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Folkadelphia Session: Psalmships (from April 2014)

In our rather short history of Folkadelphia, the artist we’ve probably worked with the most is Psalmships. Psalmships is the ever-evolving musical project of Joshua Britton, Bucks Co. resident and all-around good guy. A guy that’s been put in a hard place and perhaps that hard place is just life, existing, and coping with the day-to-day. Human problems blown to cinematic scale by the endless black of night and the tireless workings of the imagination. At least, that’s what he sings about and why we continually gravitate towards finding new ways to bring Britton’s artistry and creativity into the fold of what we’re doing here. Britton is a restless musician, always at work on songs – he’s something like the Robert Pollard of slowcoustic music (did I really just write that phrase?) But it’s true – not even a year ago, Psalmships released the expansive EP Songs For A Red Bird and, about a year before that, Hymn of Lions, his tumbleweed country album (or at least their take on that style). His brand new full-lengthed record I Sleep Alone is the distilled essence of what Britton has been honing in on with his music and writing in recent times; it’s sparsely populated with instruments – a rough acoustic guitar generally acts as forward motion with effected lap steel guitar, keyboards, and atmospherics coloring the scenes. Often, the silence, space, and breaths between words speak as loudly as what Britton is singing. Sure, it’s a deeply emotional trip, sometimes painfully so, but in that sense, it is also cathartic to work through. Instead of giving, you gain with each listen, becoming more solid and stronger for it. Not all music is designed as diversion or cotton candy. This is an album with purpose. On the opening track “You’ll Never See The Morning,” Britton cautions “The night time is so long, it can last your whole life and you’ll never see the morning if you cannot see the light.” From the very start, as dark as I Sleep Alone becomes, it brings the listener to a place where (s)he is most able to look for the light if (s)he is willing to go there. Instead of being lost in the void without purpose or direction, Britton helps us to believe that the darkness is just another side of the light and the light is coming. It’s hopeful because while I sleep alone now, I might not forever.

On his latest session for Folkadelphia, Britton, joined by Brad Hinton and Chelsea Sue Allen, recorded a number of songs from I Sleep Alone. Psalmships, along with Nathan Edwin and Chelsea Sue Allen, will be celebrating the release with a concert at Bourbon and Branch this Friday, July 11th. For even more Folkadelphia & Psalmships collaboration, listen to My Endless Black, a previous session from October 2012.

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Folkadelphia Session: Heyward Howkins

Heyward Howkins might be a fairly new addition to the City of Brotherly Love’s music scene, but front man and songwriter John Howkins is certainly no greenhorn. Howkins gained attention in the early aughts playing lead guitar with The Trouble With Sweeney and he is also a founding member of The Silver Ages, the Philly-centric men’s choral group that puts on notable performances (especially during the holidays). As Heyward Howkins, Howkins and his band have released two impeccable albums – 2012′s The Hale & Hearty and late 2013′s Be Frank, Furness. What continues to draw us here at Folkadelphia back to Howkins’ music is his immense storytelling powers, wrought with detail, witty wordplay, clever turns of phrase, and, the best in my opinion, references that give a wink and a nudge to Philly. Plus, we like the “Be Frank” part, as we formerly ran a record label of the same name.

What can we say about Heyward Howkins that WXPN & The Key’s John Vettese has not already written in his excellent review of Be Frank, Furness? Vettese wrote that The Hale and Hearty caught our ear “with both evocative word choices and clever imagery laid gracefully atop breeze acoustic-rooted instrumentation” and that “Howkins is a musician who likes to give his listeners a thing or two to chew on.” On this latest album, the music end of things is fleshed out, nearly as expansive as the lyrical content. As for me, I often seem to get the line from the title track stuck in my mind, “Even cut brandy is carefully fortified, but our actions still mortifying. And the orange line nags with champa and a twist cap wine, but above we’re all mortified.” That’s how this record works on you; pictures become ingrained in the imagination.

It was fresh off the release of Be Frank, Furness that we welcomed Howkins and his band – Josh Newman (bass), Vince Tampio (melodica, trumpet, vocals), and Erik Schmidt (drums) into the WXPN Performance Studio to track song for the latest album and more.

