Cinder Well is one of the most well centered projects in the emerging world of left and antiracist neofolk/dark folks/traditional folk, being made up of musicians from a range of projects coming together to riff on regional folk music. Emerging from the songwriting of Amelia Baker, now based in Ireland and studying/teaching Irish fiddle, the music is a haunting blend of styles that feels draw from the stories of communities often forgotten.
In this interview with Amelia Baker, we talk about how Cinder Well came together, how its instrumentation developed, and why they have made it a priority to speak up against white supremacy.
How did your project come together? Is it the first musical project you have done?
I started writing music under the name Cinder Well to have a solo project that could evolve over time. I wanted to be able to perform solo, but also collaborate, perform and record with other musicians. The first Cinder Well EP and early shows were mostly solo – but tours have happened in many configurations. The Unconscious Echo was a collaboration with a full band – several members of Blackbird Raum, and members of Vradiazei were in the mix.
I’ve been writing music since I was a teenager – at first for no one, then for myself, and then for various projects in Santa Cruz. There was a really active, creative and supportive music scene when I lived there around 2008-2013. Playing and touring with Gembrokers and Blackbird Raum was hugely formative for me, and Cinder Well definitely grew out of that same vein of music, ideology, and community.
Cinder Well feels like a story that’s unfolding and being told from many angles and I’m there to kind of guide it along.
How do you go about songwriting? What instruments are involved?
A song usually starts with a melody in my head that is so gloriously satisfying that it needs to have something built around it. I start singing the melody, or playing it on something, and then words fill in. Sometimes I have a really clear image or story that I’m trying to portray, but other times the words just come out and create images and concepts that may end up making more sense to me later on.
I use lots of different instruments while I’m writing music. Often I’ll switch between them to get ideas for chords, harmony, and melody, and to find the right groove. Many of the songs that I play live on my resonator guitar were written on other instruments (banjo, piano, bouzouki) that I don’t bring around on tour.
I wrote a lot of the string parts on The Unconscious Echo, but more recently, I bring the bones of a song to my bandmates, we all talk about the concept, and we collaborate on where it goes. On this recent tour, Marit and I rearranged some of the songs to play as a duo that we had recorded as a full band, which was really interesting and exciting to see how the songs could continue to evolve and feel new to us again.
Strangely, when I try to remember where and when I wrote a particular song, I often find that I have no memory of it. I have found that the best songs come out almost all at once. When I find myself meddling, overthinking, theorizing with a piece of music, its usually not going to make it out of the mill.
What genre do you consider your music? Do you see yourself as a part of the larger neofolk scene?
I guess I consider it original folk music because I am so completely immersed in folk and traditional music, but the majority of the material we record and perform live is original.
I live in Ireland, where I study and play traditional music and ballads, and Mae and Marit play Klezmer and Scandinavian music (check out their string duo, Varda). But myself and everyone who plays/ has played in Cinder Well started playing music not really in folk scenes but rather in DIY, punk, anarchist crossover communities that was Santa Cruz and the West Coast in the first, say, 15 years of the 2000s.
I don’t at all consider Cinder Well to be a neofolk band or as part of the neofolk community (other than, by some fluke, Cinder Well being tagged as neofolk on Google, and I don’t think this interview will change that algorithm!). I’ve never entirely understood what neofolk music is, but I do know that many of the pioneers of the genre (i.e. Death in June) experimented with fascist aesthetics. Therefore I’ve had zero interest in personally trying to identify with the genre and redefine it as antifascist. I suppose the genre of neofolk was born out of punk and folk elements from a certain era, and so was Cinder Well, but a different era altogether.
Why is it important to be an antifascist band?
It’s important to be an antifascist band because it’s important to be antifascist – and for that to be 100% clear. I used to be somewhat “benefit of the doubt” when it came to bands that “seemed cool” but used maybe kind of sketchy imagery. But I had some experiences in the past few years with people and bands who use mysteriously fascist imagery, that as a Jewish person, I found to be terrifying and invoking of generational/historical trauma that I didn’t know I even had. The Unconscious Echo really came out of that process; the album as a whole and especially the title track. The experience of the irrational fear that arose in me in the presence of that symbolism, while being told it isn’t fascist, made me realize that NO ONE should have to be made to feel unsafe like that.
I am a white, Jewish, cis-gendered woman. And as white people we are all complicit, consciously and subconsciously, in white supremacy in the way that it benefits us. It is only with white supremacist privilege that a white person can use a symbol that looks like a swastika and redefine that meaning for those it was used against. For Jewish people. People of color. Queer and trans people.
When a swastika is used by a white person “not in a Nazi way” it can provoke a huge amount of fear and panic in people who have a deeply engrained story of what a swastika means. So if you’re antifascist just fucking say it and BE antifascist, to provide solace and clarity for everyone who is seeking that in art.
Music creates vulnerable spaces for both musicians and listeners. All I can ever hope to do with my music is to provide an environment where people can safely feel all the things they need to feel, and have a moment of reflection from the world we live in. Safely, without question.
What is coming next for you?
We have a tour coming up in October on the West Coast, and there’s an album in the works. In the meantime I’ll be playing some solo gigs around Ireland and the UK.
We recently had two amazing tours in Europe and the UK that have left us feeling excited and encouraged about what we’re doing. We’re just going to keep writing, playing, and recording, because we love it, and see what comes our way.
Check out some of the Cinder Well tracks below from their Bandcamp, and they have been added to our Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify!