As Louis Armstrong famously said, ‘All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.’ And yet, over the years a specific idea of what folk music is, what it sounds like, what it should be, has been cultivated. It should be traditional. It should be acoustic. It should be about these people, not those ones. The beauty of Armstrong’s quote is not only in the absurdity of its image, but in its understanding that folk music is the broadest of churches, a well from which everything else springs.
Enter Lunatraktors, the Margate-based duo whose background of cabaret, musical theatre, jazz, hip-hop, and plenty more besides, all filter through a rigorous, academic understanding of the history of folk music to create something that sounds completely unique, and completely familiar at the same time. ‘I’m obsessively researching all the time about a lot of things, not just music’ says Clair Le Couteur, whose four-octave vocal range and ability to sing two tones at the same time help make the Lunatraktors sound so engrossing. After their debut album This Is Broken Folk was named as one of Mojo’s Top Ten Folk Albums of the Year in 2019, they return in 2020 with The Missing Star, a more expansive, ambitious effort that adds new layers of sound and meaning onto their existing canon.
‘We find it quite difficult when things jump out of categorisation boxes. That binary way that just says, 'it has to be this, or it has to be that.'
‘We definitely allowed ourselves to indulge in what the studio process can allow you to do this time, rather than being quite so purist,’ says vocalist and percussionist Carli Jefferson, ‘but one rule that seems to still stick with us is that if it hasn't been done within three takes, and that's generally the whole take all the way through, we would be like 'well, okay, we're definitely going to come back and do that on a different day.'’ Clair expands on this approach to the recording process: ‘All of our music is very much about the story, and if you tell the same story several times in a row, you lose interest,’ they say. This approach translates to their live performances too. ‘When it comes to being performed, there's a basic form, which is kind of fixed, but then at every show, there's a big element of improvisation that happens. The groove is not set,’ Carli explains.
The stories being told are many and varied. ‘We're constantly turning up new songs, and then following little hunches, or keyword searching archives for particular things, or talking to people or getting recommendations. But then sometimes something just grabs you by the collar and shakes you and you know that you have to sing it to understand it,’ Clair says, but what’s clear is that Lunatraktors aren’t interested in using folk music to hark back to an idyllic, romanticised past. Rather, they are rooting out the contemporary and political themes in this music, in a way that is often very confronting. On The Rigs of the Times, the first single from The Missing Star, an ancient sounding folk melody is paired with lyrics about Brexit and COVID-19, and the haunting refrain: ‘hon’sty’s all out of fashion.’ ‘It’s an old one in terms of the song structure,’ Clair says. 'The chorus is original, from the 1800s, and the last verse and the tune is original, but the lyrics are updated to be about the current conditions.’
As two queer artists working in a genre that can often feel quite stuffy and straight, there’s an inherent politicisation to Lunatraktors’ existence. But rather than these identities competing with each other, the depth of understanding of folk music and folklore that Carli and Clair both have turns it into very fertile ground for them.
Speaking about the occasional preciousness that some communities have over folk music, Carli explains how their approach to folk music is akin to their queer identities: ‘We find it quite difficult when things jump out of categorisation boxes. That binary way that just says, 'it has to be this, or it has to be that.' Folk music isn’t about that, it’s a kind of trawling and moving absorption of the visual arts. There’s so much that is not boxed, and not just in one form. Folklore, for me, is lots of different places and lots of different people all finding very similar ways of voicing or sounding or expressing, and you can see that blend across the world. There are moments where you go, 'ah yes, that is very distinctly from there,' but there are many moments where you just listen to something that doesn’t have a name, or a country, or a flag attached to it, and you go 'ah! I don’t know where that sound comes from!'
That’s the exciting thing, the non-binaryness of that.’ Clair quickly picks up Carly’s train of thought: ‘Being a non-binary person is a gender thing but I guess it's also very much a political position.’
The queering of folk music is important for many reasons. There is still, unfortunately, an uncomfortable association that gets made between folklore and the far right. Nick Griffin famously tried to co-opt folk music for the BNP way back in 2010, leading to the compilation album Folk Against Fascism being released in response, from participants including Martin Simpson, June Tabor, and Christy Moore. More recently, Mumford and Sons’ Winston Marshall was widely criticised after he praised alt-right commentator Andy Ngo’s book Unmasked: Inside Antifa's Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy. And beyond folk music specifically, there has been a growing trend amongst the alt right to attempt to invoke traditional folk mythologies in defence of white supremacy.
‘We really want to include everyone. We want to make music you can tap your foot to, for people to move with moods.'
