From folk to indie: bright lights on the acoustic scene

19th Sep 2013 | 15:54

From folk to indie: bright lights on the acoustic scene
Bright lights on the acoustic scene
Ten of our favourite young acoustic-loving artists and bands

ACOUSTIC EXPO 2013: Acoustic guitar has never had it so good. From indie rock and alternative to folk blues, pop and more electro flavoured soundscapes, the acoustic six string is hard at work for experimental newcomers, best-selling artists and future song-writing legends in the making.

After ransacking our music collection and scouring the net, here we've rounded up our ten favourite young faces on the collective acoustic scene; there's even a couple of interviews along the way. First up, a female-fronted two piece from San Francisco...

From folk to indie: bright lights on the acoustic scene
Bright lights on the acoustic scene
Thao and The Get Down Stay Down

Practising her songs while working in her mother's laundromat, California based singer-guitarist Thao Nguyen is something of a six string driven fireball on stage. Armed with an electro acoustic and an almost conversation style of vocal, she delivers hair-raising sets that have brought the house down all over Europe and the States. While listening to Motown, and later blues and folk, Nguyen realised she wanted to perform and began learning guitar aged 12. Along with bassist and keyboardist Adam Thompson, Nguyen released Thao and The Get Down Stay Down's latest alt folk album, We The Common, in March of this year. You can catch them on tour with The Lumineers in November.

From folk to indie: bright lights on the acoustic scene
Bright lights on the acoustic scene
Of Men and Monsters

In the three short years since forming to enter (and subsequently win) an annual battle of the bands in Reykjavik, this Icelandic five piece twisted heads with the success of their 2011 debut. Featuring the skyscraper hit Little Talks, the atmospheric Dirty Paws and camp fire favourite King and Lionheart, My Head Is An Animal hit number three in the UK albums chart and took the top spot in the US alternative albums chart. The indie folk band sees Nanna and Ragnar share lead vocals and guitar duties; a shimmering mix of dulcet tones, pop sensibilities, thrumming acoustics and intricate finger picking.

From folk to indie: bright lights on the acoustic scene
Bright lights on the acoustic scene
Featured Artist: The Ramona Flowers

Bristol based The Ramona Flowers have toured with Bastille, been remixed by Hot Chip and Ladytron, and are being produced on their forthcoming debut album by Andy Barlow of electronica duo Lamb. As you may have guessed from that mix of names, The Ramona Flowers meld acoustic guitars with keys-flavoured soundscapes they describe as “sexy” and “cinematic.” Want to know more? Us too, so we asked guitarist Sam James and guitarist/keyboardist Dave Betts to talk us through their sound and style.

If someone asked you to sum up the band's sound in five words, what words would you choose?

Sam James: “Beautiful. Sexy. Epic. Dynamic. Dirty.”

Dave Betts: “Beautiful. Cinematic. Electro. Pop. Filth.”

And which of your songs best represents those words?

James: “Tokyo.”

Betts: “World Wont Wait.”

What's the interplay like between guitars and keys in The Ramona Flowers?

Betts: “If I can't come up with something by playing with different keys, tunings and various effects pedals, I move onto the keys and try out those.”

James: “Keys are something that we're getting more into as time goes on, but we struggle with it a bit as none of us are really keyboard players. As we've developed our sound and are constantly looking to create new soundscapes, we've found synths and computers playing a much larger role in the song-writing. It's great fun getting keys and guitars to blend and work together so that sometimes you can't tell them apart.”

There are some lush, multi-layered soundscapes to your music. How do you create those?

James: “Normally when we write a song it will either start from a guitar line or a synth part and grow from there. Dave [Betts] is an amazing fingerpick player and if he starts with an idea on the acoustic, we'll then get that on the computer and start to build music around it using the computer and synths. Sometimes the roles will reverse, but the general theme is to get the idea first with an instrument and vocals and then pull it away from the original sound as much as possible. It's great fun messing with the sounds of the acoustic or guitars so that you end up with something unique.”

Betts: “When we come up with an idea that we like, [such as] an acoustic guitar riff, we try to reinforce it with other instruments like synth and strings so that the song grows dynamically without sounding cluttered. For instance, in Fiend Of The Madness the components of the song are all relatively simple with each instrument following the next, but when they are all played together a lush cinematic feel is created.”

