The 00’s folk boom can easily be viewed cynically. Its claims to the folk name are often as minute as an acoustic guitar, with little else to naught in common with folk song/instrument traditions, or 60’s/70’s revivals, aside from an abundance of chunky sweaters. But drowning in a sea of trendy appropriation are some genuinely substantial talents, the poetic songstress Laura Marling and the imaginative harmonies of Fleet Foxes to name two. However, if Marling was the 21st Century Leonard Cohen and Fleet Foxes our Crosby, Still and Nash, where was our Bert Jansch, our John Renbourn, to be blunt where were our players, our virtuosos?
Listening to 21 year old Toby Nobles debut E.P. “Rivers”, we might have found the answer. It’s all original guitar music, but the melodies echo the flavour and pull of traditional tunes and jigs, all the while being coloured with Nick Drake-esque, dream-like overtones and played with the fluency of the late Jansch. It’s contemporary and fresh but all the while remains respectful to and builds upon the past. It’s a progression, not a reduction.
I first saw Toby play in the cozy and charming Whites Deli in Headingley, a warm up gig for his upcoming tour. I was surprised at how well the solely instrumental tunes translated live, there was power and rhythm behind the intricate string skipping, sending them soaring across the room while his gymnast like hands had gazes fixed. I wanted to know what had brought Toby to pursue the rarely travelled road of Folk-Baroque solo-guitar, so I tried to arrange a coffee for the following day. He was happy to talk but suggested a midday pint instead, so dropping the caffeine for the hops we agreed on a time and place.
We met at an intimate bar alongside the Leeds Canal, on a rare, squintingly—sunny Yorkshire day. Arriving spot on time, Toby immediately strikes one as particularly English, polite and proper, and in that sense neatly mirrors the refined nature of his music. We ordered some local ales and lifting his pint, his hands moved similarly to the way they had scaled his fretboard the previous night, showing a natural tendency towards grace.
Sitting outside to make the most of weather, I asked how he came to acquire such thorough control of his instrument. “I started out from a solid classical guitar basis at age 8” he explained, “once I progressed through the grades I left that music largely behind but took the technique with me.” This would explain the nature of his right hand, not a claw hammer, banjo inspired approach like many folk guitarists, but a balanced, clean and tone conscious, properly positioned three finger employment.
In this day and age, it is less common to start out playing traditional music as it is discover it later on, I was wondering what it had been that initially captured Toby’s interest. “I was playing a lot of blues on the electric guitar during my teens, so I was already interested in roots music to a certain degree, but my primary purpose at that point was to solo, I wasn’t carrying an entire composition myself. I heard a friend of mine play a traditional tune in an open tuning, and I just thought that’s it”
This chance encounter set him on a new and committed path, his approach organised and precise, in-line with his characteristic and manner. He digested all the English, Irish tunes he could, building up a vocabulary and understanding of where the music came from, while listening to impressionistic enigmas such as Nick Drake and Martin Simpson to see were it could go. “I was fascinated by the fact this music was steeped in history and tradition but at the same had influenced such individualistic artists, it seemed to tap into all worlds.”
After an exploration of the past Toby went about creating his own material; set on solo-guitar music, he was keen not to rely on simply flaunting technical skill or modern-day finger-style techniques such as body slapping and double-handed tapping, but to let the melody and arrangement speak loudest. “Pat Metheny’s solo work is a guide to me” he says “our styles and genres are very different, but his compositions lead his hands and not the other way round, and that’s the way I wanted to write.”
One particular technique he did deem vital was a right hand triplet effect he learnt from listening to the Celtic guitarist Tony McManus. “Tony mimics the tonguing flutes and pipes use to decorate tunes which these rapid right hand movements, it took a while to learn proficiently but I knew these ornaments were key the folk idiom”. McManus, as well as the influence of guitarists Martin Simpson and Clive Carroll can be heard in Toby’s playing. For someone so young this is musical maturity come exceptionally early, with him already fast on the trail of these giants heights, all of whom are well into their forties.
His debut E.P. is entitled “Rivers”, after the first track he composed in his current style. He speaks of this piece with a nostalgic fondness, an appreciation of the direction its taken him. “It came quite naturally, and I just wanted to write more”, his enthusiasm leading him to write three more tracks, all steeped in melodic, pastoral imagery, and which he is now touring around the north of England.
I inquire about a Irish air he played the previous night, ‘Si bheag si mohr’, and he tells me he plans to release it on E.P. of traditional material after his tour, along with starting up a new and ambitious original project. “I’ve started writing for a band environment, I was really inspired by Chris Thile and Stuart Duncan’s ‘Goat Rodeo Sessions’ and would love to write and be part of something along those lines”.
We talked for over an hour about music, then had a few more pints and a game of table football. The alcohol didn’t knock his measured reasonability, and we shook hands as steadily on departure as on arrival. I walk home satisfied that the future of folk music is bright and safe, not lost to trivialisation or stuck in dull conservatism, but progressing with diligence and passion.
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