Sunday Times

Goth-folk: A walk on the dark side

Goth-folk provides an ideal accompaniment to the gloomy new year

If ever there was a year to embrace your inner dark side, 2009 would be it – the economic doom and gloom means it’s time to dig out old Cure T-shirts, swap champagne for snakebite and black, and embrace the goth-folk revolution.

The latter requires no “folk cardigans” or backcombing. Instead, it’s about the words. As Kelli Ali sings on her new single, The Savages, from the album Rocking Horse: “We are the Savages /Welcome to the dark.”

Down cobwebbed alleys and atop moonlit hills, promoters such as Electroacoustic Club, Antifolk UK and Dead Beat are mining interest in the new depression’s pin-ups, among them Ali, Greg Weeks and Marissa Nadler. “I just don’t understand why people would like asphalt more than green grass and woods,” says the American Weeks, a Leonard Cohen for a new generation. His current album, The Hive, swings from medieval melancholia to sunshine-licked mantras and even a Sonic Youth-like Madonna cover, all recorded in his 24-track analogue studio. Weeks is the founder of the record label Language of Stone, whose stable of artists, including Noa Babayof and Sharon Van Etten, share his passion for antiindustrialisation. “We are analogue creatures, not digital media,” he insists.

Hip, palefaced boys in duffel coats and rosy-cheeked, haystack-haired posh girls, goth-folkers are as likely to be found lurking in the aisles of the organic superstore Whole Foods Market as they are in cemeteries. Their common interest is less likely to be cooking heroin than baking bread. And their antitech, back-to-roots dreams echo the political folk era of the 1960s and artists from Pentangle and Fairport Convention to Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Instead of optimism about world peace, however, goth-folksters have a passion for the macabre and a sombre acceptance of realities such as Primark, The X Factor and the global economic meltdown.

In the mainstream, Laura Marling and Goldfrapp are goth-folky, as are the esoteric sounds of the Horrors and goth-prog mods Ipso Facto. Vincent Gallo, the auteur behind films such as Buffalo 66, who performs poetic chants as a solo musician and within his band, RRIICCEE, is a seminal player. His “art or die” attitude is shared by the classique-gothique folker Françoiz Breut, whose sound has attracted American bands such as CocoRosie to Europe to exhibit art alongside their music. Don’t expect Felicity Kendal in The Good Life – it’s more “Kurt Cobain’s Bad Life”, played with tingly tambourines, flowery guitars and a self-conscious irony.

“I’m really happy, as whenever there’s a resurgence of a darker way of expression, it usually means there’s going to be a shift towards more thoughtful times and craft, where it’s like a quiet rebellion to pick up a guitar and gently coo about the darkness of everything,” says Kelli Ali, the former front woman of Sneaker Pimps, whose Rocking Horse album shows a full embrace of folk with trademark gothic leanings. “I was a teenage goth, definitely. I was so into Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus, I listened to Bela Lugosi’s Dead as a morning ritual. After my last album, I started learning the acoustic guitar, so I revisited my mum’s folk sounds, Joan Baez and Sandy Denny.”

Written over a three-year period while Ali was travelling around Mexico, Rocking Horse is an album stripped down by necessity and overflowing with introspection. “It’s a very performance-based album, because we didn’t have that much studio time with Max Richter, who produced it,” she explains. “We had to get the best performances using real instruments and we didn’t layer or edit as much as I did in my early records, which were very synth-based.”

After recording the ethereal and strikingly opulent Rocking Horse in Edinburgh with Richter, Ali got a band together and independently recorded a live, tour-support album, Butterfly, in a day, self-producing it with her manager, Metso. It is only available to buy at gigs, in keeping with the DIY approach of this new movement.

In America, meanwhile, the self-sufficient high priestess of goth-folk is Marissa Nadler. “I don’t go round cutting cats and making bloody bodies,” giggles the dark-haired icon, whose fourth album, the magical Little Hells, comes out on March 2. On it, she has “gone electric”, a backlash against the sound that brought her popularity. “Mall goths with leather and white faces are so not me,” she explains. “I’m a loner, sure, but it’s more a dream-folk sense of the gothic, more classic, going back to Edgar Allan Poe. The new record definitely has a vibe of Cocteau Twins; it’s dark in tone, I can’t run away from that.”

Nadler, who sees her songwriting as a form of therapy, is a chipper lass to speak with. Then again, goths have always had a sense of humour: the Sisters of Mercy could never have survived otherwise, and surely the comedians Russell Brand and the Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding are goths.

Elements of a more extreme form of goth-folk are identified in the singer-songwriter Rose Kemp. Sporting spiked dog collars, cobweb eyes and Tudor sleeves, she is the scion of Steeleye Span’s Rick Kemp and Maddy Prior. Musically, she marries the traditions of her parents with prog rock and doom metal. “My parents were a huge influence,” she says. “They basically invented a new genre and changed musical history. But I have always done my own thing. The only similar thing is being brought up around the traditional minor scale.”

Don’t be too taken in by unconventional appearances, however – these depressionist leaders are tooled up for modern times as indie innovators available on iTunes. So why not throw yourself into the season of the witch?

Kelli Ali tours from January 15 ( ). Françoiz Breut tours from January 19. Marissa Nadler will tour in the spring; her album, Little Hells, is due for release on Kemado on March 2, with the single River of Dirt out on February 9. Greg Weeks is planning a tour for March; his album, The Hive, is out now ( )

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