Just when it seemed 2020 had run out of surprises, last week Taylor Swift released a folk album. Folklore is a collection of stripped-down, largely piano-based songs that cast Swift as a rural tunesmith communing with the birds and the trees.
Her new direction is spelled out by the record's cover, with Swift posing moodily in ye olde misty woodlands, and by the video to the single 'Cardigan', where she plinks a piano covered in moss.
She has also put out a photoshoot in which she is trussed up, Clancy Brothers-style, in a bulky Aran sweater. At this rate, she'll be playing a bodhrán and belting out 'The Auld Triangle' on Hill 16 by year's end.
Swift is a keen spotter of trends and doesn't do things randomly or by accident. The arrival of Folklore is proof folk music is having a moment. But it's a moment that has been going on for quite some time.
If anything, Swift is arguably a little late to the shindig. Irish band Lankum have won huge acclaim with songs that put a modern spin on the Irish trad repertoire. Their version of 'The Wild Rover', for instance, clocks in at 10 minutes and radiates a chilling otherworldliness. You can experience it for yourself as the band broadcast a live concert from the Abbey Theatre on August 15.
Then there are artists such as Laura Marling, whose new album, Song For Our Daughter, has won her some of the most enthusiastic reviews of her career. Looked at from a certain angle, then, Tay Tay going cray-cray for bare-boned folk doesn't look like a bolt from the blue so much as an inevitability. Everyone else is doing it, why shouldn't she?
Still, this is quite a turnaround. It is only a few years since the idea that pop artists might have something useful to contribute to folk appeared to have been thoroughly debunked. This was the heyday of Mumford And Sons and their fellow travellers - posh boys in waist-coats waggling their mandolins menacingly in our direction.
'Nu folk' was hugely successful, commercially at least. However, real folkies hated it and it was easy to see why. Mumford And Sons and their peers were a triumph of facial hair and man-buns over heart and soul. Slapping on their records was like having a bunch of jolly chaps following you around shouting "hey nonny-nonny". How quickly the novelty faded.
That was then. Now we have Taylor Swift working with such entirely legitimate collaborators as Aaron Dessner of The National and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. Meanwhile, Lankum and fellow travellers, such as Carlow's Ye Vagabonds, are asking us to reconsider our dismissal of traditional Irish music as syrup for tourists.
"Folk music typically comes from ordinary people telling their stories, exploring the human condition," says Cork folk musician Laura Ní Carthaigh. "It offers an insight into the past, our deep rooted connection, our heritage preserved in song, and stories that are timeless and retain their relevance.
"But it's also a living tradition, music that is almost more natural and reassuring to us, innate and organic. It overcomes our differences, transcends social barriers, a uniting music we turn to, especially in times of crisis.
"I think it is almost the duty of any folk artist to use their craft to capture today's events and pass it on to the next generation, in contrast to some other music forms that are akin to 'fast food', disposable and reflective of our guzzling capitalist society. This pandemic is forcing us to rethink social norms and reconnect to something more simple."
"I'm delighted to hear folk music is getting so much coverage right now," adds Galway singer-songwriter Niamh Regan. "Maybe people are finding comfort and connection through the shared experiences and stories in folk lyrics, especially after having a taste of isolation and a period of inevitable reflection. But I guess, essentially, great folk music transcends categorisation and trends because it's rooted in simplicity and honesty. And sometimes that's all you need."
Gráinne Hunt, a folk artist from Monaghan, agrees: "As a contemporary folk musician, it is great to see folk music shining at the moment, from both a personal and wider perspective.
"People are looking for a way to manage a reality right now that they don't quite understand, searching for an escape through stories and music, something they can relate to, even if it comes from someone else's perspective."Sign up to our free entertainment newsletter
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