The new breed of British folk singers - a fresh sound?

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The Independent Culture

After years in the wilderness, folk music is seen once more as a genre just as vital and relevant as hip-hop, rock and jazz. Yet the artists that are most responsible for its reappraisal are uncomfortable with being tagged as folk artists.

Once seen as a conservative anachronism, folk has bounced back, with its leading lights given due credit and younger exponents appraised as mainstream artists. It is a far cry from the tired stereotype of warm beer, woollen ties and facial hair. Indeed, this year's BBC Folk Awards was a relatively glittery affair, attended by comedian Adrian Edmondson and actor Charles Dance.

One of the most heart-warming success stories of the past year has been the comeback of Vashti Bunyan. The Scottish singer-songwriter released one album, Just Another Diamond Day, in 1970 that somehow bombed. She disappeared with little trace, until the record was put out to almost universal acclaim in 2000.

Encouraged by its success, Bunyan returned to the recording studio to write a follow-up, which came out in 2005 to a just-as-warm response. Her pastoral whimsy had changed little, though Bunyan refuses to see herself as a folk artist, even if her first album featured members of the genre's powerhouses, Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band.

"I first recorded with Andrew Loog Oldham, so I've always thought of myself as a pop singer, and people in the folk world looked down on me because of that. I know the meaning has changed, but I still see it as traditional music and I'm not a traditional singer."

Bunyan still feels ignored, even noticing that folk magazines failed to review Diamond Day on its rerelease, though she was invited to perform as part of the Barbican's Folk Britannica series. "I turned it down three times, but in the end I was persuaded because it showed how folk had moved on," she says. "I was shooting myself in the foot, but I wanted to be involved with the other musicians."

Adem Ilhan is also on the second instalment of a solo career that has helped raise the profile of credible acoustic acts. Along with New Yorker Devendra Barnhart and Scottish troubadour King Creosote, Ilhan works in an acoustic vein, but with such a breadth of taste that it is difficult to relate it to folk. The forthcoming album Love And Other Planets has much delicate instrumentation, but also layers of lush strings, harpsichord and a thoughtful direction that is almost conceptual. It is anything but folk, he says.

"I'm always challenging myself and the listeners, so I don't get pigeonholed. The problem with someone labelling something is that a couple of band generations down people are making records because they've listened to King Creosote or James Yorkston, but they're not listening widely, to what those people listen to. King Creosote listens to Funkadelic and James listens to some crazy African music, and those things are essential to the music they are making."

Working with Bunyan on early live performances and on her latest album was certainly nothing to do with giving something back to an inspirational performer, Ilhan maintains. Rather, they hit it off as artists with similar viewpoints.

"It was flattering to be part of such a project, but you shouldn't make music to expect something back. Vashti would never allow that to happen. We talked at length about how this should be a new thing and she should not be responsible to anything else."

Yet Ilhan is still pleased that acoustic singer-songwriters are back in vogue, great news for his annual London-based shindig Homefires, which brings together innovative new talents such as the beguiling harp-player Joanna Newsom, along with veteran performers. Influential guitarist Bert Jansch headlined last year, while Bunyan tops the bill this June.

"It started as just a way to bring all my favourite artists together, but there was such a warm reaction it has gone on from there. I try and get big acts to do something different and introduce new acts, people like Jose Gonzalez."

When Ilhan first released solo music, critics were already struggling to describe the lo-fi acoustic movement. The US had its anti-folk scene of iconoclastic acoustic artists that included Barnhart, the geeky Jeffrey Lewis and the punky Moldy Peaches. UK artists, meanwhile, had taken a more experimental approach that became known as folktronica, led by Ilhan's bandmate Kieran Hebden, who continues to record as Four Tet.

One group that has picked up the baton for laptop-meets-analogue is London-meets-Derbyshire collective Tunng. What began as an experiment with studio maven Mike Lindsey and secretive songwriter Sam Genders has morphed into a live group that has supported the likes of King Creosote.

It was at last year's Green Man Festival, the folk-based weekender in Wales, that Lindsey realised his group had grown from a duo into something much bigger. "We were playing to 300 people that knew the words and I looked round and thought 'this is a band'."

Still, it is tricky for him to accept the folk tag.

"It's not necessarily the reality, because there are a lot of bands described as folk in some way that all have their own distinctive sound. But at the same time, having been put in that category, we have got invited to festivals and collaborations with other people, so it might help people understand us in some way."

Lindsey's contention that his music has just as much to do with pop and electronica is born out by a listen to Tunng's forthcoming single "Woodcat", which typifies the group's mix of complex rhythms, disorientating samples and the occasional strong songwriting.

Only slightly more comfortable with the term is folk's current pin-up, Seth Lakeman. The Devonian fiddler was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize last year, one of a succession of token folkies to be named on its shortlist. Though while previous entrants had been treated with mocking condescension, Lakeman was treated as a serious contender. Even so, he would rather not be lumped in completely with that genre.

"I am a born and bred folkie, taken to the Sidmouth and Weybridge festivals at an early age, and I'm inspired by local tales. But I want to rewrite them in a way that is more contemporary, with more up-to-date melodies. My influences are U2 and AC/DC just as much as folk musicians."

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