Friday, May 8, 2009

Providence's Art Folk Scene: A Modern Folk Renaissance?

To fall upon small, intimate, and underground music scenes is a difficult thing to do. I just moved to Providence in the fall of 2008 and while searching for some good local music to listen to, I stumbled upon Vio/Miré, the art-folk project of Brendan Glasson. On January 23, 2009, I excitedly and possibly naively took the bus down to West Providence to attend a show that had been announced on Vio/Miré’s MySpace page. The experience was nothing like what I had expected. The show happened at a small vintage store, where the crowd was composed of about 20 people. There was no physical separation between the audience and the musicians; this added to the feeling of intimacy and close relationship between these two entities. Of course, practically everyone who was at that show knew each other, yet the space itself helped to contribute to this feeling. I hadn’t had such an experience since I moved away from home and I was hooked, I had to find out more about these people, why they do what they do, and why do they use folk to do it.

The Pigeon Chest from the outside, the Performances always happen near this window and the audience sits on the ground extending to that orange couch. Original image here

My method of research was a combination of observation: through going to two small shows at the Pigeon Chest, the vintage store where my first experience with the scene happened, a show at Mathewson St. which was slightly bigger, and a much larger show at Lupo's; and of conversation with participants of the scene: Evan with whom I had this interview with, Brendan Glasson of Vio/Miré who I maintained a conversation through MySpace messages and later asked him more direct questions, Kyla Cech of Annikki Dawn who answered a few questions for me, and through a short conversation with Dylan, a participant of a similar scene in Worcester who is also a musician and whom I met at the Pigeon Chest when his band The Points North played there. I also drew some information from the web.

Categorizing this scene, basically the first step I had to take when deciding to study it, was a harder task than I thought. I first decided on calling it “indie-folk”, but as Evan mentioned, the term indie has gained a certain more “high school” related connotation. Also there is now a certain aesthetic associated with indie, which I’m trying to avoid linking to. When I mean “indie”, I mean it in the most basic meaning of the word: independent from mayor economic pressures. This, in my opinion, allows bands to feel freer to experiment with their sound. Nevertheless, the bands I’m looking into are not necessarily in the “avant-garde” of music aesthetics, so I came upon the conclusion of calling them “art folk.”

In a series of messages back and forth between Brendan and me, I learned that there’s actually a deep connection of this smaller art-folk scene with a more local-gone-national country rock scene. I learned that the bass player who played at the show on January 27 with both Vio/Mire and Annikki Dawn is actually the bass player from Deer Tick, a larger more known country/rock band that initiated in Providence, and whom Alyssa focused her research on. Yet these are not the only ties between these bands.

I will first start off by describing the two bands I focus my research on, Vio/Mire and Annikki Dawn. The music itself for both of these projects is soft, simple, sweet, drawing from ambient sounds and vocal harmonies.

Notice both the recognizable folk guitar mixed in with ambient vocals

The audience seemed to be composed of both college students and college graduates with some outliers, yet this was a noticeable difference from the crowd I observed at the Mathewson St show. The Pigeon Chest crowd was small, about 20 people maximum in both shows I attended, this might be a proof of what Brendan said at the Minor Progression’s interview, “The art venue or house show are always preferable to me over the bar or the club. Generally, if someone goes to a house to see a concert they are interested in the concert. That is not always the case in a bar.” The performance was acoustic and there was virtually no separation between audience and artist, and as Fonarow argues “Physical proximity… and visual concentration on performers are socially constructed markers of alignment” (368). The focus of the music is lyrical, where the songs many times tell tales and stories in a very poetic voice, very much reminiscent of earlier folk. In the blog Minor Progressions, Brendan addressed the theme of his lyrics, “Lyrically I’m interested in addressing the small things that make up our small existences.”

This video is from a performance in Brendan's apartment, the band lineup is the same that I encountered in that first show at the Pigeon Chest.

The question then arises on who is a part of the scene. My own observations led me to believe that the small crowd correlated with the size of the overall scene. I seem to be right, as my interviewees confirmed, and they all seemed more comfortable in referring to it as a community or circle of friends. Evan refers to the scene as a group of friends where “there is a certain amount of shared knowledge”; Kyla referred it as a circle of friends “made up of people interested in each other”; Brendan described it as “a community that works together and supports one another… a small sub community of artists and musicians and friends.”

