Rob St John and David Chatton Barker on Folklore Tapes

rob st john

This feature originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on Thursday April 18 under the heading PERFECT SOUNDTRACK TO THE WITCHING HOUR.

Edinburgh doom-pop bard Rob St John has long surveyed landscape and language in his work. The singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and member of Meursault, eagleowl and Withered Hand, evoked his Lancashire roots and Edinburgh home on his enchanting debut album, Weald, and now he’s set to perform at The Lore of the Land – an exploration of musical heritage and geography, curated by esoteric UK imprint, Folklore Tapes.

Launched in 2011 by David Chatton Barker (Finders Keepers), Folklore Tapes investigates myth, arcana, witchcraft, superstition, nature and topography. Its beautifully-packaged small-run tapes come housed in hollowed-out books and boxes, with hand-crafted envelopes, maps, individual numbering and research notes.

“Folklore Tapes is a continually growing project through sound releases, written pamphlets and film experiments with new branches opening up all the time, based on new interests, locations and themes,” says Chatton Barker, aka Orphan.
St John co-curated their Pendle, 1612 collection last year, which marked the 400th anniversary of the Lancashire witch trials and featured Dylan Carlson (Earth), David A Jaycock (Static Caravan) and Dean McPhee (Blast First) among others.

“Folklore Tapes is a way to explore and document the places around us – to have an excuse to delve into the histories and curiosities and stories about a place, whether they’re real or imagined,” says St John. Despite its name, Folklore Tapes’ sonic and visual aesthetic is less trad-folk and more informed by experimentalism, sparse guitars, field recordings, library music, early electronic composition, psych-folk and drone. “There’s no sense of, ‘Oh we need to be working in this folk music canon’, or even in an academic or rigorously anthropological sort of way,” St John suggests. “I guess it’s got elements of all these things, but they’re all blurred. If nothing else, it’s fun and it brings a lot of interesting people together.”

To coincide with the Lore of the Land, St John will release an enthralling new seven-inch, The Charcoal Black and the Bonny Grey / Shallow Brown, backed by the Coven Choir (Tom Western, eagleowl’s Bart Owl, Malcolm Benzie and Owen Williams). It’s issued via Song, By Toad, the ingenious Edinburgh DIY label that also released St John’s highly acclaimed 2011 debut album, Weald. The seven-inch is a sublime unplugged-kosmische affair, and sees St John reimagine folk songs collected from Lancashire at the turn of the twentieth-century as gentle vintage-pop excursions. The Shallow Black and the Bonny Grey pits moorland against mill towns, trees against chimneys; while Shallow Brown is a West Indian sea shanty.

What attracted St John to those works? “I’ve always been really interested in exploring places that are dear to me geographically and emotionally, so I tend to focus on Lancashire,” he says. “And I’m really interested in that non-romantic type of folksong, early 20th century through to mid-20th century work – it’s almost like Ewan MacColl’s stuff: it’s not pastoral and burbling brooks, it’s quite hard-edged.” This aesthetic chimes with the record’s evocative artwork, which resonates with the Folklore Tapes ethos, thanks to its design by Chatton Jones. “Yeah, it’s very British folk-horror meets geography textbook, I really like that,” says St John.

St John will perform Charcoal Black and the Bonny Grey and will debut brand-new material from his second album at the Lore of the Land, and Folklore Tapes’ beguiling first-ever release, Two Witches (Songs For Mariann Voaden) will also have its live premiere, courtesy of Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter Ian Humberstone and violinist Malcolm Benzie (eagleowl, Rob St John, Withered Hand).

Early Folklore Tapes research focused on Devon and Lancashire, and St John wryly refers to the Pendle, 1612 endeavour as channelling the “Pennines Sound”, but Scotland’s landscape and mythology is also surveyed and reflected via the Lore of the Land. St John’s first LP, Weald, was informed by Central Scotland’s terrain and dialect alongside its Lancastrian origins, and the Charcoal Black and the Bonny Grey single was recorded in Song, By Toad label boss Matthew Young’s Edinburgh home.

Furthermore, Chatton Barker’s latest venture, which will also premiere at Lore of the Land, is in collaboration with Iona-based artist Alexander Borland. It’s entitled Iona Magnetic. “The name refers to the subject matter, Iona folklore, and the concept behind the live show, which is tape loops played on various cassette players interwoven with live tinkering and improvisation,” explains Chatton Barker. “Alex has a long history with the island and as we were performing in Scotland, it made sense to perform Scottish folklore. The beauty about the Folklore Tapes project is it can cover any place geographically, it’s not tied down and it warrants bespoke performances when possible.”

The beauty of the project is also that it gives us something to hold on to; that it captures the imagination of a landscape.

Folklore Tapes presents: The Lore of the Land: Glad Cafe, Glasgow, April 24; Scottish Storytelling Centre (Tradfest), April 25.

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