Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’Category

Come Let’s be Gentle

Let’s just address the elephant in the room. Let’s let the cat out of the bag, take the bull by the horns and call the dogs off. I come bearing my idiomatic menagerie in the hopes that you will forgive me for not posting on this blog for more than a year. I can only imagine the dwindling legion of readers who anxiously checked ShutTheFolkUp each day for new posts, only to leave, disappointed, as the site gathered dust on some forgotten corner of the Internet.

So why the lull? Well, basically everything happened at once. Have you ever studied organic chemistry? Studying organic chemistry is like studying the rules of some complex foreign sport, where every law is constantly altered and nullified by shifting by-laws, where electrons jump and bounce like over-caffeinated 4th graders, where just when you think you know what’s going on, an aldol condensation reaction or benzoic dehydrogenation occurs and you struggle to remember what aspect of medicine and patient care this knowledge might inform.

Sometime in the summer I studied for and took the MCAT. The name might suggest a purring, serene creature, eager to rub against legs and perch on laptop keyboards, but this feline is better related to the type that might stalk you on the Serengeti. As you lie sedately by the watering hole, the MCAT sneaks up behind you, targeting the weakest of the herd, the oldest, the plumpest, the ones who have not adequately memorized the ideal gas laws for a non-volatile vapor.  I left the building despondent, certain that I had failed and thinking of the plans I would have to cancel so that I could be ready for a retake. I’d left my phone at home and wouldn’t be picked up by my dad for a few hours, so ended up wandering the lot of a nearby business park, feeling sorry for myself and scowling at strangers. When my dad did finally arrive to pick me up, I was too miserable and exhausted from my suburban hike to say much. “Never mind,” he said, in a way that only dads can make sound comforting. “Never mind.”

A few days later, I left for Guatemala with my high school friend Scott, a reward to myself for completing my pre-medical studies. After a few days climbing volcanoes and swinging in hammocks, I forgot the MCAT had ever even happened. We crammed onto camionetas or ‘chicken buses’, old yellow Blue Birds that retire from civilized lives carting children to and from schools in  Des Moines and St. Louis to lives in Central America, crammed with locals who have paid less than a dollar to travel the length and breadth of the country. On one particularly memorable journey, Scott and I boarded an overcrowded bus and stood uncomfortably in the aisles, swaying in part from the awkward camber of the mountainous roads  but mostly from all the dodgy street food we’d had earlier. I was jealous when Scott was offered a seat, until I learned the obligations of this arrangement: a moment later, my taciturn, rugby-playing companion was handed an eight year old boy to sit on his lap for the rest of the journey, while his parents laughed at their reluctant new gringo babysitter. Guatemala is an absolutely incredible country and with some careful planning we were able to cover vast swathes of it in just over two weeks of travel.

Of course, as with all these things, the MCAT score wasn’t nearly as dreadful as I had anticipated, and before long I was interviewing at medical schools, in rooms with other nervous twenty-somethings, each desperately trying to convince admissions committees that we were God’s gift to the anatomy lab. When I received my acceptance phone call I ran out into the backyard of my parents’ home, my mum and dad and sister clinging to the doorframe behind me as I spoke to the dean of admissions. When I turned behind and gave them the thumb’s up, they erupted into cheering hugs. I had to ask the dean to repeat himself because they were screaming so loud.

It’s a wonderful feeling to have a trajectory, to know that the gravity of your future is drawing you into a steadily predictable orbit. I have many, many demanding years ahead of me and exams that will make the MCAT look like a basket of kittens, but the terrible part is over, the part rife with self-doubt and second thoughts, the part where you can never quite drop the feeling that the system is trying to shake you loose, to prove that you aren’t really supposed to be there. But once you’re in, once you pass that vital test and plant your foot firmly in the door, you find yourself surrounded by people determined not to see you leave.

My girlfriend recently celebrated a birthday, and her mum wanted to buy her tickets for a gig. She asked me to research bands playing in the area, and being the dutiful boyfriend that I am I quickly found out Johnny Flynn was touring. I hadn’t seen Johnny Flynn since my first year of university, but I had been blown away by his voice and unique songwriting. I’ve featured him on this blog before. He’s often lumped in with Noah & the Whale, Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons, but for some reason never really achieved the same notoriety as these guys. I think this is slightly unfair, as his lyrics alone set him above the others, and the guy plays like 17 instruments; halfway through their opening act, The Melodic told the audience their next song required a violin player, and Johnny Flynn suddenly emerged from backstage to accompany them. He came out 20 minutes later for his own set, and The Melodic stood near us in the audience and cheered along with the crowd. Everyone was just there to have a good time.



…especially the middle-aged woman standing in front of us who couldn’t stop screaming with excitement every time Johnny Flynn spoke, and then trying to actively engage him in conversation between sets. But, okay, I get it, blonde hair and blue eyes, he’s a handsome guy.