What are your tips for marrying acoustic guitar with more keys flavoured soundscapes?

James: “It really depends on the song. We have a song called Lust And Lies which is a very delicate, emotional song. Here we kept the acoustic sounding very natural and the soundscapes are used to support the guitar and vocal. In bigger songs we often effect the guitars to sound more like synths, and in our song Tokyo I used a lot of synth sounds that sound like filthy guitars. When you put them together they blend and you get some really unique sounds. You just have to make sure that everything has it's place in the track.”

Betts: “Don't over complicate things – keep it simple. Try to find two sounds that complement each other and take it from there. We've spent entire days before trying to be clever and layer multiple sounds and parts only to discover that what we had at the beginning of the day sounded better. Experimenting is good but sometimes a tea break and a fresh set of ears can do more good than spending hours in a room with no break.”

From folk to indie: bright lights on the acoustic scene
Bright lights on the acoustic scene
Lloyd Yates

Some say Jersey born Lloyd Yates sounds like Ben Howard or Bon Iver, but to our ears he's more sonically in tune with the John Butler Trio and Finley Quaye... with a little of Tracey Chapman's signature rumble and warble too. Thanks to a warm and, at times, distinctly gritty tone Yates is fast garnering fans of his roots flavoured folk rock. Bring Back The Life, his latest EP, features the title track; a foot stomping, drive through the night offering that makes use of his unusual chord structures and questioning lyrics. With mainstream radio airplay and a slew of festival appearances already under his belt, plus a tour lined up for later this year, things are heating up nicely for folk rock's latest star.

From folk to indie: bright lights on the acoustic scene
Bright lights on the acoustic scene
Walk Off The Earth

Proof that you don't need a label to gain success, Canada's Walk Off The Earth built a sizeable fanbase via YouTube, the home of crazy cat videos. By producing low budget music videos of themselves covering hits like Gotye's Somebody That I Used To Know – as well as a performance featuring all five band members playing one guitar – Walk Off The Earth scored millions of views, leading fans to discover their original music. In March they released major label debut R.E.V.O, which peaked at number seven in the Canadian album charts. A picture perfect marriage of acoustic guitar to ukulele, theremin, banjo, cello and more, the band rocked the UK this spring and are planning on coming back soon.

From folk to indie: bright lights on the acoustic scene
Bright lights on the acoustic scene
Matt Costa

Racking up tours with Jack Johnson, Ryan Adams, Death Cab For Cutie and Modest Mouse, California dwelling Matt Costa was first plucked from the crowd by No Doubt guitarist Tom Dumont who recorded the singer-guitarist's early demos from his home studio. Costa has come a long way since then, studding the years with critical acclaim, celebrity fans and hit songs. From The Hollies-esque, dreamy 60s pop soul of Witchcraft to the easy feel of Sunshine and the ELO style harmonies of Mr Pitiful, Costa begins with a few basic chords to build beautiful worlds bursting with melody, texture and story.

From folk to indie: bright lights on the acoustic scene
Bright lights on the acoustic scene
Featured Artist: Antun Opic

Just like Foy Vance (keep reading), Antun Opic is the real song-writing deal. Listen to the lyrics that accompany Moses, the warning shot from Dreams, or the inclusive story-telling of Mermaid and you'll get a keen sense of his rare talent. Opic's guitar playing is headier still, eating up a range of styles from gypsy and flamenco to traditional. If you love the likes of Django Reinhardt you'll love the gypsy swing of Opic's Hospital, while there's also a touch of Pierre Bensusan to his lighter, more melodic moments. When his intricately woven and self-produced debut No Offence was born this summer, it quickly attracted rave reviews from fans and the industry alike. When we asked Opic about his songs, here's what he had to say...

How would you describe your approach to song-writing?

“Songs are funny guys. When they are born, you couldn't imagine they haven't been here before. Like children. They breath. They learn to walk, to speak. They grow. Then they have to work. They're proud of their strength. And they also get tired. And they sleep. They even hide sometimes. Sometimes.

