A Story in the Song

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.

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  • Justin Wilson

    I love folk music, especially Irish folk music. Next time you are in Nashville on the weekend, hit me up and you can come chill with me at the local pub.

    • http://www.celestialcompletion.com countseth

      Will do!

  • kevin fitz

    Love nickel creek, but only two songs…when you come back down and the lighthouses tale. Very good songs.

    Idk if City and Colour would be considered folk, but his stuff is amazing as well. Pardon my ignorance on the genre.

    • http://www.celestialcompletion.com countseth

      Man, I need to check out City and Colour. What about the Nickel Creek song “Doubting Thomas”?

      • kevin fitz

        I don’t recall that song, but I’ll check it out!

  • Jacob

    I know a great local folk band (local for my area) called The Bard and the Liar.

    I think the voice is central to how folk music is, if the voice is good, then it’s like the instruments are built around it.

  • Nick Helms

    Mhmm, love folk.

    In fact, folk metal is pretty great too. Check out Eluveitie, they are perhaps one of the best folk metal bands out there. Love it when they have a few pure folk songs with bagpipes, flutes, and the works.

    • Tyler

      Eluveitie is amazing. I love Celtic folk music and metal, so when it’s put together well, it sounds amazing.

  • Holly

    It’s so funny you bring this up, Seth. Right now, all I’m listening to is Mumford & Sons and BTA (I think I’ve listened to Physics of Fire 20 times in the past two weeks.) M&S is NOT at all what I usually am drawn to but the storytelling touches my heart and their musicality is amazing. Very cool, just not what I am used to enjoying.

  • Jared Fourteen

    I do like folk, but usually the local folk from people I know that maintains the innocence and simplicity that makes it enjoyable. I’ve noticed that with a lot of famous folk bands, save for maybe Bright Eyes, there’s some abrasive message that really doesn’t match the purity of the music.

  • Rob

    Mumford and Sons “Sigh No More” is one of my favourite albums … ever, and Sufjan Stevens “Age of Adz” is wack … and fantastic.

    What a pleasant surprise of an article (blog)!

  • Mark

    Seth, I would suggest you check out the album The Mantle by Agalloch and their White EP. They mix dark metal with a folk acoustic sound. I think you would like them.

  • althrioan

    I can’t connect with Folk … but I like good told stories :D

  • Abe

    Would Neil Young fall under the “can’t sing for crap, but tells great stories” genre?! :)

    I enjoy folk in moderation. After a while though, I need to detox with some metal.

  • ANonnyMous(e)

    I never really got into Folk music. It has gotten too hipster-ish these days, especially the recent “big name” “Folk bands” (fleet foxes, mumford and sons, etc). I hate it when things gain a part of the pop lexicon just because (I’m not bashing anyone’s talent, I’m just resistant to current trends and pop culture). Yeah, I know calling things hispter has become part of the pop lexicon too, HA.
    I hope you haven’t become a Hipster or Stoner, Mr. Seth.

    I could definitely imagine a new Anchors CD with some Folk type song styling and inspirations though. The EP already had some indie/folk vibe to it and I love listening to it for something that is different. Maybe your side project could continue to be a good outlet for your overflowing creativity.

    I recently learned of The Listener Project from the same record label (Broken Circles) that put out the Terminate vinyl. One of the releases following Terminate was Wooden Heart by Listener. They are somewhat indie/folk-ish, self described as ‘talk music’. I cannot say that I fell in love with them and bought up any of their records, because I didn’t and won’t. But they are VERY interesting and unique, and I definitely can hear and enjoy the creativity, passion, heart, poetry, and story telling behind the words of Dan Smith. I guess I am just a hard sale to make. Check ‘em out if you are looking for something new and different.

    • althrioan

      Yep, same thoughts here for Listener. Dan Smiths action with The Chariot for “David de la Hoz” is/was awesome!!!

  • ANonnyMous(e)
  • http://thislightshineseternal.blogspot.com George

    I’m glad you mentioned Sufjan Stevens! I really like his work. You should also check out Wovenhand and Maria Solheilm. Wovenhand is a bit more complex than regular folk but the essence of it is still there. Maria Solheilm is a Norwegian folk singer who was featured on one of Extol’s songs back in the day.

    • http://www.celestialcompletion.com countseth

      Hm, I’ll check out this Maria girl. Too much music to look up!

    • Jared Fourteen

      That was the guest vocalist from “Paradigms” on Synergy, yes?

  • Kyle

    Wow. Finally a discussion about broadening musical horizons without being made to feel odd. I have a huge passion for metal, especially that of technical and progressive genres. My former band, Against 72, used to play shows with Brandon Lopez’s band, Broken Flesh, all of the time. I’ve known him for about 5 to 6 six years now. Anyway…

    I am also really big into the works of Mumford and Sons, Alison Krauss, and Nickel Creek. The one song from Nickel Creek that I cannot ever forget is called “The Hand Song”. Take a listen to it. It has a very powerful lyric about a similarity between a boy and Jesus. To me this song has such a great story and isn’t very complex. It doesn’t have to be complex to be a great song because of the story involved.

    My questions to you Seth, in relation to your fondness for stories within songs are:

    1. Have you ever listened to a song and heard such a beautiful lyric or musical nuance within a song that it makes your hair stand up, gives you chills, or your eyes tear up? Or am I by myself on that one?

    2. What would you say is your favorite folk song and what makes it so special to you?

    Thanks for you time Seth,

    Kyle

    • http://www.celestialcompletion.com countseth

      I’ll listen to that song and see what’s up. I like Nickel Creek a good deal.

      1. Yes. That’s why I love music and I actually feel that I might be too much that way. My most emotional moments in life are almost always generated by art. For some reason, real life doesn’t affect me as strongly as a song or movie or book.

      2. Right now my favorite is “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes. It’s actually the only song I’ve ever heard from them, but I listen to it almost daily. I love the melody, I love the Simon & Garfunkel feel to the vocal harmonies, I love the thoughts in the lyrics, I love how the song builds into something else and I love the tone of the guitar at the end.

  • Brandon

    Hey I love that you love folk music! I enjoy it for all the same reasons you were talking about! if you don’t mind i’d highly suggest looking into an artist named Josh Garrels. He has a very unique sound and poetic Gospel lyrics! He just released a cd for free on his website: http://joshgarrels.com/

    Check it out! you’ll enjoy it. God bless,

    Brandon

  • Josiah Wampfler

    I love that you recommended Mumford & Sons! I would love to see you bring some folk elements into your music. I think it would be quite interesting. You took a risk on this last record by going out of the normal metal category, but I absolutely loved it! I admire your faith in such a dark genre of music and pray that you stick with it! God has blessed you with immense talent and the courage to take risks. This post and your latest albums show that and I am grateful for it.

  • Justin

    My dad introduced me to Nickel Creek when there first album came out (elementary school).. They were at the time about the age I am now and I could never imagine playing songs such as “Ode to a Butterfly” or “Lighthouse tale” (on mandolin). I’ve been in a Post-hardcore/Dethcore band for a while and a friend asked me to jam with him on acoustics. I was not familiar with any folk or inde.. He introduced me to bands like Fleet Foxes, Mumford, Bright eyes, Sufjan, and she & him. My eyes are opened to a new genre that will probably affect my college life. Im happy to be enlightened but the br00talness of BTA will always remain superior. I’d say (being a bluegrass enthusiast) that bluegrass is similar to metal in the speed of the music.. The most technically renowned are usually the most praised… as is metal. However, metal cannot be challenged.. End of the Age is the best worship song ever.