An Anti-Folktale

One musician pounds a giant bass drum (retrieved from the dumpster) in syncopation, as two others stomp and clap with careful aggression. A deck of cards serves as another member’s instrument, while others put down their horns to play socket wrenches. Listen closely and you’ll hear the harmonious echo of a glockenspiel in the midst of the crescendo of sonic layers. Audience members in this Baltimore club sway rhythmically or shake their heads vigorously. The band Anathallo—whose name comes from the Greek word for “rebirth”—has taken the stage, and for a moment everyone in the room is lost in the joy of creativity.

Known for their wildly enthusiastic performances, this seven-member group from Mount Pleasant, Michigan, recently unveiled its first full-length disc, Floating World, after several self-released EPs. It’s the first to effectively convey the theatricality and emotion of the group’s live shows, which at times are serenely orchestral and at others resemble a punk-rock marching band. Floating World is built around a Japanese folk tale, “Hanasakajijii,” about a dog that is killed and rises from death. Thematically steeped in violence and light, greed and grace, the CD is fertile ground for meditation on practicing resurrection.

Anathallo is evidence of the latest incarnation of folk music—what journalists and music promoters have referred to as the “new folk” or “anti-folk” music genre. Although acts such as Ani DiFranco, Iron & Wine, Half-handed Cloud, and Sufjan Stevens may not necessarily apply those labels to themselves, “anti-folk” artists are lyrically, aesthetically, and conceptually concerned with many of folk music’s traditional traits: honesty, justice, the use of personal narratives, and a willingness to challenge the status quo. The genre has also been influenced by punk rock’s anti-corporate sentiments, as well as in building a cooperative community of artists. This DIY (do-it-yourself) sensibility of both folk and punk has shaped a new artist collective that is creating its own networks, communities, and culture through self-promotion and distribution rather than relying on corporations.

Christian “anti-folk” artists are embracing these tenets, as well as a desire to understand and follow Jesus. Sufjan Stevens, perhaps the best known, recently released The Avalanche, a collection of outtakes and extras from last year’s unconventional hit Illinois, on the Asthmatic Kitty label he helped found. These musicians create art together, operate their record labels as collectives, and emphasize the importance of community. They may lack support in the traditional Christian market, but this is definitely “faith-based” music—with a twist.

Half-handed Cloud, whose name comes from a 1 Kings 18 passage about Elijah’s servant, is essentially a one-man band in the person of John Ringhofer. Often performing as a member of Stevens’ backing band, Ringhofer composes theologically and musically complex songs in quick bursts (usually clocking in under two minutes) of sing-songy effervescence. His latest, Halos & Lassos, also on Asthmatic Kitty, is his fourth and most fully realized LP in a series of records based largely on stories from the Hebrew scriptures, delivered with playful straightforwardness. Ringhofer’s onstage show is decidedly unpretentious, evidenced by his recent set at the Galaxy Hut in Arlington, Virginia, where he switched between guitar, banjo, omnichord, trombone, keyboards—and the occasional wind-up toy or puppet.

Although these artists’ acts are rising—both Anathallo and Half-handed Cloud are touring this summer in support of new records—the musicians themselves don’t seem to be as interested in genres as they are in expanding community and exploring the common issues important to them through building relationships.

“For the most part, I’m not sure a lot of these artists would feel very comfortable” falling under the Christian banner, said Anathallo guitarist and percussionist Danny Bracken, “especially if they are solely defined by their religious beliefs, which [could be] spun into some sort of a selling point.” Instead, many artists in this new faith-based folk scene would prefer their music to stand on its own.

Although Ringhofer and Bracken understand the desire others have to categorize their bands, they say their “scene” has come together organically rather than being intentionally organized. “I don’t think it’s always a conscious decision for people to be a part of a movement,” said Bracken. “It’s something that just happens naturally.” Ringhofer said, “There’s lots of music to be excited about, and definitely people that I get to be friends with are ... making some really great music.”