Johnny Flynn had a son recently, and wrote one of my favourite songs from his new album ‘Country Mile‘ as a lullaby that somehow explains the theory of relativity to the boy. That should be reason enough to love the song. You can listen to it below :

Click here to listen to and download Einstein’s Idea by Johnny Flynn 

(wish I could ‘embed’ songs like I used to, but WordPress want me to pay $20 for this privilege and I think it’s a little cheeky)

And so now I prepare for my next big journey. In a couple weeks I will be boarding a plane for Dublin, then another for London and a final one for Frankfurt, where I plan to spend a few months learning German (because, you know, I’ll be working with so many German patients in medical school). I haven’t booked the plane ticket after that, but I know that somehow I will wind my way back to California by late July to start medical school.  In the mean time I just sit back and relax, another piece of flotsam drifting in the current.




02 2014

Heads up!

Sorry for leaving you folkless for the past two weeks, but I’ve been traveling throughout this big crazy country and haven’t had a chance to get my thoughts in order. While I was away I fell in love with New York and turned 21, two momentous events that you’ll be forced to read about shortly.

In the meantime, my lovely sister and her lovely husband have teamed up to help turn STFU into a much more pleasant experience for you intrepid folk explorers. This means that I’ll finally be able to transmit my musical discoveries through your laptop speakers without reducing myself to tears as I try to get my website to cooperate with HTML, as well as several other big changes
I’ll be leaving California in a week’s time too, which means that with the above site renovations, this little folk corner of the internet is probably going to remain in the shadows for a while longer. Please bear with me though: we’ll be back on track soon, and better than ever. Nothing can stop the spread of good music, not even five-and-a-half thousand miles of plane journey and eight hours of jet lag.
Just don’t expect anything pretty.


09 2010

Tough Folk

Women have come a long way in fighting an unfair system. They have spent the last hundred years revolutionising the gender roles expected of them by society, an inspiring feat that makes us smile at Don Draper’s weekly antics. I think I speak for everyone when I say that we are happy to see the end of an era of strict, unyielding gender roles, we’re happy that we live in a world where it’s no longer rare to see a woman standing up in court or in a labcoat at a hospital.

Nevertheless it’s common knowledge that every man secretly wants to be a cowboy.

Deep down we all want hairy chests and cool scars. We want to open bottles with out teeth and fix cars and build fires. We all want to be Bear Grylls. Knowing how to use Photoshop or set up a firewall is probably far more practical in this day and age, but we don’t care. Every man at some point in his life will wonder if he looks good in leather boots.

Most men will be able to suppress these feelings on a day-to-day basis. If you ever see a grown man assembling IKEA furniture with anything more advanced than an Allen key or eating baked beans straight out of the tin he’s probably just temporarily alleviating his call of the wild. If you want to make him happy, just leave him be and later in the evening remark upon what broad shoulders he has.

Sometimes, however, the call of the wild proves too strong for even the most rugged of modern yuppies. A couple of weeks ago, some sort of cosmic alignment left my father and me itching for something manly to do. Soon it became unbearable and he would go on feverish manhunts for broken lightbulbs to replace or I would suddenly have to run out to the garden and do pushups for half an hour. Finally, we knew there was no other choice. There was only one thing left that we could do. We would have to go camping.

I’ve probably spent less than one percent of a percentage of my life inside a tent. Growing up in Singapore meant that casual trips to tiny islands dotted around the Indian Ocean were not uncommon, so sleepless nights in stuffy polyester prisons are not quite alien to me. However, I’ve never done it enough for it to become a hobby. Let’s just say my relationship with camping has never extended beyond a few one night stands, and I wasn’t planning on letting things get any more serious.

Nevertheless, Papa Burns and I know both knew that the time had come for me to make that important rite of passage into manli-hood, and a few days later we were driving East along the 78 toward the Cuyamaca Mountains in a Jeep full of tent equipment, man-sized sleeping bags and cans of chilli. The testosterone was palpable.

It was an incredible trip. We hiked and watched hawks and climbed rocks and played guitar under a star-soaked sky. I’m pretty sure I can grow a moustache now. We drove home exhausted and dirty but our masculinity gauges were firmly pointed to Full. This picture pretty much sums up the whole trip.

This was a few minutes after I punched a cougar in the face.

One of the most important things about road trips of course is the music you choose to act as your soundtrack, and so it’s finally time to sneak in some folk-related tidbit to this otherwise folk-devoid post. As I created the iTunes playlist for what would turn out to be three separate discs of road-tripping tunes, Papa Burns leaned over my shoulder and suggested songs for the journey. When he asked me to add something by Arcade Fire, a band he’d heard a lot about but not a lot of, my clicking and dragging became especially enthusiastic.

