Album Reviews: Artists to Watch at Folk Unlocked, this year’s Folk Alliance Conference

We’re a long ways off from gathering together again for festivals or conferences, so in 2021 the Folk Alliance International conference will be all virtual. It’s too bad, because a lot of the fun of Folk Alliance comes from wandering the halls of the hotel late at night, greeting old friends and dipping your head into random rooms in the hopes of discovering a new artist you’ve never heard of. Folk Alliance’s Folk Unlocked conference this year has some pretty big names, like Jim Lauderdale, Keb’ Mo’, Los Lobos, The McCrary Sisters, Terrence Simien, Flor de Toloache, and more, but for me it’s always been about finding new artists to fall in love with. With that in mind, I went through the conference’s schedule and picked out some artists I hadn’t heard of before who got me excited to see them play. These artists are all on Bandcamp too, so since today is Bandcamp Friday, please buy some of their music and merch to help artists in need.

Folk Unlocked is the new name for the 2021 Folk Alliance International Conference and in a big departure, this year registration will be by donation or pay-what-you-will. Folk Alliance has set up the Village Fund to take donations, and the fund is intended to help out-of-work musicians and other folk music workers.

You can check out the 2021 Spotlight Artists here.

Folk Unlocked runs February 22-26, 2021! Here’s the word from Aengus Finnan, Folk Alliance’s Executive Director about how it works: “With everything in a suspended state, we’ve carefully crafted a virtual event that will provide not only a family reunion online gathering (complete with fun and random meet-ups), but also a series of inspiring and informative panels, interactive industry connection points, and a stellar line-up of showcases curated by our partners across the US and around the world, as well as our hallmark self-produced independent showcases. Calling it Folk Unlocked dovetails with our waived membership fees, and “choose your own” registration price approach this year, appreciating many are hurting financially. We want to ensure everyone who wants to can show up at any price that works, including no cost at all.”

Seven Bandcamp Artists You Can’t Miss at Folk Unlocked

Idris Lawal

I hit a pocket of “folk pop” singers early on while checking out the Folk Unlocked Spotlight artists and was starting to despair, but when I heard Idris Lawal, I dropped everything. He’s a huge discovery for Folk Alliance and an artist who I find absolutely riveting. Start with his 2021 single, “Wallflowers.” Over jazz saxophone and a heavy thumping beat, Lawal’s lightly auto-tuned voice sings about the heart-wrenching reality of police violence. “Police with guns out there, save me”. Nigerian by birth and living in Toronto, Lawal refers to his music as “Afrobop” a combo of the political messaging and anti-colonial concepts of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat and the heavier beats of modern Canada. Lawal’s 2020 EP Young, Black & Blue is a tour de force, with deep African roots but an entirely new sound. It’s also the vision of an artist who’s seen more of the world than most. Lawal was born in Nigeria, but has lived also in Qatar and South Africa. He collaborates closely with Jamaican-Canadian saxophone player Jelani Watson, and he’s clearly channeling some of Canada’s progressive African music scene (check out Pierre Kwenders too, who played at Folk Alliance Montréal a few years back). Lawal’s sound has that kind of late-night, neon-drenched vibe you’d find in Drake or Frank Ocean, and his commitment to speaking truth to power makes him a breakout artist to watch. Check out “Hey Colonizer” from the EP for a taste of this, or catch him live at Folk Unlocked.

Bella White

There’s a trick to Bella White’s voice that makes you think that you’re hearing Appalachian mountain music. There’s a slight burr in her voice, or a quaver in the lyric, something that places her incorrectly. She’s from Canada actually, though her parents had roots in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. She came up with bluegrass and it certainly shows in the ease with which she translates her country songwriting to the idiom, but it’s also something that can’t be faked. Too many modern bluegrass artists try too hard in the idiom. The music is too fast, too intricate, too forced. White’s music is natural to the bone. She sings as easy as breathing and that’s a breath of fresh air indeed in bluegrass.

Iona Fyfe

Scottish folk singer Iona Fyfe has been busy indeed during COVID! She’s released a number of singles, a Christmas carol, a cover of Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country”, and an EP of unaccompanied, full-length ballads. Throughout, her voice is a powerful beacon, holding attention through the dense fog of some of the old ballads. Fyfe likes to teach the history of the ballads as well, so each release is accompanied with thoughtful notes, tying Dylan’s song back to Barbara Allen, or tracing a song like “The Bonnie Lass of Fyvie” across the pond to the American civil war. Amongst these offerings, the jewel is Fyfe’s Ballads Vol. 1, a tour de force of a cappella singing that focuses on the complex workings of traditional balladry. Fyfe provides detailed notes about each ballad (including YouTube links to other singers’ interpretations), and interprets them carefully and also passionately. It’s not the kind of album to put on in the background, but for those interested in these old texts surviving into our present age, it’s a true present. It’s worth it alone for her radically different vision of “Barbara Allen” that is trippy.

The Sensational Barnes Brothers

We all need a little hope these days, and that’s certainly the message in this album Memphis’ The Sensational Barnes Brothers. Growing up in Gospel, both brothers see the tradition as family music. Their mother was a Raelette (one of Ray Charles’ backup singers) and they performed as a family band (called “Joy”) for years. With a deep background in the music, but interests in other genres, the brothers are able to bring a huge sound to their album together. With glorious brass and rolling organs behind them, their songs of positivity and faith warm even the coldest heart. This is dancing music, as they say, and it’s hard to keep a smile off your face when they really get rolling. The whole album’s a blast and it’s great to hear family music being passed down and continued, but also adapted for other audiences beyond the church.

