The Feral Folk: a conversation with Allie LaRoe

The Feral Folk (Allie LaRoe, Pat Fouhy, and Jeffrey Scott), formed in 2014, are one of a wave of bands appearing that seem to have a kind of enviable “life hack” approach to breaking the system. There’s no activist stand, no social reform, they’re not about some kind of angry take-down of all the dark powers, real or imagined, we’re feeling imprisoned and manipulated by.

Theirs is a quieter revolution — more about self-sufficiency and courage than counterculture. I think that’s what attracts me to Allie’s lyrics and this band’s songs (because it’s lose-lose in any fight where you come out at the other end as the kind of person you never wanted to be).

So the Palace wandered out into these coastal foothills to find Allie LeRoe (songwriter, poet) to ask a few questions about how to build a renewed sense of hope in a time of anxiety and worry. Her thoughts, like her songs, speak more about heart than the use of force. It’s an attractive idea.

The Feral Folk’s new record, tentatively entitled “Holy Howl,” should appear sometime in the spring or early summer of 2020. They’ll be releasing singles along the way, testing as they go, beginning with “Small Deaths.” Watch the band’s Bandcamp page and website for updates, and for intimate, regional shows.

They’re pushing themselves into the wild spaces of song — their songs drawing inspiration not from cities or notions of paradise, but from the tangled, wild, softly human places, from what John Keats called “nature’s observatory.”

The Feral Folk band
The Feral Folk (photo credit: Aldene Nicole Young, used by permission)

Fell for shapeshifter, he promised paradise
And slipped me through the underworld
And left me in the woods to die
Amongst the wild creatures I learned how to survive
I know the law of tooth and claw
But oh, you make me want to be a woman again
Somehow, you make me want to be a woman again…

from the new single “Small Deaths” (Fox & Phoenix Records, 2019)

Let’s jump right into the middle of things. You’ve written in your press materials about reaching a place of feeling depleted as an artist, as you started thinking about what would be next for you as a recording artist, and for your band. My take was that you weren’t just talking about your songs, but bigger issues, like how the music industry works today. What did you mean by depleted? I think this is something a lot of people are feeling right now.

Allie LaRoe:
I think a big thing is our culture is changing out of necessity, but there are still a lot of people who are trying to live with the emotions of the status quo. So, you’re always being pulled in multiple directions — where you know what’s possible on an intuitive level, but you’re afraid might not be possible on a rational level.

For me, a lot of it is talking myself into taking the risks, to be really authentic, and to be feminine. Not in a gendered way. I’m a pretty emotive, pretty soft person. And that’s not very cool. And that’s not been very cool for literally…thousands of years. [Laughs]

So, there’s always this fear that if I don’t conform, if I don’t hustle, if I don’t try to play the whole record-label game, and try to be cool, then I’ll never really get to do what I want to do. And of course, there have always been those who’ve not played by those rules, especially the more traditional singer-songwriters. There’ve been plenty of people who’ve been incredibly open and prolific — and wise in their songwriting. But that’s not the story you hear when somebody’s talking about, like, incredible success, you know.

I feel like a lot of that depletion just comes from going back and forth. And I’m constantly dealing with — unfortunately, still, even in liberal parts of this country — an internalized sexism. There’s a certain amount of never knowing…was I not a good fit for the bill, not a good fit for the venue, or do they just not take me seriously. Because I’m female. So that’s also pretty exhausting.

GP:
The music industry feels like a fractured place these days. It feels like a lonely space to be working in right now. What do you think?

AL:
Well, it can be. I often think that there are so many people who are coming up who’ve all grown up with social media, who are like 18 now, who are just really good at all of those things. And of course, all of our culture still really celebrates people, especially in the arts. I think it can be overwhelming if you’re in a scarcity mindset. To see all of these kids who have all these resources that don’t come naturally for me.

I’m definitely like a “notebook and pen person” in a world of lots of marketing technology. I’m not against it. I enjoy the process of learning it, but it’s not my natural inclination.

GP:
It’s like there’s just not enough to go around (in this crazy world of plenty), like we’re made to feel we have to compete for everything we want. You’ve discussed this in one of your Instagram posts, in a way, by talking about a kind of male aggressiveness taking over every aspect of music today, especially for female songwriters. How did you resolve the conflict of having to become someone you’re not (for example, the idea of becoming “one of the boys,” so to speak, to make it), just to “win” your place at the music table?

