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Queer As Folk: Our November 2004 Feature on Folk’s New Eccentrics

This story originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Spin. In honor of the 15-year anniversary of Joanna Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed Mender on March 23, we’re republishing it here.

Kimya Dawson is screening her latest music video at a day-care center in the leafy New York suburb of Bedford Hills. A roomful of kids look skeptical as she switches off Franklin the cartoon turtle. But they perk up when the life-size doll presently perched on the couch appears onscreen.

“Hey—it’s Chucky!”

Yep! confirms Dawson. She explains that the doll—which is identical to the terror tot from the movie Child’s Play and appears on the cover of her new CD, Hidden Vagenda—once belonged to her grandmother. But after her grandma passed away, Dawson’s family wanted to get rid of it. Dawson intervened. “They thought he was possessed,” she explains.

“What does ‘possessed’ mean?” asks a thin boy with glasses. “That an evil spirit had entered him,” the singer replies. “They were afraid he’d get up and go like this.” She hobbles toward the boy, arms outstretched á la Frankenstein’s monster, her three lip piercings and blonde-tipped Mohawk catching light from the TV. The kids shriek and giggle.

That Dawson, 31, lives in this day-care center—run by her parents in the 19th century farm cottage where she grew up—is not that surprising. Since her days in the Moldy Peaches with pal Adam Green, when she’d perform songs like “Who’s Got the Crack” in a bunny suit, she’s played the mischievous kid. But she’s also death with more sober, grown-up subjects. On Hidden Vagenda, she sings about child-custody battles (“Lullaby for the Taken,” the score for Chucky’s star turn), angels’ tears (“It’s Been Raining”), and random annihilation (“Anthrax”), backed by unsteady acoustic guitars and toy pianos. “I think it keeps me honest,” she says of her home life. “Kids are more straight-up, and being around that is inspiring—to say what I’m feeling, and not be ashamed.”

Hidden Vagenda is among the year’s best rock records that aren’t really rock records. What they are exactly is harder to say; and it’s even harder to pin down the artists. They favor acoustic instruments. They dig melody and storytelling, and can be as wordy as rappers. They often evoke a childlike wonder. They can be silly, pious, or just plain weird. And they can be so introverted you feel like you’re eavesdropping. The music ranges from the squeaky, Björk-like fantasies of The Milk-Eyed Mender by harpist Joanna Newsom (who recently opened for Neil Young) to the deeply trip electro-acoustic jams of Animal Collective‘s Sung Tongs; from the semi-traditional oddball folk of Devendra Banhart‘s Rejoicing in the Hands to the jazzy, lo-fi, sister-harmony surrealism of CocoRosie‘s La Maison de Mon Reve (which tosses drum machines and kitchen tools into the mix). It often gets lumped under reductive tags like “neo-folk,” “anti-folk,” “avant-folk,” or “psych-folk.” But the performers seem largely uninterested in folk music’s customary tenets of virtuosity and activism.

“The way we feel,’ says Brian Weitz, better known as Geologist of Animal Collective, “is, ‘Why do something people have already heard?'” His group is the most extreme example of this new iconoclasm. At New York City’s Bowery Ballroom in August, on the first date of a largely sold-out too with pals Black Dice, they held a room full of devotees and hipster freak-seekers nearly motionless for more than an hour—yelping, strumming guitars, donning masks, jumping spastically, and triggering electronic effects in near-darkness. It felt less like a performance than a ritual. Anyone who came to hear “folk music must’ve left very confused.

“The way the world is these days, you kinda wanna get back to roots you didn’t know you had,” says Rian Murphy of Chicago’s Drag City label, home to Newsom and Sonic Youth tourmates White Magic, as well as Will Oldham (Palace Brothers, Bonnie “Prince” Billy), whose records are definite precursors to the new sound. “Despite this weird, witchy darkness of the material, I think it’s a variation on the ‘peaceful, easy feeling’ stuff of 30 years ago,” Oldham says, “which had its own dark edges.”

“Folk is an expression of what life is like for you,” says Animal Collective’s Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox, who released the semi-acoustic solo album Young Prayer this year. “I’m not that into traditional sounding music; I wanna reflect what’s going on in our time.” But his group does feel connected to a scene. “There’s a kinship in just feeling you can do something personal,” says Collective member David “Avey Tare” Portner. “All these people”—a group that includes Banhart, Newsom, and White Magic—”are sort of off in their own world, having a good time, and very passionate about what they’re doing.”

“It was not our intention to buy in to a ‘scene’—because those things have shelf lives,” says Murphy. “But that said, trends begin in the minds of people, and you can never really explain why they happen. At this point, Joanna Newsom’s record has sold about 25,000 copies, which for us, for a debut record by a harp player, is really something special.”

* * *

Lording over his own eccentric kingdom, Devendra Banhart, 23, has become emblematic of the 21st century folkie. He typically performs seated cross-legged atop an Oriental rug, with a bottle of wine by his side. He favors robe-like shirts, and sometimes sports a bushy mountaineer beard. He sings about pumpkin seeds, laughing trees, and (frequently) his facial hair in a warbling vibrato that he’s learning to rein in. He also enjoys playing the trickster. For a sold-out show at the Manhattan club Tonic earlier this year, he performed his usual set, left the stage, then returned in full drag—beard shorn—to sing cabaret-style piano ballads. “That wasn’t me,” he insists months later. “That was Honey Brown. She’s a hard drinker, and she’s into polygamy. She’s going through some nasty divorces, so things are tough for her.”