So, in honour of Arcade Fire’s new album The Suburbs (which I haven’t had a chance to get hold of yet but hear is amazing) and of the hugely masculine trip undertaken by myself and Papa Burns last week, I have chosen Arcade Fire’s My Body is a Cage as this week’s thumping tune.

Just a quick warning. The song builds up to a fantastic organ crescendo near the end, and if you’re in your macho mood, make sure that before you listen you take the time to put down that knife you’re picking buffalo out of your teeth with. Even cowboys have accidents.

My Body Is A Cage

I Wanted To Call This Post ‘Girl Power’ But I Thought I Might Lose Manpoints (And Trust Me, I Don’t Have Many Left To Lose)

My older sister Holly is in town for a few days and, being the West Coast party animals that we are, one of the first places we thought we’d head on her first summery day in San Diego is the local library. Granted, she had a presentation to do for work and I had a guilty conscience I needed to assuage by pretending to write my dissertation, so we didn’t technically want to be there. Nevertheless, we settled down into one of the library’s private conference rooms to a couple hours of good honest work.

Things were going well, the elbow grease was flowing, noses were firmly on grindstones and several hours of concentration had yielded a hundred words of my dissertation and a new high score on computer solitaire. We’d had the room booked till 3 pm and as the sun began to dip I glanced at my watch and noticed we still had around five minutes to go.

Suddenly the door burst open, spewing forth a tiny man with an armful of books and a receding hairline. The former he slammed onto the table and with as much confrontational finesse as can be conjured by a sweaty 5’1” man informed us that we would need to leave the room which, according to the clipboard posted outside the door, was now his.

I reacted in the same way that I’m fairly sure 99% of self-assured and articulate people would in this situation: I did some seriously pointed sighing as I packed away my laptop and half-heartedly mumbled something about maybe asking nicely next time. I knew as I dramatically glanced at my watch and back at the little man tapping his foot in the corner of the room that I would come up with a killer comeback moments after leaving the room, I knew I would hate myself for not fighting for those final five minutes which were, after all, ours. Still, we all have stories like that, when that part of the brain responsible for witty retorts and pacifying arguments falters in the moment we most need it.

Except, it seems, for my older sister Holly.

The damp intruder must have realised he had been a little less than polite upon entry, because he began to awkwardly joke how if he hadn’t kicked us out the library staff would have rudely done so too.

Holly turned away from the half-finished project she’d spent the entire morning working on and suddenly focused all of her attention on the man. She flashed him a warm smile and spoke in her sweetest, most innocuous, most English voice. “They couldn’t have been much ruder than you.”

The man laughed as though she’d cracked a joke, then suddenly took the time to realise what she was saying.

As he aggressively and awkwardly tried to explain why he hadn’t just politely knocked on the door and informed us that our time was up in the first place, Holly serenely packed up her things and answered him in the most calm and smiling manner I’ve ever seen. Whatever he said couldn’t unnerve her and he just ended up looking like a massive jerk.

Finally, as we were backing up out of the conference room and he realised Holly was a lady he couldn’t quite bully into submission like he might have done in the past, he smugly leaned back in his chair, pointed to the time—which had of course been ticking steadily onwards after his invasion of our room—and said, “Well, you know what, now it is 3 o’clock.” And then, with a one-handed, flick-away wave and a smug little smile that I know is making you brim with the same level of anger that writing this is re-conjuring up in me, said, “Buh-bye.”

Holly, though, unflustered, simply turned from the open door and smiling as though she’d just stumbled upon an incredible revelation said, “Wow. You are a douche-bag.”

While moments later the ever-charismatic Library Jerk would chase Holly outside and—kind of paradoxically—scream, “Welcome to America! Go home!” in the middle of a library full of silent strangers, Holly managed to maintain her cool throughout the whole exchange and deliver that simple but well-timed blow at the end. You really have to respect a lady who can do that.

Meanwhile, I stood lamely by her side. I was thinking about raising a middle finger but I’m pretty sure that would have undone all of Holly’s hard work.

You may be wondering how I am going to jam this square peg of a story into the round hole that is a blog about folk music but actually, it really works. For me, there is always some folk to fit my mood. Heartbreak is an easy one (Bon Iver’s Skinny Love immediately springs to mind), we proved last week that upbeat summer folk does exist (Good Old War’s Coney Island always makes me want to run through someone’s sprinkler) and if you just feel like chilling out then you’re in fantastic company (have you ever heard this song?!). In the same way Holly knew exactly what to say to that guy in the library, folk music knows exactly what to tell you when you want to hear it.

Because right now I feel a little nostalgic and a little anxious about the future (and also a little nauseous because I just ate like five cupcakes) this week’s song is going to be ‘Karen’ from The National’s album Alligator. Man, you need to read these lyrics (which are not entirely applicable to my life at the moment, before you draw any worrying conclusions).

