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Jacken Elswyth, folk musician and banjo maker, smiles while playing a 5-string banjo

Jacken Elswyth – The Tradfolk Interview

Meet Jacken Elswyth - experimental/trad banjo player, label owner, Shove Dance Collective member and denizen of London's new folk clubs.

Jacken Elswyth is an increasingly recognisable name on today’s folk scene. A member of the celebrated Shovel Dance Collective, she has been building a reputation for some time as a solo folk musician, an improvisational banjo player, and the brains behind the Betwixt and Between label. We met her on a balmy Peckham day in July to chat about her latest album, Six Static Scenes, her family background in Hereford Weirdshire, her love of drone music, the origins of her label, the emergence of “amorphous London folk groups”, the appearance of new folk clubs in London, and the search for proto-feminist narratives and queer histories in traditional folk songs. That’s more than enough to be getting on with. Make yourself comfortable, won’t you?

The first time I met a lot of the members of Shovel Dance Collective was actually at our first gig. We had an afternoon to check that we were all playing the same tunes and then we did the show.

Jacken Elswyth

Tell me about your background. I was reading that your parents are stalwarts of the Weirdshire scene.

Yeah, my parents both play in Sproatly Smith who were mentioned in the recent James Hadfield article on Weird Folk, and also as the duo, Alula Down. Ian from Sproatly Smith runs a series of gigs called Weirdshire and my parents are very involved in that and organising compilations.

How long have they been doing that?

I’m not certain when that started. They were always in bands but only started seriously being folkies when I was already an adult.

What do you think turned them onto it?

I think it’s always been there in their very broad listening, but when I was a child in the 90s I remember them being into slowcore indie bands. I don’t know when that shift came, really. I guess maybe it was just something in the atmosphere. In the late 90s, early 00s, they started doing a lot more folkie stuff and I started looking for a lot more folk because they were.

What sort of stuff were you listing to?

I remember being really blown away by Please to See the King by Steeleye Span, which is maybe a slightly cheesy entry into English folk, but I think that was where my realisation that there was a wealth of traditional English folk songs and folk tunes came from. There’s a big Irish session scene in Herefordshire but it felt like people playing someone else’s music rather than playing something from where we’re from. And then, for me, it was Anne Briggs and most of those easily-available folk revival musicians, I guess.

What immediately appealed to you about folk music?

There was something about the shape of folk songs that really got me. I still don’t have any music theory so I don’t know how to talk about it, but something about the kind of modal form that you find in English traditional folk music. I wish I understood what it was.

Were you already a musician at that time?

Yeah, I played guitar in a teenage band – a bit funky, a bit New Metal – just whatever we’d been listening to. I remember that I took a little trip down to Bristol to see Billy Bragg. I stayed in the youth hostel and the next day I went to Hobgoblin Music where I bought a mandola. That was my proper start. I was probably about 17.

That was one of my first folk instruments as well. My son named it Nelson Mandola. I can’t say I play it anymore.

No, me neither. It’s still hanging on my wall. But I played it a little bit, got a bit frustrated with it, and then borrowed my mother’s banjo to play that a little bit. That was the one that really stuck.

I built something that was just a plank of wood with loads of springs on it. No, it never had a name.

Jacken Elswyth

What is it about the banjo that gets you?

The thing I always say is it’s the drone quality. I built a couple of instruments prior to buying my first banjo, and they were all about producing drones. I built something that was just a plank of wood with loads of springs on it. Basically, it had a couple of pickups, and it was trying to be something like a kind of lap-steel guitar but with a bunch of synthetic strings. It had, like, 36 strings in total [laughs]. And no, it never had a name. It was really impossible to play, but it could make these beautiful long drones.

The appeal of the banjo was that droning quality combined with the discipline of traditional playing techniques that gave you a way into it, rather than just being stuck on the edge of the drone.

What is it about the drone and folk music?

I think I was always interested in long-form music that doesn’t really go anywhere. That’s something that informs my Six Static Scenes album as well, although that’s not so long-form. I really like lots of doom metal. I really like those bands that just hit a chord and let it ring for a really long time. Folk music kind of does that even when it’s not underpinned by an actual drone. It’s there in the really repetitive structure that can go on for 16 verses.

