Ever since I started making music, it’s been in this sort of folk-infused soundtrack sort of style. When I was little, I would imagine that I was in a film constantly. I would hear music in my head supporting the emotions I may be feeling. It sort of helped me express my feelings to myself and figure out what sort of character I want to be in this life. My brother is famous for his excellent mixtapes and he introduced me to most of my favorite contemporary artists, many of whom make music in this way; fusing together modern attitudes and techniques with personal impressions of roots music.
There’s something about traditional sounds that really resonate with me. I grew up in a rural place and spent my childhood playing the fiddle. Folk music has always been connected to nature and the sounds that go along with it. Nature is where I do my best self-reflection. The hypnotic rhythm of an acoustic guitar line repeated. The rich, molasses drones of the violin.
On my debut album Black Cloud, I intentionally challenged myself to produce in a more edgy, alt-rock style. However, I could not escape many of the musical sensibilities I grew up with. You can hear undertones of trad music in my guitar playing, in the song forms, vocal inflections, and choice of vocabulary. This playlist starts off with the first track on my new record and ends with a song from my folk duo with Emily Mann, Paper Wings. Both are songs I wrote and feel very close to my heart. The songs in between have all been inspirations to me over the years and demonstrate of the cinematic quality realized when folk techniques are fused into modern creations and vice-versa. Hope you enjoy. – Wila Frank
“Tonight” – Wila Frank
I wrote Tonight over a rolling guitar line inspired by traditional banjo techniques. While the rest of the production is quite contemporary, you can hear elements of folk influence in my singing. Especially in the line “It’s a long and lonesome road” — a reference to lyrics you would hear in a bluegrass song.
“Fire Snakes” – Laura Veirs
This has been a favorite song of mine forever. I love the beautiful and unusual contradiction of the acoustic guitar line with the artificial beat. To me, it makes the song feel more emotionally vital and critical. The strings at the end are a luscious bonus.
“Desert Island Disk” – Radiohead
This song reminds me of the trance-like quality of a lot of traditional Malian guitar playing such as Ali Farke Toure who I’m also obsessed with. The simplicity of the production on this song is essential and perfectly supports the beautiful message of the lyrics.
“Walkin’ Boss” – Sam Amidon
This is the only trad American folk song on the playlist. Sam Amidon has a really neat way of taking old Appalachian songs and bringing them into a new contemporary light. The rhythm of the banjo and drums together make you wanna groove and bring out the power of the lyrics.
“Psyche” – Massive Attack
I included this one because the repeating artificial guitar line reminds me of the banjo and is a cool example of the magic achieved when electronic artists sample natural sounds. This particular song was an essential inspiration for me in coming up with the guitar line on my song “Tonight.” When it comes to cinematic music and transporting the listener to a new world, you can’t get any better than Massive Attack.
“Imitosis” – Andrew Bird
I was obsessed with Andrew Bird when I was a kid for his witty lyrical style, use of the violin as a support instrument for his songs, and the unapologetic quirkiness of his music. On this album, he fuses all kinds of music and makes something completely unique.
“Ecstasy” – Crooked Still
I grew up going to a lot of music camps and owe much of my musical development to various members of Crooked Still. Aoife was one of the first singers I learned from and I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time around this music. I love this album in particular and how this song fuses Appalachian fiddle tones with classical string parts.
“The Weekend” – Dave Rawlings Machine
This song features pop chords, but has Dave Rawlings signature guitar style all over it. It’s a fun Americana-style story of a song. I like how the violin parts sound almost like they’re imitating synthetic strings. A cool example of folk music imitating pop music.
“Dog Walkers of the New Age” – Breathe Owl Breathe
One of my favorite albums ever. Completely unique and vibey. The lyrics are quirky and witty, and somehow get at an essential emotion of feeling less alone.
“Grizzly Man” – Rockettothesky
The shimmering acoustic guitar in this track brings this beautiful and spooky song to life. This is the only song I really know from this band, but the haunting, witchy vocal style in this song has stuck with me through the years and has an essence of woodsy appeal.
“Dyin Day” – Anaïs Mitchell
Anaïs Mitchell does a really nice job of innovating within the structure of a song itself. There are elements of traditional call and response in this song, religious references and images of nature, but somehow it still feels relevant and potent.
“Carrie & Lowell” – Sufjan Stevens
This was an incredibly influential album for a lot of people I think. Stevens’ swirling guitar style paired with the vocal effects and simplistic percussive elements make it feel like a pop song without any overly artificial elements. There’s even banjo on this song, but used almost like you would use an arpeggiated synth.
“Middle Distance Runner” – Sea Wolf
To me, this is a perfect pop song with a folk song structure. I love the natural guitar tones and the use of real sounds as percussion.
“The History of a Cheating Heart” – Damon Albarn
One of my favorite artists, producers, and songwriters of all time. Damon Albarn released this solo record in 2014 upon which he plays this song paired down with acoustic guitar. There’s very minimal production featuring dry and stark strings along with a chorus of harmonies on the bridge. It’s rare to hear such a minimal song recorded at such a high level and the result is beautiful.
“Clementine” – Paper Wings
I wrote Clementine on a writing retreat we went on in Big Sur. Emily and I spent the week sitting in the sun amongst the trees and flowers overlooking the ocean. This is really a simple pop love song, but we paired it down and sang it in harmony over fiddle drones. Arranged this way, it became stark and vulnerable and the essence of the song revealed itself. The imagery of nature became more vivid, and the emotions came across as more sincere.
Photo Credit: David Piñeros