To be a folk music fan in Britain today is to be jangling the keys to a cultural palace. For a variety of reasons, we seem to have produced the most brilliant young musicians in decades — but the rest of the world has always seemed rather more excited about the fact than we are. We have started to export musicians, from Spain to Novia Scotia, who go on to musical achievements that are seldom recognised, let alone celebrated, back home. Of the ten million Brits who tuned into the Eurovision song contest, not many would have guessed that the Danish winner was yet another young protégée of a British folk musician.
Until a few months ago Emmelié Charlotte-Victoria de Forest was as unknown to Denmark as she was to the rest of the continent. Cynical souls who watch Eurovision to indulge a sense of schadenfreude might have imagined that the 19-year-old — with her pin-up good looks and barefoot, elfin vibe — was another carefully constructed product of the pop industry. But her history is rather different. She has spent the past five years touring low-budget folk venues and performing with Fraser Neill, a Glaswegian folk musician.
I tracked down Neill to the town of Dokkedal, five hours north of Copenhagen, where he was thrilled about the success of his protégée. They make an unlikely combination: a 53-year-old Scot and a 19-year-old Dane performing a variety of material, from their own compositions to covers of Alanis Morissette. He was introduced to her at the Ajstrup folk festival by a guitar player. ‘She was 14,’ he says. ‘We only spoke for a few minutes but she phoned me up a few weeks later and asked if she could record a demo tape because I had a little desk studio at home. Then the first time she opened her mouth to sing I nearly fell over — she could really hold a note.’
Soon, they started touring. ‘Her mother, Marianna, was amazing. She drove us around because at the time I didn’t have a car,’ he says. ‘We were pretty poor, I suppose, which isn’t very unusual for folk musicians.’ He started writing his own songs, and they would end up performing shows based entirely on his own compositions. ‘People say that you can’t make money if you go out and sing songs that people don’t know. But that’s not the experience I’ve had.’
But Neill’s experience has been in Denmark, where he has lived for 17 years. He moved there for love, but soon found that it was possible to make a decent living from music. A sharp contrast from Britain, where most folk musicians play in pubs for the love of it. ‘There are loads of musicians in Scotland, and it’s not easy to get a job,’ he says. ‘But when you come to a place like Denmark, you can work maybe two weeks a month and make a good amount of money. It’s the same in Germany and Holland: you just get paid more for gigs, and people there really value Scottish and Irish folk music.’
This is the great paradox of British folk music: that acts which can perhaps fill a small town hall in England or Scotland can fill a stadium in northern Spain or Canada. ‘There are perhaps fewer musicians here in Denmark than in the UK, but there is a lot of enthusiasm for British and Irish folk music out here. It’s really picked up over the past 20 years, partly because of things going on back home like the Fèis movement, which is like a festival of Scottish folk. It’s been teaching youngsters tunes during their summer holidays and I guess that must feed their ambition to be musicians. Or, at least, give them love of the music.’
Neill’s collaboration with de Forest ended last year when she moved to Copenhagen to join the Complete Voice Institute. ‘She learned loads of new techniques that really helped with her voice production,’ he says. Those with an ear for it could hear those folky inflections at work last Saturday. Those without an ear for it would have just heard the best vocal performance of the evening. In interviews before the final, she spoke only about whether ‘the song’ would win: she seems never to have doubted her ability to sing.
Before de Forest entered Denmark’s annual pre-Eurovision song contest, she went back to see her old mentor. ‘I gave her a couple
of guitar lessons and remember her laughing and sitting around in her pyjamas,’ he says. ‘She’s been a fantastic musical ally to me over the years. We pushed each other and she helped me to learn how to play the guitar better: she got me to think about what I was doing, how to sit down and concentrate on the music and how best to provide a platform for her voice.’ This is precisely what ‘Only Teardrops’ was: a song, written around a voice.
Denmark had the cultural confidence to project, on a world stage, a rising star of its folk scene. It is hard to imagine the same happening in Britain, where a peculiar disregard for folk still lingers. Mumford & Sons, for example, is arguably the biggest band in the world right now. The world thinks of them as English and folky and doesn’t have a problem with that. But the English still do. We’re more comfortable serving up comforting dollops of Downton Abbey and The King’s Speech for export rather than breaking the mould and revealing what we’ve always really been made of.
Britain has no end of talent that is waiting to be projected, says Neill. ‘If you go to Fort William or Inverness you can hear world-class musicians — but the music industry isn’t really very open to it. Folk has an image of being about old men in woolly jumpers, muddy boots and a big beard. But it’s not like that at all. I’ve seen loads of 20-year-olds — boys and girls — with tattoos at folk festivals. So whether an English or a Scottish girl with a voice and background like Emmelié could ever find herself in the same position is a good question.’
Before de Forest moved to Copenhagen,
she and Neill made an album and they sold about 100 copies. ‘I’ve registered it with the music publishers — it’s just called Emmelié de Forest and Fraser Neill, so I guess this could be the moment to do something about it,’ he says. Given that last year’s Eurovision winner sold a million copies around the world, he just might be right.
Emma Hartley blogs at The Glamour Cave