Folk Tales

. December 23, 2013.
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Each year, Hill Auditorium hosts two days of Americana. Artists acoustic and electric, bring to the annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival the warm sound of roots music, pushing away the winter chill. This year's lineup features a diverse cast, from Michigan upstarts (The Crane Wives, Appleseed Collective) to national acts (Iron & Wine, Ingrid Michaelson). Current talked with six artists on the Folk Fest lineup about their music, their Ann Arbor histories, and the sound folk music will make in the future.

Seth Walker

How do you feel about the increasingly mainstream appeal of folk music?

To my ears, folk is not pop music. It doesn't feel as if it was born in a laboratory—it's more organic than that. It's good to see people responding to this Americana explosion, if you will,  listening to artists who are actually playing instruments.

Is there anything in particular you're doing to get ready for the folk festival?

I will be performing some songs off the new album that I am working on. I've been working with The Wood Brothers. It won't be released until after the Folk Fest, but I'll be doing some sneak peeks.

What will you be doing during your down-time at the festival?

I'm originally from North Carolina, so I need to bring my coat. I’ll be spending most of that time indoors! [laughs] Well, I will make it down to the 107one radio station—I hope to stop by and see those guys. I need to stop by the Arbor Brewing Company to get a pint and some nachos.

If you could sit in with any one artist playing this year at the festival, who would it be and what song would you play?

It would need to be Patty Griffin, she's so soulful. There's this tune of hers, "Heavenly Day," that someone's requested me to sing at a wedding. I'd love to help her with that.

If you could curate your own festival of folk music—or any kind of music, for that matter—what artists would you include in the lineup?

The Wood Brothers, of course. I think The Mavericks are a great band that encompass all kinds of genres of music. If I could shoot for the moon I'd definitely put Bob Dylan in there, Guy Clark and Nick Lowe for sure.

This Austin-based singer-songwriter has been mixing honky-tonk blues and New Orleans soul since 1997.

Thao Nguyen

(from The Get Down Stay Down)

What does "folk" music mean to you?

Folk music to me feels familiar and nostalgic but does not get old.

Why, do you think, Ann Arbor has become the base of this beloved, annual festival?

I've had the pleasure of playing Ann Arbor once, I am really looking forward to the second time at the Folk Festival. I remember it as one of the most enjoyable, connected shows we've ever played, with an incredibly kind and present audience. That is the best thing a performer can hope for.

Is there anything particular or special you're doing to prepare for your festival performance?

I'm going to dust off my chops and we're going to rehearse our older more folksy songs and… I'm going to listen to the Louvin Brothers and the Carter Family.

What's the best concert you've seen this year?

Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings at the San Fransisco Symphony Hall because they are incredible musicians and entertainers and Sharon Jones is a marvel. I would never want to perform before or after her.

How are you going to spend your time when you're not onstage at the Festival?

Catching other sets and trying to get Neko Case to hang out with me.

Folk music is evolving in many directions, these days—blending with pop music, country, metal and mainstream electronic—where do you see the genre growing in the coming decade?

I think people with respect for the tradition (of which there are many) will embrace the new directions with grace and discretion and preserve and protect the heart and bones of folk music forever.

Nguyen released her first record as guitarist, singer and songwriter with San Fransisco's psychedelic rock collective The Get Down Stay Down in 2005.

The Appleseed Collective

What does "folk" music mean to you?

To me, folk music is the true music of the masses. It has deep roots and a tangible connection to the past. There is a sense of carrying the torch in the folk community, of maintaining and re-imagining, evolving while keeping sight of where we've been. I think historically folk music has taken on the struggles of the lower classes, fostering a strong community. Folk music is about more than just the music. But purely in relation to the music, I think the presence of acoustic instruments is often considered a defining characteristic of folk music.

How do you feel about the increasingly mainstream appeal of folk music?

I think it's promising. The current state of the music industry is in some ways an open door, and a lot of musicians are taking advantage of the opportunity. There are so many dedicated and talented musicians that have been drowned out by pop-culture. It's such a shame that more people know The Jonas Brothers than know The Punch Brothers. But I think that trend is changing, even if just a bit.

Why has Ann Arbor become the base of this beloved, annual festival?

I think Ann Arbor is the base of the festival because there are people here to support it. Ann Arbor has an amazing community of arts supporters, people who want to enrich their own lives and the lives of those around them and are willing, quite frankly, to put their money where their mouth is.

Do have any influences or roots here in Ann Arbor, or in Michigan?

Innumerable. I'm sure each one of us could go off at length about our Michigan and Ann Arbor heroes. [Folk duo] Seth Bernard & May Erlewine lead the way for musicians everywhere. [They] help us keep focused on what is really important. Josh Davis and the gents of Steppin' In It are songwriting/shredding monsters. Breathe Owl Breathe reminds us to stay light and play with it.

Folk music is evolving in many directions, these days—blending with pop music, country, metal and mainstream electronic—where do you see the genre growing in the coming decade?

Who knows! I'm very interested in pushing the limitations of what can be done with acoustic instruments—there are a couple bands out there bravely exploring this territory. Punch Brothers' cover of Radiohead's “Kid A” is a good example.

Brandon Smith

(violin/mandolin/vocals)

Ann Arbor's own gypsy folk-plus-ragtime crusaders The Appleseed Collective began performing in 2010. They will release their new album, Young Love, this winter.

