New wave at the folk club

No one knows its real name and its voices can't agree on what it all means, but 'nu-folk' still has real staying power, writes Nick Hasted
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The Independent Culture

The unlikely sound of the underground in 2005 is the antique strum of the folk guitar. It comes from a movement that has been building, quietly, for years and brings together those who have had folk passed down to them by family or friends, those who have stumbled upon it, and record rack-scouring DJs looking for one last genre to plunder.

The unlikely sound of the underground in 2005 is the antique strum of the folk guitar. It comes from a movement that has been building, quietly, for years and brings together those who have had folk passed down to them by family or friends, those who have stumbled upon it, and record rack-scouring DJs looking for one last genre to plunder.

Variously dubbed nu-folk, alt.folk, weird folk, laptop folk, folktronica and post-folk, it has distinct branches in the UK and US. The creaking atmospherics and weird ululations of Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom lead the American field, while Britain's Four Tet, Adem, James Yorkston and Alasdair Roberts offer traditional folk that has been updated or radically remixed.

The scene reached critical mass last summer with two festivals, Adem's Homefires at London's Conway Hall and the Green Man gathering at Hay-on-Wye. Sell-out successes, they created an instant community of careful, eclectic listeners whose tastes the major labels had failed to serve. This weekend brings Homefires II, with acts including Yorkston, Roberts and Badly Drawn Boy.

The first crucial UK release was Pause (2001) by Four Tet, aka Kieran Hebden, the first "folktronica" album. It pioneered the creation of warm, acoustic music from computer-sampled slivers of old, often folk records. Suddenly, British 60s folk veterans like Pentangle found their music being passed down to future generations. The Pedro vs Kathryn Williams EP (a 2001 sound-clash between the electronica artist and award-winning singer-songwriter), Four Tet's masterpiece Rounds (2003), The Memory Band's eponymous debut (2004) and Adem's Homesongs (2004) all followed.

Hebden and The Memory Band's Stephen Cracknell share a discomfort with the idea that their music has any ancient or intrinsic meaning.

"It's influenced by the fact that technology is at a point where you can reproduce acoustic sounds very well now," Cracknell insists. "The quality of computers means you can have the sonic precision and appeal in current hip-hop and R&B records with folk sounds, too. If there's a contradiction between traditional music and computers, it's one I'm interested in. You can use a computer as naturally as an acoustic guitar."

When pushed, Cracknell admits that the breadth of folk's subject matter does fascinate him. The unease he and most of the other British musicians I spoke to feel about the way folk offers deep-rooted, elemental truths about life in this country seems to rest not in the music itself, but in the very idea of "Britishness", and especially "Englishness".

Those involvedunderstand that it is useless to pretend there is any "pure" British music now, when we've all grown up hearing everything from The Beatles to bhangra. As Adem observes, his subtly warped acoustic tunes are filtered through knowledge of The Aphex Twin.

But British folk does have a centuries-deep immersion in what it is like to live in the British landscape, rural and urban. Charlotte Greig has released four albums of traditional songs, and is a passionate advocate of the music as something far more than sonic texture.

"There's a real anxiety and embarrassment about being English," she says, "whereas Americans take it for granted that you have to be something. I think we are just beginning to realise that we have our own music, as Americans have done with alt.country. There is a culture here that didn't just start with The Beatles, and is old and ancient and weird, and connects up with people's desire to find something pre-capitalist that they can feel is their own.

"There's this thing in pop music that 'my experience is more extraordinary than everybody else's'. But there's a time in your life when you're not so interested in people's subjective experiences. You're interested in birth, death, loss. Folk plugs into a universal world that's bigger than you."

Yorkston's Just Beyond the River (2004) and Roberts' No Earthly Man (2005) are the landmark UK attempts to re-connect to this universal, elemental world. Yorkston includes two traditional tunes, while Roberts sticks entirely with them. But there is a sonically precise beauty to both records that identifies them as 21st century, and the songs are remodelled in a way that makespurists flinch, even as Roberts drags timelessly uncomfortable emotion from his tales of death and metamorphosis.

Though Yorkston is a member of Fife's loose-knit Fence Collective, neither fit comfortably into Greig's ideal of folk as communal, selfless expression.

"I feel doomed to sing these songs," Roberts admits. "It's an emotional blockage, in a way, because they deny the needs of the ego. That isn't entirely a good thing."

In the US, Sufjan Stevens' project of recording albums in tribute to each state of the Union (Michigan, from 2003, is the latest) would make his country's legendary folk archivist Harry Smith proud, and Stevens, Banhart, Newsom and the band Vetiver are eager collaborators. But Newsom's freaky little-girl voice and harp virtuosity, like Banhart's shivering tones, or the manic bark of Micah P Hinson, are obviously subject to 21st-century isolation. "There's an internally turned gaze in all of it," says Newsom. "It is just intensely personal. It's the opposite of folk music."

"I don't think it's folk music, really," Adem agrees. "Nu-folk doesn't actually have much to do with folk, like post-rock didn't have much to do with rock. It's a misnomer that's become it's own thing. It's just that a lot of these people have been influenced by folk, and a lot of folk has instrumentation that can be played by the people. And most of these artists, if they played in your kitchen, would sound very similar to how they do on record. Maybe that's what people mean, when they say it's modern folk music."

Call it what you will; this scene is bringing deep-rooted individual expression to a discerning public. Now that musical mega-corporations are more oppressive than ever, that sounds like folk to me.

Homefires II is at Conway Hall, London, tomorrow and Sunday; the Weird Folk night is at the Lyric Hammersmith on 3 and 4 June

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