What Is Indie Folk Music?

Where Folk Music Meets Indie Rock

Mid section of two guitarists in recording studio
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Indie folk (also occasionally called lo-fi indie) is characterized by a slew of up-and-coming bands who pull influence from traditional and contemporary folk music, classic country, and indie rock. Many of them cite influences from Bob Dylan to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Radiohead.

Lots of indie folk bands are quite large and their songs tend to be thick on complicated instrumentation, lyricism, and multi-voiced harmonies.

They're basically the bands who make a new direction of contemporary folk music palatable to indie rock audiences.

The History of Indie Folk

Indie folk as a subgenre of music is still evolving and emerging. Its roots could be traced as far back as the 1990s when folksingers like Ani DiFranco and Dan Bern -- whose influences were equally split between alternative rock and folk music -- were up-and-coming.

Unlike Bern and DiFranco, artists now considered indie folk are mostly large bands. Many are from the West Coast where progressive bluegrass has long been embraced, opening the field to more progressive forms of folk music.

Portland's Hush and Barsuk labels and Seattle's SubPop label have become ardent supporters of indie folk artists.

Indie Folk Artists

Probably the most well-known indie folk band on the scene these days is the Decemberists, who started on an indie label but are now signed with Capitol Records.

They pull largely from the story-song tradition, marrying it with sonic attributes that could be considered both folk and indie rock.

Other great indie folk artists include the Fleet Foxes, Cave Singers, Great Lake Swimmers, Blind Pilot, Loch Lomond, Bon Iver, and Or, the Whale.

Indie Folk Instruments of Choice

Indie folk bands have no standard setup.

They're mostly inclined to play whatever instrument makes sense in a song. That might be a trumpet or clarinet, African hand drums, an accordion or banjo, or electric guitar and computerized drum tracks.

Most of the bands, however, are built around a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar.

Recommended Indie Folk Albums

Every musical genre has its essential musicians and albums. If you're new to the indie folk scene, there are a few that will give you a good sense of this style.

  • Fleet Foxes - self-titled (SubPop 2008)
  • Blind Pilot - "3 Rounds and a Sound" (Expunged 2008)
  • Or, the Whale - "Light Poles and Pines" (Seany Records 2007)
  • The Decemberists - "The Hazards of Love" (Capitol 2009)

Indie Folk Labels

Several indie labels have opened their doors to progressive folk artists. Most prominent are Hush and Barsuk Records in Portland and Seattle's SubPop Records. Also notable is North Carolina's Ramseur Records.