All hail to the new folk music minstrels

 

Unplug that guitar and pull our your bongos - folk is the new rock'n'roll, with rising stars such as Noah and the Whale, Laura Marling and Jeffrey Lewis about to hit the big time

THROW SOME TINDERSTICKS on the fire and bring out the vittles - folk music is coming back in from the cold. Pure folk has long been a bit of an outcast in proper pop society - too twee for the rockers, too old-fashioned for the modernists, and too bloody beardy for the clean-cut kids. But folk is back with a bang on the ear, and a new generation of green-fingered troubadours is nurturing the genre back into full bloom.

Everywhere you look, rock musicians are going back to basics, unplugging their Telecasters and dusting off their old acoustics, turning off their synths and sequencers and digging out the harmoniums, zithers and xylophones. Amid all the talk about conservation and carbon neutrality, it seems that more musicians are going green - opting for music that evokes the wide open spaces of the countryside rather than the claustrophobic smog of the city. For the first time in aeons, folk is supercool again, but it's been a long, strange trip that's brought it full circle and back into favour.

Rock fans have always treated folk music with suspicion and more than a little disdain - they preferred something louder, with more riffs, and not so many lyrics about riverbanks and obscure Anglo-Saxon battles.

Rockers have never really forgiven folkies for booing Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival back in 1965, when Dylan "went electric". But their antipathy to folk arose from something more basic - it just plainly wasn't rock'n'roll.

There was a time, back in the 1970s, when folk and rock enjoyed a fruitful, symbiotic relationship. In your typical student's record collection, albums by Fairport Convention, Pentangle and the Incredible String Band stood merrily alongside albums by Sabbath, Floyd and Zep - indeed, the latter paid homage to folk on such songs as Black Mountain Sideand Bron-Y-Aur Stomp. Numerous bands blended folk and rock, but not all could do it with the panache of Zep. In Jethro Tull's hands, it all turned into concept-album mulch, and as soon as Steeleye Span tasted success, they turned into the Status Quo of folk. It was inevitable that the two genres would file for divorce.

As the chasm between rock and folk widened, a new movement, anti-folk, sprang up in the US in the early- to mid-1980s. Anti-folk was a riposte to the rigidity and earnestness of traditional American music, and was played by misfits and misanthropes who couldn't get gigs in the city's established folk clubs because they were deemed "too punk".

The anti-folk scene in New York has proven particularly fertile, attracting artists over the years such as Beck, Jeffrey Lewis, Hamell On Trial, Regina Spektor and Moldy Peaches. In the UK, London became a spawning ground for such anti-folk heroes as David Cronenberg's Wife, Spinmaster Plantpot and Emmy the Great. Just as US anti-folk ran counter to folk's prevailing wind, UK anti-folk was a backlash against a mouldy, moss-overgrown genre.

English folk music has long been considered the domain of cider-drinking Morris dancers and crusty old geezers with an unhealthy interest in fair young maidens. But in recent years the genre has shaken off the hay and presented a bright, breezy new face to the world. The thaw began with the emergence of fresh young faces, such as Eliza Carthy, Seth Lakeman and Kate Rusby. Carthy, the daughter of English folk's power couple Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, drew fans in from outside the folk family with her wide-ranging talents, that took in blues, jazz and torch ballads.

Rusby, for her part, made enough of a crossover to be considered for a Mercury music prize in 1999, while Lakeman was up for the award in 2005 - neither were seen as mere token folkies. This year, the Mercury is rising for Rachel Unthank and the Winterset - it looks like the fire is still burning.

But while more indie musicians have become enamoured with folk, many still felt they had to dress it up in anti-folk clothing, lacing their tunes with electronica and leavening their lyrics with post-modernist musings to make it palatable to fans. Experimental folk duo Tunng are particularly adept at hard-wiring techniques of dance and electronica into delicate folk melodies. The duo's ambient folk sound appeals to both the chilled-out club set and the cider-quaffing folk faction.

Now, though, the pop firmament is filling up with shiny new artists who aren't afraid to let their roots show. But don't expect a load of old hey-nonny-nonny from the likes of Johnny Flynn, Laura Marling and Noah and the Whale. The new UK folk heroes write intelligent, snappy modern tunes with hooks that hold up alongside their pop peers, and they perform them with an organic, instinctive feel for the heart of the song.

