Pin Drop Silence

Nobody really knows what folk music is. Some people – the purists – will tell you that it’s songs that have been passed down orally from generation to generation. There are some folk clubs in the UK that stick so strictly to this idea that they present acts with extensive lists of pre-approved tracks. Lists that literally define which songs are (and which songs are not) folk songs. But what can this version of folk music offer 21st century Britain, where music is distributed, listened to, and enjoyed in ways that didn’t exist twenty years ago, let alone three hundred? What of the wealth of voices from countries besides our own, each with their own tradition, and their own experience? And what of the new standards that creep into regular rotation on artists’ setlists – your ‘Blues Run The Game’, your ‘One More Cup of Coffee’?

Other people prefer to loosely connect folk to the acoustic guitar – but this runs into problems almost immediately for very obvious reasons. How about songs that tell a story? Or maybe songs that speak uniquely to a time and a place, a lived experience? These are all questions and suggestions I’ve faced in ten years of booking gigs for Folkroom. In the end I came up with one simple rule to determine whether or not an act gets to play our gig:

Can I defend this to the drunken heckler at the back of the room?

The rule was created – perhaps unsurprisingly, given how specific its parameters are – when I found myself having to do exactly that in one of our first Folkroom events, back in the tail end of 2010. I can’t remember who was performing now, which doesn’t speak to how easy they were to defend. The acts I booked after that realisation, though – I’ve forgotten very few of those.

It’s been a joy running Folkroom for ten years. One that, thankfully, far outweighs the pain of having to celebrate our anniversary apart from one another. We’d had so many plans, too! A compilation album had been mooted. A party for all our friends and musical relations. And, to really drive the celebration home, the launch of Brighton & Hove Folk Festival – our very own festival, complete with acts from ten years of gigs, big folk names and a few very Folkroom touches (live illustrations from the Observer’s political cartoonist, anyone?).

Instead you get a blog post. Sorry. To be honest, we thought about doing a little more even in the midst of all this. But here’s the thing about putting so much of yourself into a creative enterprise: when it’s taken away from you, it can be hard to bring yourself to face that pain on a daily basis.

It’s taken me the best part of a week to even put this together – I’m writing all of this now, trying not to second-guess myself, the night before posting. Engaging with all the brilliant memories a decade of Folkroom has given me only serves to amplify the fact that we’ve not hosted a gig since mid-March. That we’ve nothing booked into our diaries until April next year, and even that’s a tentative rebooking of one of the thirty-six gigs we would have hosted by now.


I tend to think of the history of Folkroom in generational terms. It’s a handy way of getting my head around a decade of live gigs, to break the years into digestible chapters, and to form some sort of narrative to our ongoing story.

Our first generation started on the 1st of September 2010, exactly one month to the day after I first moved to London. The Queen’s Head, a gorgeous Victorian corridor pub in King’s Cross, was our base camp. I had no idea how to run a gig – had never done anything like it before. I decided my best bet was to seek out acts who might want to play for me by trawling the wreckage of MySpace (Jesus, we are old), which by then had been vacated even by Tom himself. All that was left, in fact, were musicians who hadn’t yet been offered a viable alternative. I can’t remember my process of finding the acts, but even now I can’t fault it: these early searches dug up Andrew Butler, Worry Dolls, Kate Stapley and Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker. The last of those turned out to be the most invaluable discovery of all – Ben took such pity on my sound engineer-free gigs that he offered to come along regularly to help out. The two of us have been at the centre of Folkroom together ever since.

The Queen’s Head wasn’t an ideal space for our gigs – the audience often had to share their space with noisy office workers looking for a quiet drink after work, and the position and size of the stage meant that more than once a female audience member went to to the toilet only to find her exit blocked by a drumkit by the time she came out. But there was something to be said for the atmosphere – the way the curved windows at the front of the pub steamed up on a cold winter’s night, so that passersby would pop their head in trying to put faces to the music they were hearing, and find themselves still watching when we rounded up a couple of hours later. The piano, set at the opposite end of the room from the stage, meant musicians would frequently decamp mid-set, the audience gathering around them, the staff standing on the bar so they could film it all on their phone – tight-packed camaraderie, great music, something a little different.

