On Mirel Wagner and the Alleged Death and Apparent Spread of Freak Folk

Scattered cosmic dust

Next month, the Ethiopia-born, Finland-based songwriter Mirel Wagner will tour the United States for the first time. She'll play a short string of shows around an appearance at South by Southwest, the Texas sinkhole where new-artist buzz goes to bloom or bust. Her appearance precedes the American release of her self-titled debut by Friendly Fire, a label founded in Brooklyn.

The haunting nine-song collection has been released in Finland and Germany, but America is where it belongs. Above a soft scrim of analog hiss, Wagner, 23, mixes glimpses of the apocalypse, splinters of heartbreak and blows of disappointment with a throaty, natural moan that nods to the late lords of the Delta. Her unhurried acoustic guitar pieces—a doomed waltz, a thorny blues, a knotty ode—summon John Fahey's boast, "I can make syncopation sound like death." Indeed, the album's wrecking ball, a necrophilic creeper called "No Death," pulls the shades on a moribund rendezvous between Townes Van Zandt and Charlie Patton: "All day, I stay by her side/But death has a claim and a right to my bride."

South by Southwest is a strange stateside premiere for Wagner's quiet anachronism. Between the free barbecue buffets and dance parties that grind into the early morning, few people might muster the attention requisite for her gentle doom.

More or less freaky: Mirel Wagner
Aki Roukala
More or less freaky: Mirel Wagner
Joanna Newsom
Annabel Mehran
Joanna Newsom

After all, this isn't 2004, when Wagner's peers would have included the freak-folk set that, for a moment, seemed to promise the new lifeblood of the music industry. That year, psychedelic wizards Comets on Fire and noise bros Wolf Eyes released albums together on Sub Pop; the wild Akron/Family began recording with stern mentor Michael Gira; and Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart toured together behind the release of albums that helped shape what seemed to be a momentary zeitgeist of inclusively weird American music.

When I saw that Newsom and Banhart tour in a tiny North Carolina club, people dangled from an old steel stairwell and crowded against the stage's humble apron to catch a glimpse of the hirsute mystic. (Newsom had to cancel at the last minute.) Amid the din of disco-punk and the ubiquitous worry of the looming presidential election, Banhart and his peers seemed to deliver some sweet relief. Or, as he sang, "It's like finding home in an old folk song/That you've never ever heard/Still you know every word/And for sure, you can sing along."

But in 2012, Wagner is something of an island with these songs. Those once tucked beneath the vague banners of New Weird America and freak folk have dispersed into celebrity, anonymity, and sometimes infamy. From Banhart to Six Organs of Admittance, from Wooden Wand to Angels of Light, from Newsom to Marissa Nadler, those who might have been Wagner's contemporaries have—depending on your perspective or generosity—largely grown or retreated from their embrace of cosmic strangeness.

As with chillwave, witch house, and whatever regressive micro-niche you can name, the genre-and-movement tags of freak folk and New Weird America offered awkward, uncomfortable fits for a lot of egos. Any attempt to enumerate all of the people involved is bound to fail. Does a mentor, peer, and collaborator, like industrial pioneer-gone-esoteric theological crooner Current 93, need to be included? Wikipedia counts the emo boombox bleats of the Mountain Goats and Grammy guy Bon Iver, but surely that's not right. And how about a band like Sunburned Hand of the Man, whose side-length psychedelic odysseys had about as much to do sonically with honest-to-goodness folk music as it did with the pair of Maroon 5 singles that bogarted the airwaves in 2004?

During the first six years or so of the naughts, a bunch of artists were interested in taking a bevy of simple ideas—whether straightforward songs or rock riffs, roaring feedback or loaded quiet—and pushing them ahead in wild ways. Their associations were mostly casual: Some of them toured together and touted one another in the press. Some shared labels, as Banhart and Akron/Family did under the auspices of Young God, run by Michael Gira, the former Swan who fit into the scene with his project Angels of Light. Banhart started his own label, Gnomonsong, to serve as another syndicate for the stuff.

He also curated Golden Apples of the Sun, a scene-galvanizing compilation that showcased the sprawl of what was happening, from the lonesome singing of another beard named Iron & Wine to the grandiosity of androgynous singer Antony Hegarty. Aside from a web of tangential connections, these people seemed wed by a certain candor, innocence, and openness with their music. Threads of neophyte enthusiasm and upstart possibility briefly tied them all together.

But the same restless and inquisitive impulses that inspired the surprising nature of their music soon pushed them in a dozen different directions. Banhart dated a Hollywood star and made a few dismissible albums. Newsom relaxed the rhythmic intricacy of her work and relocated (part-time) to New York, where her romantic entanglements landed her in the paparazzi's sights. Marissa Nadler's spectral songs began to hew toward the middle of the singer-songwriter aisle, as did the formerly avant-garde-meets-antique-folk work of Megafaun. The kids who once seemed to have hippie dreams have behaved like the punks who later started alternative-rock bands. In the past five years, they've grown up and apart, going domestic or tame, putting some of the weirdness to the wind, for better and worse.

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