Marcella Simien

Another Memphis artist taking the music of their own family in new directions, Marcella Simien comes from the Zydeco world, where her father, Terrance Simien, is an international star. Father and daughter have recorded together before, in fact, one of Marcella’s earliest recordings at age 15 was a song that Terrance and Dennis Quaid wrote for the Hollywood movie The Big Easy in 1986, which was a major driver for bringing Zydeco to the mainstream (along with Paul Simon’s Graceland which came out the same year). While still staying close to her dad, Marcella’s been making absolutely fascinating music of her own, both as Marcella and Her Loves and as Marcella & les Vagues. Les Vagues sounds like French new wave, soft vocals, electronic percussion, smoooooth French. It’s a great sound, the kind of cosmopolitan idea that we’d hear more of from American Creole French communities if the rootsier side of Zydeco wasn’t so popular. Marcella and Her Lovers is a bit rootsier, more tied to what sounds like a funk/R&B New Orleans vision of modern Creole music (with some one-row button accordion thrown in!). Both the Lovers’ EP and les Vagues’ full album show an artist of uncommon breadth, so she’ll be a lot of fun to watch at Folk Unlocked.


In recent years there’s been a really interesting wave of Drone Trad groups, basically artists who look to the long sustained tones of the music and the darker themes and draw out the weightiest ballads. Drone Trad is big in French music (Toad, Super Parquet), Irish music (Lynched), and American music (Black Twig Pickers, House and Land), and the fun of it comes from bands that can really make a tradition that you know well sound very different. Varo is a duo of French and Italian origin interpreting the Irish traditions deep drones with haunting ballads and harmony heavy fiddle tunes. There are elements of 70s British trad as well, and overall Varo does a great job of bringing together a lot of ideas in a cohesive way that helps their Irish trad stand out from the rest. It’ll be interesting seeing how they translate this to a livestream! Can’t wait.

Tenzin Choegyal

Tibetan artist Tenzin Choegyal plays the six-stringed dranyen (three double courses of strings) sings the beautiful Buddhist ballads of the Himalayas. Ritual Buddhist music in Tibet can be a bit abrasive, with very loud trumpets and a deeply complex system of musicology tied to the religion that is difficult to parse. But the folk music of Tibet is immediately accessible and transformative. Born to Tibetan nomads but forced into exile in India, Choegyal is a renowned Tibetan folk musician and his traditional Buddhist material with voice and dranyen is incredibly evocative of those high mountain vistas and absolutely gorgeous to listen to. He’s also an artist looking to move beyond his traditions to collaborate and create new music. He’s worked with world fusion (Tibet2Timbuk2) and classical musicians (Phillip Glass, Camerata of St John’s) but his recent work for Smithsonian Folkways earned him his first Grammy nomination (2021 Grammys, Best New Age Album). This album, Songs from the Bardo, is a fascinating collaboration based around the concepts and words in the Tibetan Book of the Dead (“The Bardo Thodol”). It’s a key religious text in Tibetan Buddhism, and for Choegyal, a source of constant inspiration for Choegyal. Together with avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson (spoken word), and composer/activist Jesse Paris Smith, Choegyal’s created a multi-level collaboration of words, music, song, and composition to explore this religious text. It’s beautiful, powerful, and meditative and shows that Choegyal has a huge artistic vision.

More Folk Unlocked Artists Worth Checking Out

Kalani Pe’a – One of the brightest stars in modern Hawaiian music, Kalani Pe’a has been snapping up the Regional Roots Grammys with his music, which brings a forward-thinking perspective to a songwriter who can write in fluent Hawaiian. Great videos too.

Rum Ragged – great Newfoundland folk with a salty tang from the sea air. All awsome players, definitely this is the place to go if you’ve been real into TikTok Sea Shanties.

Sean Ardoin – one of the nicest guys in Zydeco, a Grammy nominated artist, running for mayor of his town, and heir to a hundred years of Creole traditions so strong that they literally defined both Cajun and Creole music? Yeah, Sean Ardoin is the man.

Steve Poltz – Steve Poltz is an absolute blast live. He tells hilarious stories, hops around like a bunny on Adderall, and entertains the heck out of a crowd. For a place (Folk Alliance) where singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen, Poltz hugely stands out.

Shane Pendergast – I wrote about Shane’s music already for Folk Alley. Great songwriter out of Canada with a really fascinating take on Canadian traditions.

The Texicana Mamas – Three great Latina singer-songwriters (Tish Hinojosa, Stephanie Urbina Jones, and Patricia Vonne) with a bilingual vision of San Antonio and Texas roots music!

Joy Oladokun – Joy’s 2020 album was a Kendrick Lamar moment in folk, meaning she revealed herself as an artist able to turn an idiom on its head through powerful messaging and an open honesty about her own life and her own family and her own roots.

Fara – I’m a sucker for Orkney fiddling. It’s a mix of Scottish and Scandinavian styles, as wild as the islands it comes from.

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