Freak-Folk

Joanna Newsom sitting at a piano onstage.

Philip Ryalls / Contributor / Redferns / Getty Images

Freak-folk music often refers to neo-hippies. Like so many musical genres, the parameters of 'freak folk' are ill-defined. But the ties that bind don't always seem to have a lot to do with music. Largely about reviving '60s ideology—as enshrined on LPs like Vashti Bunyan's glorious Just Another Diamond Day, which was reviled in its time for its hippyish daydreaming— the freak-folkers were sold on the imagined mythology of the hippies.

Freak-folk, thereby, often seemed to be as much about bushy, biblical beards and long, plaited tresses as it did music. As singular and amazing as Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender, Devendra Banhart's Oh Me Oh My... The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit or Rio en Medio's The Bride of Dynamite are, for the media freak-folk is shorthand for a trend in fashion.

The Freak-Folk Sound

With artists like Banhart and Newsom enshrined as figureheads of the movement, some would suggest that having a vivid, divisive, individualistic style of singing must be a pre-requisite. The defining elements are often as aesthetic as they are about pure sound. Acoustic sounds are a must, and stringed instruments always work best if finger-picked. Lyrically, evoking the mythical and the pastoral is stock-in-trade. Romanticism for the land picks up on the hippy spirit, and what might be the genre's most defining quality: sounding out of time.

Freak-folk was born, really, from the reissue culture that arose in the late 1990s. Abandoned albums were dusted off and released for new generations who embraced them as lost treasures. Bunyan's mythical debut is the most obvious antecedent, but albums by artists like Linda Perhacs, Anne Briggs, Shirley & Dolly Collins, the Incredible String Band, and Pearls Before Swine were some of those discovered anew and embraced as an influence.

Misconceptions About Freak-Folk

There are two major misconceptions about Freak-Folk music. First, anyone using acoustic instruments could be a freak-folker and secondly, any hippy with a beard must belong to this movement.

Sufjan Stevens is a strapping young intellectual with a fearsome work-ethic and a bent for complex compositions, yet his recurring use of a banjo found many interpreting his modernist orchestral works as being freak-folk. However, the title doesn't fit.

Brightblack Morning Light are a pair of barefoot hippies who camp out in a renovated chicken-shack in the Californian woods, fishing for their food and living without the trappings of a modern existence. The male member of the band, incidentally, has a giant beard. However, Brightblack Morning Light makes music that is utterly electric: a soulful, psychedelic gospel of electric organs and electric slide-guitars that picks up on the spirit of space-rock reprobates Spacemen 3. No acoustic guitars, no real elements of folk music, only the right back-story. They may look the part and fit the neo-hippy stereotype, but their music doesn't fall into the genre.

Where The Name Came From

Freak-folk is such a generic genre name that it's impossible to trace it to anyone human, especially given that it could've been used to describe the first Tyrannosaurus Rex record, My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows, upon its release in 1968.

Much more interesting are the other names it could've gone by. David Keenan was onto something when he wrote about the upsurge in communal, collectivist, psychedelic and folk-inspired acts in British experimental-music bible, The Wire, in 2003. The front-cover screamed loudly: The New Weird America. Before freak-folk got its inescapable name, it could have been referred to as folk-revival-revival, but that obviously never caught on. 

When It Broke

Freak-folk first became popular in 2004. That was the year that Devendra Banhart compiled a disc called The Golden Apples of the Moon. Solicited by the rabble-rousers at newly-minted counter-cultural rag Arthur and given away with the magazine, it proved a fateful marriage. Banhart recruited a whole host of his friends—Newsom, Bunyan, Josephine Foster, Espers, CocoRosie, Currituck Co.—and a movement was handily encapsulated on one CD.

2004 also was the year of Newsom's impossibly arresting debut, that Banhart released two simultaneously-recorded albums just months apart, and Animal Collective issued their influential Sung Tongs LP. It also found Newsom, Banhart, and Vetiver touring across America in that summer-of-love-sequel, an impressive triple-bill that took this new folkie vibe to hipsters the nation over.

Defining Albums:

  • Vashti Bunyan, Just Another Diamond Day (1970)
  • Linda Perhacs, Parallelograms (1970)
  • Devendra Banhart, Oh Me Oh My... The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit (2003)
  • Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)
  • Various, Golden Apples of the Sun (2004)
  • Animal Collective, Sung Tongs (2004)
  • Espers, II (2006)

The Current State of Frean-Folk

If one wants to feel good about the state of freak-folk, a trip through the steadily-growing catalog of Language of Stone Records is a must. Helmed by Greg Weeks of Espers, the fledgling imprint has presided over an array of records almost singular in their devotion to freak-folk ladies; acts like Orion Rigel Dommisse, Mountain Home, Ex-Reverie, and Festival all creating oddball takes on earthen psychedelia.

Finland has also proven to have fertile freak-folk soil, warbling dames like Lau Nau, Islaja, and Nalle authoring strange, deranged kinds of personal, homespun, very experimental folk-music.

Recent records by some of the defining acts of freak-folk, though, have been neither freaky nor folkie: Devendra Banhart's Cripple Crow a collection of jam-band grooves and cheap Beatles pastiches; Vetiver's Thing Of The Past a self-satisfied cruise through snoozy nostalgia.

Interestingly, this move into smoothness echoes the rise of acts like Fleet Foxes and David Vandervelde, who recreate Cosby, Stills & Nash-styled folk-rock with an intense earnestness. Together, this seems to suggest that a whole new movement could be afoot, one just waiting for a pithy genre name of its own.