“I have some – hiding in my pocket. Some of them are already quite old. With white hair – not very fashionable clothes. I think they won't come out any more. They are used to my pocket and quite content. They have a very steady rhythm, you know? We don't see each other much.

“Then I have some... they are not sufficiently equipped. You could say, they are not born for our climate. If I'd let them out now, they'd freeze! But they sure want to come out. They just wait until I can afford to buy them proper clothing. I also have some... they are a bit like a foreign currency. They feel very rich. But in this part of the world nobody seems to care.

“I'm a little worried about those lately. They act very stubborn and aggressive – I tell them to be patient, of course. I travel a lot to show them the world. I want to introduce them to everybody and show them everything. Because I want to have them all opportunities, you know. I don't know how to say...Somehow I feel responsible for them. Yes, that's it. I really need to take care of them. You know how hard it is nowadays. And where they come from everything is just easy.

“I don't know how they all got here, actually. Somehow I can't remember. I don't even know why. And I really also have my problems with them. Sometimes they're a real pain in the ass. They always put pressure on me. And sometimes they all speak at the same time. Puh. Did you know how much a song is able to eat? They literally eat me. But mostly it feels quite comfortable to have them close. It's cosy and warm, and, you know...

"I have always somebody to talk to. And sometimes, sometimes I catch one of those guys just in the right moment. And I tell you, there's nothing like catching a song in the right moment!”

You say you feel compelled to make music; to play and sing. What would happen to you if you didn't do these things?

“Well, I don't know. I haven't tried yet. I always wanted to go on and to get better in what I am doing.”

There are some darker shades to your writing. Where does that come from?

“We're not living in sunny times. I like sarcasm and theatre. I'm interested in the things people like to hide. The things that break out when the pressure is too high.”

How long have you been playing guitar for, and how would you describe your style?

“The guitar is my company for all my life. I always played but hardly took any lessons, so I guess I developed my very own style. I progress through writing music. My new ideas are often a little bit too hard for me to play so I have to practice to get it right.”

From folk to indie: bright lights on the acoustic scene
Bright lights on the acoustic scene
Angus & Julia Stone

Folk blues is nothing new but something in the way brother and sister duo Angus & Julia Stone deliver it gives this mature genre a new, young, indie-ish sheen. With a sometimes sugary coating that brings to mind The Sleepy Jackson, and a chocolatey rich acoustic sound similar to Nick Drake and Band Of Horses, Stone play in the lighter spectrum of folk. Big Jet Plane is their biggest hit to date, with a casting on the mega-selling Twilight Breaking Dawn Part One soundtrack for Love Will Take You. It's been three years since the release of their second album and, despite solo shows from both Stones, thankful rumours abound that a new album is on the way.

From folk to indie: bright lights on the acoustic scene
Bright lights on the acoustic scene
James Vincent McMorrow

Making his TV debut on Later... With Jools Holland in May of 2011, young Irishman James Vincent McMorrow released his first album, Early In The Morning, a few months previous. Applauded in the UK and Ireland, his cover of Higher Ground (Steve Winwood) has garnered millions of views on YouTube. McMorrow is making inroads in the States too, with And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop and We Don't Eat appearing in episodes of Teen Wolf and The Vampire Diaries. It seems his sometimes ethereal, sometimes husky voice coupled with minimalist piano and delicate guitar playing has found a home on the world's acoustic stage. Expect his follow-up album in early 2014.

From folk to indie: bright lights on the acoustic scene
Bright lights on the acoustic scene
Foy Vance

One of the most tasteful songwriters of recent years, Foy Vance has the vocal growl of Bruce Springsteen and the same understanding of dynamics as Paul Simon. Vance's songs ebb and swell in terms of intensity, uplifting the listener one minute then sucking them into his pain and passion the next. Only a few weeks ago the Northern Irish artist released his second album, The Joy Of Nothing, which has brought forth two of his best songs to date: Janey, and Closed Hand, Full Of Friends. Intelligent, soulful and surprising, Vance is capable of breaking or mending hearts with just one line. His fans are rabid for his live performances especially; a chance to see all that passion caught on tape brought to life.

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