by Ethan Cohen
If I asked my parents about their favorite folk music, it’s likely they’d rattle off a couple of the classics: Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Emmy Lou Harris, John Prine... The list goes on. If you asked any millennial, of course it’s possible they’d toss out a few of the same names, but more likely they’d mention Mumford and Sons or any number of other “vest-core” (trademark pending) bands that have become so wildly popular in the last decade or so. Folk music has changed, it has expanded, exploded, died, diminished, whatever opinion you have is probably valid in one-way or another. With the genre expanding rapidly towards both popular and experimental, what do the purists have to say? “What does this emerging generation of musicians have that earns them a spot under the umbrella of folk?” A sensible boomer may ask.
To explore this question, I’ll talk about an artist I actually discovered on Bandcamp just last week. Her name is Julien Baker, an indie-folk rocker from Tennessee with a powerful new sound. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of hearing Baker spin her layered, reverb dense tunes, I’ll fill you in and tell you she has the ability to send an emotion straight to your gut, it’s a superpower really, and one she uses for good. To me, she represents the experimental end of the folk spectrum. Ninetey percent of her arrangements are produced with a Telecaster and pedal board comprised of probably like two hundred reverb, delay and looping pedals, but the general mood of her tunes align recognizably with the folk of yester-year and probably the songs of tomorrow-year (?) as well. Songs of pain, most commonly contrast with simple guitar parts to evoke a feeling, memory, or maybe even a place. To me, folk music takes you somewhere. It puts you right in the middle of a memory. I know people will say “but her music is so sad man I just want to party you can’t party to sad music dude unless you’re DEPRESSED you DEPRESSED bro?” And I get it. It’s easy to mistake the aforementioned characteristics as morbid, but you shouldn’t. While the breadth of Baker’s technique and hard-wear are both quite impressive, she never piles it on. Her sound is never confusing or muddy, which lends itself well to one of the tenets of folk music which on it’s surface probably doesn’t make any sense but what the hell we’ll give it a shot anyway: emotionally complex simplicity. The chords are not rocket science; they are simple and consistent across the genre, and most rock music too, for that matter. The complexity comes from these simple chords’ ability to make you feel something, anything, depending on arrangement and instrumentation. And let’s be clear, I’m not talking about a sad song or a happy song, fast or slow, but rather a song’s ability to evoke a memory, a place. As an example, Baker’s song “Something” instantly takes me back to high school. Maybe it’s the idea of meeting in parking lots, and feeling always a little behind the curve, but for whatever reason I can’t help but think of the high school days whenever I hear it. That’s the amazing part also about this kind of music, and all music for that matter, is that you’re not even sure why it makes you feel a certain way, but it never the less connects you with the artist through a weird kind of shared-yet-unshared experience. The simple throb of a bass drum underneath guitar finger picking might suddenly take you back to that time with that girl, while the descending violin can remind you of that time your car broke down in the middle of nowhere, or I don’t know maybe even like Burning Man ’98 or some crazy shit like that.
This is the common denominator between the classics and newer indie folk stuff that has not changed. Instrumentation can change, song structure can change, but I think the way it affects the listener will not change. As folk gains a larger and larger audience, and as it grows both toward popular and experimental, be willing to sit with it and let it affect you how it will. This is important. It’s very meditative, letting a song talk to you that way. It’s the reason Dylan has stayed so relevant, he’s able to simply talk to people through his songs no matter the generation of listener. Julien Baker is just one example of a new artist harnessing old songwriting techniques, while still decorating her own unique corner of the genre. There are tons of artists just like her too, which is pretty damn exciting. Take cover people, the folksplosion is well underway.