According to Taylor Ashton, vocalist and banjoist for Fish & Bird, a five-piece, unorthodox, indie folk band from Victoria, there are two specific connotations to the genre of folk. The first is “folk” as in “folk culture,” which is a cultural designation beyond highbrow or low-brow. Folk culture is culture for the people and by the people and, with this in mind, folk music is the kind of open and inclusive to everyone, telling relatable tales of which everyone can be a part. The second is a narrower definition: folk is folk if it’s played on acoustic instruments. Though he is hesitant to pigeonhole his band, Ashton considers Fish & Bird to be folk via the latter definition.
“You can kind of think of folk in two ways: one is that it’s music that everyone can play and everyone can join in, and the other is whether or not it’s played in acoustic guitars,” he explains over the phone from a gas station on Vancouver Island, where his bandmates are checking their van’s fluid levels. “As far as the second one, that is where we fall into the folk thing. But, sometimes, I feel that the folk label means that these days. In that way, it’s something that we don’t really fit into as much.”
Despite Ashton’s reluctance to resolutely categorize Fish & Bird as a straight-up folk band, their last release, Every Whisper is a Shout Across the Void, earned them a nomination for the 2011 Western Canadian Music Awards for Roots Group Recording of the Year. The highly lauded album features the quintet in their prime, experimenting with the boundaries of folk and roots music, often arranging and performing their songs in unorthodox time signatures and without clear, discernible choruses, which are often the focal point of community performances. Alongside the impeccable production, which provides ample, pristine room for the rest of the band members, including Adam Iredale-Gray on fiddle and backup vocals, Ryan Boeur on the acoustic guitar, Ben Kelly behind the kit and Natalie Bohrn on the upright bass, Fish & Bird extend themselves across the breadth of the roots genre, seamlessly incorporating disparate elements into a performance that morphs and shifts every time they play.
“I don’t tend to write a lot of choruses. Whenever I write choruses, I get really excited,” Ashton says with a laugh. “Our songs tend to have odd time signatures and weird chord changes. Those are the kind of things… we sort of end up at folk festivals because we have acoustic guitars, a banjo and a standup bass, but if you put us around a campfire, we could jam, but people wouldn’t be able to jam our tunes as much: ‘here he goes into 5/8 and watch out for that weird chord change.’”
Over the phone, Ashton is well-spoken and thoughtful, trying to articulate abstract notions that he knows to be true inside of him. There’s clearly a deliberate intention behind his songwriting, despite the sometimes improvised nature of the performance. It is this cerebral approach that has made Fish & Bird such a hit with crowds across the country, which they have toured several times. Part of their success also perhaps lies in the resurgence in interest in folk music on a larger scale, which Ashton suggests is a response to the increasingly depersonalized acceleration of communication.
“[Folk is] almost a reaction to the way in which communication is done these days,” he muses. “You can see it as so impersonal and alienating, almost, so if people want to hear a more honest way of making music and sounds, that may be a reaction to that. It does have that community thing to it.”
by Sebastian Buzzalino