The avant-garde art-rock of the Oakland, Calif.-based group Faun Fables might not at first seem to qualify as folk music in a contemporary sense, but it certainly addresses the concerns of being a human in a natural world, and the influences of music from a variety of cultural traditions.
What could be more folk than that? Dawn McCarthy—who forms the core of Faun Fables with her husband, Nils Frykdahl—doesn't disagree.
"If you look at the definition of the folk tradition as being something of the whole human experience, an organic sense of music and the elements of the world around us, I'd have to say our music is a form of folk music, more so maybe than some ideas of 'folk' as it has become established in various ways today," McCarthy said recently.
Faun Fables will return to Tucson to perform Friday night, Nov. 12, at the Screening Room. The group is touring to promote its latest CD, Light of a Vaster Dark, which will be released Nov. 16 on Drag City Records.
Part of the genius of the new album involves its carefully composed levels of complexity. On a superficial level, it might be considered exotic by casual pop-oriented listeners. Yet this ambitious collection—11 songs proper, four snippets, an intro and an outro—becomes more emotionally moving and artistically satisfying the closer you listen.
On the track "Housekeeper," for instance, the sentiment behind the words "you make the home a hearth" might sound mundane on the surface, but the song verges on the epic, thanks to the overall lyrical context ("Working hard, no praises said / Scrubbing the dirt and making the beds"), McCarthy's rich vocal melodies and harmonies, and the dramatic musical setting of dark strings and tribal percussion.
During the interview, conducted via phone while McCarthy strolled through the French Quarter of New Orleans, McCarthy said a large part of Faun Fables' music is concerned with "the circus of life." This is reflected in the charming folk-blues tune "Parade," on which she sings, "A parade made the people in this big town / look each other in the eye and wave."
Although Faun Fables' unique sound seems rooted in the union of classic British-style folk and mystical art, different tracks on the new recording incorporate influences as diverse as Middle Eastern, blues, Asian, cabaret, Eastern European and African music, as well as the delicate glass-blown compositions of Erik Satie and Renaissance-era polyphony. The effect is at once spooky and somehow familiar and comforting.
McCarthy has no formal musical training. Her primary musical inspirations were her parents and siblings, she said.
"I grew up with my mother playing piano around the house and my dad playing recordings by the impressionist composers, like Ravel and Debussy and Bartok, and that was a huge attraction for me as far as hearing fantastical musical settings, and it really brought out my imagination as a child. We had music playing in the house almost constantly—older Pink Floyd, Yma Sumac and the Beatles."
McCarthy didn't intend to make a career of music; she studied other art forms as a child and teenager, she said.
"I used to sing and stuff—casually, you know—but my focus was more on drawing, and I did a fair amount of study in dance and theater. Music just kind of jumped out and grabbed me in my early 20s. And the more I did music, the more it became something that was organically integrated into the rhythms of my life."
McCarthy still creates visual art, especially for the covers of Faun Fables albums, and the group often incorporates theatrical touches—film, projections or costuming—into its performances. In fact, Faun Fables' last full-length album, The Transit Rider, released in 2006, was a song cycle performed as a theater piece.
After moving from New York to the San Francisco area and beginning to perform as Faun Fables, McCarthy met guitarist Nils Frykdahl about 14 years ago. They have enjoyed a partnership that's both romantic and musical ever since. Frykdahl was then with the band Idiot Flesh and now is an integral part of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, in addition to Faun Fables.
On the current tour, McCarthy and Frykdahl are performing as a duo, despite the fact that Light of a Vaster Dark prominently features the collaborations of violinist Meredith Yayanos and multi-instrumentalist Kirana Peyton, both of whom worked with the group on the four-song EP A Table Forgotten in 2008. The new CD also includes contributions from Cornelius Boots on bass clarinet and shakuhachi flute, and from Mark Stikman on harmonica.
"With just the two of us performing on this tour, it's really wonderful to get that connection with the duo," McCarthy said. "We selected songs from the new record that we felt we could effectively pull off as a duo, and on other songs, we do fresh arrangements for this situation.
"This is a continuation of performances we did when we played overseas recently. It's awesome to be able to pull it off. The four-person thing is all over the new record, but Kirana had other commitments, and Meredith is now living in New Zealand."
McCarthy and Frykdahl also happen to be on the road with their two small children, a situation that proves to be both a blessing and a challenge, she said.
"A big part of this tour is having the two kids with us and not wanting to break up that dynamic too much with other distractions. I mean, having your parents play onstage each night is enough, but I think we are working with the situation well. (The kids) add a kind of sweetness as well. We try to have a nice backstage area in the clubs we play, so it turns into a kind of cozy nest wherever we go."
Touring with kids hasn't always been easy, but it's worth it, she added.
"We've definitely had to work through some of the tough spots. We had a mini-Winnebago, but that broke down, and now we are traveling in a rental minivan; that has been a big shift. But everything is getting easier. Before we did it, it seemed like something that would be impossible, but it works. I remember when I was a kid; I loved traveling with my parents, so we try to make it fun for them, too."