Pearl & the Beard

What does "folk" music mean to you? Does it have a definition or defining characteristics?

Styles: To me now, in current 21st century speak, the term "folk" is probably trademarked by Billboard magazine and used to easily catalog music for our iTunes playlists for easy tracking. Other than that, I believe at one point it had something to do with acoustic guitars, songs, about everyday things and general hardships by common people or "folk."

Mackenzie: The term "folk" music is just as nebulous as the term "pop" music. The sonic variety is so different within the genre that I think the term "folk" has mostly just come to signify a type of music that makes you really connect with your feelings, whether you want to or not.

Why, do you think, Ann Arbor has become the base of this beloved, annual festival?

Mackenzie: Michigan (and Ann Arbor specifically) is home to some very passionate people. Passionate about sports, passionate about the arts, passionate about beer, passionate about music. It seems that anything people get into here, they get into all the way, and a community forms to experience joy together through that common cause. It's a great way to live.

What's the best concert you've seen this year and why?

Styles: Jocelyn and I saw Frightened Rabbit at Webster Hall and that was phenomenal. Those guys have been around for years and I'm glad they're getting some recognition. Their banter was great. Their performance was tighter than a baby's wallet. The stage set up was awesome with great lighting, which I am beginning to appreciate more and more in a live performance.  

How are you going to spend your time when you're not onstage at the Festival?

Styles: I'm super pumped to see Neko Case. Also it will be nice to see Thao. We played with her a few years back in New York and it's always great to reconnect with people. Mostly just enjoying the music.

If you could sit in with any one artist playing this year at the festival, who would it be and what song would you play? Why?

Mackenzie: Emily (Hope Price, cello and vocals) has been dreaming up a cover version of Iron and Wine's "Evening on the Ground" for ages. If we could sit in on that song, or any song, with them, that'd be incredible.

Jeremy Styles (guitar and vocals) & Jocelyn Mackenzie(percussion, kazoo and vocals)

New York City’s own pop-folk trio Pearl and the Beard released their debut EP in 2009. Their three-part harmonies recall the golden age of pop-rock music.

Johnnyswim

How do you feel about the increasing mainstream appeal of folk music?

What's exciting about it is that it shows people are hungry for music that is a little more "real" than what they've been fed generally with recent "pop" music.

Is there anything particular or special you're doing to prepare for your festival performance?

We are massive fans of all the folks playing so we've been geeking out listening to the music of all the other artists playing the festival.

How are you going to spend your time when you're not onstage at the Festival?

I'm sure we'll spend our time completely fanning out over all the other artists performing! We'll either be side stage or trying to find seats in the front to get the best vantage point!

What are your past experiences with the Ann Arbor Folk Festival?

This will be our very first experience and the anticipation is killing us. Our expectations are through the roof and everything we've heard about the festival, the performers and attendees has added to both our excitement and nerves!

If you could sit in with any one artist playing this year at the festival what would it be, and what song would you play?

Patty Griffin's “Moses.” This is one of the songs that made me want to write songs.

Folk music is evolving in many directions, these days—blending with pop music, country, metal and mainstream electronic—where do you see the genre growing in the coming decade?

I see it infecting other genres with its sense of earnestness, honesty and heart. I think music will be better as a whole in the next decade, and that its growth will be pointed back to the influence of folk music.

Amanda Sudano

(vocals, multi-instrumentalist)

Sudano and now-husband Abner Ramirez founded Johnnyswim in Nashville in 2005. The daughter of Diana Ross, Sudano’s crystalline voice comes with a pedigree.

The Crane Wives

What does "folk" music mean to you?

To me, "folk" music means colloquial music, honest music written from raw emotion, conceived naturally and performed organically. Music that is representative of a moment of human life. Music that is written from the heart-home of a person living a journey. It's the age old tradition of open-hearted expression.

Why do you think Ann Arbor has become the base of this beloved, annual festival?

In my experience, Ann Arbor is an incredible, eclectic place of vibrant Michigan culture. We've had the pleasure of meeting so many friends in Ann Arbor who are doing so many truly inspiring things with music and the artistic community. It's a great place for experiencing art. As both a listener and a performer, I'm continually blown away by the city's incredible acoustic spaces and listening rooms as well.

Do you have any influences or roots here in Ann Arbor, or in Michigan?

We have influences that come from everywhere, but our roots are here in Michigan, and that's something we are very proud of every day! What a truly real-world-incredible home we have!

If you could sit in with any one artist playing this year at the festival who would it be, and what song would you play?

I would sit in with Iron & Wine on the song "Singers and the Endless Song." Sam Beam's albums have been, and continue to be, an enormous inspiration to me and my bandmates. The performance from the rhythm section on the new record, especially on that tune, is absolutely mind-blowing. I'd love to be a part of that groove while it's happening live.

Folk music is evolving in many directions, these days—blending with pop music, country, metal and mainstream electronic—where do you see the genre growing toward in the coming decade?

Musical styles have blended so wildly that music is becoming increasingly hard to define with genre descriptors. I think that allows for a really adventurous environment where artists are free to stand out. My favorite bands are those that you have to experience for yourself to understand, you can't draw a solid bead on what they sound like until you hear them.

Dan Rickabus

(drums/percussion/vocals/co-producer/third songwriter)

This Grand Rapids quintet has been mixing emotional folk with pop music since 2010. In 2012, Paste Magazine called them one of “12 Michigan Bands You Should Listen to Now.”