A number of people focus in on the drone, don’t they? It’s like there’s a ‘Drone Folk’ scene all on its own. Do you know Elspeth Anne? Also Burd Ellen?

Yeah. I did a little collaboration with Debbie Armour (Burd Ellen) for one of her Patreon episodes, and I’ve known Elspeth Anne for years. I’ve always been a fan of her music-making.

I like the DIY, almost punk ethos that some of those people – yourself included – are known for. You’re a banjo maker as well, aren’t you? Is that something you do to make a living?

A very small part of it, yeah. I don’t really make very much money off it. I think, at the end of last year, I was £300 up [laughs], so I couldn’t live off it.

There’s also your Betwixt & Between label, which specialises in cassette releases. I started noticing your name in relation to that, and also in relation to the initial flurry of interest around Broadside Hacks and their Folk Club. Has all of this interest been building up for a while, or is it quite sudden?

Well, I didn’t do anything musical at all for a long time. For most of my 20s, I was busy being a student and then doing a PhD and doing a lot of anarchist politics stuff around the edges of it. I had a year of not really knowing what I was doing, and then I decided to put out some tapes. That was in 2018, so it feels as though it has grown quite rapidly from there. I guess it coincided with there being an upsurge in interest in folk music. With Shovel Dance Collective and Broadside Hacks, there seemed to be quite a lot of large, slightly amorphous London folk groups emerging.

Do you have a theory on why that is, on what might be in the air at the moment? I get the impression that what you do with Shovel Dance Collective is quite political. Would that be fair to say?

Yeah, I think so. Before Shovel Dance, I didn’t really think of my music as being political. I felt like I had stepped aside from thinking about politics in order to do music, but it turns out that it was still there anyway [laughs]. There was a nice conversation I was having with Nick [Granata] about this and they had some thoughts on the way that folk music helps you to reimagine possible pasts in order to reimagine possible futures, and how maybe we’re at a political moment where that’s necessary.

From what I’ve read about Shovel Dance, I imagine there are probably quite a lot of those conversations going on. You seem to think about this from very interesting perspectives.

Yeah, I think we do spend a lot of time thinking carefully about it, but I also feel like those conversations are very often prompted by people interviewing us or people asking us those questions. It’s not like we sit around at band practices, disappearing off into socio-political analysis [laughs]. Or maybe we do, and I just don’t notice.

So, you started Betwixt and Between around the time when you were feeling that change in the air…

Most immediately, my reason for starting it was that I stopped doing a PhD, which I had really enjoyed writing, and went straight into working full time doing really boring data entry jobs. It felt I was going to implode or have to leave London or something. So I decided that I would try and make more space for creative pursuits. I think that’s probably a very common experience. I guess the catalyst for that being music rather than anything else was the fact that I started going to The Goose Is Out at The Ivy House in Nunhead. I had very tentatively been going there and just singing as an audience member, and then eventually I started singing properly.

Around that time, I got hold of some microphones and recorded some tunes that I liked and realised that, together, the five of them came out at a very round 15 minutes. I thought that maybe it could be a nice little EP to share with some friends. I really like Grindcore split releases, where you have a seven-inch with three minutes of music on each side, and there are two different bands. I think that’s a really nice format and it’s really nice that it kind of defines a scene. So I thought I would do something like that, basically. 15 minutes was just right for a C30 tape that I could duplicate a bunch of myself. So I put out a call on Facebook saying, “does anyone want to appear on the other side of the tape with me?” and a few friends were interested.

How many releases have you done so far?

There were three a year for the first two years and it’s been just one a year since then. I realised that they’re actually a lot of work each time. The first one was a run of just 30, but it has increased a little bit each time since then. I normally do 100, which is still a small number, but I lino print all of the covers myself. It feels like it’s growing and growing.

The return of cassettes fascinates me.

Yeah. Quite often, people will buy tapes from me saying that they don’t have tape machines.

Is it that thing about tangible products?

Yeah, I think so.

I’ve often wondered if this renewed interest in folk has something to do with that. Maybe it’s about organic things. If you’re in your 20s and you’ve spent your whole life attached to a digital device, maybe you’d quite like something different.

That said, a lot of people are moving folk music in a digital direction. Take Stick in the Wheel, for instance, who work with a lot of digital soundscapes.