AL:
I actively try to believe that there are enough opportunities for all of us. It’s good to have alternatives because not everybody is into that sort of thing. So, I actively try to confront the part of me that wants to compete because I don’t think it’s healthy. I think that we’ve been taught that competition brings out our best work. But I think it brings out our blandest work, quite frankly. Because it’s all about trying to impress somebody else as opposed to…really being, like, what’s right for me to make. What’s the most exciting thing, or like, what am I really feeling right now.

GP:
That sense of “bland,” as you say, makes everything feel…generic right now.

AL:
It’s like, you know when a band makes it? And then, all of the sudden, there are all of these other bands that sound exactly like that band that made it. That’s what I think competing is about. Well, they got an “A,” so now that’s how you get an “A,” so we’re all just going to do that now, you know.

old farm house

That old woodsman he kept me captive here
Said it was to keep me safe but really it was me he feared
I lived in golden chains inside a inside a gilded cage
A courtesan whose heart was gone
But oh, you make me want to be a woman again
Somehow, you make me want to be a woman again…

from the new single “Small Deaths” (Fox & Phoenix Records, 2019)

I thought it was interesting that you mentioned, I think in your press materials, that you had to confront a kind of machine mentality to survive in music. Because there’s this sense that the machine world is better than remaining human, remaining emotionally vulnerable. I think your new song, “Small Deaths,” sort of challenges that point of view. It’s an emotional song. You mentioned being a “pen and paper” person. Would it just be easier to be off by yourself doing what you want to do?

AL:
I’m kind of not one of those people. In some ways, for me, it’s a negative. Like, that’s a self-protective quality: “I don’t care what other people think of me…” Which of course…of course I do! Because I’m a communal animal. [Laughs] Like this idea of content creation is really just about putting things out, so that people don’t forget you. It just makes me feel really anxious.

So, I’ll actively try not to do that. Instead, I’ll focus on…I guess, connection. Making instead of content making. Or like…even just emotion. I feel what people turn to music for is they want to be emotionally validated and don’t have a lot of spaces in which to be emotionally validated. Or what we kind of do, but in a teenager sort of way: there are a lot of needs, and not necessarily mature……like, “Oh hey, you know how we all feel like that?” Kind of an unhealthy behavior. So, I consciously make music that is recognizing emotions consciously, in a way that people can kind of grow into, or grow up with.

GP:
I’ve read into some of your comments, especially in social media, a kind of cool challenge to the patriarchy. One of the weaknesses of the patriarchy, of course, is its inability to be introspective. It’s rigid and inflexible — it’s right, it knows it’s right, kind of thing. But in your work, you seem to be all about introspection, as a recording artist, in your new songs — asking yourself (and sharing such thoughts) about what femininity is for you in 2019, in a song like “Small Deaths.” Because this world is leaning so patriarchal, do you think that’s a checkmark against you, or do you think it’s a positive?

AL:
A little bit of both. I have to reframe my idea of what success looks like. I’m probably not going to achieve traditional success. And all I really want to do is pay my bills and make art. I don’t have a lot of big aspirations. Or…not having to have a day job, that’s pretty important!

In some ways, it helps draw the right people to me, because they’re probably actively seeking something like this out, right. And there’s not a lot of it. It’s kind of like having a big neon sign that points to me [Laughs]…and people are like…”Oh yeah, that’s exactly what I’m looking for…it’s great!” [Laughs] But for people who are actively against that, like, “Oh no, we have too much of that,” or “I’m just really uncomfortable with that,” it also makes it easier for those people to find me and avoid me, you know.

The Feral Folk band
Allie LaRoe (photo credit: Aldene Nicole Young, used by permission)

It’s a difficult path! You’re sending messages out that, perhaps, don’t fit a popular (predictable?) dialogue for 2019. Which brings me to the Little Red Riding Hood metaphor. You refer to this tale in your new songwriting, and for your new record, as a place of empowerment. But it’s a tricky place. That folktale has been around for a long time and has been interpreted in lots of ways — some empowering and coming-of-age versions, of course, but some equally dark, very dark and violent versions. How are you extracting the empowerment message from this tale?

AL:
I think the first thing is that the violence is constantly present. We like to pretend that it doesn’t exist for all of us, but the statistics are insane. When we look at how many women each year are killed by their domestic partners, how many women are raped in the United States, how many women are in abusive relationships. I mean, there is a constant threat of violence that is very real.