I’ll just take a second now to thank everyone who’s been reading my blog since I started a few months ago. I’m having a lot of fun getting lost in this folkological wilderness with you guys and I really hope you are too. I’m also loving your stories and contributions. Nows your chance to share them with me again. Tell me what mood you are in right now and what song best satisfies it so I can be prepared next time I feel the same. Also, if you have any awesome comebacks that you or a friend has fired at unknown douche-bags, you know you have a duty to share them with the rest of the Internet. Post below.

Holly flies back up to San Francisco tomorrow, and, just like I feel every time one of my immediate family members has to go somewhere too far for me to keep an eye on them, I’m nervous to see her go.

Something tells me, though, that she can handle herself just fine.

Karen – The National.mp3

If for some reason that doesn’t work, try the box below.


08 2010

The Great Big Folkin’ Soundtrack To Your Summer

So here it is, your Great Big Folkin’ Soundtrack. Thank you all so much for the emails and comments I received that helped make this project such a fantastically communal effort, you guys really put the volk in folk. I especially liked hearing tunes and bands I’d never listened to before. Apologies to those whose music didn’t make it to STFU, there was way more folky summer music than I ever could have realised. We’ll definitely have to turn these playlists into a seasonal thing, I’d be really interested to see how much Halloween folk we could rustle up together.

I don’t know about you but August is always the saddest part of summer for me and it’ll be even sadder this year because soon I’ll be leaving the beaches and palm trees and tanned American girls of Southern California for the rain and lecture halls and piles of laundry that I have to do myself in Bristol.

In the meantime, let’s cheer ourselves up with The Great Big Folkin’ Soundtrack To Your Summer. I was getting a little tired of, you know, not being able to understand how ANYTHING WORKS on the internet, and so have opted just to make a simple little box that you guys can dip into and download the tunes from. You can stream the music by clicking on each song title, or you can download each tune individually to listen to later lying on your ass in front of the TV at the gym, by hovering over the song title, clicking on the the little blue box that appears on the right and selecting ‘download’.

Now hurry up and get listening, we only have a few more weeks to stress ourselves out with trying our best not to take the summer for granted.


A Few Honest Words
- Ben Sollee
Becoming a Jackal – Villagers
Bullet - Scarlett Johansson / Steel Train
Good Music - Juzzie
Good Old War - Coney Island
Home - Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes
Me and Jiggs – Josh Ritter
The Unwritable Girl – Gregory Alan Isakov
Vienna – Matt Costa
Wagon Wheel – Old Crow Medicine Show
Yellow Brick Road – Angus & Julia Stone
Zorbing – Stornoway


08 2010

Things To Shout At The Sky

Summer doesn’t get more summery than when you’re in California.

Okay, yeah, so fine, this isn’t always the case. I know my San Francisco readers are probably right now flipping a thermal-gloved middle finger at the above sentence and even those down here in San Diego are probably not all jumping to agree. Despite what you may have heard, Southern California does not have the best climate in the world, it isn’t always sunny and, despite what Snoop Dog and Katie Perry may tell you, sometimes it’s not warm enough to only wear bikinis and cut-off jeans. Unfortunately even in the summer San Diegans sometimes have to find alternatives beyond just eating tacos and daydreaming in Balboa Park.

Nevertheless, that generic ideal summer you have stored in your head of a sunny carefree day spent beside a pool is not too difficult to come by in California. Sometimes in the darkest depths of British November it is this image alone that keeps me from ripping off my fifteen jumpers and eight pairs of sweatpants, breaking free from my snowbound house and running naked into the welcoming arms of hypothermia. It doesn’t matter that once July rolls round and I’m back in California I have to gently guide my mother back into the house after she’s spent a good chunk of the day waving an angry fist and cursing at the disappointingly overcast sky. The most important part about The Perfect Summer is waiting for it to come. I’ve always found that the feeling of warm sunshine on my chest and chlorinated water at my toes is so much more visceral when I shut my eyes in a damp lecture hall in Bristol than when I’m actually lying by the pool in California.

So how do we make up for this disproportion? How do we keep ourselves from being disappointed by the beaches that are never quite as secluded and iced beverages never quite as
alcoholic as we had imagined them to be? Do not fret my friends. The answer, like so many things in life, lies in music.

We all love a good soundtrack, that set of songs that have been carefully selected to accompany a movie, crescendoing here, pianomissimoing there, bringing emotion and colour to a silent stage. Of course this leads us to ask, why shouldn’t we add soundtracks to our lives?

Think about one of your favourite songs (it doesn’t have to be folk; don’t worry, we don’t judge at STFU), that song that’s been played so many times in your head that it’s become grooved and smooth and warped with age. These songs drag nets behind them that scoop up and attach themselves to memories, memories of the first time you heard them, of the people you love who you’ve shared them with, of the things you did while listening to them. These songs get tangled up with thoughts and places and smells and feelings until they’ve adopted a totally new, multi-dimensional meaning in your head, a collage of sensations that you could quite never explain to anyone else.