Banhart currently kicks it with his girlfriend and her mom on a farm in the southern French gypsy town of Saintes Maries de la Mer, where “there are wild white horses roaming around, bullfights, flamingos, and flamenco music. It’s wild, rich living.” Yep, walks like a hippie, talks like a hippie—albeit an exceptionally articulate one. But he’s careful to define the term: “[My parents] were cool hippies—into good music, Eastern philosophy, anti-establishment, anti-authority. Into creating their own rules based upon goodness and healthiness and the care and appreciation of nature. But, shit, the ‘hippies’ I grew up with were these Hacky Sack Phish fans with white dreads. I certainly do not feel any relationship with that.”

Despite their devoted idiosyncrasy, Banhart and his kin conjure certain ’60s touchstones, especially the odd aunts and uncles of British folk. You hear echoes of Donovan and the Incredible String Band in his and Newsom’s tweaked troubadour styles; Nick Drake in the whispered balladry of Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine‘s Sam Beam (Drake and Beam rub shoulders on the soundtrack to the recent Garden State). In fact, the scene’s patron saint is a fifty-something Englishwoman named Vashti Bunyan, who, after releasing a single pixie-dusted LP called Just Another Diamond Day in 1970, retired from music to wander around Ireland in a covered wagon. Now a mom based in Edinburgh, Scotland, with six grown children, she was discovered by a new generation when her album was reissued in 2000. In 2003, Pavement‘s Stephen Malkmus invited Bunyan to play her first show in 30 years at a British festival he was curating. Banhart was so moved by Diamond Day that he sent Bunyan his home recordings, and credits her feedback with inspiring him to perform live (she sings on the title track of his Rejoicing in the Hands). More recently, she recorded with her admirers in Animal Collective.

Bunyan considers her young fans kindred spirits. “What Devendra does is so original and new,” she says. “Joanna Newsom’s music is wonderful, too, and CocoRosie’s. I love their invention. They’re obviously influenced by traditional music, but I don’t think it’s folk. ‘Narrative song’ is maybe a better term. I have a terrible feeling about the word ‘folk.’ I can’t bear being called a ‘folk singer.'”

* * *

Sufjan Stevens, 29, was an aspiring fiction writer when a musical career sneaked up on him, and he sees music-making as a similarly solitary affair. On a recent summer evening, he sits in a 12-by-12-foot room in Astoria, Queens, working on the sequel to Greetings From Michigan: the Great Lake State, a dreamy tribute to his hardscrabble homeland (the new album is about neighboring Illinois). Scattered across worn throw rugs are a variety of instruments: an oboe, a banjo, a Wurlitzer electric piano, a small drum kit, a guitar, a recorder. Stevens plays all of them himself. “I’m learning to make music with other people,” he says, “but it’s hard. I’m actually using a real drummer on this record!”

Likewise, Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, 30, made tapes of his prayer-like songs primarily for himself while working as a film instructor at a small Florida college. When Sub Pop eventually released an album, he was forced to put together a touring band. “I just asked whoever was around,” he says. “My sister, some other relatives, and friends.”

Joanna Newsom, 22, whose record is perhaps the most faerie-land magical of the bunch, was invited to tour with Will Oldham before she’d ever performed a show. “So I figured I’d better play a couple first,” she says. “I’d been friends with Devendra, who didn’t even know I was making music because I was pretty shy about circulating my tapes. But he said, ‘You have to come play shows with me!'”

Newsom, like Dawson, currently lives with her parents in her hometown, Nevada City, California. She rents space in a cathedral there to work on music between tours. Her ornate harp melodies, cartoon voice, and songs about fruits and balloons bring to mind a bona fide space cadet, but she talks about her music in terms of “symbols” and “personal mythology” with great precision. She acknowledges and aesthetic connection with her fellow artists, mentioning an “inwardly turned gaze” and a “sense of smallness-as-a-universe.” But she doesn’t see it as a scene. “It’s personal almost to the point of being solipsistic. It doesn’t take anybody else’s world into account.”

“Creating your own world is a concept that comes up repeatedly. You sense it in the music’s presentation as well as its sound—Banhart, Dawson, and Dawn McCarthy of Oakland-based Faun Fables create their own folk-art CD packages. You see it in attempts to circumvent the network of clubs and theaters controlled by corporations like Clear Channel; Dawson, for instance, often plays house parties she arranges via her online Live Journal. These private worlds embrace friends and, to a surprising degree (considering rock’s tradition of emotional bridge-burning), relatives. CocoRosie consists of sisters; like Iron & Wine, Faun Fables and the New Jersey avant-Christian glee club Danielson Famile are made up of extended family members.

But is there a political subtext to this somewhat isolated stance? “I think it’s just, maybe, the state of the world,” says Dawson, whose songs can address politics with an instant-messaging intimacy. “I feel a new energy among people making introspective music—it’s a more emotional, desperate time.” Banhart agrees: “It’s not like we live in a bubble. But I’ve noticed that the most political thing my friends are doing is disassociating themselves—from greed, and Bush, and…y’know what I’m saying? Like, just taking no part in it. It’s like everyone is going into their own other world.”

And maybe that’s as good an explanation as any for this odd renaissance. After leaving the womb, the safest most of us will ever feel is playing make-believe in a room with our family and friends. This new music, whether it’s called folk or not, strives to re-created that kind of small space, cloistered by strange beauty, where we can be as weird as we like, while the larger world gets scarier and uglier by the minute.