I had a conversation a little while ago about what the best answer is when somebody asks you in a noisy club to explain ‘what sort of music you like.’ The friend I was with suggested that the best answer is always ‘Beyoncé’; another suggested ‘Jazz’. I have since attempted a compromise by mostly answering ‘Etta James’, with whom I feel you can never go wrong. I’m all too aware that if I were to answer ‘Laura Marling’, ‘Johnny Flynn’, or ‘Folk’ in the wrong setting, I would be immediately dismissed as someone who has fairly limited and somewhat generic taste.
This is because over the last couple of years, British folk has become a marketing tool. In the video for Mumford & Sons’ Hopeless Wanderer, four American comedians parody the band; it features a make-out scene and a banjo-wielding hoedown performed in the outfits of a barber-shop quartet. Don’t get me wrong, Mumford & Sons are undeniably talented musicians who write catchy songs for a popular audience – and that’s absolutely okay. My issue is the fact that that some of the most inventive and poetic musicians writing today are still getting lumped in with the ‘nu-folk’ or ‘folk-rock’ artists who are in the charts. In making a video like this, Mumford & Sons are laughing at themselves – but they are also nullifying any genuine message behind their music, and making it even more difficult for other current folk artists to transcend the cliché.
I’ve seen Johnny Flynn twice this summer: first at the Tabernacle – a theatre and community centre in Notting Hill where he performed with one guitar and his sister Lillie singing harmony. It was simple and intimate, and a near complete contrast to his set a few days later at the Gentlemen of the Road stopover in Lewes – a festival organised by Mumford & Sons, where and the majority of the audience were pre-teen girls with posters saying things like ‘Marry Me Marcus’, and everything from the setting (a very English country village) to the banners (a posh man with facial hair) just hit you in the face with ‘nu-folk’.
Flynn’s music is a far cry from Mumford & Sons’ melodramatic whining about romantic martyrdom. His September album Country Mile will feature a song called Einstein’s Idea, the lyrics of which detail him attempting to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity to his infant son; another takes its inspiration from T. S. Eliot’s poetry. Many, however, are about the things he cares about most: the countryside, fishing, and family life. Flynn is no exhibitionist: his songs are like the best sort of children’s picture-book, where innocence and imagination meet poeticism and humility. And if they are a little twee, at least they are honestly so.
I realise that in writing this I may not be helping the plight of folk – having a reputation for bunting, baking and generally being a bit of a country bumpkin. Maybe this is why I feel so strongly about the fact that these artists still make real music that is worth talking about. I’m sick of feeling that, in some circles, listing Laura Marling as my favourite musician turns me into a caricature of myself.
Her latest album, I hope, divorces her from the thigh-slapping, waistcoat-wearing clichés of folk. It is a dark and elegant story of self-discovery, heavy with symbolism, sophisticated, even sexual. Marling’s music is thoughtful and crafted in a way which much modern music has forgotten: her albums are designed to be listened to from beginning to end, telling stories with recurring characters, plot twists, messages. She’s also experimenting with media, having done some beautiful musical re-workings of Shakespeare’s verse for the RSC’s production of As You Like It this summer. The short film that accompanies her latest album makes innovative use of contemporary dance and theatre, and inspired the Grand Eagle Hotel Ball immersive music experience organised by Secret Cinema – an event that fell somewhere between play, concert and art exhibition.
Laura Marling is British, twenty-three, and at the start of something massive, proving that contemporary folk is still something we can take seriously. Yes, it’s folk – but it’s some of the most exciting music being made today.