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

More or less freaky: Mirel Wagner
Aki Roukala

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.

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.

"If you start a trip-hop band, you basically have Massive Attack and Portishead. Those are your Beatles and Zeppelin," explains James Jackson Toth, known as Wooden Wand for the better part of the decade and one of the few artists associated with freak folk to make some of the best records of his career after the idea of freak folk began to corrode. "But with these bands, it's Amon Düül, Throbbing Gristle, Bob Dylan, Ornette Coleman. It's all these things together that made this strange folk hybrid. There's not one foundation."

Even years after the core's collapse, that lack of an anchor remains this sort of music's most compelling aspect. Almost a decade ago, that quality gave these bands the fluidity to sound like anything; these days, it allows such records to rise from the strangest little pockets, much like Wagner's LP.

Similarly, the second album for Thrill Jockey by American singer Luke Roberts, The Iron Gates at Throop and Newport, crams bits of frat rock, Delta blues, stoner metal, and new American primitivism into nine dense tracks. Each of the strains feels recognizable but crinkled, as if Roberts can't help but break anything he touches.

Donovan Quinn was part of New Weird America's previous vanguard with the wooly Skygreen Leopards. But Honky Tonk Medusa, his new record under his own name, feels like the faithfully preserved work of a sophisticated songwriter who maintained clarity amid the madness. Quinn's ruminations on love read like the poetry of simple folks, while his interest in samples, scuzz, and sweetness catapult them into ever-surprising places. These songs stand the damage Quinn does to them, and vice versa. There was never a better way to wear "freak folk."

Two years ago, guitarist and singer Bert Jansch toured the South and supported Neil Young on a string of 15 dates. Nearly half a century earlier, Jansch had written and interpreted some remarkable tunes, first on a series of sterling solo albums and then with the legendary British folk syndicate Pentangle. But after he left Pentangle, he recorded and gigged in obscurity, relative especially to those he'd influenced—Jimmy Page, Young, and, decades later, Banhart.

Producer Noah Georgeson and a cast of friends (among them Banhart and the honey-voiced Beth Orton) gave Jansch another bow near the spotlight. They contributed to 2006's The Black Swan, an album that not only reaffirmed Jansch's work but also seemed like a coronation of the younger scene. Jansch died last year, having never finished another album. His death—much like the new material from Wagner, Roberts, and Quinn—was a reminder of how much the notion of freak folk had untangled.

Backstage in North Carolina, less than six months before he passed, Jansch spoke quietly but fondly of Banhart and his pals. As Banhart had suggested with those rhyming lines on Rejoicing in the Hands, they'd given his old folk songs a new home in a wholly unsuspecting generation that now had the chance to sing along.

"It was news to me," Jansch said, smiling at the memory of hearing about young American listeners again interested in what he'd already done. "Devendra himself is a mixture of South American influences—and then occasionally, you get sort of a flash of Bert Jansch right in the middle of it. I thought, 'Wow.' It was really something."

Jansch was right—it was something. But a freak scene is never meant to last if and when it exists at all.

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