Evan repeatedly mentioned those who “knew what’s up” vs. those who didn’t, yet never drew a clear line of what defined those who knew and those who didn’t. On the surface, those who were a part of that circle of friends and who knew others in the scene “knew what’s up,” but there were other underlying similarities between the members of the scene. Evan mentioned first being introduced in the community simply because he was already part of an alternative youth culture. As Dylan from Worcester told me, the scene is basically composed of punks or social activists, a definitely alternative youth. Evan mentioned how there’s an interaction with “a larger traveling culture, like the youth traveling culture, like kids that hitch or hop trains through places or that like, go to punk houses.” There appears to be a resistance to their realities, both of growing up in a gray and seemingly limited city like providence, and of the limitations of the class they were born into. Their reaching into folk music then is seen as a yearning for this country experience that they were never a part of.

Could this be then another folk revival? According to Lornell’s definition of a folk renaissance, it could definitely be one. He argues “a folk revival refers to the interest of singers and musicians from outside of a regional, racial, or ethnic group in perpetuating its traditional music” (240). Certainly, as Evan mentioned and as I confirmed through my observations, those in the scene are mostly white, city dwelling, middle class youth. Apparently, this yearning for the country experience is not only seen in the music but in style. Although this subculture may not be spectacular in Hebdige’s meaning of the word, it does hold some of the characteristics he draws out for punk. By appropriating elements of a different culture in a sort of “cut up aesthetic”, these elements are recreated and gain a new meaning: they become different signifiers. The adoption of mullets, flannel shirts, mustaches and beards, bad tattoos with American imagery then is both a combination of irony and legitimate interest; they are placed “in a symbolic ensemble which served to erase or subvert their original straight meanings” (Hebdige 136).

Yet although this visual unity in style was very visible in the Deer Tick shows I attended, it was far less overt at the smaller art folk shows I went to. Maybe this has to do with a different set of underlying values that revolve around a deep connection with art rather than with this yearning for the country. Kyla, who is also an artist, mentioned how her “music and art are inseparable.” Yet there’s something else; why would these seemingly different scenes both choose to play semi-traditional folk music? As Lornell argues about the folk revival in the 60’s, “Urban in-migration, modernization, and the development of suburban tract homes placed more Americans even further from their rural roots” (246), which led to, as Paton remarked, in “urban Americans [beginning] to satisfy their gnawing need for identity by seeking roots in the fertile soil of the American folk tradition” (41). This seems to be repeating itself today as I caught from Dylan’s comment, “I like the particular brand of folk music that we play because it feels like a link to our past generations... New England, Maritime Canada, England, Ireland. It feels as if we are a part of that ongoing cultural heritage when we write songs with these places and people and times and aesthetics in mind, of course, in slightly modernized way.” As Kyla simply stated “Everyone has to tend their roots.”

Is this then a recreation of the Folk Revival of the 60’s? I wouldn’t say so. There are repeated patterns, but this particular scene seems to have some sort of punk aesthetic to it. Not just because as Evan said it’s “country music played by guys with tattoos”, or not necessarily in the aesthetics of sounds, but at least in the idea of DIY. Everything from the organization of shows to the production of records and even packaging of CDs are made by the artist’s themselves or their friends. Even the simple act of writing your own songs seems to call upon an idea of DIY. As Pete Seeger argues. “Many more wanted to be more than passive spectators” (45). And why folk? Not only does it fill an identity void, but also the songs are “frank, straightforward, honest.” (Seeger 46). They lack pretentiousness and are simple for the beauty of simplicity. Their influences come from humble sources as Kyla mentioned, “Sometimes my fridge sounds like a whale. Heartbeats, walking rhythms, karaoke, birds practicing, birds nailing it, and of course, wind.” It is these originally humble sounds that are used to create humbling sounds. In a world where technology and erratic lifestyles seem to complicate our reality, maybe what we all really need is to go back to our simpler roots.

Word count: 1703

Works Cited:
Scholarly Writings:
Fonarow, Wendy. "The Spatial Organization of the Indie Music Gig." The Subculture Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997. 360-369.
Hebdige, Dick. "Subculture: The Meaning of Style." The Subcultures Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997. 130-142.
Lornell, Kip. Introducing American Folk Music. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Paton, Sandy. "Folk and the Folk Arrival." The American Folk Scene. New York: Dell Publishing, 1967. 38-43.
Seeger, Pete. "Why Folk Music?" The American Folk Scene. New York: Dell Publishing, 1967. 44-49.
Web Pages:
Jonathan Ross' Interview with Brendan Glasson at Minor Progression
Original Video from Youtube
Original Photo from The Pigeon Chest MySpace page

Response from Brendan of Vio/Miré

This interview was conducted through MySpace messages

How did you first start getting involved in the scene?