Let’s take control of this informational synesthesia. Add a soundtrack to your summer that will not only paint the unfinished parts of your perfect sunny day, but will leave you with a aural cue that will take you back there on some generic Tuesday in February.

If you’re a folk purist this may be a little tricky. The twin sister had asked me to charge her iPod before her roadtrip last week to Florida and, never one to pass up the chance to force my musical tastes on others, I decided to surreptitiously sneak on a little playlist of all the pretentious and trendy music I had painstakingly discovered lately. The problem is, folk doesn’t have a great track record of upbeat, summery songs. With a history grounded in political protest, disgruntled cowboys and heartbreak, folk has never quite been conducive to a relaxing afternoon on the beach. Maybe something to do with the Cold Weather Theory?

Nevertheless, the endless flexibility of folk means that there are plenty of tunes that go great with sunshine, though you might have to search a little bit to find them. Here is your chance to help build Shut The Folk Up’s Great Big Folkin‘ Soundtrack To Your Summer. We’re in August now, but of course it’s not too late. The sun is still shining and there are plenty of burgers and hot dogs to be eaten. Plus, my Australian readers haven’t even started their summer yet, though they’re probably too busy riding kangaroos around Aussie Rules Football pitches to realise. Or, you know, whatever it is that Australians do in the winter.

Shut The Folk Up’s Great Big Folkin‘ Soundtrack To Your Summer will be a collaborative effort. Submit the folk songs that you consider conducive to summertime, and next week I’ll bundle them together for us all to download and collectively enjoy. Don’t worry about MP3s. Just give me a title, a name and maybe a firm handshake and we’ll be golden.

In the meantime, I’ll start you off with a few sunny tunes to keep your summer moving. If you’re in San Francisco, make sure your remove your ear muffs first so you can hear them

Good Old War – Coney Island

Zorbing – Stornoway

A Few Honest Words – Ben Sollee

Becoming a Jackal – Villagers

Bullet – Scarlett Johansson / Steal Train

Homes – The Magnetic Zeroes


08 2010


A few months ago I stepped onto an open mic stage, guitar in hand, ready to perform for an enthusiastic room full of people. Some of the performers before me had already broken several of the cardinal rules of guitar etiquette and I was prepared to set the record straight that douchebaggery is an unnecessary prerequisite to playing the acoustic guitar.

As I plugged myself into the PA system and adjusted my microphone stand, I made eye contact with some recognisable faces in the audience. A group of friends had come down to watch me, and I knew it was important that I didn’t disappoint. I’d been preparing a special song for the past few days to really catch everyone’s attention, and as I swivelled on my bar stool to face the audience I anxiously flexed my fingers and sung the opening lyrics under my breath.

I reached for the microphone, and muttered a hello in the coolest voice I could muster. Instantly, a tidal wave of eyes descended on my little refuge in the corner of the room and everything went silent. It was show time. The audience was mine. If you’ve ever performed in public you’ll know how immensely strange it is to instantly be in the unswerving focus of a room full of strangers. Suddenly everything you say is extremely important, everything you do is under microscopic scrutiny and any mistake you make will be instantly detected and ridiculed for the rest of the night.

I started slowly. “This is a cover…”


“…of an MGMT song…”

A few nods of approval, some smiles.

“..called Kids.”

And suddenly the mood had changed. I’d made the right decision. An audience that had thus far had to sit through two halting renditions of Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours and a really awkward a capella version of Billie Jean seemed to appreciate that I had gone out of my way to present them with something a little more unorthodox.

Now I had their attention, it was time to finish the job. It was time to throw out a witty, profound statement that confirmed my attempts to present myself as an interesting musician, it was time seal the deal and gain the respect of my peers and this bar full of strangers. I stood up, grabbed the microphone in my right hand and began to explain how some popular songs have a lyrical ‘spark’ in them, something special that makes them stand out from the rest of the chart-topping rubbish recycled every week. I explained how acoustic covers are such effective ways to reinterpret these songs, to strip them down to the bare minimum so that the lyrics can seize the limelight, so that the melody can emerge in its purest form, unladen by synthesizers or auto-tune. I paced the stage, arguing that this is why folk music is the most beautiful kind of music, that it’s because it is the most unblemished form of talent, that when you cover a song with nothing more than a guitar and your own voice you are deconstructing it, that if you take away all the unnecessary baggage and the song still works, then you can get as close as you possibly can to the magic behind beautiful music.

At least, that’s what I’d wanted to say. Instead in an awkward, half-audible voice, I mumbled:

“Covers…are songs…that other people have written.”

