On 20th October Megan Donald visited Stereo to see some quality emerging talent and to try to understand the state of the much debated ‘folk-pop’. Photos by Fiona Boyd.
Looking back at the preview I wrote for Musicbox ‘Double Bill’, it is admittedly heavy in hyperbole. It’s too easy a path to stumble down when you want to convey boundless enthusiasm but are, as ever, pushed for time/a bit lazy. Waving about such high claims is a very precarious thing to do: “A finer collection of Scottish acoustic artists would be near impossible to find”, I declared. Re-reading this and a massive ‘REALLY?’ rings in my head. In hindsight though, perhaps my slight idleness can be brushed aside – Musicbox ‘Double Bill’ really was impressive.
And pulling off a night dedicated to folk pop is no easy thing. As a genre it’s especially prone to crappy impersonators – open mic regulars with acoustic guitars, where the only relief is the chance appearance of a tambourine. This gig proved that this luckily isn’t folk’s fate. With a total of 4 acts playing, there was a fine balance between stylistic variety and cohesiveness between the bands, meaning the night never dragged but managed to demonstrate the breadth of styles which are usually lumped together under the genre. In fact it helped dissolve the acoustic, Arran jumper-wearing stereotype – it was unpretentious, loud and there weren’t really that many beards. To understand a bit more about the artists involved I spoke to them about their own distinctive styles, and tried to see what links them.
First up were Chasing Owls 4 piece band based in Edinburgh who have be putting some serious effort into relentless gigging over the past year. Singer Ben says it’s paid off: “It really was quite hard work. But if you live on the premise that every piece of work is something to be thankful for, a band can’t go wrong”. Listening to their recent EP ‘We Began’, feelings about place and home seem to be a strong current in their writing: “I grew up in Oban and I love it and Scotland and I tend to write about my life there and so home does slip into the music.” The band like to make sure they get this across as the performance pulls in the crowd with not only clever melodies but anecdotes. Ben explains that, “I love a place that’s small enough for me to be able to catch the crowd’s attention. It makes it more personal and you can have a bit of a chat which is the best bit of it all’.
Speaking to Bear Bones, this writing about homely tales is something that runs through their work too. Singer and writer Ben Harrison, a rambunctious chap from the isles in a Barbour jacket (“It’s ok, everyone wears one in Islay”) was staggered when I suggested that the small island isn’t exactly bangin’: “LOTS HAPPENS IN ISLAY, OK – Our new song is about how I found my neighbour in the middle of the road drunk and I thought, I’ll do a good deed, put him in my car, take him home. And then he pissed himself in my passenger’s seat. That’s a true story.” It’s at this point it all turns from West coast gossip to the inevitable folk pop comparison. Ben jokes:
“Life would be different without Mumford and Sons. The first time Richey (bandmate) heard them he text me and said, ‘we’re ruined!” But Bear Bones employ an interesting set up and way of writing that stands them apart: “I’ve been writing for the band for 3 years, and we’ve had 19 different members so far. It’s a good thing though, it keeps it fluid. I’m also a trombonist so I record guitar and write all the other melodies on trombone.”
Leaning more to the solo songwriter side of the line up was Bella Spinks, who on this day experienced her first time in Glasgow, Scotland and in fact on a plane. With roots in Brighton and London, she admitted it can sometimes be a challenge: “You have to be strong willed in London. I like to think I’m a good judge of character and can see through the poseurs.” Contrasted to the upbeat nature of the other acts, her solo piano and guitar music was more minimal and pensive, something which is also reflected in her introspective but quietly confident lyrics. Spinks admits that she is a thoughtful person: “I try to think about my writing, it’s not verbal diarrhoea and so my emotions are trained through my music.”
Heading the line up were Kitty The Lion, a band who seem to follow the thread of more traditional Glaswegian indie – standard rhythmic, poppy guitars and light-hearted lyrics, a reinvention (re-hashing?) of Postcard Records stuff. Singer Anna told me her upbringing helped her form this optimism: “Some people like Bon Iver can do miserable beautifully but I don’t want to be whiny. I have my mother’s voice in my head saying ‘Don’t be so indulgent!’” Their performance whilst slightly lackadaisical by comparison to fresh energy of the others, it was solid and concise. ‘Solid and concise’ however are words that tend to describe statistics or urban planning or lengthy discussions on Radio 4… But as winter depression creeps in, surely their charmingly persistent cheeriness can be no bad thing.
So let’s not let Mumford and Sons cast their enormous shadow over this dynamic genre. It undermines the likes of Musicbox ‘Double Bill’ which has shown that the many different stylistic strands have their own vigour and deserve a separate mention. What seemed to underlie this night and all the acts together was a sense of determination and grit and maybe that’s the real ethos of folk.
Many thanks to Patrick Spinks and Nicky Carder