Sound of summer: Meet the new faces of nu folk
Beer bellies and beards begone! Music's most maligned genre has never looked – or sounded – better. And, this festival season, you'll scarce be able to walk five paces without hearing a fiddle or a banjo
Sunday 11 July 2010
Up on the 15th floor of a central London hotel, with views over the capital on its lunch hour, Seth Lakeman is ruminating over the suggestion that he is one of the forerunners of the so-called nu folk revival that 2010 will likely be most remembered for. It is, admittedly, one of those convenient catch-all phrases, nu folk, one that kindly permits us to bring together all sorts of acoustically minded young bands under the one umbrella, and though the very term might well make your average fisherman's friend wince – or, for that matter, Port Isaac's Fisherman's Friends themselves, the traditional Cornish folk troupe that recently enjoyed a top 10 album – there is no getting around it: one of the oldest, and most maligned forms of English music is finally enjoying a major renaissance. Deal with it.
Anyway, back to Seth Lakeman. For a folkie, Lakeman is an unnecessarily handsome bugger, all blazing blue eyes and chisel-jawed. If you didn't know better, you'd imagine he plied his trade as a hunky doc in Holby rather than singing about Anglo-Saxon legend to the accompaniment of an over-excitable fiddle. Yet this is precisely what he has done for the better part of a decade now.
"I asked my girlfriend's sister the other day what her favourite type of music was at the moment, and she said folk. She's 17!" beams the 33-year-old. "That's what I think is the most exciting thing about this revival: it's attracting young people. I can't imagine a 17-year-old having admitted to this a decade ago, can you?"
He's right. Lord knows why, but folk is suddenly cool again. In music, it's the new rock'n'roll, while in fashion, it is nothing less than the new black. Wander – by accident rather than intent, of course – into your nearest branch of Gap, and you will see that it forms the backbone of its summer collection. You can even buy a T-shirt here with the legend "FOLK ROCK" emblazoned upon it. When a strand of ' musical heritage, whose lineage dates back centuries, makes it on to the high street, you know it's reached saturation point. It'll be all over Starbucks next, and doubtless the imminent return of The X Factor too. All of which will make the purists cough and splutter into their patchwork waistcoats.
"These things are of course cyclical," says Colin Irwin, a folk-music journalist who has spent the better part of 30 years watching his beloved genre languishing in the margins. "It's about time it came back into the national consciousness. It's had a bad name for far too long now."
Folk music, he readily concedes, always was hamstrung by cliché, much of it undeniably deserved. Your average peddler of folk songs tended to be male and bearded, and came quite possibly with a beer belly and clad in a mandatory Aran sweater. "And he would sing these great long ballads that were, for the most part, completely incomprehensible," Irwin laughs.
Nowadays, though, they are more likely to look like Lakeman, or his female counterpart Laura Marling, a preternaturally gifted 20-year-old with cheekbones and radiance, and an air of 1971 about her that suggests she has spent much of her life barefoot. Marling has released two albums – 2008's Alas I Cannot Swim and this year's I Speak Because I Can – of richly nuanced folk that has been hailed by many as the greatest boost in the arm for the genre in a generation. She is chronically shy and, consequently, ever so enigmatic, and is fast becoming something of a star. Likewise her good friends Mumford & Sons, a bunch of well-bred Londoners who are essentially Coldplay with a banjo, and who look likely to be the first nu folk act to take their uplifting acoustic tunes all the way to the arena circuit. Their debut album Sigh No More is one of 2010's bestsellers.
"I would suggest that most of the newer acts today aren't particularly bothered about upholding any kind of traditional folk integrity," Lakeman argues, "but then why should they? Folk is an ancient art form, but for years now a great many of us were convinced it was dying out. I'm glad to see it's not."
Lakeman has just released his fifth studio album, Hearts and Minds, in which he marries narrative-based trad folk tales with more personal singer-songwriter fare. He's not tried this before, he confesses, because your trad folk artist tends mostly not to. He smiles. "My comfort zone up to now has been the myths and legends of Dartmoor. But I suppose I'm trying to do something more current here. Today's modern folk artist rather has to, wouldn't you say?"
