The return of real folk: The bands consigning Mumford & Sons and nu-folk to the past

Ed Power
·11-min read
Storytellers: (from left) Taylor Swift, Kate Stables (This is The Kit), Fenne Lily and Alexandra Sauser-Mannig (Daughter of Swords) (iStock/The Independent)
Storytellers: (from left) Taylor Swift, Kate Stables (This is The Kit), Fenne Lily and Alexandra Sauser-Mannig (Daughter of Swords) (iStock/The Independent)

Folk music has been through a lot across the past decade or so. In 2009, Mumford & Sons, four whiskery chaps from west London, conquered the world with a debut album bristling with banjos and jaunty melodies. Their look was hobbit cosplayers who’d taken things a bit far; their songs screamed Coldplay: The Morris Dancing Years.

This was the birth of “nu-folk”, a genre that detached folk from its historical roots as the voice of the downtrodden and presented it, shiny and mandolin-fuelled, as the new stadium rock. Others followed: Noah and the Whale (Mumford & Sons without the beards and with lashing of hair-care product), Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit (Mumford & Sons with bonus cheekbones), Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (Mumford & Sons if they were American and in a cult).

Purists were aghast. And yet, 10 years on, folk has found its way back to the source. It’s just folk once more, the “nu” conspicuously absent. When, for instance, Taylor Swift put out a folk-themed record this summer, she came with a sense of respect and gravitas. Whatever else you can say about Folklore – and it is ultimately as much a pop album as a folk one – it certainly doesn’t take up the nu-folk baton. No banjos or waistcoats feature. Folk music has survived its brush with arena pop.

Say “folk” to This is The Kit’s Kate Stables and she thinks of music that is fervidly independent, rooted in community and exists in opposition to the corporate record industry.

“For me, there’s not much difference between how I think about the definition of folk and how I think about the definition of punk,” says Stables, ahead of the release of This is The Kit’s effervescent fifth album, Off Off On.

“It’s about people being engaged socially and politically and at the human level. And people taking responsibility for their actions.”

Kate Stables: ‘For me,  folk is more to do with storytelling and social awareness’Philippe Lebruman
Kate Stables: ‘For me, folk is more to do with storytelling and social awareness’Philippe Lebruman

As with many artists labelled “folk”, Stables doesn’t perceive herself strictly in those terms. “There are infinite ways of interpreting the word,” she says.

“There are people that argue it has to do with what sort of instruments that are played. For me, it’s more to do with storytelling and social awareness.”

In 2020, it makes perfect sense for Stables to describe folk as a cousin once-removed from punk. Consider the ever-narrowing gap between a group such as Idles (earnest, fraught and cathartic) and Dublin “folk” group Lankum (earnest, fraught, cathartic).

Idles sing about toxic masculinity and racism; Lankum about youth suicide (“Oh the day that they found him swinging/ A day they’ll not soon forget,” begins their 2019 single “The Young People”) and the historical disenfranchisement of women (“Hunting the Wren”). Their final destinations may be different. But they are coming from the same place.

As Stables points out, folk, like punk, is often about community and standing up for what you believe in. Through the 20th century, protest singers and folk singers were essentially one and the same – from Woody Guthrie through to Billy Bragg. We’re at a point where even Taylor Swift appears to have copped that folk is roaring back. Her Folklore album, if not quite a devastating evisceration of the evils of capitalism, is her most daring to date and contains some of her edgiest songwriting.

It’s quite a turnabout. Or at least it is if you remember where folk was a decade ago. In 2010, the idea of folk holding hands with punk would have seemed absurd.

This was the heyday of “nu-folk”, as embodied by groups such as the aforementioned Mumford & Sons and Noah and the Whale. Nu-folk stripped the genre of its ancient cadences and political sensibilities and repackaged it as something boisterous, jape-adjacent and ukulele-dependent. And for a while it threatened to redefine, in the mainstream at least, what folk represented.

“It’s a bit like when those Motörhead T-shirts became fashionable and were worn by people who had never heard Motörhead,” says Matt Elliott, the France-based Bristol songwriter whose Farewell to All We Know has been praised as one of 2020’s finest folk records.

