As an explicit reaction to careerism and hierarchy in music and production, the style that came to be called “freak folk” in the early Aughts allowed its people to go as rustic, naïve and D-I-Y as they wanted, without judgment or commercial marginalization. Professionalism in all its forms was (rightly) regarded with suspicion. Allowed and encouraged were broken guitars, toy instruments found underfoot, vocals whispered into predawn tape hiss so as not to wake the other interns. No percussion required except maybe the sound of a kindly-if-non-organic farmer hammering a screen door back into shape across the street. Distribution and booking were digital grassroots, and stars were made this way: stars fraught with the ethical complications that attend the punk narrative in all its guises.
Like so many refreshing liberations, the moment that gave us such hermetic visionaries as Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart was soon to become a codified set of vocal manners and musical gestures – but never mind that neverending story. It’s going to happen to your revolution, too. The interesting thing about the freak folk equation was the freak part. The great American folk music tradition may be radical in its social critique, but it is generally reactionary in its prescription, espousing a return to the old tools, a bare-bones, organic materialism and such quaint values as community and conservation.
And the young-person folk of the early Aughts was fastidiously bare-bones and collectivist – arguably to a fault. But in a delightful inconsistency and loophole, the style allowed generously for psychedelic excess, a Garden-of-Eden production opulence, as long as it remained naïve, populist and (this!) affordable. Studio polish was adamantly not part of the value, but a rapturous, incongruous maximalism could be: sudden outbursts of found sound, solipsistic choirs, the pawing of kalimbas and soft mallets, insect onomatopoeia, tape-splice disjunction. In a way, the psychedelic dimension of 2000s indie-folk sounds much like the Outsider four-track cassette aesthetic of the pre-digital ’80s, with expanded permissions in the age of unlimited overdubs for all.
Kingston-headquartered songwriter Ella Ray Kondrat’s solo debut record Hum to Your Heart is as vibrant, challenging and original a contribution to this tradition as I have heard in a very long time. And it embodies this paradox of raw with an allowance for one element of extravagance. Across its eight devilishly musical and imaginative compositions, Hum to Your Heart’s basal setting is one woman: her syrupy, melismatic vocals and her fingerpicked, throaty acoustic guitar. But only 40 seconds into “Bringing Myself Back Home,” Hum to your Heart announces its one grand permission, its loophole: lush, reverb swamped choirs of Ellas, sometimes deployed in deep and rich block chords, other times in savvy counterpoint.
There’s a viola here and there (via Jacquelyn Timberlake) and some incidental percussion (via producer Eli Winograd), but otherwise this is the work of one woman and a chorale of selves. Fitting, then, that the songs here are dominated by themes of identity – specifically, the question of an essential, spiritual self versus selves defined and constituted in relation to others, significant others. Hum to Your Heart, as the title more than a little implies, comes down pretty strongly in favor of self-definition, -awareness and -determination, frequently within a feminist context. But if you are hearing a collection of spiritual hippie platitudes…well, wrong. In her lyrical constructions as in her mysteriously Eastern-tinged, agile, alien-soul melodies, Ella Ray is elusive, sophisticated and way, way beyond easy reduction.
If there were any piety here, it would be roundly banished by the time you get to the cheeky, ironic closer, “Do You Mind,” an almost-Tin Pan Alley musing on the paradoxical relationship between heartbreak and creative fecundity. “Do you mind,” the singer asks, “breaking my heart just a little bit? I’ve got a show tonight.”
That may be Hum to Your Heart’s lone moment of smartass cutesiness. Its moments of gravity and sui generis art-song are countless: the bluesy psychedelia of “Let Me Come”; the mild “Teach Your Children” didacticism of “Rub the Soles,” co-written with her late grandfather and sung with her sister, the well-known and oft-employed Hudson Valley blues and folksinger Katy Kondrat. But perhaps the winner among winners here is the elegant, tragic/triumphant “I Married Columbus,” an exceptionally beautiful classic-in-waiting.
Hum to Your Heart’s pithy concision is a strength if not a necessity, as this is essentially a one-gear record, a dwelling, single-effect “place.” While the tone does not change much, Kondrat’s bottomless melodic resourcefulness and her oblique management of symbols and themes keep the surprises coming, defeating those codified freak-folk expectations at every turn. Hum to Your Heart is available at the Bandcamp link https://ellaraykondrat.bandcamp.com and all the usual places. Ella Ray Kondrat performs at the Woodstock anniversary celebration at Colony in Woodstock on August 17 and at Greenkill in Kingston on August 31.