A new crop of London musicians plays at the boundaries between folk and pop. Call it what you will, writes Peter Terzian, but make sure to listen.
Between them, the British singer-songwriters Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn and the band Noah and the Whale have been called "folk-rock" (Rolling Stone), "alt-folk" (Uncut), "nu-folk" (The Independent), "neo-folk" (New York Daily News), "anti-folk" (The Guardian), "literary folk" (the Washington Post) and "new folk music minstrels" (The Irish Times) at the forefront of a "new acoustic/folk scene" (The Sunday Times).
Looking over publicity photos of the musicians in question - Marling sports hoodies and T shirts with the sleeves rolled up, while the young men in Noah and the Whale model bright blue and yellow outfits with goofy hats and bow ties - you'd be forgiven for having expected something closer to a merry band of fiddlers in clogs and earth tones. (Only Flynn, with his rosy cheeks and propensity for tweeds and flannel shirts, might fit the folky stereotype.) Listening to their music, you might wonder: do acoustic guitars, banjos and accordions a folk record make?
"None of us are folk," says Marling. "Traditional folk is something else, and it's definitely not what we are." Still, she finds herself falling back on the label too. "The reason that I call it folk is that it's easy, because I'm lazy." But before you dismiss the folk rubric as sloppy shorthand for record company marketers and critics in search of a pigeonhole, take another listen. Marling plays acoustic music in the same emotionally wrenching vein as Cat Power or Beth Orton, who aren't considered folk. But Alas, I Cannot Swim, the title song of Marling's debut album, updates the ancient ballad The Water is Wide. Noah and the Whale's Charlie Fink cites Kanye West and Pavement as influences, and the band shows its indie roots on its cover of the Smiths' Girlfriend in a Coma, but their music is layered with fiddles, ukuleles and marching band drums. This summer, they were a closing night act at the Cambridge Folk Festival. And if these musicians shy away from the folk label (or any labels at all, for that matter), that hasn't stopped them from playing with folkish tropes. In mid-September, Marling and Flynn will begin circling the United States and Canada, sharing the bill on what they're calling the Fee Fie Foe Fum Tour.
Folk might now be less a genre of music than a kind of intimacy between the artist and the listener - an intimacy signified by personal lyrics, gentle voices and acoustic instruments. "Folk music - and what people are now perceiving as being folk music - is music that's quite close to the ground," says Flynn. "The songs sound quite old, even if they're new. They sound like they've been sung by different people for years." Fans turn to the music as an alternative to the brasher, more discordant songs that predominate in rock and hip-hop, and as a retreat from a chaotic political climate. "There's a lot to complain about, but [folk music] is more about the way people actually live their lives as opposed to the way we're being governed. People are trying to quietly figure out how they feel about things."
Flynn's A Larum - the title is a Middle English spelling of "alarm", used in Shakespearean theatre to signify a ruckus, usually happening offstage - is one of three remarkable albums released by these artists over the past eight months. Flynn writes witty, word-dense and allusive story-songs that sometimes point to social issues. The heartbreaking Shore to Shore is based on an article the singer tore out of a newspaper about a bus driver responsible for the accidental death of a young girl ("She was no Hattie Carroll, it was cold, it was blue/And it only happened despite me or you"). Leftovers is probably the most rousing song ever written about dumpster diving ("Give me a dime for bacon rind/Or slip me some of that old sardine"). The album, recorded with Flynn's band, the Sussex Wit, appeared in early summer and became the first British record released by the American alt-country label Lost Highway.
If Flynn is the new folk revival's Dylan, Marling is its Joni Mitchell. Alas I Cannot Swim is a collection of songs about love and self-doubt built around the singer's pure, plaintive voice and emphatic guitar playing. The album appeared in February and was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. Much has been made of the fact that Marling is only 18. (It's worth noting that Laura Nyro and Bob Dylan made their recording debuts at 19 and 20, respectively.)
On the recently released Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down, Noah and the Whale - who take their name from Noah Baumbach's movie The Squid and the Whale - can sound as big and roisterous as a parade. But their buoyant acoustics belie frontman Charlie Fink's mournful lyrics. The record debuted on the UK charts at number five, and its lead single, 5 Years Time, has become something of a summer anthem. The song, which imagines two lovers spending a day at the zoo ("There'll be love in the bodies of the elephants too"), is so relentlessly cheery that you might miss the downbeat ending ("In five years time/I might not know you").
Marling points outs that "folk" might fit her colleagues in another sense of the word. "Folk is community, and the gigs we play are so like a community. Everyone's involved." Marling, Flynn and Noah and the Whale are the flagship acts of a London musical subculture that has flowered over the past few years. Other members of this loose collective are Jeremy Warmsley - whose second, electronica-dappled album, How We Became, will appear later this year - as well as Mumford and Sons, Emmy the Great and Jay Jay Pistolet, all of whom are in the process of preparing debut albums or EPs.
The lines that connect these musicians are many and tangled. Marling first met Fink three years ago when the two played at the now-shuttered London venue Bosun's Locker. Fink supported Marling on her first tour. "Then I saw him play with his band," she says, "and it was just that feeling of, 'Oh my God, that band's the coolest thing I've ever seen. I have to join it." For the next two years, Marling sang backup for Noah and the Whale, and her vocals thread through every song on Peaceful. Fink produced Marling's album, which features members of Mumford and Sons, who also back her up on stage.
Meanwhile, Flynn - who also acts with Propeller, an all-male Shakespeare troupe - began performing with Emmy the Great, whose boyfriend became Flynn's bass player. "I played trumpet for Noah and the Whale a couple of times," Flynn says, "and my sister, who's in our band, sings in Noah and the Whale, and Laura sang with us in America. "Everyone's quite keen to be seen in their own light," he continues, "but at the same time everyone's just such good friends and incredibly supportive of one another."
Fink, a 22-year-old London native, is less inclined to see his fellow musicians as a coherent group. "I respect what everyone does," he says, "but Laura's the only artist I really feel a bond with. She essentially rescued me from a life of boredom and complacency, and gave me a focus and put faith in me that no one had really done before. It's probably the thing I'm most grateful for in my entire life." Despite his band's recent chart success, he seems a little wistful looking back at the recording of Alas I Cannot Swim. "Working on that album broke my heart. It's like watching your kids go to university and you're stuck at home watching them have the time of their lives. I don't know if I'll produce another album."
Marling says that Fink introduced her to the music of Will Oldham, an American roots musician who records under the moniker Bonnie "Prince" Billy. His 1999 album, I See a Darkness, "pretty much changed my life," she says. In fact, almost all of these artists cite American influences. The 25-year-old Flynn was raised in a thatched cottage in a small Hampshire village - "a very old-fashioned English way of life, very slow-paced, with lots of fishing in rivers and building dens in trees" - and was exposed to English and Irish folk and fiddle music early on. At the age of 13, however, he picked up a copy of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan at a jumble sale. "I connected with it wholeheartedly. His voice transported me. And then through that I became interested in everything that had gone into that record, and went back and started listening to the stuff that Bob Dylan listened to." Robert Johnson and the early Delta blues musicians were "the first thing that opened my ears to how raw and affecting music could be."
Marling also grew up in Hampshire, outside of Reading. "It was a tiny village," she says, "boring." Her father, who ran a recording studio, taught her to play guitar through the music of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. "Obviously I don't sing in an American accent," says Marling, "so I can't really get away with it, but in America you can structure sentences in a completely different way, which I think is why it might be so interesting for us."
All three artists suggest that they might not be interested in performing acoustic music forever. Flynn confesses to playing around with "beats and stuff" on his computer. Marling thinks that Will Oldham "bloody nails it" by recording under different pseudonyms. "Laura Marling is Laura Marling and that's set in stone. I wish I hadn't gone under the name Laura Marling. I wish I'd gone under something different so it could be slightly more at arm's length. My first love was punk; I want to be in a punk band so bad." Fink dreams of making Motown and electronica records. The next Noah and the Whale release will be "a heart-break album", he says, accompanied by its own feature film. Fink has expressed his affection for American directors Baumbach and Wes Anderson, and his band's videos resemble vintage super-8 movies, with faded Kodachrome colour and singalong captions in Anderson's signature Futura font.
In June, the legendary British singer Linda Thompson, who took part in the late-'60s folk-rock revival along with her ex-husband Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake, saw Marling perform in New York. "I was very struck by how supernaturally collected she is," she says. "Not that I'm advocating this, but she doesn't interact with the audience tremendously much. She is doing her thing, and if you like it, you can listen to it, and if you don't like it, she's not going to try to?'Hi, how are you, so nice to be in New York'?none of that. She wasn't going to suck up to anybody. And this is from a teenager. Another thing I loved about her is she had on a baggy T-shirt. She's a very beautiful kid, but she wasn't playing that card at all."
Does Thompson see any continuity between the work of the Fairport Convention circle and the music made by Marling and her compatriots? "Oh, I don't know. Who can remember that far? I don't care about anything like that. ... When I see somebody who's really good I think, 'Ah, fantastic.' I don't equate it to anything or anybody." Folk, shmolk.
Peter Terzian has written about books for Bookforum, Newsday and the Los Angeles Times Book Review.