Asking the Cards: An Interview With Awen

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The Belgian neofolk project Awen is the perfect culmination of their history mixing the traditional with popular folk into one of the most challenging ensembles of the decade. Their latest album Chosen Cards is built around the Tarot, each song representing a card in the deck and a guided path of possibilities. The word “Awen” itself means inspiration in Welsh and Breton, what inspires the bards and those who string words and sounds. There couldn’t be a more perfect word for what they are building.

Bart Deruyter from Awen actually reached out to us directly to share the dismal experience he had recently seeing neofolk being associated with fascism. “I explicitly want to ‘out’ we’re anti-fascist,” he said, mentioning that his vision of the new album ran completely at odds with these kind of ideologies. “I have played in a regular folk band in the past (+/- 15 years ago) and yes, then too some folk communities were associated with extremism. I always hated the implicit association and I see it is the case again!”

We interviewed Bart Deruyter about Awen, how it came together, what the concepts behind the new album are, and how traditionalism and paganism inform their development.

How did Awen come together? Were you all in bands before this?

It was in a time when I had changed jobs, when me and my girlfriend had moved away and when I just had quit previous bands, ‘Pia Fraus’ (electro/noise/industrial/experimental), ‘Onder Invloed’ (‘roughly translated as ‘under the influence, playing folk’) and ‘Tana’(piano/vocals). Lieselot, as one of my best friends and of my girlfriend, had been visiting the rehearsals and shows of Pia Fraus and also the shows of Onder Invloed. We already had been discussing the possibility of having her joining Pia Fraus with her accordion, but when I quit and the band subsequently split, it didn’t happen of course. 

But we kept in touch. After some talking about how hard it was to start something new, getting to know people and keeping friendships alive over longer distances, we then asked ourselves why we wouldn’t make music together. We decided we better would. Awen was born.

How do you describe your sound? Have you ever avoided using the neofolk label because of the right-wing connotations?

It is pretty hard to describe our sound. Given my past in music it has become a mix of a lot of influences. I’ve got a partly classical education, so there’s a lot of classical, even orchestral sound. But then again I have played bass and guitar in a folk band, so the sound became influenced by it too, and in the use of electronics and samples you can hear Pia Fraus reaching out. Some say the end result is much like film music.

A colleague of mine described it wonderfully. Awen is a house with many, many rooms.

When we finished our album ‘Chosen Cards’ we started thinking ‘What genre of music do we actually make?’ We had no clue. Then a friend of mine pointed us in the directon of Neofolk/Dark Folk/New Folk. We actually googled it and discovered there’s indeed this genre. We also discovered it can sound completely different across the globe. Even today I have no real idea on what it is that keeps it together as a genre. But when you hear it, you kind of know it is Neofolk. 

So imagine my surprise when I read about the association between neofolk and fascism. No, I don’t want us to be associated with fascism in any way. It is against the very nature of the music. The music itself is multicultural so how can it ever be fascist? Since we didn’t know about the ‘right-wing connotation’ in the first place, there was no reason to avoid the label. Even knowing it I don’t see why I should avoid it, it’s about describing a type of music, not politics.

What does it mean to be an antifascist band for you?

It is very simple: not being a fascist band. I’ll go even further, we are not an antifascist band because we should not be. We are not an activist band, we’re making music, not politics. To be clear, we don’t consider ourselves to be ‘anti’ anything in the first place. All we do is make music. We simply don’t want to be associated with fascism in any way.

Let’s be honest, there should not even be a channel like this to show one is ‘not fascist’ in the first place.

How do folk traditions play into your music? How about myths, legends, and pagan spirituality? What traditions do you pull from?

There are quite some folk elements. It is undeniable that the accordion is associated with the sound of folk music. But this is not by choice. Lieselot wanted to have a different way of playing her instrument, not the ‘traditional’ way in which it is being used. I think we succeeded at that, but the sound itself is enough for many, to make the link with folk. 

I use a lot of unusual rhythms and sometimes even mix musical meters within the same song, which is used a lot in traditional folk music. I’ve used samples of a friend playing the djembe, which brings us to folk music yet again. I think most of the folk traditions have slipped in unconsciously because I have been playing in a traditional folk band for about five years. It’s simply in the way I play.