The recordings are uncluttered with effects or embellishments - usually they'll lope along on an earthy drumbeat, a simple bass signature, a fiddle, some plummy vocals and maybe a harmonium bit in the middle. Folk is probably too constricting a term to describe the new breed of pastoral popsters - these artists revel in the uncomplicated joy of the song, and don't feel the need to layer their music with big, forbidding walls of sound.

THE POP KIDS like the cut of their jib too - London band Noah and the Whale are at number 14 in the UK singles charts with the catchy, contagious summer anthem 5 Years Time. It's the kind of song that, besides making the rain go away, makes you think that all you need is a couple of cheap instruments, an upbeat melody and a voice that falls somewhere between Billy Bragg, Syd Barrett and Nick Drake, and the world is your oyster.

Having a hit record probably seemed a distant dream to Noah and the Whale's frontman, 21-year-old Charlie Fink, when he was writing and demoing songs in his bedroom in London, inspired by everyone from Bonnie "Prince" Billy to Buddy Holly.

"Well, you've got to dream the dream," he muses. "I've been writing and playing guitar pretty much for as long as I can remember, because my mum used to be a bit of a folkie. I grew up listening to the Beach Boys, Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan. When I started writing songs, it just seemed the natural thing to do." Frustrated with the "inconsequential" songs he was coming up with, Fink decided to do some "travelling and thinking", so he set off on a road-trip across the US, driving a rented Chevrolet from New York to San Francisco - "I wanted a Cadillac, but that was too expensive" - and returned to London with a clearer musical vision. Fink's brother Doug joined his nascent project, and an old schoolmate, Tom, rowed in on violin, with bassist Urby completing the foursome (he also doubles on harmonium).

NOAH AND THE WHALE quickly found kindred spirits willing to give them a support slot, including Feist and Broken Social Scene. Recently, they toured the UK's forests with The Zutons, playing for audiences of around 2,000 people plus an indeterminate number of woodland creatures. They also found a soulmate in Laura Marling, the 18-year-old undisputed darling of the new English folk scene; she sang in the band until around six months ago, when her own career began to really take off. Fink produced Marling's fine debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim; it's been nominated for this year's Mercury prize, so naturally Fink is "very pleased" with his handiwork.

But though Noah and the Whale, Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn plough similar furrows, Fink believes the folk tag is not broad enough to cover the scope of their music and vision.

"I think the thing that I find satisfying right now is that no one can place us. You compare different people's responses to the band and they'll all cite different genres or different influences or whatever. I think it's good to be slightly unplaceable. Obviously, I do listen to a lot of folk music, particularly anti-folk music and that kind of stuff.

"All of us, me, Laura, Johnny, we're all big fans of the New York anti-folk stuff, Jeffrey Lewis, Diane Cluck, even the Moldy Peaches.

"It's probably the biggest influence on us. It's not necessarily the sound, but more like an ethic, a way of making music. Because all that stuff goes right back to basic songwriting. And I guess it's also the facility to record the music just as a song, and not rely on heavy production or whatever, just basic songwriting.

"But I think a lot of it is in the sentiment. I think a lot of artists overstate what they're trying to say, like, I think most of the stuff that all of us sing about, we could make pretty concise. I just think there are a lot of bands who dwell too much on what they're trying to get across." You can't get more concise than the repeated refrain of "sun, sun, sun" on the chorus of 5 Years Time. Some might consider the tune a bit whimsical, but it's making serious waves for Fink and his aquatic crew.

The only danger is that the song might end up on a Best Summer Anthems Evercompilation, sandwiched between Macarenaand Mungo Jerry's In The Summertime. "That'll never happen," asserts Fink. "I wouldn't let that happen."

Luckily, the debut album, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down, contains enough great, thought-provoking songs to make one-hit-wonderdom seem less of an inevitability. Such charming tunes as 2 Atoms in a Molecule, Jocasta, Shape of My Heartand Give a Little Loveshould keep the crowds singing along at such rock fests as Oxegen and Latitude, and at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and they'll be flying the folk-pop flag once again at the V Festival in Chelmsford and Staffordshire this weekend.

From bedroom balladeer to production wizard to fully-fledged pop star is a pretty quick change in fortune for Fink - it's no wonder he's feeling a little dazed and confused.

"It seems quite absurd to be in the position we've got to, because the ambition was never really to get where we are, it was just to make music, really. And contemporary artists I listen to are never on the radio or never sell any records. It's very weird to be in a position where it's crossed over. But I think that's probably just how things happen, really."