SPOTLIGHT: Jake Blount Takes Folk Into the Future
Jake Blount (photo by Tadin Brown)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jake Blount is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for September 2022. Look for more on Blount and his new album, The New Faith, out Sept. 23 on Smithsonian Folkways, all month long.
Folk music is ripe for some new voices and approaches. Jake Blount feels that change in the air.
“There’s different levels to the folk revival; I see it when I go room to room at folk conferences,” Blount says. “You have the ‘60s folk revival crowd. They’re starting to age out, but there’s still some number of them left. Then you have the crowd that is, like, from the Tracy Chapman era. I distinctly remember a conference where I said to a friend, ‘Ninety percent of these people stopped listening to new music when ‘Fast Car’ came out.’
“I don’t say that to be shady or mean, but there’s a failure within the genre to embrace growth. That sound hasn’t been new for 30 years at this point,” he continues. “There’s this reactionary attitude the folk community has to new sounds.”
For Black artists, finding a home in folk music can be particularly challenging. Instead of being able to break new ground, a more rigid interpretation of folk pigeonholes them into antiquated musical norms created at a time when Black artists were relegated to the realm of race records.
“I wouldn’t say there’s no Black people in folk. It’s that if you do something new, they say, ‘That’s not folk,’” Blount says. “They end up defending the sounds of segregation. I try to question that and ask if this is being allowed to grow and change in a natural way.”
Blount’s newest LP, The New Faith, directly challenges the conventional expectations of folk. Produced in partnership with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings as part of its African American Legacy series, Blount has reimagined 10 traditional Black spirituals to fit a dystopian Afrofuturist tale of a world ravaged by climate change.
It’s a record steeped in the songs of the past, but employing modern techniques and approaches to speak to and fit into the current cultural moment. Bringing it to life required Blount to grow his own skills as a musician and producer.
Keeping the Stories
Spider Tales, Blount’s 2020 debut LP (ND review), was also a conceptual piece. In selecting the 14 tracks for the album, he highlighted the contributions Black and Indigenous artists have made to the history and development of roots music. It was a reclamation project, reminding audiences of exactly who and where material now considered canon came from and why that matters. For The New Faith, Blount turned his focus to the future.
It takes place at a time when Earth has succumbed to climate change. A group of 30 Black refugees, strangers to each other, find shelter on an island off the coast of Maine. With little in common and hostile living conditions, they rally around a shared musical tradition.
The closing lines of the spoken-word portion on opening track “Take Me to the Water/Prayer” lay out the framework for what follows:
“We their children are cursed to wander, deprived of land that could sustain us by our own ancestors, but we keep the stories, we remember what set man on the downward road.”
Inspiration for the story came out of Blount’s fondness for Afrofuturist literature, most notably the work of Octavia E. Butler.
“I first read (Butler’s) Parable of the Sower five years ago and thought it was okay,” he says. “Then I was helping a friend work on their album, and the drive was eight hours each way. The entire time there and back, I listened to the audiobook.”
This time around, the novel really resonated with Blount and provided a launching point for him to work from on The New Faith. Parable of the Sower tells the story of a young woman displaced from her home in the aftermath of climate change-induced instability and growing income inequality. It tracks her as she meets other survivors and new communities and societies form.
The New Faith diverges from Parable of the Sower in several aspects. The most notable is what communities rally around to make sense of their surroundings. In the novel it’s religion and social and government structures. Blount builds his world and narrative out through the use of traditional songs that evoke a shared past and provide the survivors with a rallying point for their future..
“I was thinking how to imagine the future in a similar way, and wound up getting away from it (the novel) as I began recording the album,” Blount notes. “I see Afrofuturism as the folk tradition in a way. I wanted to create this moment of literary tradition locking into musical tradition.”
Work on The New Faith was a two-part process: selecting the proper songs (and their proper sequence) and recording them. The former was relatively simple. In order to achieve the dynamic sound Blount had in mind, the latter took some effort.
“I figured out the first handful of songs right away — ‘Downward Road,’ ‘Didn’t It Rain,’ and ‘Death Have Mercy’ — that provided the initial seed of the album,” he says. “From there, the album really organized itself into sections by content.”
Blount broke the album into three portions: “The Psalms of the Sentinel,” “The Psalms of the Gravedigger,” and “The Psalms of the Teacher.” Each commences with a spoken word sermon-style piece — the prayer on the first track, fifth song “Parable,” and ninth track “Psalms” — providing the context to turn the album into a cohesive story.
“I already saw Spider Tales as an album built around a theme; I couldn’t record a CD without a theme,” Blount explains. “Spider Tales was a curatorial project. This was different perhaps in some ways. It’s a lot more of a creative exercise to have a concept that’s so out there and so subjective as to what it might be. The concept itself became more specific and elaborate the more we worked on the songs.”
Bringing the concept to life required acquiring new skills. In addition to performing vocals, fiddle, banjo, bass, and percussion, Blount learned electric guitar. He’d record sections at home in Providence, Rhode Island, and send them to co-producer Brian Slattery, who also contributed percussion, guitar, and strings on the album, for feedback.
In terms of both plot and music, The New Faith covers a great deal of terrain. “The Downward Road” is anchored by Blount’s urgent fiddle-playing and multiple vocal parts, as well as a verse from rapper Demeanor. Throughout the album, most notably on tracks like “Death Have Mercy” and “Once There Was No Sun,” handclaps and percussion combine with Blount’s banjo playing and harmony vocal tracks to recreate the feeling of a ramshackle group performance.
To take the spirituals and place them in a more modern context, Blount learned to use digital production software to create loops of repeated vocal and rhythm tracks. “Structurally, people are used to loops,” he says. “It was a matter of figuring out what people are used to hearing in the digital age and making it work with acoustic sounds.”
He also solicited guest spots from an eclectic group of contributors, most prominently Demeanor, who appears on three tracks. Blount notes that the consistent use of hip-hop on a roots music record may prove jarring to some listeners. He felt that including rap on a folk record was vital, however, because “meaningfully including people means meaningfully including different sounds.”
“When I was a kid in (Washington) D.C., no one was playing the banjo and singing spirituals for a good time; we’d go to a cypher,” Blount continues. “Rap is the folk music of today. It’s something people do communally outside of the capitalist musical structure.”
In putting a new spin on old songs for The New Faith, he continues a core component of the folk tradition: take the past and pay tribute to it, but also ensure it can find a home with present-day audiences.
“I’ve definitely known a lot of these songs my whole life; they’ve always been around,” Blount says. They just haven’t ever sounded quite the way he’s pushed them forward on The New Faith.
“When I sent it to my dad, he said, ‘You made fish-fry music!’,” Blount adds. “It’s the kind of music where someone is singing, clapping, banging on a table. The stuff I was working on with this album is popular, familiar with Black audiences.”
In pushing the sonic envelope, Blount knows he runs the risk of alienating audiences drawn to Spider Tales’ more conventional folk aesthetic and who might have a narrower view of what inclusion means. While that may have concerned him in the past, he’s unfazed by it now.
“I’ve been encouraged by the feedback I’ve received the last couple months,” he says. “I fully expect to get panned by some in the folk music community that aren’t asking the really important questions about how we keep that (inclusion) going. A few years ago that would have bothered me, but I don’t really care now. I know I made something good.”