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Sharron Kraus: A New Kind Of Folk Music

There's a dark, supernatural overtone to Sharron Kraus' second album, Songs of Love and Loss, now out on Camera Obscura.  From its Tarot card-derived art, to its mystical, minor-chord melodies, to the shadowy, dreamlike instrumental backing, to the often-violent subject matter, Kraus' work is a far cry from the gently harmonized, bucolic sounds of coffee-shop folk.

"I think a lot of the time when people think of folk music, they tend to think of either Irish music or, I don't know, American country folk," she explained in a recent phone interview.  "So, they think of folk music as being kind of jolly ... music to, you know, dance around to ... but there's always been this very dark English and Appalachian folk music.  There are lots of songs that are either quite gruesome or just really mysterious and spooky, sort of ghost stories."  

She added that folk purists have never totally accepted her work, despite its traditional melodic structure.  "It's because I'm writing my own songs, rather than performing older ones," she said.  "It's almost like a clique that says, 'You're not one of us, because you don't fit our criteria exactly.'"

The opening track of Songs of Love and Loss, "Gallows Song/Gallows Hill" incorporates many of the most fundamental elements of Kraus' art: the modern take on traditional roots, the spare but effective musical underpinning, and a fascination with the supernatural. The song started with a field recording of "Gallows Song" which Kraus turned up on a Web site dedicated to traditional Ozark mountain folk songs. "So I was just kind of listening to that song and started to learn it and sing it, when a friend of mine told me a story about a trip she's made to the site of a gallows in California," said Kraus. "She and her boyfriend and a friend of his  were just kind of hanging out at this site, and then one of them had ended up with a red ring just appearing on his neck. They were kind of freaked out by this, and the image was really striking. So I started writing the second part of that song and incorporating as a chorus some of the lyrics from the traditional song." (Kraus, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford, describes herself as a skeptical occultist, interested in unusual events and experiences but unwilling to automatically ascribe them to supernatural causes.)

Kraus came late to folk-influenced sounds, starting in a goth band in her native England before moving to California and meeting up with more traditionally minded musicians.  She wrote her first album, 2002’s Beautiful Twisted, on a borrowed banjo and almost on a whim. "It was kind of a secret project," she recalled. "It was just kind of like, OK, I'm going to be leaving California, I'd like to get some stuff recorded that I've been playing here and just have that as a kind of souvenir."

She sent the record to Camera Obscura, a small Australian label known for its roster of psychedelic folk and drone bands.  That album received wide acclaim in small specialized zines and was named one of Rolling Stone's critics' choice albums for 2002.  More important, it introduced Kraus to a whole new world of experimental folk and improvisational musicians.  "It's only really since that album came out, through the network of people who listen to Camera Obscura's releases and different magazines or zines or newsgroups where people are discussing weird, psychedelic folk or drone rock… that I kind of got to start to meet people who were making music like mine," she said.

As a result, Kraus' new album draws on a much broader array of musicians than the first, with three violinists, two additional guitarists, upright and acoustic bass, harmonica, drums and accordion putting meat on her eerie melodies.  Kraus began recording Songs of Love and Loss at a studio in the Cotswolds with classically trained violin/violist Jane Griffiths and the Fletcher brothers.  Jon Fletcher plays harmonica, guitar and banjo on the album, while Colin Fletcher plays bass. Of this core group, she said, "The three of them, I don't know what it is that they bring to the music, because they're just kind of really good friends and people that I've been playing with.  One of the things is that when I play with them, I feel really happy and I love what they do," adding that "On 'Murder of Crows,' which was recorded almost live, we were just having such fun when we were doing it that hopefully that comes across to some extent."

Other participating musicians included violinists Giles Lewin and John Boden, a rising star in the English folk scene. The multiple instrumentalists allowed Kraus to add a variety of textures to her songs.  "John has got this more kind of earthy, gritty sort of English folk fiddle.  You can hear him on 'The Song of the Hanged Man.'" she said.  "Jane's fiddle and viola playing [as for example, in ‘The Frozen Lake'] is really kind of graceful and heartbreaking, while John is much more sinister and nasty."

The songs, too, are unusual — happier, said Kraus, but still dark and mysterious.  They are subtly different from what you'd expect, gently overturning expectations while remaining accessibly lovely.  The dark-toned "Song of the Hanged Man," with its carnival-gone-awry accordion and banjo backing, is a good example, with its self-contradictory lyrics.  "I've seen a river flow upstream and swallows flying north/ I've seen a rich man share with the poor/ I've seen love in a torturer's eye," runs one verse against a bed of mournful circus music.  The song relates to the album cover art, painted by William Schaff, which depicts the Tarot's Hanged Man.  "The song — and the Hanged Man tarot card — are about how either through choice or through being forced, you can have everything turned upside down," Kraus said.  "The idea is that the upheaval allows you to see things differently and learn from them."

Today, Kraus resides in the psyche-folk epicenter of Philadelphia, next door to Greg Weeks of Espers and down the road from improvisational guitarist Jack Rose of Pelt and Tara Burke of Fursaxa. "It seems like you can put the people in Philadelphia either into coming-from-folk-music direction or coming from sort of free-improvisation direction, but mostly with acoustic instruments," she noted. "These two strands have gotten muddled up, so that there are people like Fursaxa's Tara Burke, who's doing mostly instrumentals, or even when she's using her voice, she's using it as an instrument more than as a means of getting across words.  She's just very unfolky, but she somehow fits in with the same kind of atmosphere as some of the more folk-based people.  So it's this really nice group who are just doing really different stuff from each other."

Kraus recently finished a collaborative project with Christian Kiefer, a recording of a cycle of love songs cast in the form of letters.  "So depending on whose letter it is, it's either me singing or him singing and then loads of instruments," including pipe organ, guitars, piano and stringed instruments, she explained.  She's also starting work with Alec Redfearn on a recording of traditional English folk tunes. And, in October, she'll be performing a series of UK shows with Leeds-based Deerpark — see her Web site for dates. — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, August 16, 2004]

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