Back in the 1970s, folk was music that was rich in historical detail and heady with the whiff of cider. And though it mostly existed in and of itself, acts such as Fairport Convention and Pentangle did occasionally achieve some measure of commercial success. A decade later, and folk had been uproariously harnessed to punk rock: first in Ireland by the Pogues, and, later, by a bunch of purportedly unwashed rabble-rousers called the Levellers, who took their brand of anarchic vim to the people – they were a massively popular live draw – while incurring endless jibes from a very snooty music press.
It wasn't until the mid-1990s that Eliza Carthy, the nasally pierced daughter of 1960s folk icons Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, brought folk music back into the mainstream proper, specifically Radio 2. Although Carthy had grown up with it in her blood, she keenly realised that its public perception needed a thorough MOT. "This kind of music was all about tradition for me, tradition and identity," says the 34-year-old, "but I wanted to see whether I could make it relevant for today's audiences as well. That, at least, was my aim."
She succeeded. Two of her albums, 1998's Red Rice and 2003's Anglicana, were Mercury-nominated. Her widespread appeal went on to open doors for the likes of Lakeman and Marling, and also for Northumberland's the Unthanks, each act also subsequently recognised by the Mercury panel, and selling many records. '
"I'm sure the purists won't be entirely happy that our brand of music is suddenly quite so popular with everyone," Rachel Unthank says in the back of a tour van somewhere outside Oxford. "But, personally speaking, I never wanted to be part of the folk police. I don't believe anyone has any more rights over the word 'folk' than anybody else. And I love the fact that a completely new breed of pop star is being inspired by it. I mean, have you heard Laura Marling? She's astonishing."
One of the bestselling albums of the past couple of weeks, meanwhile, has been Beachcomber's Windowsill, the exquisitely bucolic debut from Stornoway, an Oxford quintet whose mercurial rise these past few months mirrors that of Mumford's last year. A bookish act that didn't just grow up in Oxford but studied there as well, they number several degree students, one avowed ornithologist and a fluent Russian speaker within their ranks.
Over a meditative pint at London's University of London student union, where they are about to play a sold-out show to an audience of hip twentysomethings, keyboardist Jonathan Ouin – the linguist – points out, perhaps with a greater level of expertise than most (as part of his PhD he studied the history of Russian folk music), that his band are not strictly speaking part of the genre at all.
"Our lyrics are far too personal and lovelorn to really qualify," he says, "but, yes, I suppose there is a stylistic shell to this kind of music that ours sort of fits into. We have a similar approach in terms of instrumentation, and we certainly have a love of folk as a genre. I just hope it opens the door for other, perhaps lesser-known artists as well."
One of whom might just be the Norfolk-born singer- songwriter Tom McRae. Frequently likened to Nick Drake, that pillar of folky 1970s introspection, McRae mines a similarly melancholic vein to frequently profound effect. He released his latest album, The Alphabet of Hurricanes, earlier in the year, and although long a critical darling, he has yet to have his moment in the sun largely because the musical climate was never quite right. Perhaps it is now.
"Throw a stick in the air today and you are likely to hit a banjo or a fiddle," he says over lunch in Liverpool Street one sticky May afternoon. "And that's because, I think, the iPod generation have no sense of time continuum in music. They've put their parents' record collections on their iPods right alongside their own, and so they see no distinction between, say, Joni Mitchell and Radiohead. That's fantastic. It's healthy, too. I'm sure a lot of the music of the 1970s sounds much fresher to them than the music of the 1990s, much of which, in comparison, sounds as though it was carved on a cave wall. I don't know whether these acts shudder at the idea of being grouped together in a scene, but any world in which one can find like-minded souls is a good one as far as I'm concerned."
Rachel Unthank, meanwhile, is simply tickled pink to learn of Gap's "FOLK ROCK" T-shirt. Does official validation, she wonders, get any better than that? "I guess it must mean that at long last I'm fashionable!" she laughs. "I'll have to tell my dad. He'll be terribly proud."
Very much a family affair, Northumberland's Unthanks comprise two sisters (Rachel and Becky) and one husband (Adrian McNally; Rachel's), whose proactively traditional folk found itself thrust before the spotlight two years ago when their album The Bairns received a Mercury nomination.
"Folk music is basically an ancient form of storytelling, the passing down of tales through generations," says Rachel Unthank. "Though we are not particularly precious about it, that's very much where we are coming from, and what we hope to perpetuate."