“It’s like that point when all advertising was a well-known pop song slowed down and played with a ukulele and someone whistling in the background. [It’s] taking all the wonderful things about folk, such as the simplicity, and basically reducing it to its most base parts and kind of abusing it.”

Folk in 2020 is in a very different place. Mumford & Sons eventually morphed into U2 with banjos – probably what they always wanted to be anyway. Noah and the Whale are no more. Johnny Flynn, leader of the Sussex Wit, has redeployed his floppy fringe and his charisma in the service of the screen. He’s about to play David Bowie in the unauthorised biopic Stardust.

Then there is Laura Marling, who started off in the orbit of Noah and the Whale and Mumford & Sons but who couldn’t get away from nu-folk fast enough. Leaving behind the hey nonny-nonny-isms, she blossomed into one of Britain’s most consistently engaging and adventurous songwriters. Nu-folk’s loss was rock and pop’s gain.

Connecting with nature: Taylor Swift in artwork for her ‘Folklore’ albumPress image
Connecting with nature: Taylor Swift in artwork for her ‘Folklore’ albumPress image

“I began to find playing with everybody all the time made everything a bit homogenised,” Marling told The Guardian in 2017. “So I wanted to branch out. I felt my music was going to become like everyone else’s music, and I wanted to keep it special to me. I couldn’t deal with being in a gang because I had a big ego. I wanted to be considered unique.”

“It [nu-folk] was just marketing,” says Alex Gallacher, editor of independent online folk music magazine Folk Radio, in an email. “The trouble with marketing is that it can overshadow a lot of other music. I mean, here we are discussing folk and around the time of Mumford’s 2009 debut and their 2012 follow-up there was some really great music going on outside that commercial bubble that was driven by charts and playlists.

“The likes of Rachael Dadd, The Memory Band, Arborea, Chris Bathgate, Trembling Bells, Lau, Jim Moray, Mountain Man, Sam Amidon, Sharron Kraus, Fernhill, James Yorkston, King Creosote, Alasdair Roberts, Bellowhead... the list goes on.”

“If there is an image of the tradition being twee, maybe that’s more to do with how it’s been represented by certain people,” adds Lankum’s Ian Lynch. “Or what aspects of the tradition they have been drawing on.

“Maybe that’s a narrow aspect. If you look into it, you see how rich the whole thing is. There are aspects of the tradition that look at every part of life. There is traditional music that is seen as twee. There are other elements of the tradition that are seen as rough and radical and out there.”

Lynch started off playing in punk bands in Dublin. Over time, he was attracted to folk and its deep tidal pools of mystery. Lankum’s music reflects that journey and his interest in social justice.

“We have always sought to address contemporary issues in our songwriting,” says Lynch. “Even in terms of the traditional material we’ve chosen to arrange and sing over the years.”

One example is their version of “The Wild Rover”, a highlight from their 2019 album The Livelong Day. Saturated in mournful strings and pipes, their take strips away the tune’s pub singalong trappings and interrogates its origins as an English temperance anti-drinking dirge. It’s not a knees-up – it’s a warning of the dangers of anaesthetising your cares away when it seems life has given up on you. As a lockdown listen, it’s chilling.

“We would be drawn to songs that could be read as having some kind of relevance to modern life and modern society,” says Lynch. “Songs that could be read in such a way that you could see their resonance. And where you could think, ‘OK… there’s a message there that speaks to us and to the society we are living in.’”

Folk provided Matt Elliott with the opportunity to sing from the heart and express his feelings. On “Hating the Player, Hating the Game”, off Farewell to All We Know, for instance, he voices his frustration at the grind of daily life – and his despair at the lack of alternatives for most people. This is a huge change from his previous existence as a composer of torrid post-trip-hop electronica as The Third Eye Foundation.

“With Third Eye Foundation, the only way I could really express myself was through the titles,” he says (1998’s You Guys Kill Me, for instance, had a picture of Christ as its cover art). “And they were mainly just kind of joking around or attempts at humour.”