And then you add in the emotional violence, and it’s even more present. So, for me, that makes it important because it does acknowledge that there is this…constant presence. And I kind of put it in the song…she becomes the wolf in the beginning, right: “I fell for the shapeshifter, he promised me paradise/and slipped me through the underworld/and left me in the woods to die/amongst the wild creatures I learned how to survive/I know the law of tooth and claw…” She’s become the wolf, basically, out of necessity.

And then you have the woodsman, who’s effectively the hero of the story. But for me, that’s a codependent relationship. Somebody wants you but only in the way they imagine you to be, not for who you are. “That old woodsman he kept me captive here/said it was to keep me safe but really it was me he feared/I lived in golden chains inside a gilded cage….”

So, I think that the empowerment comes from trying to acknowledge these very real dangers, and then acknowledging the choice. We actually have choice — fully informed, fully aware — that there is this actual threat.

Old farm house window

I thought pain was the only way to know I was alive
But if death always feels this good, then maybe I don’t mind
I had to put up a tough front in order to survive
Then you come looking like innocence and sunlight…

from the new single “Small Deaths” (Fox & Phoenix Records, 2019)

It’s hard to remain human these days. It requires a vulnerability. In the end, I think you’re directly confronting this essential vulnerability in your new song, “Small Deaths.” Why do you think it’s so hard for people to be vulnerable today?

AL:
Quite frankly, I think a lot of it is capitalism. It keeps telling us, this idea that you can just buy safety. The illusion of safety is meant and continues to exist…safety kind of means the denial of our vulnerability through a bunch of different means. And it’s all just an illusion.

Of course, we’re all mortal! We’re gonna die eventually, no matter what! Sometimes unexpectedly. Sometimes not so unexpectedly, at the end of a long life. The reality is that it’s still going to become tragic. No one really wants to face the reality of mortality. It’s even more tragic when you don’t let yourself actually experience life, while you’re alive!

GP:
Do you think there’s any potential — in this exploration of this theme for your record and for these songs — for people to misread it? To see this as a portrayal of women being weaker and needing protection? Part of the Red Riding Hood tale has had that aspect to it, too, from the past. That patriarchal “women need to be protected” nonsense. I just seems like a potentially risky path to take given the many interpretations of this story. [Laughs]

AL:
I don’t think there’s a non-risky path, quite frankly. There are lots of ways to interpret it. And people are not going to like me, and people are not going to like my version of femininity. Or, people are going to construe talking about femininity means that I do not actually believe in gender, which I don’t. I just happen to have been born female, and also identify with femininity. But I 100% believe gender is a construct. So yeah, I mean, it’s gonna happen, especially if it gets in front of a lot of people. And that’s fine!

Hopefully, I’ll find interviews like this one in which I can clarify, but you can’t…do you know how long a song would have to be if you were going to cover every single point and leave nothing open for interpretation? That would be like a 20-minute song! [Laughs] That would be a dissertation, not a song!

GP:
You’d probably need a film, too, to go with the song!

AL:
Yeah! Write up these concepts from an academic standpoint. You could have a bunch of, you know, like…bullet points at the bottom. I can’t do that with a song! So, of course there’s a possibility it will be misconstrued. But I can only put my reasoning out there, and people can take that to mean what they want.

But I do think part of liberation, or humanity, is acknowledging you don’t have to be a warrior all the goddamn time! We kind of have a war addiction, you know. We need an alternative that doesn’t require….

OK, I guess what it really comes down to is the concept that I am in conflict with, and am constantly trying to address in my music: the idea that power and dominance are the same thing. I don’t believe that they are. I believe we can be very powerful, but you don’t have to dominate anyone else in order to do that, you know.

GP:
Of course! Your approach to your work, your new record seems interesting, too: releasing one single at a time, taking your time, building your story song by song, show by show. You’ve set your theme, and as a band, you have a solid aesthetic. Why have you chosen to it this way?

AL:
A lot of it is just so that we have the time to build up an audience. There’s so much that goes into recording a whole album, especially when two of my bandmates have jobs, so that limits the possibilities. This is my full-time job, but it’s not everybody in the band’s full-time job. So, for me, with the limitations that we have, it’s like that old adage: you can put something out, and it can be good, fast, or cheap: pick two! Cheap is a necessity, and I’d like it to be good, too.

So, it’s going take a little bit longer. At least this way we’re not leaving people waiting multiple years for the record to come out, you know. We can put out something that’s fresh and new and exciting for people, and still have the time to dedicate to putting out the quality that I really believe people will love.

The Feral Folk band
The Feral Folk (photo credit: Aldene Nicole Young, used by permission)