My rule for only booking acts I really loved meant that even though the audiences could occasionally be a little rowdy, more and more musicians started seeking us out as a gig they wanted to come and play. That’s how I mark the second gen of Folkroom acts – when I stopped having to look on MySpace. It was thrilling to discover all these fantastic musicians – under-heard and immensely underrated – all willing to come and play a Wednesday night in King’s Cross. Ben and I were so enamoured by the music that we formed a label, and started signing acts up to release EPs with us. Andrew Butler, who had headlined our first gig, was an obvious choice – but soon new discoveries like Lucy Cait, Robin Elliott and The Lost Cavalry were just as irresistible.

I remember pulling Ben outside into the cool night air as Sophie Jamieson finished her first ever set for us.

“She’s incredible, isn’t she? I mean, there’s literally nothing like it.”

“We need to sign her.”

We’d invited Patch & the Giant along that night to ask them to release an EP with us. In the end, we signed both them and the newcomer Sophie, then celebrated with a couple of the pub’s deadly Bee Sting ciders.

That year should have been Folkroom’s finest hour to date – but I wasn’t well. Though I couldn’t yet understand why, my personal life was falling apart beneath me. I was struggling with almost everything I took on, depressed without understanding what depression even was. Humiliated by my incompetence as an adult, my inability to even feed myself properly, I attempted to bluster forwards, digging myself deeper and deeper holes. Folkroom suffered accordingly – gigs weren’t booked until the day before, and often had slots left unfilled. Our summer of releases were poorly managed and poorly promoted, and I left friends feeling betrayed.

But at the same time, something else was happening. Musician friends, seeing what I couldn’t, offered to step in and help manage the gigs whilst I took time to reacquaint myself with the concept of mental health. As the Folkroom gigs made a much needed move from The Queen’s Head to The Harrison, the acts took on curation, booking and hosting duties, introducing new musicians like Jack and Harry Harris, Kirsty Merryn and Emily Mae Winters to the community. Folkroom’s third generation is formed from the acts we first discovered in The Harrison – and as with all subsequent chapters in our history, exists only because of the kindness and support I was given by those who had played the gigs before them.

The Harrison, as it turned out, was a perfect fit for us. With our own basement space, away from the commuting crowd, we finally were able to create a gigging atmosphere that matched our ethos as a promoter and as a community of artists. I’ve been told frequently over the years that your first time playing a Folkroom gig can often be a little intimidating – not because of the tough crowd, but rather because of the sheer keenness of the Folkroom audience. We’ve spent so long curating the best line-ups we can that, I think, audiences come ready to sit quietly and discover something new. After years of playing to noisy bars – even at our own gigs – facing the reverence, and the pin-drop silence of a Folkroom audience that’s hanging on to your every note can throw an artist off.

As we settled into our new digs, I found opportunities to experiment with what it meant to play Folkroom. I had, for a long time, shied away from trad acts – aware that there was plenty of room for them in those folk clubs that ignored the brilliant acts we were playing with. But now I felt I could book things that I found interesting – things that played with the very idea of what folk music was. Acts like Brightly and Deerful combined brilliant songwriting with sounds normally thought of as incongruous to the folk experience. Our fourth generation was filled with exciting new discoveries like Thom Ashworth, who performed rough-and-ready trad songs alongside new compositions named after video games, and Germa Adan, whose music was influenced by her Haitian and American roots, as well as her new home in Birmingham.

Sometime in 2017 Ben came to a gig and told me he was leaving to move to Brighton. It was fairly good timing, as I’d planned to announce the exact same thing to him that very night. And so I set about trying to work out two things: how to keep Folkroom running when our core team was in a different city, and which Brighton venue could host Folkroom’s second regular night.

