What is folk at the Calgary Folk Festival?
I love live music, especially of the singer-songwriter sort. It’s subtle stuff (usually), talking about internal conflict and the intricate difficulties of living happily in a world where, if we’re being honest, is pretty easy to live in. But it seems to be the case that whenever life gets easy, living gets hard. And that’s why we need music like this; gentle, self-deprecating meditations on the malaise of the well-fed and gifted.
This sort of music is difficult and dangerous. Difficult because it’s hard to identify and describe to the necessarily intricate emotions that are the hallmarks of upper-middle-class malaise, let alone in a way that is evocative and interesting. Dangerous because delving into these areas is fundamentally introspective, and one risks a kind of self-involved egotism, which is not only makes for unattractive people, but unattractive music. To identify subtle pain, and to sing about it without self-pity or self-importance is a difficult balancing act.
Some musicians manage this balancing act through sheer force of brilliance, and perhaps obsession, either in musicianship or lyrics. Others by using their own emotion only as a starting point for *story* – the emotion is never dealt with directly, only through the indirect means of storytelling.
One of my favorite artists this year, St. Vincent, who is playing at the Calgary Folk Festival, exemplifies the indirect art of storytelling. An actor tells the truth by lying, so the saying goes. The song “Actor” tells the truth about the uneasy relationship between performer and audience: the need for attention, the madness of rejection, the comedy/tragedy of it all. And of course this message is wrapped in a lush, intricate yet accessible layer of guitar heavy music.
Some may descry the rise of folk at the expense of straight philosophy and poetry. A part of me dies when Eminem is called the modern Ovid. But there are some topics which are, if anything, more at home in music than anywhere else. Ambiguous, subtle, intricate complaints and observations of modern life have no place in a philosophical treatise; and to ensconce them in poetry seems too self-indulgent by half. But small injustices and minor relationship ambiguities are the perfect basis for a listenable song.