Sam Lee writes about another side of English folk
Another side of English folk
Sam Lee, Mercury Prize nominated folk singer, promoter and animateur, explores England’s emerging and ‘under the radar’ folk music scene, highlighting a selection of emergent artists making waves and forging their way to established performing careers.
As the New Year establishes its presence and gets fully to work, all the exciting prospects that will define the progressions from 2012 reveal themselves as not so distant excitements. It’s around this time that the world of folk workers, enthusiasts, tastemakers and the likes look to the horizon in search of a new crop of albums and whole musical outfits to titillate their appetite for English folk.
Of course to talk about the English scene as a tradition in the singular is utterly ill-founded. English folk music is fractured, disparate and multiplicitous, broken up by geography as much as by style. In a culture searching for that slippery hold on a national identity, one of the few certain classifications of ‘Englishness’ is the constant ability to reinvent itself and its artistic forms. And there is no better example of this than our acoustic music scene.
England can be looked at like a mosaic of little fiefdoms littered across the boroughs and counties, harbouring both musical outbursts as well as whole communities pulsing with musicians swapping and supporting within evolving collectives. This phenomenon, explicit in the programming of the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s (EFDSS) and The Nest Collective’s Folk Rising series at Cecil Sharp House, is astounding for being versatile and experimental yet arising from a demographic originating in areas seemingly unblessed with established music scenes or traditions. These are basically not the kids of seasoned folk enthusiasts but a generation discovering it on their own.
In a wonderful case of the youth making it up ‘by themselves and for themselves’ this is most likely product of the innate pioneering mentality we posses alongside an entrepreneurial DIY climate. Transcending labels of traditional or singer-songwriter, these communities are tenaciously flourishing across the country in a ‘funding cuts’ riddled atmosphere of creative resistance.
Take the seaside town of Deal in Kent for instance where Smugglers Records has bred many a stunning troupe, most of whom have broken the thriving local stronghold to become main-staples in London circuits - Cocos Lovers being the most noted and successful. The Folk Rising showcases at Cecil Sharp House act as a conduit for this feed of musical progress. The concerts are split four ways between artists of all varieties, covering the wider spectrum that makes up folk and acoustic music. And it is incredible seeing how the progression of acts can fly from such an intimate platform (120 person audience capacity) onto major arenas.
Since The Staves performed back in 2011 they’ve been signed to Atlantic Records and recently come off tour supporting Bon Iver, amongst other artists. Fiona Bevan, who performed in the autumn 2012 line-up has had recent success with a song co-written with Ed Sheeran reaching number one in the December 2012 UK singles chart as performed by boyband One Direction; a veritable leap in scale.
Regulars on The Nest Collective stages, This Is The Kit recently performed at the now seminal Other Voices series in Dingle, County Kerry, from humble beginnings in the very leftfield Bristol scene. Alongside teammates like Rozi Plain, Whalebone Polly and Rachel Dadd, this entire circle has risen to dominate many a festival stage and have crafted amongst them an iconic sound of soulful downbeat, femme folk, electric guitar groove.
The progression from small stages to larger platforms can be astonishingly fast in this scene, where sounds get shaped and shipped out onto the major circuit faster than it can take to sing an old ballad. London too, quite surprisingly, has fostered the village phenomenon where neighbourhoods will give rise to whole festivals worth of bands in total isolation from another postcode, but a mile away across a river.
The philosophy The Nest Collective has always believed in is ‘if you create the platform, you create the artist’ and this has been reflected elsewhere in so many instances where homemade, informal and often isolated platforms have produced unlikely musicians and unlikely professional journeys that can inadvertently end up being the leaders of a scene.
The forest of emerging and ‘under the radar’ performers is rich and varied and is exciting to navigate through, but nowhere does it better than England. It possesses an idiosyncratic form of modest yet imaginatively forward thinking, edge cutting sound-scapists where the depths of tradition is at its root yet the flowers are wholly original but of the rarest hues. The hardest thing is not trying to find them, but is trying to keep up with them. Creatively speaking, being small and local is proving to be most effective on these here shores.
This article was originally written for inclusion within issue #2 of the Spotlight England newspaper. Unfortunately, due to space restrictions, this could not be included so we have decided to share it online instead.
Forthcoming Folk Rising gigs in London
7 March & 11 April, Cecil Sharp House
Folk Rising gigs, around the country