We’ve touched on folk music a few times on Sound of Life lately – partly because it feels like it’s a natural thing to gravitate to in troubled and confusing times.
A big one was the Folk on Foot Festival online. Back at the beginning of the Covid crisis, its sense of intimacy, simplicity and direct connection couldn’t have been more needed. Many of the records we’ve covered which have touched people most deeply have been folk or folk-adjacent, too. From Romanian singer Lizabett Russo to Michigan’s Windy & Carl, superstar Norah Jones to avant-garde art-musician Lea Bertucci, musicians with radically different approaches have all converged on sounds with a sense of history.
Shanghai’s Howie Lee has created an entire futuristic vision that incorporates Chinese folk among other forms. Most recently, Edinburgh’s Dot Allison spoke compellingly to us of both the “human, heart-wrenching... brokenness” and the “wonder and universal musings” of the psychedelic folk of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Add to that the regular experience of seeing the lowest of low-tech bands up close in our own living rooms online as we compiled the KEF Culture Hub guide to lockdown and post-lockdown music streams, and folk has been a deep running seam this past two years – as it clearly has been for many others. It was about time we compiled some of the new music that’s been most inspiring to us. Folk Music for Hard Times brings together music all released in the past 18 months or so which has touched us deeply.
There’s cultural fusion, from Mongolian in Munich, Enji, to the Khasi-Cymru Collective who marry Welsh folk with music of the Khasi hills of the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya. There are lowercase hipsters, from Brooklyn-based compulsive traveller koleżanka to eight-piece London improvisational band caroline. There’s ultra-sophisticated jazz and pop-inflected song-writing from the Canadian Nicholas Krgovich, the Argentine-Swede Jose Gonzalez and Briton Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip. There’s straight up Nashville country from Jason Isbell and Holly Macve, and outsider honky-tonk from the likes of The Modern Folk. Finally, silver-haired musicians Frankie Armstrong (80 years old), Shirley Collins (86) and Willie Nelson (88) are still going strong.
Note well, this is not escapism – quite the opposite, in fact. Folk has always engaged with the troubles of the real world, and from the moment LA singer-songwriter Marina Allen begins “Belong Here” with the lines “California is on fire / New York is under water”, it’s clear her sophisticated groove is not anaesthetic or mindless. This isn’t all for the sake of tradition or simplicity, either – there are strange, new and sometimes disquieting electronic and compositional quirks galore. So it goes on: through this three hours there’s music that will take you to other continents and even other centuries, music that envelops you like a dream, but it all has guts, power and intentionality. You can bathe in it or you can engage with every word; either way, it hits hard. Enjoy, and as ever, get in touch here or via social media and let us know what sounds the best floating out of your speakers!
Cover Credit: Official Record Label
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs