If you have lately turned on your radio, your Spotify, or your Pandora, you have no doubt noticed the growing popularity of alt-folk music. If you don’t think you know what alt-folk music is, guess what, you do. Alt-folk music is that sad-ish music that you hear in commercials, the kind that makes you want to seize the day, take a road-trip, kiss a hottie, and buy a Kia-something. Moms love it. Dads love it. You will know it by its mandolin twangs and banjo swells, by its syncopated “heys” and “hos” and “yeehaws,” by its use and abuse of the word “dear.”
With approximately 3,768 new folk bands entering the American music scene every day, and over 78 banjo strums per minute on the average college radio station, alt-folk music is a rich reserve of profit just waiting to be tapped. So why not start your own alt-folk band? It is relatively easy to do, and soon you too can be playing sad and barefoot at sold-out stadium venues.
Here is how.
Step 1. Recruit a Motley Crew of Dirty Bandmates
It pretty much goes without saying that you’re going to be the lead-guitarist. Duh.
But your band will require between two and nine more people. Start by looking for a diverse bunch of many different kinds of white dudes. You will need, at the very least, the following: one with big, poofy hair; one with an ironic mullet; a short, squat one with a mermaid tattoo; a tall, willowy guy with a mustache that covers his teeth when he smiles; an ethnically-maybe-ambiguous white guy with brow game stronger than Sam the Eagle.
Once you’ve got those (and more, maybe) there’s one more member you need: the chick. The chick is critical. You cannot have an alt-folk band without the chick. How else can you do riotous two-part harmonies and sweet, wailing bridge crescendos without the chick’s charmingly-halting mezzo-soprano croon? Just one chick will do. She should be white, too, but not, like, Connecticut white. She should be Berkeley white, or Seattle white, like the kind of girl who likes Free People and deleted her Facebook and went to Africa that one time with in college. She should be tall, and graceful like a doe is graceful. Her hips should sway slowly from side to side as she sings and plays, a hypnosis to match her siren’s song. She should draw you in with her big, lamp eyes and goofy smile. Her name should be Lynanna-Lee Mayberry, or very close to it.
Step 2. Buy Some Instruments
Most bands only need a guitar, a bass, and some drums to really get going. An alt-folk band is a bit more of an investment. For sure you’re going to want a guitar (which you, duh, will be playing) (acoustic, always, and named something like “Sycamore” or “Sidhe” or “Lady Day”) For bass, get one of those big upright ones that is harder to carry, but so, so much artsier than an electric.
Next, acquire a fiddle, a mandolin, a banjo, and an accordion.
Give the accordion to the stocky guy with the mermaid tattoos. Give the bass to the willowy-mustachio. Give the chick the mandolin, the fiddle, or the banjo. Never give the chick a tambourine. What do you think this is? The 70s?
You’re probably asking, “but what about the drums?” Fortunately, drums aren’t really important in this equation. Drums are distracting, and not really “front-porchy,” and besides, most of your percussion will come in the form of hand-clapping, foot-stopping, and delicate thrum of the hearts of your players and your audience beating as one.
Step 3. Write a Few Songs
Practice a bit with your instruments, then practice a bit more as a group. Not enough that it sounds forced. You want to be, like, jagged and ragged and a bunch of synonyms that might mean bad but they don’t because you’re supposed to sound like that.
You should write the melodies—you, and whoever’s got the banjo, and the afro guy, you can tag-team those one. There should be some picking and some strumming. There should be a moment in the song where it builds to be very loud, which will happen at the end of the bridge. Plus a moment where the guitar goes “chunggggg chuck chucka chungggggggg chungachungachungaCHUNGACHUNG” and you toss your curls back as your hair is tousled by wind and utter forth a raspy, packaday wail of “heeeey, ohhhhhhh, well, darling de-e-e-ear!”
Lyrics are very important to alt-folk. Traditionally, folk songs were about a lot of different things, and some folk songs are still about a lot of different things. But if you want to be Pinterest-inspiration-board levels of popular, you need to write songs about things you have never experienced, skeumorph set to music, relying on the worn motif of a forgotten age to evoke a sense of cozy familiarity and a nostalgia for a past which had no cell phones, but teemed and festered of horrors and inhumanity.
Gloss over the horrors and inhumanity by sticking to topics like:
Dear; old, old dress; the mountains; the valley; things bygone; mama; honey; my yard; your front porch; dollars; this damn nation; this god-damned nation, boy; hands-based symbolism; cigarettes; the road; bourbon; this city; this here river; romance; you better work hard boy, you god-damn better do it; sensual dances; toes; the uncertainty of the horizon; the distorted shadows of the past; mills; millers; whiskey; the baby we had by accident, who is a symbol; the aspirations of our parents; the ocean; the rich men who stole my girl away; my girl.
Step 4. Come Up With a Band Name
Next up, band name. This is important because it’s going to be on all the t-shirts you print, and all the beer cozies, so do your homework and make it count. A little-known shortcut for coming up with a good alt-folk band name is that if it sounds like it could be the name of an Old Country General Store, it’s probably a damn good alt-folk band name.
Here are a couple examples I came up with just now: The Cavern Divers. The Hungry-Hearted. Mossy River. Come January. The Lorimers. The Whisker Brothers. The Cattail Brothers. The Catfish Brothers. The Fishfry Brothers. Bakerloo. Bold the Brave. The Bold Bold Braves. The Grassy Drifters. The Grassy Grifters. Mandolin Canyon. Candling Pinion. Candler Pistons. Grey Brown Steppes. Jackdaws. Crow Rooster. Keening Sallies. Morgie Bumper and the Slidewhistles. Clyde Clayton and the Foremen. Old Old Bones. Mira Mae Latterday. San Coolot. Cold Cohoots. San Sunny. Up a Tree. Up to Tree. Treebough. Tree Bears. Beardeer. The Bare Boughs. Tire Swing. Swingsally. Sally Singer and the Songbirds. Songbird Longbird. Wrongbird. The Birder Brothers.
You will know you have chosen the perfect name when you can hear All Songs Considered’s Bob Boilen saying it on national air in his steady, vanilla-cream voice as he pronounces the sensitive brilliance of your first effort to a remote crowd of adoring NPR listeners.
Step 5. Play a Lot Outside
You can get popular by getting down and jangly in as public a place as is possible, as often as is possible. Play essentially anywhere that you know Whole Foods shoppers and lightly toasty college students hang out on a sun-soaked Saturday afternoon: farmers markets, craft fairs, arts fairs, cheese festivals, beer festivals, cured meat festivals, etc. Things by waterfronts are good, because then you have the added advantage of the salt air delicately tossing your curls as you play.
Being on stage so much, you’re bound to develop a good rapport with your audience—or should I say, complete lack thereof. After all, an alt-folk band with too much charisma risks looking too intentional and too constructed.
No, one of the primary goals of an alt-folk-singer is to look as stage-frightened and gosh-darned starry-eyed as possible all the time. After your opening song (“Mountain Valley Blues”) react to the audience applause by running your long, calloused fingers through your hair, issuing a shy, wide-eyed smile over the crowd, and golly-gee-whillickering like you’re a Kansas farmboy who just walked on the damn stage and picked up his damn guitar by accident and cannot believe his damn luck that all these nice people just started a-watchin’ and a-stompin’ as you and your boys played.
Ideally, this will reel them in for “Dawn With the Blue-Eyed Rooster Crow”—the slow jam so heart-tugging, so visceral, so earthy, so real, no one need know that you’re from Scarsdale and have never seen a rooster before, and would not even be able to pick one out from a lineup of several kinds of farm animals without significant prompting and at least two hints.
Step 6. Record Your First Album
Your first album should use more sunrise motif than you think you need. Your first album should have a title containing the word “sessions.”
Insist it’s called a record, though, not an album. And you didn’t record it, you cut it. You cut your first record. Say that across social media channels—“We’ve cut our first record. The boys and I put a lot of soul into it, we sure did. The boys and me and Corinna Fae Lee. It’s called The Wagon Loom and it explores the legacy of the American spirit. Half the songs are about the rails.”
If you have done all the work, and followed all the steps properly, the festival circuit should be reaching out soon, boys. So have six to eight Dylan covers ready for when you get the call.