Kings."

The four musicians of Monsters of Folk are just as prolific. Each artist has released critically acclaimed albums of the past five years: Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and Cassadaga, My Morning Jacket's Z and Evil Urges, and M.Ward's Post War and Hold Time. Matt Ward has an indie-pop side project called She & Him with the actress Zooey Deschanel, with whom he has been touring this summer in between touring his own February-released Hold Time, which included guest performances by Jason Lytle, Lucinda Williams, DeVotchka member Tom Hagerman and Zooey Deschanel. Jim James, as well as his group's two albums, has been performing under the zen moniker Yim Yames and will release an EP of George Harrison songs this August in tribute to the Beatle. Conor Oberst, as well as being the Bright Eyes frontman, released a solo eponymous album last year, and has been performing with the Mystic Valley Band.

In the early days, the Monsters of Folk foursome would play covers of "Always On My Mind" and Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country". Now, after two years of writing songs together and recording their efforts in Malibu and Omaha, and with Mike Mogis on production, their eponymous debut album will arrive in September. It is a varied country-rock album with some folk influence, leading to road-worn fables such as the "Man Named Truth" with its advice "Don't ever buy nothing from a man named Truth", or the tale "The Right Place" about being true to yourself : "Do you like what you see when you're looking at you?" Opener "Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)" has the electronica elements favoured on Bright Eyes' Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.

Even if it does not match our definition of folk, a supergroup can only raise the genre's profile. When the acclaimed leftfield folk-rock maverick Bonnie "Prince" Billy signed up the Scottish outsider Alasdair Roberts, who is partly inspired by the Scottish folk tradition, he demonstrated the way folk music is breaking out. A handful of folk artists have found mainstream success in the UK, such as Kate Rusby and Seth Lakeman, while new young artists have sprung up in the genre – The Unthanks, Jim Moray and Jackie Oates to name a few. You only have to look at a clutch of artists whose albums, having been ignored in the past decade, have recently found themselves back in favour, to gauge folk's rising popularity. The Watersons' singer Lal Waterson is a case in point. Her final album Once in a Blue Moon made little impact on its release in the mid-Nineties, but is now hailed by many as a lost classic, and cited by contemporary folk stars such as The Unthanks and James Yorkston, a figurehead of the past few years' folk revival who was invited to work as musical director for the BBC Electric Proms tribute to Lal Waterson. Next month, Yorkston releases an album of Folk Songs, not on the dedicated folk record label Topic – but on Domino Records, also home to the rock band Franz Ferdinand. Vashti Bunyan's 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day was re-released in 2000 and also hailed a lost classic. She has found fresh fame with a new audience and her latest album, produced by the composer Max Richter, featured many of her contemporary followers including Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Adem.

Over here we have Laura Marling and her contemporaries Mumford and Sons and Noah and the Whale. Other pop acts crossing into folk territory include Patrick Wolf, whose music may hark back to a traditional genre but whose last album was funded through entirely modern means – fans buying "shares" via the internet.

There's no doubt that folk is ever more popular. "It's not just more popular," says Anderson. "While people look at Cambridge Folk Festival as the main one, it isn't that representative of the scene in general. There are several hundred other folk festivals around the country. At Towersey Village Festival in Oxford in August last year there were 2,500 people crammed into a tent to see Bellowhead and 1,500 of them were under 25, crowd-surfing. You wouldn't know that. It's a parallel universe."

And maybe that's because the fans of folk's underground scene want it to stay that way.