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FOLK WITHOUT BORDERS: HOW LANKUM BREAK MUSIC FROM ITS SILOS


Radie Peat is perplexed by the fact that my call to her seemingly has been routed through the Faroe Islands, the far, far northern archipelago governed by Denmark, lying between Norway and Iceland. It is after all, rather far from here and even a reasonable distance from her base in Dublin.

The concertina/harmonium/keyboard player and singer who makes up one quarter of Irish folk band Lankum – or as she’ll explain later, one fifth if you count, as they do, their new album’s producer John “Spud” Murphy as a key part of the band - has never been there, but she’s curious.

Of course she’s curious, not least musically. If it wasn’t already clear on their earlier recordings, including their origins as Lynched, then their stunning 2019 album, The Livelong Day [read the review] makes it screamingly obvious that one thing about Lankum is that there are no silos in their music.

While they play traditional instruments, and on this record draw heavily from traditional songs, this is a band equally happy to take on influences from both sides of the Irish Sea, both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and styles as far away from folk as noise and post-rock, electronica and the edges of Brian Eno’s work.

Pulling in something from the Faroes wouldn’t be a stretch for Peat, Ian and Daragh Lynch and Cormac MacDiarmada.

“When you talk about folk, folk sources, we’ve always been interested in how folk music migrates and mutates and changes as it travels around,” says Peat. “I’m particularly very interested in Appalachian songs because you can trace them back to Scotland, England or Ireland. That makes it easy to not be bogged down by borders.

“And then when you talk about other maybe slightly more surprising influences, like post-rock, I think that is just natural for anyone making music where whatever you are listening to is like a big washing machine in your brain. Maybe after the fact you might be able to pinpoint the trajectory of that idea [but] when you are doing it you are really just led by what sounds good to you and what seems like an exciting or honest choice.”

When she puts it like that it doesn’t sound like it should be odd.

“It makes perfect sense to us. We don’t think we’re doing anything odd with that.”

Of course those who express surprise or resistance to the idea of barriers falling between seemingly quite disparate styles tend to forget that listeners too are generally listening widely and diversely. Contemporary fans of folk music very likely have come to it from a lot of things which look nothing like folk, so that the drone, which is such an element of traditional folk music and strongly represented in Lankum, may actually hit reference points of art music or dark metal.

“And hopefully we draw a thread between two things that don’t necessarily immediately come to mind as bedfellows,” Peat says. “If both of those things are good and exciting, there’s no reason why they couldn’t be bedfellows.”

If this sounds a stretch remember a group like British folk revivalists Pentangle who in the late ‘60s bridged jazz and traditional folk excitingly, closer to Lankum, Irish fiddler and composer Tommy Potts who incorporated classical and jazz into his folk traditions, or more recently how Tunng who managed to link electronica and folk without resorting to cheesiness.

And as Peat points out whether it’s the Uillean pipers or the harmonium, synths or African string instruments, drone is pretty universal.

“Our producer and collaborator John “Spud” Murphy was involved from the start and he has a very drone-heavy background. He made the textures that you’re hearing so that we are using the traditional instruments to get the drone but it’s informed by other genres. With him we were trying to take those elements that were there and squeeze more out of them.”

If drones have a strong historical base in folk, the way Lankum use vocal harmonies is something that is not so common in the traditional Irish forms.

“We were really into bands from the folk revival in the ‘60s that used a lot of harmonies, like the Watersons, and there’s something really striking about three and four part harmonies that have interested us for years,” says Peat. “It just feels really nice to sing harmony with people. It’s a nice feeling and a natural musical urge all around the world to sing with other people.

“There’s another thing which is that normally when you heard vocal harmonies it was in a choir setting, these more curated voices that can sound a little more perfect. What you’re talking about with the Watersons is they just singing it in the Yorkshire accents and they sound very much like real people: strong but totally honest.”

Another reminder of course that perfection is overrated; unity and common ground being more effective and lasting.

“Firstly, I don’t think perfection is an option for us,” Peat laughs. “There are a lot of kinks to how we do anything. But it’s also not appealing to us as a group of people as many of the things we find appealing would have an element of rawness about it, and coarseness even. There are less barriers between you and them; they are singing the emotion of the song.”

That would translate to the Faroes. Or Australia.

The Livelong Day is out now on Rough Trade, through Remote Control.

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