I suppose my involvement came from the discovery of the satisfaction of creation when I was much younger and playing in bands and things. In this sense, the scene is really more of a community that works together and supports one another. I feel generally detached from the scene in Providence in the larger sense, but very close with a small, subcommunity of artists and musicians and friends.

Do you know how this scene started and why?

I'm not sure exactly what you are asking here, but if you mean the music scene in Providence I think it is multifaceted. I don't purport to be an expert in the history of the scene, but I think that the presence of an art school, the small population, and the availability of outlets for creative processes were all contributing factors.

How would you characterize this scene? The people in it?

Some might disagree with me, but I (like to) think of music and art is Providence less categorically in terms of output (that is, the products of the creative processes necessarily sharing certain characteristics) and more in terms of the relationships of the people involved with one another. Most of the shows I see in Providence have at least one friend involved. Likewise, I feel that I could superficially describe the way many of the people look or act who are a part of the scene, but I don't dare characterize them all.

How would you characterize your music? Your friend's music? Evan described Annikki Dawns music as New Weird America, would you agree?

Oh, I don't know. I think that the distillation of music into genres is a confused enterprise. I don't find it very useful for discovering new music that I enjoy, because one "New Weird American" artist can be inspired while another vacant and frivolous. Describing my own music difficult for me lately because I can only describe what I have already written, not what I might write in the future. I like to leave myself as much freedom as possible for the future.

How and why do you think people start getting involved?

Their friends get involved.

Would you say DIY is an important aspect of the scene? What about Art in general?

DIY works well to fill in the gaps that are left. There are so few adequate performance venues in Providence, and DIY spaces have done very well to pick up a lot of that slack.

Are there any other music genres you feel people involved in the scene listen to? Genres that may have influenced you?

I don't know. I pretty much only listen to classical music.

I then followed up and asked him:
You say you mostly listen to classical music, yet your music has a "folk" sound to it... Do you think then you are influenced by your friend's music? Or do you also listen to stuff that influence what you create?

His response:
I think I'm definitely influenced by my friends' music. Many of my songs contain references to songs that my friends have written, and at shows friends of mine are constantly covering, reworking, or incorporating music and lyrics from other friends.

Response from Kyla of Annikki Dawn

This interview was conducted through a MySpace message

I've heard that you're an artist, so do you feel your music is in a way related to you art?

-I feel that my music and art are inseparable. For a long time I expected one would take priority over the other, but there's been an almost a rhythmic back and forth over the years between my emphasis on song writing and visual art making.

Would you say that there is a so called "scene"? I've heard others call it more a community or circle of friends because of its size, would you agree?

-I think people tend to gravitate toward (and attract) others with shared interests. It makes sense to me that song writers would come together for inspiration, and understanding. Even simple songs are a complicated form of communication and have a rich history of sticking in people's heads and providing something for people to sing together. Of course not everyone involved in any music scene is a song writer. Maybe the "scene/community/friend circle" is made up of people who are interested in each other.

What are your music influences? What other music genres do you listen to or draw from?

-I'd never knock a genre. Inspiration can come from anywhere. John Cage thought the sounds that cars made on the New York streets was beautiful music. I like Amy Winehouse this week. I'm interested when cars drive by blasting anything. Sometimes it's great when everyone in the room knows the lyrics to a Jimmy Buffet song. Sometimes my fridge sounds like a whale. Heartbeats, walking rhythms, karaoke, birds practicing, birds nailing it, and of course, wind.

How do you feel you first started getting involved in this whole providence "scene"?

-I moved to Providence from Chicago two years ago. Before that I lived in Portland Oregon for four years or so. I've been touring in various bands for a while and I'd been to Providence before to play music. I think I just went from being a satellite member of the community to a local.

Reading's I've been making on the older folk revival movement mention the idea of white urban youth looking towards folk roots to find an identity. Do you agree or disagree that this might be translated to today's revival?

-Everyone has to tend their roots.