All of these things are quickly shouted down, but rarely is the ugliness interrogated with any great seriousness. More often, it is dismissed, like a family quickly shushing the 'one bad apple' whom they still keep inviting to dinner. ‘People are attracted to folk music for very different reasons. A lot of the people who were involved in setting up the folk revival of the '60s and '70s were super socialist. You had the trippy hippies in one direction, and the hardcore Marxists, and they ganged up to create these clubs, but what happens with folk clubs is they tend to attract nostalgic nationalists,’ Clair explains. ‘But the thing about folk heritage is, it’s for everyone. There’s plenty of disgusting nationalist crap in the folk archives, partly because the establishment was paying people to put it out there. I think the point is to talk about it, and also to make fun of how bad the nationalist, revivalist, nostalgic music is, because it’s always derivative and predictable, whereas weird stuff remains weird forever.’
Perhaps one of the reasons why Lunatraktors can comfortably and confidently mine these deeper questions and notions out of the genre they’re working in is because they are performing it outside of the traditional settings, those being folk clubs. ‘They’re still a bit resistant to us,’ Carli says, before telling a story about one club who declined to book them on account of their having a 'no drums' policy. While some of the folk circuit are now catching up, it’s in other spaces where their music has found its home first: cabaret nights, art galleries, gay clubs, village fetes with children crawling across the stage, TED talks. At the start of our conversation, Clair explains their recent involvement with the Ten Songs From Lar project, a joint project from The Historic Dockyard Chatham and The Rochester Guildhall Museum for which ten artists were invited to create audio responses to a bronze Lar, essentially a Roman figurine dating from 200AD thought to be household guardian deities. ‘We’ve developed a sideline in making weird time travel music,’ they say. I put it to them that playing this material to audiences who maybe aren’t as familiar with it can lead to new responses, and new life breathed into it.
‘Seeing these songs in a gallery context, they become intensely political and interesting, which they are in the folk club of course, but it’s less obvious,’ Clair says, ‘We really want to include everyone. We want to make music you can tap your foot to, for people to move with moods. People are put off by folk music, I think, in the same way as classical music. It can feel quite claggy.’ Carli then leaps in, their voices often overlapping throughout the course of our conversation as one thread of an idea is picked up by the other and woven into something new. ‘There’s a distance instantly created in folk clubs because you can see the musician with their instrument, and they’re clearly very good, while you don’t have an instrument in the audience - there’s a big, quite strong fourth wall, I think. Whereas if you’re watching two people slapping their thighs and singing, you think 'Ah, I’ve got these instruments too!' Instantly I think you connect to it easier.’
Our conversation coincides with a gentle easing of lockdown restrictions in the UK, and a tentative move toward the resumption of live music. Test events have been successfully trialled, vaccination numbers continue to soar, festival line-ups are being announced. But across all the arts, there is a clamour for the creative industries that return to be better than the ones that were so abruptly shut down in 2020. The topic of inclusivity is one that comes up regularly, and both Carli and Clair feel there should be a greater structural approach from the industry at large to ensuring this is addressed. ‘Programmers have a responsibility to include everybody,’ Carli says, ‘there has to be a vigilant process that every time you’re looking at the question of 'have we got a diverse group of people? Or have we forgotten about Black Lives Matter and gone back to booking the white guys who sent the email first?'’ Their thinking on these matters is intersectional, as Clair explains: ‘LGBTQ appeals need to phrase themselves as human appeals and be aware about the risks of putting a rainbow heart around it. The more and more the media gets into that culture war, ‘anti-woke’ thing, the more and more fragile our position’s going to become. It has to be about solidarity across groups - stuff like Kenmure Street, the protesting and rescuing people from immigration vans. That’s what we need.’
'It is music and storytelling that invites us to consider everything that has come before, and everything still to come.'
An accusation occasionally thrown at artists - particularly musicians, it seems - who deign to voice a political opinion is that they should 'stick to what they’re good at.' It seems to stem from a desire for music to be a space for escape, away from the in-fighting and messiness of the political sphere. I sometimes wonder if folk has bought into that too much over the years, whether by not challenging the 'nostalgic nationalists' it has not only created a more inhospitable environment for people, but also an inhospitable environment for the genre itself to grow and thrive. Lunatraktors are not the only group happy to counter this. Listening to them I’m reminded of Lisa O’Neill’s astonishing Violet Gibson, the story of an Irish woman who attempted to assassinate Benito Mussolini, which in O’Neill’s hands becomes a powerful anti-fascist, anti-misogynist statement. Or even the gesture from the Irish band Lankum, who changed their name from Lynched in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, accepting that despite the word being a play on their family name, it carried too much baggage. Lunatraktors’ politics makes their music richer, more interesting. Makes them as artists, particularly artists if not at the beginning of their careers, but at the beginning of this particular project, more exciting.
Early on in our conversation, Clair mentions the Turner Prize winning artist Tai Shani, who described Lunatraktors as ‘conceptual art disguised as folk music.’ It’s a neat line, but pondering on it I wonder if it should be the other way round, or whether the comparison should be more broad, more declarative. Folk music is conceptual art, and not only do Lunatraktors understand that, but they run with it. It is music and storytelling that invites us to consider everything that has come before, and everything still to come. Weird time travel music. All music. All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.