I’ve been getting into folk recently, and that admission generates a strange feeling within me. I’ve never been into that sort of thing before and I always scoffed when my friends were buying Andrew Bird’s CDs.
But recently, artists such as Fleet Foxes and Bright Eyes and Ryan Adams have caught my ear, so to speak, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. The music isn’t complex, no element of normal folk music is technical in any way and the recording doesn’t have to be all that great to convey the spirit of the song. And I think that’s where folk artists have it right.
Everyone in the metal world is trying to outdo each other, whether it’s with guitar solo wankery or uber-br00tal breakdowns or with the most cool members sporting the coolest tattoos matched with the most “I don’t care” attitudes. You don’t see that in folk or bluegrass at all (sorry to suddenly mix in bluegrass. But it fits, right?).
Folk artists are really just interested in telling a story through their song. There doesn’t need to be a guitar solo or really anything except strummed chords on an acoustic guitar. The singer’s voice doesn’t have to be particularly impressive. You won’t find accomplished vocalists excelling at folk. The recording of the album doesn’t even have to be that special for a folk artist.
What really matters to the folk singer is that he have an interesting story to tell and that he tell it adequately. There’s an art in that, and it’s more subtle than you’d think. You usually need a good melody, one that catches the ear and sticks in the head. Not too complex, but not so simple you get tired of hearing it. You also need a unique voice. Just singing “good” doesn’t cut it. You need to have a character to your voice that is interesting and unordinary. Bob Dylan’s voice is awful when compared to real singers like Freddie Mercury and Jeff Buckley. But that doesn’t matter to Mr. Dylan: he’s got a story to tell, not vocal exercises to perform.
These things make me really admire and respect folk music in a way that I’ve never experienced before. Now, I’m not saying the next BTA record is gonna have lots of folk arrangements on it or anything like that. But I do want you to know that we’ve always had a focus on storytelling (see Physics of Fire parts 1-4 or the Requiem Aeternam Trilogy) and we will continue that tradition. Stories are how we communicate who we are and why we do what we do. Christ chose to teach primarily through stories such as parables. Stories reveal a lot about life that is difficult to explain in a straightforward manner.
So think on these things. Buy the Mumford and Sons record (don’t worry, the one use of profanity won’t kill you). Listen to the insights about life revealed to you by Sufjan Stevens and Nickel Creek.
Then tell me: isn’t there power in those songs, in those lyrics, in those stories? You tell me.