Subgenre of the Month - Freak Folk

By: V. Rachel Weldon

Subgenre of the Month - Freak Folk
Photo: Erika Jacobs

Like so many other subgenres that are born, live and die in the lifetime of an underground movement, the parameters of freak folk are hazy at best. It goes by many titles – avant-folk, naturalismo and psych folk to name a few – and has no clear musical specifications or even a designated beginning.

Artists that the media has fingered as falling under the subgenre's blanket – incalculable in breadth and discrimination – have rejected the term outright. What, then, can we say about freak folk?

A working definition is a good start: freak folk is a forcefully expressive term to describe a movement that fragments traditional rock conventions to juxtapose something old with something new. It's a traditional style combined with contemporary music capabilities and a radical ideology.

The music delves deep into experimentalism and doesn't discriminate instrumentally except for an emphasis on the earthly sounds of acoustic instruments. Musicians within the genre share a penchant for rattling, warbling or other purposely-warped vocals. Lyrically, the artists turn their gaze towards romantic and more naturalistic inspiration. The genre is paradoxical in nature: it takes the most traditional of musical styles and violates it with experimental philandering and eyes-to-the-sky lyrics. The subgenre's severe infidelities are what cast it as distorted, progressive and, of course, "freaky."

Understanding the subgenre's conventions, or lack thereof, is one thing, but the musicians who stomp around in its midst can be rather mystifying.

Freak folk emerged from the 1960's counter culture that parented its sister-genre, psychedelia. Artists including T. Rex, Cocteau Twins and Vashti Bunyan first stirred up the new sound, but not enough for any sort of critical classification. The seeds were sown in the '60s, but the freak folk movement as we know it today was coaxed from the ground by a different group of musicians, and not until several years later.

These artists – grouping together in what's called "The Family" – include Joanna Newsom, Vetiver, CocoRosie, Espers and of course the prolific freak folk minstrel himself, the musician whose album, Cripple Crow, was the product of The Family's contributions, Devendra Banhart. The American/Venuzuelan musician represents the archetypal neo-hippie freak folker; his tangled mane and antique waistcoats rarely hide his absurd taste in fashion (he's probably wearing a beaded crop-top under that flannel shirt) and an image so reminiscent of a true-blue 1960's flower child inspires copycats as easily as it allures pop culture trend-watchers; seeds of cultural movements are often sought out wherever there are eccentric fashion trends turning heads.

The focus on Banhart and his Family as the centre of the sub-genre's modern movement jogs memories of the 1950's beat generation that made youth-culture heroes out of a group of poet friends. But not one group of friends nor one family can make up an entire movement; a parade isn't much of a spectacle if no one's in step. Fortunately these musicians have picked up followers, pricking ears of young spirited radicals from sea to salty sea and building their ranks of neo-hippie acolytes.

In an effort to get a hang of the allusive genre, I set out to see a pair of these young spirited radicals for myself. A pair indeed, as the two girls who I caught at a local house show one winter night are twin sisters Sari and Romy Lightman. Together they are Ghost Bees, a distinctly freak folk outfit that can be effortlessly compared to Joanna Newsom's pixie-style music. The pair's debut, Tasseomancy, an homage to their late grandmother, plays like a memory of the two infant girls pulling at the sleeves of their majestic elder.

Nostalgia and childlike lyrics are a common theme in freak folk, and aren't the only aspect of Ghost Bees' music that lines up with the subgenre's conventions. The delicate pluckings of mandolin and guitar are within traditional style, but with non-traditional instrumentation and phrasing, and the girls' vocal style – light, melodious and with plenty of pluck – they depart from the usual. When performing, the pair look only at each other, causing them to fall in sync with supernatural ease and enchant the audience to wistful highs. They teetered along the line between melodiously light-hearted and haunting, oozing their unique brand of "spooky folk" (a self-proclaimed classification) throughout the room.

When tackling the fickle subgenre yourself, where do you start? Most trend-watchers would point you in the direction of Vashti Bunyan's Just Another Diamond Day. What many call the seminal freak folk album, Diamond Day was written by Bunyan while travelling the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage – a truly counter-cultural notion that would arouse even the most credible of hippies. Bunyan released her career opus in 1970, but the music didn't strike a nerve until 2000, when it was celebrated by Banhart and held high as an icon of the subgenre's formation. The unusual case of Diamond Day's emergence marries the two eras under freak folk's genesis.

Other albums, new and old, that begin to define the genre would include Linda Perhac's Parallelograms, Joanna Newsom's Milk-Eyed Mender, Animal Collective's Sung Tongs and finally the collaborative Golden Apples of the Sun, an album that revived the freak folk sound as a modern movement and no longer a forgotten hippie ideal.

The last words that must be said about the freak folk subgenre is a warning to refrain from using the term too liberally. It's easy to hear contemporary acoustic music, and even easier to look at the artist's fashions or grooming habits, and call it freak folk. The subgenre begs a more insightful approach to music than your regular singer/songwriter can muster and is hardly paint-by-numbers, despite how an all-too-concise genre profile might present it. But if it's sparked an interest, delve deep into the splendid grounded psychedelia, the back-to-basics experimentalism of freak folk music: sounds from one counter culture to the next.

Video: "Little Yellow Spider" by Devendra Banhart


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