Then again, I keep hearing about unaccompanied folk singarounds featuring tonnes of young people congregating on Whatsapp groups.

There was an interesting conversation on Facebook following the Shovel Dance solstice gig which was at the Ivy house. Nygel and Sue, who run The Goose is Out, came along. Sue posted something afterwards aimed at people who think the folk scene is dying out as folk clubs that have been running since the 1960s suffer dwindling audiences and close up. She was pointing out that there is this vibrant scene full of people in their 30s, but it doesn’t always cross over with the previous generations. It’s like they exist in slightly different spaces. I think her interpretation of it was that it’s wholly positive, and things change as those older folk clubs cease to exist and younger ones start to replace them.

And I imagine they start to exist on the terms of the people that want to attend them.

Yeah. But I think one of the things I value most about going to folk clubs is that it’s an intergenerational space and it feels like there’s a transmission of tradition going on. But maybe that’s the thing; tradition moves on by circuitous routes. It was passed into written broadsides, then back into oral tradition again, then into recorded music. People will pick it up from there and then set up their own thing.

And of course, things continue to change massively. Martin Carthy says that in the late 50s, early 60s, he’d hear that someone on the other side of London knew a song and he would travel hours to hear them sing it. He trained his brain to be able to remember a whole set of lyrics on the first listen. The idea of learning songs in that way is incredibly romantic, but it’s just not necessary anymore.

Yeah, it’s true. When I learn banjo tunes, especially if I’m learning American ones, inevitably I go to YouTube and I watch as many different banjo players playing the tune as possible, and then I synthesize various bits and pieces of technique.

That’s interesting. When I’m trying to learn a new song, I usually happen upon a set of lyrics that interest me first. I can’t read music, so I have to try and find a way of learning the tune – maybe via a midi recording – without listening to someone else’s recording. I just know I’ll be too heavily influenced if I listen to someone else’s styling over and over again.

I guess those are two different ways around the same thing, though. You either listen to everybody or you listen to nobody. Either way, you come to your own conclusion.

Tell me about how Shovel Dance came about. Are you a founder member?

No. The founder members were a few friends. I don’t exactly know how all of their original connections were made but there was a smaller group of maybe four members who were already playing tunes together kind of informally. I think they did a couple of gigs as the Untitled Folk Group, and then I met a few of them, Alex, Josh and Tom. I was playing at Supernormal Festival in 2019, playing solo, and I met them on the last night of the festival. At first, I thought they were setting up some kind of a club, but it turned out to be a folk group that they invited me to come and be a part of. The first time I met a lot of the members of Shovel Dance Collective was actually at our first gig [laughs]. We had an afternoon to check that we were all playing the same tunes and then we did the show.

It’s quite interesting that both Shovel Dance and Broadside Hacks developed this sprawling format at roughly the same time. Is there a reason for that? Did it come from somewhere?

I don’t know. Shovel Dance formed prior to the pandemic when we played a couple of shows. From what I know, Broadside Hacks basically evolved out of a response to the members being unable to continue their indie careers and looking for something else. I think maybe there’s a shared sense of folk music being communal and people wanting to do it with friends rather than pursuing careers as solo folk artists. I feel like I’m quite unusual amongst them, in that I also have a solo career alongside being in the bigger band. I’m also a bit older than a lot of those people.

Maybe I’m wrong but I get the sense that what these bands are doing exists outside of what many people might view as the traditional folk scene. Would you agree with that?

Yeah. I think both of those bands are made up of lots of people who are connected to a greater or lesser extent to the wider folk scene. There is definitely a tendency to set up new folk clubs rather than going to the established places.

Do you know of many new folk clubs?

There’s one that happens in Deptford at the Matchstick Piehouse. It’s a really nice night. I thought I was probably one of the oldest people in the room, and I am only 34. It was absolutely packed. Everybody was singing along really raucously as the night went on. Almost exclusively traditional songs. There may have been a few songs by some of the revival singers, but actually, it was more exclusively traditional than many of the established folk clubs that I’ve been to.

Maybe the younger people are a little bit more strict about it.

Yeah, I think so. There’s another place that Rowan Gatherer helps to run at Hobgoblin Music in Soho. That started up quite recently.