She is nevertheless a firm admirer of the new crop of singers bringing the genre up to date.
"It's music that comes from an honest place, and you can see that when people such as Laura Marling and Seth Lakeman perform. Nu folk, or whatever you want to call it, is a reaction to all the mass-produced pop forced down our throats these past few years. People are yearning for something a bit more authentic, and what's more authentic than folk?"
'Here's the Tender Coming' by the Unthanks is available on EMI; rachelunthank.com
A proudly committed singer of ostensibly traditional folk songs – and a pretty nifty violin player, too – Lakeman grew up in Devon playing in folk bands with his father and brothers, before becoming a solo act in 2002. His second album, Kitty Jay, was recorded in his kitchen for £500, nabbed a Mercury nomination, and subsequently sold 40,000 copies. Now five albums into his career, he remains a link between folk's past and folk's future.
"But I'm not precious about it, I hope," he says, grinning. "Yes, I grew up on Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention, but I liked a bit of Bon Jovi as well. I've never really wanted to be struck within any boundaries. Who does?"
One of the few trad performers who receives both mainstream radio play and remains a major draw on the folk festival bill, Lakeman has also taken his music global. "I've been very lucky. I've collaborated with musicians all over the world: Libya, Malawi and beyond. It reminds you just what a passport folk music can be."
'Hearts and Minds', Seth Lakeman's latest album, is out on Relentless; sethlakeman.co.uk. Shot on location at Paradise Way of Kensal Green, London W10
Already labelled the new Mumford & Sons, Stornoway make charmingly fragile acoustic pop that should also appeal to fans of Belle and Sebastian. Had they emerged five years ago, they would probably have remained a much-loved cult act, but in the current climate, Stornoway have become a name to drop. Debut album Beachcomber's Windowsill debuted inside the top 20 last month.
"The history of folk music is fascinating," enthuses keyboardist Jonathan Ouin, who studied the history of European folk for his PhD. "And nowhere more so than in Russia. It was so full of symbolism and imagery, though actually much of the history contained within their folk songs were fake, a lie." He smiles bashfully. "But that's another story."
'Beachcomber's Windowsill' is out on 4AD; myspace.com/ stornoway
Initially touted as the new David Gray, Tom McRae has made five highly regarded albums over the past 10 years. The son of a vicar, he has a riveting habit of mixing melancholy with inner maelstrom.
"I moved to California a few years back," he says, "mostly because I wanted to lose the plot, and lose myself into the bargain. I did just that, then came back home again."
If the Los Angeles sunshine led to his most buoyant record to date, 2007's King of Cards, his latest, The Alphabet of Hurricanes, finds him back on more familiar ground.
"You can have too much sunshine; it is possible," he grins. "Besides, I didn't want to rip up my life continually just to fuel my songs. I didn't want to be miserable all the time." So far so good: the 40-year-old recently married his artist girlfriend.
'The Alphabet of Hurricanes' is out on Cooking Vinyl; tommcrae.com. Shot at The Three Kings, London EC1
Bombay Bicycle Club
Last year's emergent indie-pop darlings, Bombay Bicycle Club boast an average age of 20, and guitarist Jamie MacColl is from proper folk stock: his grandfather was legendary folk artist Ewan MacColl, father of the late Kirsty.
Less than a year after their debut album I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose comes Flaws, a mostly solo effort from singer Jack Steadman, and inspired by his parent's record collections. "Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and people like Neil Young, John Martyn, Nick Drake," he says. "There's something so much more direct about songs when they are delivered solo and acoustically."
'Flaws' is out on Island tomorrow; bombay bicycleclubmusic.com
Ask Oxford-born Gilmore how she has managed to release 10 albums in 10 years when most bands don't manage that in a career, and she will tartly reply: "Because I'm a tenacious bitch who won't take no for an answer."
Her forthcoming album, Murphy's Heart, is a richly wrought beauty of limpid folk infused with her habitual melancholy.
"I'm not saying I exist in a pit of despair," she smiles, "but my 'up' moments are akin to most other's fair-to-middling. But then, there is a certain beauty in the dark, no?
"I'd never compromise for success," she adds. "If my music doesn't retain its honesty, I may as well be selling beans at Sainsbury's."
'Murphy's Heart' is out on 30 August on Fullfill; theagilmore.net. Shot at Alphabet Bar, London
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