How can folk music be new music?

Clare Simmonds
October 8, 2017

“English folk music is where some of the most interesting cross-genre collaborations are happening.”Few musicians like giving music labels, but then again, few associate folk music with cutting-edge avant-garde. The multi-talented folk fiddler Elisabeth Flett talks about making new folk music with Solasta Band, ahead of Solasta’s appearance at Borough New Music on Tuesday 10 October 2017. Interview by Clare Simmonds

CS: Give us a little background about Solasta, and your role as a composer and performer in it.

EF: Solasta means ‘brightly shining’ in Gaelic. We came together because of a fiddle championship at Cecil Sharp House in 2015 that I’d decided to go for. It said that you were allowed to bring along a band, and it occurred to me that I could bring Hannah (whom I’d met at Folkworks in 2014) and Jamie (whom I’d worked with on a couple of projects), to make a fiddle, cello and guitar trio, which is a relatively unusual line-up. And we won, which was great! The prize was to play at the fiddle convention the next year (2016), so we knew we had a gig in a year’s time, and we had a year to make up some repertoire! We decided (a wild guess, but it paid off) that a sure fire way to make ourselves generate more material was to record an EP. So after a couple of weeks of frantic rehearsals and getting to know each other as quickly as possible, we went into the recording studio, and then had enough material to start gigging. By that point we realised that we enjoyed performing with each other, so by the 2016 fiddle convention, we’d actually started gigging together seriously as a band!

CS: Would you say you’re a composer as well as a performer?

EF: Yes. I studied composition and viola at the Junior Conservatoire of the Royal Scottish Conservatoire (RSC) from 2006 to 2010. So I had the opportunity to learn classical composition, and from that I’ve continued to write lots of different kinds of music, but I’d say most of the time now I’m writing folk music.

Solasta is one of many things I compose for. The band is very special in that the way that we work is that we all bring tunes to the table. Every now and then we think, ‘OK, we’ve played these sets for a while, it’s time to generate more material’. At which point, we’ll all go away, and we’ll look for tunes in books, or we’ll compose tunes ourselves, and then when we think we’ve got a good tune, we’ll say, ‘What do you think of this one?’ It could be one that we’ve written, or one that we’ve found, and if we all like it, then we do an arrangement of it. [Hear Solasta’s ‘5/8 Set’ on Youtube.]

What surprises some people is that our arrangements are rarely written down. They’re all in our heads. We’ll do voice recordings or write out ‘cheat sheets’ of what parts we’re doing. Generally, although we offer opinions on each other’s parts, it’s kind of  ‘each to their own’. We focus on our own parts. First of all, we decide who’s going to play the tune. That person just loops the tune around, and the others try out various different things until they find something that sounds good. Once we’ve got that nugget – the tune – we work out what our intro and outro is going to be. For example, if someone’s doing something for two bars in the second half that might work well as an intro, what chords could we put in under that? It’s very natural, the arrangements grow of their own accord.

CS: Folk is often seen as a traditional genre, rooted in customs that have been with us for centuries (even if recently rediscovered). How would you respond to that in what you’re doing with Solasta?

EF: Folk is a continually changing genre. It has never stayed still. Folk music is the music that is being played by the folk. It’s impossible to define. I’ve written a couple of theses on this and have tied myself in knots trying to define folk music. Who are ‘the folk’? Does traditional folk music stop being traditional after a certain date and start being new folk music? It’s a minefield.

But I would say that there are two different categories of new folk music. You can say that folk music is old material that is being reinvented. That’s happening all the time. The moment you put your idea of what a good chord is underneath a tune from the 1700s, it has been reinvented and it’s new. So there’s that way of looking at it. And then there’s the other way of looking at it, which Solasta and I (as a solo performing artist) are very excited and interested in, which is making your own new folk material. There’s a lot of very exciting artists doing this at the moment. Musicians who are definitely folk artists, like Eliza Carthy and Karine Polwart – they’re definitely composing in the folk genre, and I’d say it was folk music, but it’s new.

CS: What would say is new in the music that you play? Can you identify what makes it ‘new’ and ‘folk’?

EF: That’s one of the age-old questions! There are a lot of things that make folk music sound like folk music. The moment you get into Dorian mode, it’s going to sound folky, flat sevenths are a clear indicator … I’m a folk fiddler, so anything I touch, even by accident, sounds folky. I was taught by an Aberdeen fiddler who showed me all the different cuts and ornaments that an Aberdeenshire Scottish folk fiddler would put into music. I learnt all of them, and now it’s as automatic as breathing – if you give me a tune, I’ll put them in. James Scott Skinner famously said, “the music on the page is just a skeleton of the piece”, and that’s very much the way in folk music. So if you give me a tune, I’ll put in all the turns, cuts, and (in classical music language) acciacaturas and appoggiaturas, which I automatically put into anything because of my folky background, and that gives it the folky feel. Ornamentation is a large part of it. [As an example, listen to Solasta’s ‘Cowslip Set’ on Youtube.]