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Folkadelphia Session: Marissa Nadler

Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

In 2014, Marissa Nadler released July, a collection of story songs that only she could have made. By that it is meant that without Nadler, these songs don’t exist, they could not possibly exist in this world. July is both the essence of and the essential Marissa Nadler. On this her sixth full-length album, she gives off the aura of mastery, displaying her growth as both a creative entity and unique voice in the folk world. While all of the musical pieces may not have been in place like they are now, from even her first album, Ballads of Living and Dying (2006), Nadler has had a strong conception of self and style. Her evolution has been subtle and calculated, fully incorporating sounds and ideas into her art – gothic songwriter on Little Hells, shimmering Americana on her self-titled album, and now, atmospheric elegance on July. For this record, Nalder worked with producer Randall Dunn, best known for work with noise and metal bands like Sun O))) and Earth, but also the avant-psych-folk of Six Organs of Admittance for instance. Dunn adds textural embellishment to Nadler’s world; on previous records, Nadler has sung from the deepest subterranian depths and resonant caves or from the empty woods and loamy ground, here Dunn gives her a new stage, the darkened night sky from which to command.

Nadler’s stories often touch on our mortality, existential issues, and time, but it is the strong feelings and the slow burn of emotions that remain with the listener even as the words fade away. When I hear Marissa Nadler’s music, particularly with July, I imagine those large bindered photo albums that exist in everyone’s hallway closet, gathering dust and being largely forgotten. I like to think that Nadler is the champion of these books of small, intimate stories that are spread across time and space, that all of us have within us. She imbues her sound with the silver-tinged, the black and white contrast, the sepia-toned, and the fading colors of these photographic stories. The more I consider it, the more I hold it to be true – Marissa Nadler is the folk singer of our memories.

This Folkadelphia Session has been a long time in the making. We first collaborated with Marissa back in November of 2013 while she was in the Philadelphia area. This was before she had fully conceptualized her live set-up for the songs of July. She told us that she would return, armed with a larger sound. Fast forward to March of 2014, she returned with celloist, songwriter, and vocalist Janel Leppin. For the listener, we present a nearly album-sized collection, pulling mostly from the latter session.

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Folkadelphia Session: Tumbling Bones (playing Tin Angel this Fri. 6/20)

Good things take time and effort to become good, however vague a quality that is; think about aging wine or steeping tea, or for non-drink related activities, art. Yes, let’s think about art. Most people are not born prodigious and even more have to labor, sweat tears and cry blood in the process, to reach adept musicianship and a unique “voice.” Most don’t even get there. This formula is further complicated in music group situations because you need something called chemistry. A question of synergy, of “is the whole greater than its parts.” So there are elements of intention and of chance when forming a band. Boy, did we luck out with Portland, ME and Philadelphia, PA based Tumbling Bones. Self-described as four young men playing old time inspired music, Tumbling Bones gives us everything – musicality, imagination, virtuosity, and that incalculable component that pushes their performances to new heights. Tumbling Bones certainly worked hard to release their very first full-length album Loving A Fool. For one thing, founding members Pete Winne and Jake Hoffman have been playing together and touring the world in some form or another as Tumbling Bones for a decade, but it seems as if the addition of Kyle Morgan impelled the band to lay down their songs in the studio. As we well know, intent and chemistry and all other aspects can come to a full stop without capital. Money is for spending and the band continued to work hard, launching a successful Kickstarter campaign. The final result is the aforementioned long player, a testament to the group’s dedication, devotion, and powerhouse performances. What we get is a blend of original compositions and uniquely dynamic takes on traditional tunes. I’m glad Tumbling Bones took their time and lined up all of the pieces before recording a proper album because Loving A Fool is a seriously good debut that will stand up over the years.

 

We attempted to capture the energy, chemistry, and skillful playing of the band back in March before their show at the Tin Angel in Philadelphia. The band returns to that very venue this Friday, June 20th.