I remember watching in slow-motion the look of beaming pride on the face of one my friends in the audience slowly transform into one that just seemed to say, I am going to make fun of you for this for at least six months. Everyone else in the audience just seemed confused. I guess my my theories on the purifiying quality of the acoustic guitar were a little too complex to be explained at that particular moment. I hurriedly played through my song, and when I came to the end, was very careful to keep my mouth shut during the light applause.

Hopefully, Internet, we can all take away something from this embarrassing little story. Everyone loves a good cover, but they don’t always work. The best kind are the ones that transform the original song into something totally different, but something that still totally works, the kind that detect the ‘soul’ of the piece, and strip away all the extraneous junk that isn’t really needed.

I know you have a favourite cover, a song that you heard someone else play once that made you jump up and spill your coffee everywhere and exclaim to your startled coworkers, “What! You can play this song like that?!” I really, really want to know about these cover songs, and you can do us all a favour and post your favourite in the comments below.

Until then, you’d better put down your hot coffee and warn your colleagues because I want to make you aware of one of my favourite covers. José González has taken a poppy, fun Kylie Minogue song, ripped away all the drum tracks and piano layers, fed it into that big hole in the front of his guitar and produced something so incredibly different to the original. In no way can anyone say it is better than Kylie Minogue’s version, but you have to give credit to González for zeroing in on what made the song so great in the first place, and using that to make the song totally his own.

I don’t know if anything I said so far made any sense, it’s a pretty complicated point to get across in word form, not to mention under a spotlight in front of a hundred strangers in a crowded bar. However, if you take nothing else away from my post this week, at least I can rest assured that now you know,

“Covers…are songs…that other people have written.”

Before you ask: yes, I do weddings.

Kylie Minogue — Hand On Your Heart

José González — Hand On Your Heart (cover)


07 2010

Now You Might Actually Learn Something

So far, I’ve been claiming myself to be a bit of a folk expert.

I’ve written my posts with a certain authority, I’ve offered unasked-for advice on all matters acoustic, I’ve proffered tunes that I thought you’d like and given you no choice in the matter.

And you know what, that’s more or less okay. I’ve been listening to folk for a long time:

I can barely remember 1992, perhaps because I spent so much of it listening to progressive alt-folk and experimenting with Class-A drugs

Nevertheless, it’s time for me now to admit that I’m a bit of a phony. I’m not a true folkist.

Folk means a lot of things to a lot of different people. To the Irish, folk involves fiddles and sing-a-longs, to the Americans folk means hobos and cowboys. German folk requires leather trousers.

However, this all changed as these different strands of folk started to tangle and entwine somewhere in the middle of 1940s America. Early in the 20th century, archivists traveled across the United States on a mission to collect and preserve the music that had been passed down through various generations, from campfire to campfire, the music that had until then never been noted down, let alone exposed to a recording studio. This was the true ‘voice of the people’, and the pre-World War II Socialist movement latched onto it with the idea that folk music really could serve as a genuine force for social change. Men like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, who are now considered the great-grandfathers of folk, popularised what had until then been a rootless and organic genre. After them came further generations, including Bob Dylan and the whole American Folk Music Revival, and as folk evolved, Elvis, The Beatles, Nick Drake and, ultimately, bands like Oasis. See why it’s so important for you to know your history?

If you have the time, I’d love for you to watch this video of Pete Seeger, one of those great-granddaddies of folk, who happens to still be fighting for the ‘left’ today (he performed at Obama’s inauguration). Seeger got caught up in McCarthy’s pursuit of un-American activites and, just when his career was hitting its peak, was unjustly denied the sponsorship and funding he required to keep performing. In the mid-sixties he managed to pull together enough resources to create a show called Rainbow Quest, where he basically just sat at a table drinking coffee and hanging out with people like Judy Collins and Johnny Cash. Watch the clip below where he’s jamming away with Tom Paxton. I love how they casually tune up and start plucking, only half aware that the cameras are rolling.

Now I understand that this kind of folk is not everyone’s favourite kind of folk. It’s simple folk, it’s raw folk. It’s fine if you don’t like it as much as, say, Damien Rice, but still, give it a chance. This is folk at it’s best, when it’s not trying to impress, when it’s just about hanging out with a friend and a couple of guitars, when it’s all about that shivery feeling you get when you hear voices sing in perfect harmony, when you hear that one lyric you know is going to haunt you all the way home.

This week I’ve chosen to share a tune that was released in 1964, right in the middle of the American Folk Music Revival, but I reckon it could have been released yesterday for all its timelessness. Bob Dylan stood in the centre of a folk river and watched it part round him, and while many people booed and left the concert hall when he decided to go electric (Papa Burns famously included!), he changed the course of music history forever.