Both were easy fixes, as it turned out. Before long I’d coaxed a regular audience member, Katie, to take up the (decidedly haphazard) hosting mantle I’d left behind, supported by a rotating group of musicians from our community (with Matt, Miles, Ariana and Nick earning the most credit). Meanwhile, we set up at the Village in Brighton – a pub that felt like a cross between The Queen’s Head, The Harrison and also your grandmother’s living room. I began, for the first time in half a decade, to actively seek local acts, rather than simply whittling line-ups down from the submissions in our eternally full Folkroom inbox. Acts like Robbie Skitmore, Hickory Signals/Bird in the Belly and Chalk Horse Music proved that Sussex – a county often overlooked in the folk music world – was as full of talent and innovation as anywhere else. This is what defined our fifth generation!

Brighton opened more possibilities too. Having back-to-back gigs in the south-east of England allowed us to offer easy touring options for both local and international artists, and the discovery of Brighton Toy & Model Museum by (Gen 3 Folkroomer) Jack Pout allowed us to branch out into new territory – the Toy Museum Folk Club. This was our chance to take the folk club model so many of our acts had had poor experiences with and give it the Folkroom treatment. We dreamed big, and pulled off ridiculous coups – Martin Carthy and Gaelynn Lea played for us, and we bagged the kindest man in literature, former Children’s Laureate and Observer political cartoonist Chris Riddell, as our very own live artist – creating stunning illustrations to the songs as they were being performed. The success of these events spurred us on to create the first ever Brighton & Hove Folk Festival, as well as announcing a second folk club back in London, bringing acts like Eliza Carthy and Edgelarks to The Golden Hinde ship.

And then… this. The pandemic hit, and a year of gigs has been snatched from beneath us. Our festival, the Toy Museum Folk Club and the Golden Hinde events have all been put on hold, alongside our fortnightly gigs that have barely missed a beat for an entire decade. Our annual get together at Home Farm Festival, a charity event we’ve been supporting for 7 years now, was cancelled, and we’ll have to wait another year to see those friends. So it’s been tough, approaching this milestone anniversary. In all honesty, I don’t think we’ll be back this side of 2021. It’s a strange thing to have Folkroom taken away. It is, as you’ll have seen above, a huge part of my life. It’s live music, yes. But it’s also friendship, community, purpose and even just the comfort of routine. All of this has been nabbed – and whilst it’s far from the worst thing we’ve lost in the pandemic, this is not the pin-drop silence I am used to for Folkroom, and I miss it immensely.

I’ll tell you this, though: for three years now I’ve been thinking about the Folkroom eras, and the generations of artists we’ve had perform for us now, and I’ve not been able to work out where generation five might end, where generation six will begin. I have an answer now. In fact, though we have been left on a cliffhanger for far too long, I have a lot of plans for the next chapter in Folkroom’s history, and I am so excited to get started.

For now we wait for all this to blow over. And, today at least, let’s take a moment to think of everything wonderful that Folkroom has been – and will yet be – for us. One of the few joys of the pandemic has been getting the occasional order in from Lilley’s (creator of those deadly Bee Sting ciders, amongst others). Tonight, in lieu of a gig, I’m going to raise a glass to Folkroom. I invite you all to do the same. To the hundreds of acts of who played our stage – too many to list, which is a joy in itself. To the three pubs we have called home: The Queen’s Head, The Harrison and Village Bar, and all the staff and managers who have supported us through the years. To The Toy Museum, and to Home Farm Festival, for helping us push our creative boundaries. To all the artists and creatives who have supported us beyond the music, and to all the regulars that help make our audiences so well-loved by those onstage. To Katie, Robbie, Matt, Michelle, and all the other members of the Folkroom team, past and present. And lastly to Ben Walker, and to me – because hell, we’ve earned it.

We’ll be back.

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