Shovel Dance Collective on place and politics in folk music

Shovel Dance Collective are a nine-piece exploring the folk music of the British Isles through a lens of proto-feminism, queer narrative and working class history. They rework tunes drawing inspiration from their backgrounds in drone, free improvisation, and metal to create arrangements that The Times has called, “invigorating folk revival”. We caught up with Nick Granata, Jacken Elswyth and Mataio Austin Dean…

“We often work in medleys so how tunes speak to each other is a big factor,” explains Granata.
“Sometimes tunes have traditionally been paired, sometimes they sound very similar but a slight variation adds something rich, or they contrast enough that one tune lifts the other. A tune can also have a great story (like the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance), or just a great name (like A Fisherman’s Song for Attracting Seals).

Great words can come with not so great melodies, or great melodies can come with not so great words. But since it’s all up for grabs variations can be made, words changed and tunes amended. It’s great to find a gem that’s not been sung much, and we have a couple of those, but it’s also great taking on a much loved song that some of the audience will know immediately.”

“I think folk music lends itself to a consideration of place. One of the things that makes the music powerful is its passage through an unknown number of anonymous hands, transformed and re-created as it moves from place to place. There’s a simultaneously particular and universal quality to it. Since the 20th century folk revival it’s been the done thing to cite the person and place from whom any particular version of a song was ‘collected’ – by now that has a whole lot of baggage attached, and is often a claim to authority and authenticity on the part of the performer as much as a genuine recognition of debt. But it also serves to gesture towards the longer history of the music, so we’re always keen to include those kinds of details in the interpretations we include with recordings and provide at performances.

In that context we’ve also tended to note the location of recordings we’ve made as well – for example, ‘Fidelma’s living room’ – almost without considering where that impulse comes from. But it feels right to underline that this is one instance in the longer life of a song or tune, specific to one particular time and place but connected to all the others.”

Shovel Dance Collective aren’t long back from a trip to SXSW to perform at the British Underground Happening.

“We spent the first part of the week going to see weird bands in near empty venues and saw loads of amazing stuff, then it got to be our turn and we were the weird band in a near empty venue. It was an unusual thing for us to do, and we’re very thankful to British Underground for supporting our trip there. We learnt a lot and met some great people.”

With everyone from Robert Eggers to Taylor Swift turning their hand to the folk aesthetic of late, Granata is reflective on the genre’s perennial resurgence.

“It could perhaps be related to a growing shared sense that systems long accepted as stable and unending are actually absurd, illogical, and fragile. This dawning understanding of our present suggests that our past isn’t quite as clean cut as we may have been taught, and folk (contrary to history) offers itself as a method of reimagining that past. It opens an opportunity to grasp a fluid past – contradictions and all – and provides an archive of realities long obscured or forgotten. Folk offers a form of communal historiography, authored collectively by different generations across time. Maybe it also has something to do with a mistrust of or betrayal by the idea of progress (what with disaster constantly looming in a few likely forms). Instead folklore offers insights into ways of being, previously dismissed, that might be worth revisiting, renewing, or reinventing.

In terms of folk music and the response we tend to get, people seem to connect to the music quite readily and with real gusto. I think this is because we reassure them that this is their music to cry to, laugh to, sing along with, learn and take ownership of. Having permission to share in the performance can be contrasted starkly with watching a performer who is perceived to be the individual genius. Maybe it’s refreshing to listen to music that says ‘listen to what we made together’ rather than ‘listen to what I made’.

We come from a long line of leftwing folk musicians from Britain and Ireland. People like A L Lloyd, Luke Kelly, Shirley Collins were all unashamedly socialists and we would like to be as brazen as they were with our politics. There’s a real precedent for it. Though we’re not under any illusions that folk music, especially in England, retains its political importance among most people. It’s fair to say that the few people you’re finding in the folk clubs and folk bands generally aren’t the working class radicals they might have been when folk clubs all over the place were packed out every week. Folk music has become pretty middle class, seldom enjoyed by most, and in some cases been de-politicised completely to be softer and more palatable. I think possibly our engagement with queer history and black and brown histories as well as radical working class history separates us a bit from other folk acts and their politics. I think the challenge in playing good folk music today is rejoining that link between people and this amazing music, whilst keeping it real, political and fiery where it needs to be. Musicians like Lankum do this really well at the moment. The main thing is that we think there’s still a strong place for folk among other politically motivated forms of music and we hope the people that would benefit from hearing it get to.”

For Supersonic 2022 Shovel Dance Collective are excited to share their practice with a new, curious audience.
“I think we’ll try and lean into the doom and gloom. We always do a bit, but we’re often careful to temper it with some hope and joy. For Supersonic it might be nice for us to let our hair down. So you can expect some epic drone-y trad folk: exposed and unaccompanied solo voices through to slow-build reworkings of old folk tunes and full-band group singing.

We’re incredibly keen to see Divide and Dissolve, a band whose music and politics we really respect. We’re also all big Richard Dawson fans, so would love to catch his set. And we want to get our fill of slow, heavy, fun things: Bismuth, Thou, Bloody Head.”

Shovel Dance Collective are performing on the Sunday of Supersonic 2022. Tickets are on sale here, and in the meantime you can whet your appetite with their 2020 release Offcuts and Oddities.