Nevertheless, this is a tune from a time when his guitars were still mostly made of wood and musicians were not instant douchebags. I don’t know what folk will sound like fifty years from now, but I hope it’s still a little bit like this.

Bob Dylan-One Too Many Mornings


07 2010

On Second Thought, Just Learn the Trombone

UPDATE: fixed the second song! Note to self, must actually make sure blog functions before posting it to internet… Now go listen!

The acoustic guitar is an extremely delicate instrument.

I don’t mean that it’s delicate because it’s only made of wood, that it’s fragile. I don’t mean that if you bash it around a bit too much it goes out of tune.

The acoustic guitar is delicate because it is so transformative. One second you’re that quiet kid who’s spent most of the party sitting on a couch by yourself, the next you’re the most popular person in the room and you have most of the party singing along with your strumming.

We all know, though, that that’s not all there is to it. We all know about That Guy.

That Guy who always turns off the iPod halfway through the second chorus of your favourite Journey song, brandishing an acoustic guitar and a posse of fawning girls.

That Guy who swears he’s too shy and unprepared to play as he enthusiastically reaches his hand into his own pocketful of plectrums.

That Guy who tells you that he’s been working on a song for a while that’s so meaningful to him, before launching into a really-over-the-top rendition of Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours.

That Guy is not Folk.

Not to fear, dear Internet, there’s still hope for you budding guitarists yet. In the same way that not every person with an axe is a fireman, not every person with a guitar is a cringeworthy douche bag.

I have devised a way for you to always walk on the right side of the fine line between Embarrassing Schweff and Coolest Person in the Room. Like many things in life, all it takes is that you follow a simple set of guidelines. Allow me to introduce to you,

Luke’s Ten Rules For Acoustic Guitar Etiquette

(or, How to Be Good Folk)

1. Obey timing. Compare the acoustic guitar to an after-dinner mint, or a plate of fine cheeses: it’s really meant to be enjoyed at the end of a long and successful evening. No one goes to parties to listen to you play. They aren’t there to sit awkardly and politely as you croon out your tunes. Instead, wait till everything’s winding down, a few guests have left so only the cream of the crop remain and everyone’s too drunk to notice if you’re rubbish anyway. Let the iPod playlist wear itself out before you introduce a guitar to your enthusiastic audience.

2. Choose the right song. There’s nothing more awkward than one person singing to a room full of mute faces. Unless you’re with a small group of friends don’t try anything that you’ve written, unless you’re asked to and encouraged. Instead, find a tune with a chorus that everyone loves, so while you handle the verses and bathe in that solo glory, you’ve got a whole choir of backup every time the chorus surfaces. Also, try to avoid the stereotypes. Keep Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah in your repetoire, don’t be afraid to churn out Wonderwall if your playlist is running dry, but try to find a tune that’s going to surprise your listeners, as well as make them want to sing along.

3. Be modest. I don’t mean, oh no, I couldn’t possibly play, oh really? Honestly? Okay, well I guess I kind of am the best at the party modest. I mean, wait for someone to hand you a guitar. Make sure the mood is right. Don’t demand the spotlight. Be confident, but most importantly make sure you…

4. Share. Play your song, get the applause, then pass the guitar along. If no one takes it then you obviously did a good enough job that more people want to hear you again. Even better, find more instruments and more musicians and start jamming. Everyone loves a good harmony, and everyone loves a good sing-a-long. Being a team player is being the anti-douche.

5. Make them want more. Put on a good show but don’t act like you’re enjoying it too much. Being folk is about being cool and mysterious. If you’re not sure what this means, just watch the Prince of Folk himself Robbie-Z at the end of this clip:

He’s basically saying, you know what, I’m Bob Dylan, I can play my guitar really high up on my body and nobody says anything, you can yell ‘more!’ all you want. I basically own you guys.

Be careful not to fall foul of Rule #3 though.

6. Be good. This should kind of be obvious before you take your turn on the guitar. Make sure you’re well practised, or at least provide a proviso before you get up there, something like, Well, I’ve only been playing for a few months so… This is especially important if you decide to strut your stuff in the style of Bob Dylan as mentioned above, and end up being absolutely crap. If you do mess up, smile, offer a charmingly witty response, and keep playing. Don’t stop and start over. You will only make people mad.

7. Keep your eyes open. Literally. Please don’t close your eyes when you sing. Or I will find out from someone and come to your house and punch you in the head.

8. Don’t dedicate songs. Unless you wrote the song, and it has some sort of meaning behind it, and making a dedication somehow ties in to an elaborate plan to propose to that person later on that evening, and it will make a really nice story to tell your grandkids. Otherwise, don’t dedicate the song to anyone.

9. Respect the instrument. If you’re using your own guitar, fine, go to Townshend on it when you’ve finished if you really want to. However, if you’ve borrowed this guitar from a very generous host then make sure he or she knows that you know what you’re doing with it. Ask before you retune, politely request a capo and thank them when you’re done.