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Folkadelphia Session: Leyla McCalla (formerly of Carolina Chocolate Drops)

I first learned about Leyla McCalla the way that most people probably did – as a cellist and member of the progressive traditional African-American string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, during their Grammy award-winning release Leaving Eden. I’m sure glad I did. Without wasting any time, McCalla embarked on a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund her debut solo album entitled Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, which was released in early 2014 (around the time we had her group in for this session). Vari-Colored Songs is a testament to McCalla’s creativity, passion, and diverse upbringing and influences. Of Hughes, she explains that “reading his work made me want to be an artist. I wanted to honor his life and legacy and my own creativity through him.” She does that and much more on the album. For the most part, the classically trained McCalla weaves together plucked, pulsed, and percussively performed cello with Hughes’ words. She also incorporates Haitian folk songs, Creole influence, and bluesy soul into her sound. The album is not showy or dramatic, and like Hughes, is powerful with concision, featuring simply a few instruments – voice, banjo, cello, guitar – used to great effect. She is certainly a rising artist who is following her dreams, not deferring them.

Leyla McCalla and her trio – Taylor Smith on upright bass and Marshall Baker on fiddle – recorded with Folkadelphia at the WXPN Performance Studio on February 8th, 2014 before their concert at the Tin Angel.

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Folkadelphia Session: Marian McLaughlin


A year before we had her into the studio, Marian McLaughlin, a songwriter living in Washington D.C. (but born in Philly, she wrote with emphasis), sent me an out-of-the-blue email in which she detailed her unique technique. She described her music as “fractal folk,” an ingenious take on finger-picking style guitar work layered with a unique system of storytelling. She wrote that she makes her own myths while elaborating upon others, that her songs “explore existence, alliteration, assonance, and dissonance.” That really struck me as interesting – not only thinking about the “what” that she’s singing and playing, but the “how” she’s singing and playing, and about how those elements interact and sound together. This is truly macro- and micro-music making. To listen to McLaughlin is to go on a trance-like journey, letting the music point, push, and drive the audience’s thought process based on the changing geography of the soundscape. This is done with intention. McLaughlin has incorporated the tenets of dérive into her writing and playing. Dérive developed as a concept in psychogeographics in 1940s Parisian artistic and political collectives and was taken up in the 1950s by Situtational Theorist Guy Debord. The idea is that a person would be led on an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, via the aesthetic conditions of the surrounding architecture and geography. The goal being to encounter a new experience and escape the monotony and predictability of every day life and routine. Extrapolate this idea to music and you arrive (or I should say, you may be led) to Marian McLaughlin and her brand new album, aptly named Dérive.

Marian and her bassist Ethan Foote joined us at the WXPN Studio to perform new music and lead us on an uncanny and unusual musical expedition.

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Folkadelphia Session: Liz and the Lost Boys

Philadelphia is a city of convergence and divergence. Things come together, things fall apart. They coexist on the same block, sometimes with ease, sometimes with painful friction. A South Philly punk show house is shut down, three show houses open in West Philly. A troupe of bluegrass players are joined by a clarinetist, as the banjo player leaves to practice with his hair metal band in a Fishtown apartment. Some kind of circle of life. The effect is an equally beautiful and freak-show melting pot of diverse culture, tradition, and heritage. Similarly, local music and art styles don’t just approach or touch or rub against one another, but instead they overlap, extend beyond, and mash up on each other. It’s messy, it’s gross, but it’s organic and homegrown. Philadelphia exemplifies a consistent disregard for clearly designated “genre boxes.” We’re all a bunch of reprobates and degenerates when it comes to purity, but that’s why we’re a scrappy and lovable music scene.

As far as musical classification goes, Philly’s Liz and the Lost Boys are a mixed-breed band. I mean that in the most endearing way. Speaking of convergence and divergence, the Lost Boys exist at the edges of most things music. Their sound is where jazz rubs against classical, where pop overlaps on indie rock, where the theatrical and musical meet. They are an example of the building up and a building upon of musical ideas on top of one another, but in another sense, they also represent the dissolution of the importance of classification. If you are a listener of Folkadelphia, you recognize our frequent long-winded tirades on the meaninglessness (and honestly, nonexistence) of clear-cut genre boundaries in the present day, obviously because of our show, focusing on folk music. FOLK MUSIC (capitalized) has splintered off into nearly endless sub- and mini-genres. Purists be damned! Evolve or die! So, in a way, Liz and the Lost Boys have staved off a musical existence of tedium, banality, and unimagination in favor of creative richness, possibility, and hopefully longevity. With this in mind, we invited the band in for a session earlier this year to show off songs from their latest full-length and single. Here’s what we captured:

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