It’s new in that we’re writing the material from scratch, and sound-wise, there aren’t many young bands where the classical, folk and jazz influences are put together. So the mix of genres is quite unusual as well.

CS: How does the performance of folk differ from the performance of contemporary music, and how is it similar? Contemporary music has a fascination with sound and texture, and I wondered if there were any similarities with folk there.

EF: We do try to have lots of different textures. Many up-and-coming young bands have quite a monotextural sound – they’ve tapped into what kind of sound appeals to people, and fair to them, they’re sticking with it, and that makes them very successful. Whereas, possibly because all three of us have degrees in classical music from conservatoires, we’re coming at it from a more multitextural point of view, with the aim of making complex music which verges on art music rather than…. You know, there’s this understanding in non-folk music circles that folk music is primarily to dance to, especially in England (I think we’ve moved away from it a bit in Scotland). So we quite enjoy turning that on its head and saying – ‘Ha! Try dancing to this!’

CS: That was going to be my next question – how does dance influence your music? So you like to challenge the listener…

EF: We do, though we also pride ourselves on being a band where – although there is that artistically complex feel to our music – if you fancy jumping up and having a hoolie at one of our gigs, that’s also very much written into our sound as a group! We try to make our sets as driving and exciting as possible.

CS: Do you think about dance when you’re writing material?

EF: I personally don’t. The nature of folk music quite often means that it’s driving and that it makes you want to dance. As I just mentioned, we quite often have spontaneous dances at our gigs – people come up and have a boogie! But playing for dancing – it’s definitely a separate part of my brain. Tunes that I’d play for a folk gig and tunes that I’d play for a ceilidh are completely different sets of repertoire for me. It does depend on the gig, though – if the band’s function at a gig is to be an exciting alternative to a string quartet, we could tap into the sets that are more experimental, classical. But if we play on a big stage, supporting a huge folk act, and people have come for a dance and a party – you have to tailor your repertoire.

CS: How does improvisation contribute to your work?

EF: It contributes a large amount. My personal process is: when we’ve made up a new set, the first couple of times we’ll have the big structure, and I’ll probably improvise and know that I need to end up, for example, on a B to get into the next section, and it’s mapped out like that. And gradually, I firm up what I’m doing, so by about gig 6 or 7, I settle on something that I’m really happy with, and I’ll pull it around a bit, but I’ll stay with that.

Whereas Jamie (our guitarist), I know for a fact, does something entirely different! It took me along time to get used to it. As a jazz musician, he plays something completely different every single time.

CS: How do you work with that?

EF: It’s tricky! On the EP he plays a run [a scale] as the cue for me, and he did that run once, on the EP. Then we worked on the EP more – editing, producing, listening to the recording for publicity – and now I know that EP inside out. But when we play that set live, there’s a part of me that is always expecting that particular run to bring me in, and yet I know it’s never going to happen again! He only did it once. So I’ve just got to remember to count, and not be lazy and listen for the cue, because it was a one-off.  I’d say that folk musicians do improvise, but we improvise around a structure. There’s a bit of push and pull, but generally, once we’ve settled on something that we like, we do stick with it. Having a pure jazz musician in the group, who doesn’t work like that at all, is very exciting!

CS: Why do you think we can all benefit from listening to folk music?

EF: English folk music is where some of the most interesting cross-genre collaborations are happening at the moment. And if you want proof of that, the album by Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band  called Big Machine (February 2017) is a really good place to start for what English folk music sounds like in the 21st century. [Listen to ‘Fade & Fall’ from this album on Youtube.] People sometimes have old-fashioned views of what folk music sounds like – they think that folk singers still sing in the unaccompanied style of Ewan MacColl, for instance – and, whilst what he did was incredibly important, and a crucial building block to what’s happening now, for the large part it’s not what English folk music sounds like any more. In Eliza Carthy’s album, she’s collaborating with a rapper on one track, there’s a lot of influence from Indian music, funk, rock – a real mix of instruments. I think a fusion of styles is where folk music is going. So if you want to listen to exciting new fusion music, even if you’re not necessarily folk-oriented, I would say English folk music is where it’s at, right now!

Solasta – Elisabeth Flett (fiddle), Hannah Thomas (cello), Jamie Leeming (guitar) – are an outstanding folk trio who are fast building a name for themselves on the back of their inventive arrangements, unique sound and exhilarating live performances. Their dynamic interpretations of Celtic-based material are rooted firmly in tradition, whilst incorporating elements from diverse musical worlds including classical, jazz and early music. Their 2016 EP was branded ‘virtuosic, exciting and full in sound’ by Bright Young Folk.

Solasta perform at Borough New Music Series 2 on Tuesday 10 October 2017 at 1pm, at St George the Martyr Church, opposite Borough tube. Free admission with light refreshments afterwards. For more information, visit