Taylor Swift presumably agrees. Announcing the surprise-released Folklore in July, with production from The National’s Aaron Dessner, she explained she was following her “gut” and “just putting it out” without thinking about marketing or optimal release dates.

“When [Taylor Swift] put that record out… I thought, ‘she’s heard Phoebe Bridgers doing what she does excellently,’” says Bristol-based songwriter Fenne Lily, who, to her frustration, is sometimes pigeonholed as folk.

Laura Marling to The Independent in 2020: ‘I won’t be reduced to a cultural trope’Justin Tyler Close
Laura Marling to The Independent in 2020: ‘I won’t be reduced to a cultural trope’Justin Tyler Close

“And she thought it would be easy to put a load of strange… words into pretty standard pop songs and take away all the production value. [But] the more I heard people talking about it, to me it was surprising that a lot of my friends liked it. So I went back and listened to it a couple of times. I can see some real brilliant songwriting in it.”

Lily prefers not to be defined as folk. Her music has “diaristic” elements, she concedes – and she started off playing acoustic guitar. Inevitably the “f” word crops up.

“It’s lazy… it’s a shame,” she says. “You wouldn’t call a techno artist “EDM”… As soon as someone hears or sees an acoustic guitar they immediately jump to the assumption that it’s folk.”

She feels female artists struggle with this more than their male counterparts because women are invariably compared to other women, where men are not ghettoised in the same fashion.

“When I was starting out it was just me and an acoustic,” she says. “It [being categorised as folk] annoyed me so much that I bought an electric guitar. It was like, ‘if I don’t play electric guitar I’m going to be described as Laura Marling forever.’

“Despite the fact that I love Laura Marling and I grew up on her records. I kind of felt I was buying into people’s idea of what kind of music [a woman] would make. Immediately you get into this idea of me being a quiet, introvert, meek, in-pain person. It’s not necessarily true. You wouldn’t say Elliot Smith was folk.”

Dublin band LankumEllius Grace
Dublin band LankumEllius Grace

For all her objections – and her electric guitar – Lily understands why folk is having a moment. The world is an angry, divided place, especially on social media. So it is little surprise that people should seek refuge in music that is the opposite of all of that.

“When being an arsehole was popular, folk was less attractive and less cool,” she says. “Now it seems that being in touch with your feelings and empathic and emotionally intelligent is on the up. Which is brilliant news for people that struggle with life in general.”

The revival of an older, purer and more political folk is also perhaps tied to an increased awareness of the damage humanity is inflicting upon the environment. This Is The Kit’s music, for instance, bubbles and boils with arcadian imagery. The chorus to “Started Again”, a stand-out on the new record, goes “rocks and water… rocks and water.” It is bucolic yet with an underpinning of menace. A storm is on the horizon.

“The continuation of human life on planet Earth is not something we can take for granted,” says Alexandra Sauser-Monnig of great outdoors-steeped North Carolina folk project Daughter of Swords (sample lyric: “lay on the bed/ And the sun fills my ears/ Of a world full of animals voicing their fears”).

“The more people are connected with the outdoors… it is easier to realise we are all part of the same thing and there is no separation between human life and nature in the world,” Sauser-Monnig says. “We’re a product of it and we belong in it. It’s so scary and overwhelming to think about the climate crisis. But contextualising it can be helpful. And music is a tool for that.”

“Folk is spiritual music,” says Amalie Bruun, of Danish black metal outfit Myrkur. She surprised fans of her band this year by releasing a haunting collection of traditional Scandinavian ballads called Folkesange. She believes folk at its core is as “metal” as anything she has recorded.

“You can say nature is our church. Folk deals with things that matter to the human race. Not the things we are being told should be important to us and make us unhappy. Folk is about what actually human beings need. It’s funny – I got a lot of people saying, ‘this or that song is like a memory.’ They relive something. This is when you tap into the archetypal consciousness of people. That’s why it resonates no matter where you are from.”

This is The Kit’s Off Off On is out now

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