My quest for what I’ve been calling folk music but might more accurately be described as “singer-songwriter” music got a big boost last Sunday night. I went again to the Forest Folk Club, less than ten miles from where I live, and where I played my own first tiny set a couple of week previously. The evening’s main act was Chloe and Silas, and they were superb.
Exactly what I’d been looking for.
There’s a lot to love about Chloe (Hall) and Silas (Palmer). Their songs are insightful and distinctive, and their performances finely judged and very clear. Chole is the headliner, for sure: songwriter, singer and guitarist, and she could carry the gig on her own. But Silas adds so much, with distinctive falsetto harmony vocals, subtle percussion and the occasional comment on violin. They are a perfect combination — much more than the sum of their parts.
They played both sides of the interval on Sunday night, fully acoustic but very clear and audible. In an impressive bit of humility, they also listened appreciatively to about ten songs by others at the club, at the start of each half. (I provided two of them: a butchering of Joni Mitchell’s classic Little Green and yet another Dar Williams song, You Rise and Meet The Day, which together constitute my second folk-music performance.) I do wonder what they made of such amateurish bumbling. But anyway. That’s not important right now.
Although it’s obvious listening to Chloe that her songs belong to the same tradition as people like Dar Williams and maybe especially Suzanne Vega, there’s also something very distinctive about them. That’s in part because of the unusual tuning she uses — DADEAE — which results in chords with a lot of added seconds; she also tends to capo quite high up the neck (as you can see in the vidcap above, where she’s on the sixth fret) and plays chord voicings even further up, sometimes right up on the body of the guitar, well beyond the twelfth fret. This tends to result in chords made up of notes that are very close together, the guitar equivalent of close-harmony singing such as you might hear from barbershop quartets.
There’s a lot more to it than a unique guitar style, though. Chloe’s songwriting voice is also characteristic: it tends to be observational, drawing on specific details to illuminate generalities; while it can be melancholy, it has a consistently optimistic tone and never slips into self-pity; and in fact a surprising proportion of the songs are downright cheerful, which one could hardly say of, for example, Joni Mitchell. The result of all this is that her songs tend to feel emotionally warm even when the arrangements are sparse or even brittle — a juxtaposition that works to the benefit of both the songs’ themes and their sound.
I have to say a few words in praise of Silas here, too. His contributions are unobtrusive but hugely effective. The clarity of his harmony vocals, and their perfect synchonisation with Chloe’s, makes it sound as though there is just a single singer who can sing in harmony. The violin is all the more effective for being so sparingly deployed. The occasional passages of pizzicato playing work particularly well.
If all this sounds a bit abstract, listen to Tax Office Love Song — you can find it online in this player, but it cycles randomly through four songs so you may have to skip forwards a couple of times to find it. It starts out as an enumeration of the minutiae of office trivia, but from the start it’s affectionate rather than contemptuous. It sketches the narrator with a few well-judged strokes, then brings into the story a man she’s noticed but is too shy to talk to. What makes it work is not just the eye for the authentic detail but the way the music mirrors the hesitancy of the narrator, as well as her quiet hope. There is a tentative, stop-start quality to the wordless refrain that follows “heart”, “fat-free” and “photocopier”, which reflects the non-progress of the romance; but it’s not dead, it’s just stalled. In the end, it moves forward as far as a suggestion of sharing coffee. Who knows where it might end up?
And this is pretty representative. Most of the songs carry a similar emotional complexity — a surface emotion, but with another shining through the bald patches. So the songs have a weight and complexity that repays repeat listening.
Well, I was an instant convert. I bought their album Spring Hill, and I urge you to do the same. Four of the songs are included in their entirely in the player that I mentioned earlier, if you’re not convinced yet. I also got the previous album, Outside, and will pick up the earlier catalogue soon.
My next task: find a way to play Tax Office Love Song. If I can do it something like justice in standard tuning I will, but I might have to try that weird DADEAE tuning and try to replicate what Chloe does. The prognosis is not good, but you have to try.