According to the Shovel Dance Collective’s press releases, the band aim, “to uncover proto-feminist narratives and queer histories” in traditional songs. What are you finding?

There was a quote from one of us in a recent article. It was something like, “History is made up by the bourgeoisie anyway, so we might as well make it up in response” [laughs]. It’s interesting to think about the way that performance always recontextualizes whatever you are performing, especially when it’s something from hundreds of years ago. There are songs with characters in them that you can recognise a likeness with, that were maybe the butt of a joke previously, but you can perform it in a way that feels true to them. That thing of performing from a perspective other than your own, which folkies have always done – you sing the song from the perspective of the narrator of that song, whoever it is. There are interesting juxtapositions that can be made when you are visibly queer and treating it in a particular way. So it’s not necessarily about digging through archives and finding songs that nobody knows about. It’s about the way that you treat the songs that everybody knows.

The first thing I heard Shovel Dance Collective doing was ‘My Husband’s Got no Courage in Him’ [Roud 870], and that instantly takes on a different perspective.

Yes, and Nick does a really beautiful and funny version of ‘The Handsome Cabin Boy’ [Roud 239]. It feels kind of misgendering. There’s this amazing erasing of those lines by playing these big kind of cluster chords on the organ and just kind of smothering them.

Queer Folk are on a similar exploration, I think, but they very specifically went digging in the Cecil Sharp House archive to see what they could find, and actually found songs that they felt were quite blatant.

There’s definitely stuff to find. There’s a Playford tune, ‘Cuckolds all in a Row’, which is attributed to or possibly dedicated to a woman who ran a molly house in Islington in the 17th century. There are a few songs that seem to be about her, a fairly well-known transgender character.

I was thinking about moments that might be mistakes… and making them the jumping-off point rather than the whole tune.

Jacken Elswyth

Tell me about Six Static Scenes. I find it interesting that your take on traditional music is not necessarily what fans of that genre would expect to hear. It’s about free improvisation. Do you use traditional tunes as a jumping-off point?

I was always interested in free improvisation and, for a long time, didn’t really pursue that with banjo playing. I was interested in learning clawhammer and learning the tunes that you play in clawhammer, and I became interested in improvising but doing that in the quite rigid technique of clawhammer and two-finger picking, and the way that kind of shapes improvisation without limiting it, necessarily. I feel like Six Static Scenes is ultimately rooted, because of that, in folk music, but I wouldn’t make the claim that it’s a folk album really.

The tunes you play on the album are all named after traditional banjo players – Hobart Smith, Dock Boggs, Dink Roberts, Margaret Barry. Are you improvising on their style?

The Margaret Barry one is the most obvious one because I play the whole tune of ‘Her Mantle So Green’ [Roud 714], trying to alternate between playing my banjo in a way that sounds like she plays does, and then playing it off in these improvised extrapolations.

Other pieces take a fragment of a recording that I particularly like. I was thinking about moments that might be mistakes, or might be idiosyncratic ways that people have played these tunes, and then foregrounding those and making them the jumping-off point rather than the whole tune. There’s one that’s based on ‘Coal Creek March’, a tune that has this kind of harmonic fanfare at the beginning, so I just took the harmonic and did something else with it. And ‘After Hobart Smith’ takes the opening phrase of ‘Arkansas Traveller’ and plays that around and around, hitting different emphases within that first couple of seconds.

Last question, then. What do you look for in a traditional song that makes you want to perform it?

Hmmm…. [thinking]. I don’t know what it is particularly. I’m really not sure. [Ponders some more] I don’t think it’s anything to do with the lyric, so it must be that thing about the shape of the song or the tune. I sing a little bit, but I mostly play instrumentally. And if I like the tune of a song particularly, I will sometimes take it and transform it into something else. As I said before, it’s often something to do with the way the drone relates to the melody and the kind of tension that it creates. Maybe it’s the way that it resolves or doesn’t resolve. I think those are all important things for the English tunes that I really like. It tends to be something kind of stately. There’s a version of Princess Royal that I play. I love the tunes that have slows. I love those sections.

Six Static Scenes by Jacken Elswyth is available to order online now. For more on Jacken Elswyth, head to jackenelswythmusic.com.