“I don’t want to sound arrogant about San Francisco at all, but I do think there’s something really special about this city,” offers Joanna Newsom. “There’s a willingness here to pay attention to things that aren’t huge musically, that aren’t these enormous, broad artistic strokes. There’s a tendency to pay attention to delicate things.”
Newsom, of course, would know. As a harpist who sings winsome, Appalachian-style lullabies with a warble not unlike that of Jodie Foster’s Nell, she makes for one of the Bay Area’s most endearingly delicate artists. Live, she’s prone to performing barefoot and, when not plucking her towering instrument, sitting on the edge of the stage, clapping and singing a cappella. And given that her recent debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City), recalls Alan Lomax’s rural field recordings from the 1930s, it’s no wonder Newsom’s been tagged as some sort of precious, from-the-past ragamuffin. It’s also no wonder that San Francisco, given its long history of harboring eccentric artists, has embraced her as one of its great new voices.
She’s far from an anomaly. In recent years, a compelling, refreshingly irony-free scene has emerged in that city as a slew of unassuming musicians have drawn inspiration from the ’60s folk revival, experimental psych, old-time blues and mountain music. Along with Newsom, acoustic acts such as Vetiver, Devendra Banhart, Jolie Holland and Faun Fables — all of whom, incidentally, have released quality albums this spring — offer fragile, under-the-radar alternatives to some of the Bay Area’s louder, more high-profile noise, rock and pop acts.
“All of us have a similar sense of wanting good songcraft and immediacy,” Andy Cabic, singer-songwriter of the quiet, pastoral-pop quartet Vetiver, says of his circle of folk-informed friends. “Everyone just wants to stay true to what they’re doing and not give in to some sort of cynicism.”
His group’s self-titled debut (DiCristina) is a gorgeous testament to such a simple, earnest approach. In Vetiver — which often includes Banhart, an acclaimed finger-picking guitarist who just released his second solo album, Rejoicing in the Hands… (Young God) — Cabic sets breezy melodies to an all-string ensemble of banjo, cello, violin and guitar. The result is sparse, expressive orchestration that sounds as old as the hills, and has earned the local favorites an impressive following that already extends to the U.K.: Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm O’Ciosoig appear on the album, while Belle and Sebastian recently invited the group to open for them.
For all the burgeoning interest in the trad-folk influence on today’s San Francisco music scene, however, Cabic and Newsom insist no one’s consciously attempting to live in the past. “I just work with friends and the instruments I know they play, so I’m trying to write arrangements for those instruments,” continues Cabic. “And playing acoustic instruments is usually gonna give music an older feel.”
Newsom agrees: “I certainly don’t think anyone’s trying to affect a sense of age-ness. I don’t have a massive music collection like [Cabic] does — he knows so much — but it’s just that the people who are making this kind of folk music, a lot of the music they’ve listened to for years is older.”
But if the question still remains as to why folk music has taken hold of the Bay Area of late, one need look no further than the dot-com boom. In the late ’90s, the tech industry bulldozed over much of San Francisco’s underground arts scene, closing down rehearsal spaces, gentrifying neighborhoods and forcing countless artists to flee to cheaper area codes as rents skyrocketed. The earthy, rootsy music of today’s new folk scene, then, could be seen as a response from people who — in a city (and music industry) particularly ravaged by commercial pursuits in recent years — simply want to share their stripped-down songs with one another.
And indeed, this summer’s Banhart/Newsom/Vetiver tour — “a group of friends in a big caravan crossing the country,” as Newsom describes it, which comes here this week — is a perfect opportunity for the acts to intimately connect with similarly minded musicians and fans beyond San Francisco.
“I’ve never played outside of this city with [Vetiver], and although I’ve made friends in other towns through word of mouth or through Dev giving demos to other people, I haven’t really connected and toured and met other people yet,” says Cabic. “That’s what I’m looking forward to this tour — meeting more people.”
Adds Newsom, “We’re all just excited that people are paying attention to this kind of strange music we’re making.”
Joanna Newsom, Vetiver and Devendra Banhart perform Tuesday, June 15, at Stormy Records (13939 Michigan Ave., Suite E, Dearborn). Call 313-581-9322 for info.Jimmy Draper is a freelance scribe. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org