An important tradition we have used, are the Tarot Cards. The topic of our album, are ‘chosen cards’. We’ve chosen twelve cards from the Tarot deck and interpreted them in our own way. We have lined up these cards so they could form a story. It’s up to the listener to make their own interpretation of it, to invent their own story. To start with, we used a story I have been writing for a long time, but writing it is on a pause for a few years because I’m too busy with music. That story is influenced by Wiccan and Pagan spirituality in several ways, ranging from the five elements , the elements of nature to symbolism and numerology. Again, it is not our intention to direct the listener to this story, but to their own. It was only a means for us to find an order.

How can using traditions from the past help liberate us now?

For me there are in essence two ways to deal with traditions. One is to follow them and the other is to rebel against them. But of course there is the gray zone, where you can mix and match between rebelling and following elements of a tradition. You follow what you like and rebel against what you dislike. 

But basically we all are someone’s children and we’ve been growing up with certain traditions, we can only build upon what we know and enrich it with what we learn from others. Knowing and understanding other traditions helps us to know and understand our own traditions better and it helps us criticize our own traditions too. In short, only by knowing other traditions you can evaluate your own traditions and try to get to the best possible result for yourself. 

You could then say it is not the original tradition anymore. That is true of course, but I’ve always been told, and I agree with it: when something does not evolve anymore, it is dead. 

I think with our music and lyrics we have accomplished an evolution for our own. We have used and mixed classical, folk, current techniques and traditions and created something which ‘liberates’ us from them by using them. Fascism locks in a fundamental set of traditions and doesn’t allow change. There is ‘neo’ in neofolk, which more then hints to ‘new’, or ‘renew’ which is a strong indication of ‘evolving’, ‘changing’, the opposite of fascist thinking.

How does songwriting work? Is it collaborative?

Yes, it is collaborative. It is true that I do most of the technical stuff, the technical ‘music-writing’ and ‘theory-thinking’ to make it fit, this certainly was my task when expanding from only ‘guitar and accordion’ to the use of samples and virtual instruments, but the basic songwriting is collaborative, because we write the lyrics together by discussing the topics very intensively and by listening and commenting on what we play. I can suggest a chord, then she agrees or disagrees to use it, or to abandon the idea. Then follows the way it is played, the voicing, the rhythm etc. it is all done collaboratively. 

What can bands do to push back on fascists in the scene?

Well, when I played in ‘Onder Invloed’ we once performed in the region near Brussels, where the discussion about using ‘Dutch’ or ‘French’ often becomes explosive. The village is officially Flemish, so all official documentation, schools, streets are Dutch, but the majority speaks French. Being from Flanders we were associated with the Dutch speaking side, while we were not taking any side. We played music from Flanders, Wallonia, France, Sweden, Iran, England, Ireland, Scotland, etc… in an empty hall. Sure, we were not a ‘famous’ band, but nobody showed up, afraid of possible conflict. Which is a shame of course, sharing cultures is the best way to learn from each other.

So, what we can do as bands? We can only play music. 

What’s coming next for you?

Our album is ready, we have done a few performances, now we would like to do more, many more. We have grown as a duo, in our music, we now need to grow as a live band. The only way to do that is by doing shows. We want to play! We want to lay our cards for our public and let them tell what’s coming next 🙂 .

What bands would you recommend for antifascist neofolk fans?

As I described earlier we were not aware we were making neofolk in the first place, so we don’t really know much about other ‘neofolk’ bands apart from what we researched to figure out what we do. We would love to find our way in the scene, so I’ll return you the same question, what bands would fit with us? Maybe us ‘matching’ bands could help each other by being each others ‘supporting acts’ on shows or Neofolk festivals etc. 

Secondly we were not aware there actually is something as ‘fascist neofolk’, it only showed up while researching the term ‘neofolk’, so we cannot (yet) recommend ‘antifascist’ bands. Fascist or antifascist never showed up on our radar since we even didn’t ever expect it to exist in the first place. 

We are adding Awen’s new album Chosen Cards below from their Bandcamp. They are not on Spotify yet, but we have added a number of new tracks to our Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify so make sure to follow it!



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