10. Smile. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun and make sure your motives for whipping out the guitar are to do so. That’s folk.

Oh my, all this talk of guitars is making me kind of sick of the instrument. How about we find some folk that’s a little different this week?

Below is Ben Sollee (SOH-lee), a Kentuckian who makes music about politics, love and his young son, and leaves all the guitaring up to his various duet partners. Instead, Sollee opts for the cello, an instrument I find pretty hard not to fall in love with (I even played it for a few years in elementary school, bowing out gracefully at the peak of my career after a hugely successful rendition of Yellow Submarine with the Ox Ridge Junior Orchestra). Like so many frustrated musicians, Sollee has found a way to break free from the traditional parameters of his instrument and dramatically transform the sound that comes out of it.

I don’t know if there is such thing as cello etiquette, but if there is, Sollee has definitely discovered it.

PS: You can download these links directly from the internet by right clicking on them and going to ‘save link as’. I think everyone needs a little bit of cello bluegrass-folk in their iTunes and I hope you’ll agree.

Prettiest Tree On The Mountain–Ben Sollee.mp3
Something, Somewhere, Sometime–Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore


07 2010

If You’re Looking For Folk, You Should Probably Just Skip to the End

I’ve been a bad blogfather this week, neglecting my folk duties and keeping you in the dark for way too long.

Luckily though, those silent days were not spent in vain. I’ve been in San Francisco, a city that sits directly above a folk fault line, and I happen to have brought a little bit of the stuff back with me.

San Francisco is one of those cities that does exactly what it says on the tin. Every street you walk on could end up on the front of a postcard and everything is exactly how you imagined it would be. I realised this straight after I crossed the Bay Bridge and the first things I saw were a tram, a bum and lots of men in cut-off jeans. The streets all have vaguely familiar sounding names (Filbert, Leavenworth, Hyde) and there’s something naturally poetic about them, not least because in the rougher parts people have actually scratched poetry into them. Well, maybe not always poetry, but definitely some of the finest crafted obscenities that I’ve ever read on pavement.

My Mum and I had driven up north to take care of my sister’s two cats while she was on holiday for a few days. Having my brother-in-law teach me how to use a syringe to give insulin shots to their diabetic kitty added to the bohemian, street-life nature of my trip (waking up with cat pee on the duvet, maybe not so much).

Really, come on, honestly, how is it not possible to fall in love with this city.

On my second day in the Big SF, I drove north to visit some friends in Marin Valley, and somewhere between the GPS screen and the rear bumper of the car in front of me I suddenly looked up and realised I was crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.

Now look, before you read on, know that I was born in Hong Kong and then raised in Singapore, New England and old England. I have a German father and a British mother, I spend most of my year straddling Bristol and San Diego and have a lot of difficulty deciding whether to write ‘tyre’ or ‘tire’. I generally consider myself a bit of a world traveler, and I’m not exactly proud that the first thing I did when I rolled onto the Bridge was to shriek at the top of my lungs with the delight of an eight year-old girl. Too bad the windows were open, giving fifty pedestrians or so the chance to point with confusion at the young man in the red Jeep pumping his fists in the air and saying ‘woo! woo!’ too himself in high falsetto.

That’s probably the least of my worries considering this is what I look like when I drive:

Despite my embarrassing car habits I finally arrived, and my American friend, her American friend and our mutual English friend spent the day visiting seal sanctuaries, holding our breath through tunnels and carving up and down the California mountainsides.

The rest of my trip I spent with my dear mum, a San Fran-aficionado in her own right. We visited uni campuses, got lost in the Tenderloin and took cheesy pictures by the bay. Standard Mumstuff really, and we had a lovely time, though our decision to leave the car at home really took its toll on the walk back from the bus stop. San Francisco Hills: 1. Confidence in own fitness: nil.

So, now, to thank you for putting up with what must have been the blogging equivalent of someone showing you their boring holiday pictures I have finally staved off the perplexing world of html long enough to present you with a song about San Francisco. All week long, fragments of The Decemberists’ ‘Grace Cathedral Hill’ have been drifting through my mind, snagging on road signs and landmarks and reminding me that the best folk is the kind that you can go out and touch and walk all over.

San Francisco is such an amazing place, it’s no surprise that so many people write songs about it. This week, your assignment is to go out there and find me more songs about cities. Where do you live and which folkies have brought out the best (or worst) in those places? I don’t care if it’s New York or New Zealand, I just want to hear the songs that make you citysick whenever you’re away.

For me, there’s now one thing I know for certain: San Francisco is one of the greatest cities on Earth, and I’ll be visiting my sister and American friends again very soon. Next time, though, I’ll try to remember to roll up the windows.

Grace Cathedral Hill-The Decemberists


07 2010