Meet Your New American Folk Heroes
Instilled with a studious appreciation of past musical movements, these women are revolutionizing America’s modern folk scene, crafting exemplary albums of a stirring new tradition.
Incredible records from a new crop of modern American folk musicians have come to life in the last couple of years, written in the mountains of Los Angeles, among Louisville’s blue grasses, and from deep within the concrete jungle of New York. These makers are rooted in a tradition of scholarly influences, often citing British legends that are considered somewhat esoteric in the States—Michael Chapman, Bridget St. John, John Martyn—as well as obscure Appalachian music or American Hillbilly 78s. But contrary to the storied image of the anglo-American male folklorist with field recorder and a new fingerstyle album at the ready, or the singular wandering troubadour singing of the dust bowl, the new leaders and innovators of American folk are cosmopolitan women, fiercely self-reliant in their style and studio production, crafting material that soars beyond the realm of tradition while displaying and astute understanding of it.
Jessica Pratt’s 2015 debut for Drag City, On Your Own Love Again, doubled down on her plucky guitar and lyrical soothsaying via an accent reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull (one of her idols), but with added instrumentation and finesse so as to break through the barriers of the “freak folk” corner she had been sequestered to upon the very limited release of her first, self-titled album—one so good that Tim Presley made a label for it.
The pairing of Pratt with Drag City—a label who made their reputation with outsider tastemaking—was a natural fit. The label has been a consistent proponent of women innovators in folk music, from its championing of Joanna Newsom to its releases of singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Meg Baird’s solo and group records. Baird’s 2015 LP, Don’t Weigh Down the Light, cemented her as a leader in the folk stratosphere, and as she spreads her voice and ideas with psychedelic rock bands like Heron Oblivion—as well as backing other artists while also pursuing her solo vision—she consistently pushes and inspires the realm of folk from its origins.
Pratt, a Northern Californian gone south to Los Angeles, lives and works among a swelling pool of folk talent led by women steeped in the history of LA’s legendary canyons and studios, all while traversing the global indie realm with its lo-fi and steadfastly independent circles. Her peers include Kayla Cohen, who performs as Itasca. She released one of the best albums of 2016, Open to Chance. Its eleven songs are steeped in deceptively complex downtuned guitar, breathy vocals, and deep literary and supernatural references. Each component of the compositions is so intentional and packed with meaning that the ease with which it slides through home speakers and into the one’s consciousness is something of a feat—on par with the most storied poet-songwriters of the genre. She’s a growing force, and one to get on board with now. Among her influences she cites proto-punk like Rocket from the Tombs alongside folk traditionalists, an unexpected and innovative co-mingling of the sludgy and ethereal, enabling her to push boundaries with a seeming ease.
Courtney Marie Andrews’ distinct point of view and muscular vocals didn’t need a marketing peg. Her art stands on its own.
Joining Cohen’s ranks in New Classic Folk Albums by Women of Los Angeles is Courtney Marie Andrews, a powerhouse singer, guitarist, and songwriter who’s been working since 2008, but only recently blew through the ceiling of relative obscurity with Honest Life, her brilliant and devastating country-leaning 2016 solo record that topped many best-of lists. The LP revealed that the 26-year-old Arizona native is not only a herculean songwriter and vocalist, but also a skilled bandleader and producer. Like Cohen, she self-produced her lauded album, flexing her sonic muscle while eliminating any possibility for credit being applied elsewhere—as is often the case in coverage of women musicians. (Just ask Björk.) Andrews recalled that when she shopped the album—which she created when she was living in a rural area of Washington state—her co-mingling of folk, country, and rock elements left many label heads initially unsure how to sell the record, or which silo to place it within. Turns out, its distinct point of view and muscular vocals didn’t need a marketing peg. Andrews’s art stands on its own.
In America’s midsection, Kentucky native Joan Shelley’s forthcoming self-titled album, due for release May 5 from No Quarter, is undeniably her best. It’s an elegant synthesis of her love of Appalachian music, the Ohio River’s pastoral bends, and traditional acoustic guitar and voice. Shelley’s ultrapure, wide-ranging singing, which traverses high and low registers, stands front and center with her guitar work, aided on the album by her longtime picking partner Nathan Salsburg with bass by James Elkington (who has a new record out soon himself).
Jeff Tweedy of Wilco produced the album, but he certainly doesn’t assert himself. The record is so Shelley it’s as if he knew to get out of the way, standing by as the masterful playing filled the room, which was perfectly arranged so that each string’s echoes slipped effortlessly to tape. His son Spencer Tweedy’s brushed drumming leaves a greater impression; its precision is notable, but its style melds perfectly with Shelley’s on the waltzing “I Got What I Wanted,” the stomp-inducing “I Didn’t Know,” and the heartworn ballad “The Push and Pull.” For those who’ve always wanted to hear Shelley fronting an exceptional band, the album’s a treat. Her commitment to the scene and characters of her chosen home in Louisville makes her an exception to the buzz emanating from Nashville, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn. And it’s this unintentional defiance that presents a larger case that real talent, and strong points of view, exist outside of the hype machine of the coasts. She’s from and inspired by Kentucky’s piece of Appalachia, so why would she leave Kentucky?
Recent albums from country-rock outfit Mount Moriah; Queens-based singer, songwriter, and guitarist Julie Byrne; and genre-hopping traditionalist Hurray for the Riff Raff are further evidence of a fierce and independent revolution among women songwriters and bandleaders, grounded in a scholarly understanding of American and British folk origins and evolution. While unimaginative writers will always attempt to place a Vashti Bunyan or Karen Dalton tag on such music makers, this crop of new American folk heroes show that the revolution will not be gendered. Rather, the work of these new folk leaders transcends the “female singer-songwriter” tag, and is absorbed and beloved for its meticulous and inspiring ideation and execution. FL