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The new face of folk music

January 29, 2013

“WHAT I don’t understand,” says Chris Wood, “is why, when young people see so much misery, injustice … around them, they don’t see music as an expression of disgruntlement. Where are the young protest singers? Instead, we get this limp, bedroom ukulele music that keeps turning up on mobile phone ads.”

In 2011, fiddler and folk-singer Wood won the best original song category at the Radio 2 Folk awards for ‘Hollow Point’, his affecting account of the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian who was shot dead by London police in 2005. “Awake arise you drowsy sleeper,” the song begins, its title a reference to the type of bullet fired by the police.

For most of the 1980s and ’90s, singer-songwriters barely got house room on the folk scene, as Celtic instrumentalists and traditional singers dominated. But since their inception in 2000, the Folk awards have highlighted changes in the scene — and not just in subject matter. The original song category boasts an especially strong shortlist this year, and all four nominees are women.

Kathryn Roberts knows all about the pitfalls of trying to write modern folk songs from her time with 1990s “brat folk” group Equation. The mother of five-year-old twin daughters, Roberts re-emerged last year with the album Hidden People. Made with her husband Sean Lakeman, who had also been in Equation, the album featured ‘The Ballad of Andy Jacobs’, a poignant song set against the tumultuous backdrop of the miners’ strike of 1984.

The song would be a shoo-in to win at the awards were it not for the quality of the other contenders: Karine Polwart’s ‘King of Birds’, Emily Portman’s ‘Hatchlings’ and Anais Mitchell’s ‘Tailor’. ‘King of Birds’ also has a political undercurrent. Awash with allegories, the song, from Polwart’s album Traces, subtly mixes what might be called new folk and old: it weaves the Occupy London demonstrations into a challenging narrative that features wren birdlore and the history of St Paul’s Cathedral.

“In structure and melody, it’s not really a folk song, but what’s folkie is the intent,” says the 42-year-old from Stirlingshire, Scotland, who made a leap of faith when she quit the band Malinky to concentrate on her own songwriting nearly a decade ago.

“Most mainstream pop is about love, but folk songs don’t tend to do that,” she adds. “I don’t think any of the nominated songs could have been written by anyone who doesn’t love or isn’t versed in traditional song. We’re not going for the modulated final chorus and the big bridge.”

Legends, fantasies and mythology populate the idiosyncratic lyrics of Emily Portman, who wrote ‘Hatchlings’ on the cliffs at Tynemouth, on the northeast coast, where she was living at the time.

Anais Mitchell’s songs are the product of a similarly racing imagination, something she attributes to being raised by hippy parents on a 200-year-old Vermont farm. She would roam its 150 acres, thinking up Tolkienesque tales about all the fairies and unworldly creatures that, she believed, lurked in the woods.

Vividly lyrical, her music has been highly acclaimed, especially Hadestown, her extraordinary 2010 concept album and folk opera — a modern take on the myth of Orpheus attempting to rescue his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld. She describes ‘Tailor’, from the album Young Man in America, as a song about “searching for an identity but doing it to please someone else, the father figure or lover”.

Are any of them, I wonder, ever tempted by pop? Kathryn Roberts is amused by the notion. “What’s that Taylor Swift song? ‘Never Ever Getting Back Together’ or something? It’s a great pop song, full of hooks, the perfect teenage girl’s song. But I’d never ever be able to do a song like that. Ever. I like stories.” — The Guardian, London