Common Folk, Common Threads
I've been thinking about folk music lately. I've been thinking about it mainly because something's been bugging me. Everywhere there's an acoustic guitar, it seems, you'll find the pesky word 'folk' t"It's all an extension of the natural arc /and unless you lay with me, you won't know what I mean." – The Places, "The Natural Arc"
I've been thinking about folk music lately. I've been thinking about it mainly because something's been bugging me. Everywhere there's an acoustic guitar, it seems, you'll find the pesky word 'folk' there, too. Jack Johnson is "folk." Norah Jones has been called "folk." Soon enough, someone will describe Colbie Caillat as a "folkie."
But what does "folk" mean when every EZ-listening singer/songwriter who happens to sling an acoustic guitar across his or her back (or worse, only adds one as "color" to the occasional song) is labeled a maker of folk music? And, in a post-Bob Dylan/post-Joni Mitchell world where folk is no longer strictly music of the common people passed along generation to generation by way of the oral tradition, how do we figure out whether anyone making original music is deserving of the folkie mantle? And is it worth bothering?
Two young artists whose music I've had the privilege of stumbling upon in the past year or so are primarily responsible for this definition-of-folk business getting stuck in my head. The first is a woman by the name of Amy Annelle, who generally performs behind the moniker the Places. The second, a fellow called Fionn Regan, hails from Ireland but currently makes England home.
I should add here that a lot of music finds its way across my desk every day: most of it is mediocre, some of it is worse than that and just a thin slice is better. When the latest CDs by the Places and Regan -- "Songs for Creeps" and "The End of History," respectively -- ended up in my player, both knocked me off balance. Not just because Annelle and Regan each have hauntingly beautiful voices, an uncanny knack for beguiling lyrics and extraordinary musical skill, but because, by each, I was reminded of some of the greatest names in modern folk music, including the aforementioned Dylan and Mitchell.
Mind you, neither "Songs" nor "History" sounds particularly similar to anything the "canonized" modern folkies produced. (That goes for "Songs," especially: Annelle uses layer upon layer of instrumentation and "found" sounds to craft richly textured, exotic song-worlds that bear little resemblance to standard voice-and-guitar folk tunes.) The real tie binding these two contemporary music makers to the folkies who arose out of the '50s and '60s is the way their original, of-the-moment compositions profoundly evoke some mostly forgotten history, as if they're sitting just outside the present tense. To borrow a line from one of Regan's songs, their music exists as "an aerial view of a coastal town you once knew" -- both real and surreal, familiar yet far.
I figured I might be onto something when I had Annelle and Regan, separately, describe their own music to me.
Annelle wrote: "It sounds like voluntary falconry. The sound translation of clouds riffing on the tops of mountains in the High Desert. Like introspection and a guilty conscience. It sounds like killer dogs on chains, and moss growing on cars, and being alone with your thoughts in an empty house in the High Plains between two sets of train tracks."
And Regan said: "I suppose it's the sound of a carnival barker at the gates of a forest, a worker strapped to a roof rack looking up at the stars, a fused conversation in a cellar, a love letter in the gills of a couch, a slide show on the gable wall."
Like genuine folk singers before them, Annelle and Regan make music borne up from the land. Keen, empathetic observers, they seem to move, like ghosts, through walls and locked doors and into the homes and lives of men and women they'll never be, yet whose stories are somehow always in part their own -- and our own.
Although their formative years were quite different, what Annelle and Regan share are colorful memories of the way their surroundings imparted music with a mystery and a magic that has persisted for each.
"I am the youngest of seven children," Annelle says. "And my siblings had friends staying at the house sometimes. My parents weren't around much, so there were a lot of rooms carved out of the basement and attic, porn stashes in dresser drawers, pot and kegs hidden in the crawlspace. There were lots of records stacked against the wall, and big puffy headphones with curly cords to listen to them. I was super into the dream worlds of album art as a child and would analyze the pictures, staring from every angle at the naked girls climbing the rocks on 'Houses of the Holy,' the dismembered dolls and statues in the flower garden on 'Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.'"
"Our house," Regan remembers, "was the capital of magnet pull for the traveling musician, drunken poet with a bullhorn, retired fruit picker stringing up a banjo [and] shaky handed author with owl eyebrows. As soon as a nasal pitched singing air pilot took leave, a lorry driver with a hurdy gurdy entered. When it was my turn I'd do my piece up on a table, with a bowler hat, waistcoat and cane. I'd improvise a piece on ghost ships, ladders to the moon, wolves in tailcoats, that kind of thing."
The two musicians also share a history of odd jobs and moving about. Annelle describes working as a record store clerk, a carny, a house cleaner and even doing "medical studies and labor jobs." Growing up in Chicago, she eventually "started rambling around, staying with friends and in the wilderness. I ended up in Portland [Ore.] in the late '90s, not so much as a destination but a place to rest and make some things. I made four albums and stayed on and off until 2004, when I split. I've been mostly on the road since then, with spells in the high desert, the woods, California, New York City, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Austin."
Regan "traveled all around" also. "[I] just put my thumb to the headlights, kept my mouth closed, and my ears wide open, opened my mouth when the time called, but never closed my ears waking or sleeping. You might end up collecting and tying wood for a few days, digging drains, torching weeds, shining brass door handles, helping tune a public announcement system for the barn dance, picking up empty cans in the sawdust morning."
So what does all this have to do with folk music? We know enigmatic figures like Dylan and Ramblin' Jack Elliott invented most of their meandering hobo personal histories, anyway. But as with those two, it's the fact that these stories exist and that Annelle and Regan find such fanciful ways to convey them that matters. It is part of the fabric that joins these contemporary yarn-spinners with their modern folktale-telling forebears.
I asked them both what the folk music tradition was to them and whether they imagined themselves as carrying it on in some way. Annelle reflected, "I think of things in geological time, of gradual evolutions and erosions and occasional violent upwellings and invasions. Music continues evolving as a result of the voluntary and forced migrations of people and their music being performed in foreign environments, overheard by others and changing. This is where I might consider myself as carrying on a folk tradition."
"There is a lineage," Regan answered. "There is a thread that goes way back. In saying that, I feel more like a newly growing tree planted in old ground, rather than a singular branch off an ancient tree. Maybe I'm a distant relation who receives birthday and Christmas cards."
When I asked the singers what overarching creative philosophy guides their work, Annelle said, "to be a conduit for collective experiences" and Regan said, "To tell it like it is."
What is genuine folk music if it isn't these things? Acoustic guitars are irrelevant.
Regan's "The End of History" finally hits U.S. shores on July 10 via Lost Highway. The Places' "Songs for Creeps" is available now via Annelle's own label, High Plains Sigh (highplainssigh.com). And if there's any justice in this world, the Places will soon have a record deal of its very own, as Annelle is currently preparing to break ground on her next album. Meanwhile, you can catch the Places at New York's Joe's Pub on July 13. Regan begins a U.S. tour July 20.