Both bands cite San Francisco-based group Deerhoof (touring in support of Radiohead this summer), as well as New Jersey’s Daniel Smith (also touring this summer for his newly released Ships), founder of record label Sounds Familyre and Danielson Famile collective, as influences and examples of musicians of faith who don’t limit their art to Christian circles. In addition to recording together—Danielson’s collective includes Stevens and Half-handed Cloud among its eight collaborative acts, and Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label includes Half-handed Cloud in its own eight-group roster—the fact that Stevens has become a critical darling with an ever-widening fan base has also helped pave the way for others’ growth.

“It does help when you have someone like Sufjan who is selling hundreds of thousands of records, playing to an audience that is comprised of more than just Christians, and being seen as a legitimate artist ... despite his sometimes overtly Christian message,” said Bracken. “People are more likely to take [us] seriously and are more accepting of what we are doing.”

Perhaps because of this acceptance, DIY artists of faith appear to have fewer hang-ups about the mixing of the sacred and profane than previous incarnations of Christian musicians. “I’m interested in singing songs and making music and playing it where people are. And a lot of times, that’s in a bar,” said Ringhofer over the noise of clinking beer bottles and jukebox heavy metal. “I’m not just trying to, like, slip in these thinly veiled messages. I’m not trying to preach to people or anything. But really, a lot of it is all about my seeking after God.”

For Ringhofer, whose lyrics come largely from the Bible, it’s not so much that he comes to the songs with theological themes prepared, he says, but that “I’m sort of letting scripture ask me those questions. These are interesting themes, I think, to explore,” he says, tucking a mop of brown hair behind his ear. “Is there something beyond ourselves? You know, where do we come from? Can we have a relationship with our Creator? If there’s any preaching, it’s really aimed at myself before it’s aimed at anyone else.”

FOR THESE ANTI-FOLKSTERS, songwriting and performing can be holy acts, opportunities to find new ways to interact with and respond to their Creator and live out their passions in hopes of allowing others to participate. Ringhofer said his music is made in reaction to “being made in the image of God. [God is] a creator, and we create, too.” Bracken hopes Anathallo will “open people up to different sounds and structures and in turn inspire people to create and live creatively.” He said his band’s musical approach involves “looking for new forms and structures to create with and finding something ... interesting. I’m sure part of this stems from hearing a lot of music and finding it really boring and having the desire to create something that’s different and challenging.”

Part of that challenge is grappling with injustice and the need to connect with God even when surrounded by it. “We might see something like violence and think about why this happens, what might be the causes, trace it back a little bit, and write something influenced by this,” said Bracken.

In the work of both bands, there is a thread of hope for God’s presence in a broken world. “Show yourself, Lord/ so no one can miss it,” sings Ringhofer on Halos & Lassos. On Floating World’s “Hanasakajijii (three: the man who made dead trees bloom),” Anathallo’s Matt Joynt exclaims, “The land was dry as dead,” only to plead later, “Come green! The trees to bloom! /O hana! Buds, split open!” The album’s tumultuous “By Number” closes with the band gleefully shouting a passage from Psalm 139, “You hem me in /Behind and before /You have laid /Your hand upon me.”

If anything is evident from the desire of these artists to communicate with one another, with new people they meet along the way, and with God, it’s that they approach their work and their lives with sincerity. “It’s definitely something that we try and be conscious of in the presentation of our band ... and hopefully as people,” said Bracken. As the group has been mounting increasingly large tours (this summer includes travel to Europe, as well as Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival), selling more records (they formed their own label, Artist Friendship, for Floating World), and generally becoming more business-savvy (the band has subsequently signed a distribution deal with Sony/BMG, which allows them to retain the ownership and creation of songs under their own label), Bracken said Anathallo is making an effort to be as “transparent as possible in our communication and interactions.”

Sincerity can be a bold move when treading the waters of indie rock, infamous for its allegiance to hipster irony. “Maybe I just don’t feel like I can do the ironic hipster thing in a very convincing way. That stuff gets old,” laughs Ringhofer. But when artists’ eagerness to play music and explore new ideas is so apparent, thankfulness seems to trump any motivation to go the sarcastic route. “I’m just really lucky,” enthuses Anathallo bassist Seth Walker offstage in the moments leading up to a recent show. “I love this.”

“I’m just really grateful to be able to play the music and have a few people listen,” says Ringhofer. “It might be a difficult thing to combine gratefulness and irony.”

John Potter is online giving development assistant at Sojourners.

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