Scene sounds and enviornmental folk music

by Mary Kate McGrath / Beacon Correspondent • March 23, 2016

Step outside, and you might find music in your backyard. The wind carries the melody, an ocean tide crashing replaces the bassline, and voices echoing off rock cliffs sing as a choir; bird calls comprise the backbeat, and a neighbor’s stray cat meows instead of a cymbal crash. For this reason, many contemporary folk artists head outside, making these sounds as essential to their work as conventional instrumentation. 

The natural world has long been the inspiration of American folk music, which originated in the most rural corners of the country. Now, with modern recording, it’s become easy to physically incorporate nature into their work, rendering it in a way that’s tangible. Studio equipment is more portable than ever before, which allows artists to venture into the wilderness alone and set up in the outdoors. Looping pedals and other systems of sampling let these musicians grab and borrow from the natural sound around them, collaging it into their songs. From Julianna Barwick to Andrew Bird, some of this year’s most ambient folk songwriters are the ones using organic sound to create immersive music. 

Many of the stylistic choices on these artists’ records can be traced back to the late nineties, when folk music started taking a more scenic approach. The evolution of loops and sampling made new experimentation possible in the studio and on stage. Bands like Yo La Tengo took advantage of these innovations, creating songs that are not only longer—often sprawling out over five to 10 minutes—but also function primarily as sonic scenes. Their 1997 album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One marks the turn into more atmospheric work, constructed more around setting and feeling than classical song structures. On this release, and throughout their prolific catalog since, the band uses synthesizers, loops, and pieces of orchestral arrangements to capture the natural setting where most of their albums are based. Their influence has reverberated through the folk genre since, and today’s artists take their approach to nature even further. 

To establish an ethereal mood, songwriter Julianna Barwick creates recordings where the sounds of nature blends with electronic production. She achieves this by layering vocal and instrumental samples, constructing intricate songs out of small, individual pieces. The sound of water washing on the bank of a lake or rustling leaves effortlessly become a part of her musical quilt, and for this reason her work feels at home in the outdoors. On 2014’s Ruins, Grouper impressed critics with their ability to create ambient scenes with sparse instrumentation. Primary songwriter Liz Harris achieved this by recording the album en route across Portugal, and all the imperfections and background noise of this trip help construct the record. 

A similar artist, Julia Holter, uses this same strategy to emphasize the primary themes on her latest release, Have You in My Wilderness. Here, she makes many bizarre instrumental choices, putting melodies on the harpsichord or writings songs that feature violins played in long dissonant patterns. On “Sea Calls Me Home”, Holter takes the sound of ocean spray and lets it create ambience. To draw the listener deeper into the metaphorical wilderness, Holter creates a physical one with looping technology. 

As an even greater embrace of natural setting, experimental violinist Andrew Bird created his recent Echolocations series by venturing deep into canyons and valleys to compose. Once a song starts to come together, the echos of the vast space become one with the composition, another instrument at play. It is what Bird calls “site specific” writing, where the place drives the meaning behind the track. Each new environment shapes the direction of the work, providing inspiration as well as instrumentation. The influence of these projects follow Bird into his more conventional studio music, where he is both lyrically and musically shaped by his experiences with nature. 

When looking to create new compositions, Bird says he often begins by seeking out a new, unexplored location to write in. As with Echolocations, these projects are often paired with a visual component, with performances staged in these settings. Julianna Barwick sometimes opts to film live sessions in the wilderness; in one example, she stands by a lake, armed with only an iPhone, looping pedal, and the heavy sounds of wind and water. It’s visually striking, with the juxtaposition of the Icelandic lakeside and everyday technology proving particularly memorable. 

This branch of experimental folk represents a bizarre intersection—a place where high technology meets natural, untouched sound. It’s an unlikely pairing that allows these artists to create music that is scenic and vast, almost taking on a visual component. As folk musicians find new ways to submerse listeners in their creations, it represents an exciting expansion of genre. Somehow, new technology hasn’t distanced artists from their origins, and by moving them outdoors, has only helped them find new ways to get closer.