A Neo-Medieval Revival: An Interview With Dandelion Wine

There is revival of eclectic pan-folk ensemble happening, drawing together traditions and modernity into an exciting fusion of genres. Part of this is the impulse to build something new, but it is also to rediscover ancestral art traditions that have been crushed by consumer capitalism. One of the most unique aspects of the folk fusion has been the intersection of electronic production and traditional instruments, a strange crashing of worlds that has produced some of the most inspired music.

Dandelion Wine is one of these ensembles that does the difficult work of avoiding the tired cliches of ethereal projects of the past (let Enya die) by creating incredibly complex productions that feel imminently present. They reached out to us, wanting to speak out against the current rise of the far-right and to share their music with a new generation of fans. We talked about their revival of medieval European music styles, their collaborations with bands like Faun, the musicians who inspire them, and why they are speaking out.

How did Dandelion Wine first come together? What was the background of all the members? Was this their first band?

Nicholas: I was in a couple of inconsequential local bands but Dandelion Wine is the first worth mentioning – haha! When we were based in Europe I was also a member of the French post-punk band Object and after that I also played with the Australian psych-folk band Trappist Afterland. I’ve done some guest spots playing various old instruments with a few others and work with ethereal faery singer Louisa John-Krol semi-regularly.

Naomi: Dandelion Wine is my first band! I had never thought of this before… basically the band came together one day when Nicholas and I were hanging out and he was playing guitar. (even now he always has a guitar or other instrument within easy reach) I was just singing along, as one does, and we realised that what I came up with against his guitar noodlings was actually pretty good… perhaps better than the other music he was involved with and we decided to start a band. I had learnt flute at school and our family had a tradition of singing songs around the guitar or the pianola at my grandmothers house, but I wasn’t really pursuing a musical career at that point, it was just something that I enjoyed doing. My real passion at the time was acting, but I seemed to be getting further in the first 6 months of Dandelion Wine, than in years of pursuing acting so that really took over! Obviously not being afraid of being on a stage in front of people was a transferable skill though.

I think initially we poached the drummer from one of Nicholas’ old bands and advertised for a bassist. That was a long time ago now and the band has been through many forms since. The other most notable point in time was when one of our (many) drummers decided to leave the band just before we opened for Canadian folk-punk artist Ember Swift! Not wanting to cancel at the last minute and seem unprofessional, Nicholas programmed a sampler to replace him. Conscious that drum machines often sounded naff, we tried to compensate for it by using unusual sounds and not making any attempt to try to make it sound like a real drummer… the response was quite positive and it became the beginning of our development into a more electronic sound.

Nicholas: we had dabbled with adding electronics to things previously but this pushed us further down that path and we haven’t looked back. The melding of acoustic and human with the synthetic and mechanical has become central to what we do.

What drove you to such an eclectic mix of medieval instruments?

Nicholas: That was probably my doing in a lot of ways – I have always been fascinated by all things medieval – I remember in primary school we had an art project where we had to make a marionette; other kids were making firemen and stuff and I made a Templar – haha! I’ve played guitar for a billion years and always wanted a lute – it took a long time before I finally got my hands on a lute but along the way I started picking up other instruments – first mandolin and then Appalachian dulcimer, hammered dulcimer and bell cittern. I have a bowed psaltery too but these days we usually give that to Francesca to play because she’s the one with the bow skills.

Naomi: We come from a country with a relatively young history. So for me, seeing anything that’s really “old” (remembering that most of the castles and old towns in Europe are older than the non-indigenous settlement in this country) is intriguing and special. Aside from the land itself, there is nothing that old here that isn’t in a museum!

Why do you think medieval music is still so resonant today?

Nicholas: I think it’s partially about evoking a world without the digital distractions of now – there’s absolutely a magical component inherent in these kinds of instruments that is different to what can be achieved with modern instruments. I think that part of it is that medieval music is the root of most European music. Of course, you can trace it back even further, especially to the middle east, but the roots of modern folk and classical and by default rock and electronica are all there (of course rock also has a huge debt to blues and African music as well). I always laugh when I see festivals or publications about “roots music” – Roots? Pffft… There’s nothing on that bill that sounds like it is earlier than the 20th century, and most of it sounds like the 1950s or later! Haha!

Naomi: I think we were quite surprised by the discovery of the medieval music scene in Europe. There’s not much equivalent to this in Australia… again, because the modern culture here is quite young comparatively, it’s not something that exists here. I do wonder if it’s peoples way of staying connected to the past and the history of their people. It also just has an energy that’s more organic and grounding than other styles of music. 

What does the work of Robert “Bo” Boehm mean to you, and why did you include a tribute to him on the new album?

Naomi: Bo was a friend of ours who passed away about 6 years ago. He was one of the few sound engineers that “got” us. His regular gig back in the late 90’s/early 00’s was doing the sound at the legendary Punters Club hotel in Melbourne. The first time he mixed us, he gave us feedback on our music that wasn’t just “you should sing louder” or ” you have too many instruments” *rolls eyes*. He seemed to understand what we were aiming for and complemented it beautifully in the way he mixed us.

He was also a great musician in his own right. His band Clown Smiling Backwards was doing really well at the time and then later his work with Wind Up Toys was also ground breaking as well.

Nicholas: The Winduptoys albums was one of the few 21st century electronic albums that was made without MIDI and without a computer – you have to love that. Bo was such a pioneer in industrial, psychedelic and shoegaze music in Australia and was a superb human on top of that. Aside from his formidable talent and knowledge, he was also the nicest person you could hope to meet and became a good friend over the years. We initially covered “Persistence Of Vision” at a tribute gig for Bo that happened right after he died. We were organising the show as a benefit to help cover his expenses while he was in hospital but sadly he passed away before it happened. We were all absolutely crushed, as were many people in Melbourne.

Le Cœur

What was the conceptual idea behind Le Cœur?

Naomi: We began writing and recording this album not that long after we returned from a year living in Berlin. We thought we would finish it before our first child was born. He is now 9 years old! To be honest, there’s only a few songs that continued on to be on Le Coeur. At some point we threw out a lot of material that was left sitting half finished and started on new things. The energy and impetus had died on these tracks. We also had the addition of Francesca to the band around 4 years later so it seemed to make sense to start again in some respects- bar the songs that were finished and we were happy with.

We took the opportunity to do a photo shoot for the album cover when I was pregnant for the second time. I’d had this idea of re-creating Salvador Dali’s ‘Desirable Death’ with pregnant bodies. (the work is six naked females photographed in such a way that they form the shape of a human skull) I thought it would be a really interesting comment to illustrate death with women literally teaming with new life inside them. As it turned out, I could only find two other women that were pregnant and were happy to be involved, so we didn’t quite have enough bodies to make a skull, (how we would have done that anyway, I’m not quite sure… the shapes are quite different!) but we did make some great shapes that were reminiscent of the patterns that are found in nature, still continuing with the life theme. This is where the concept behind the album began to form. 

We had also recorded the sound of our son’s heart beat while he was still in utero, thinking that it might make a pretty cool rhythm track on a song. We did the same with our second child and we suddenly realised that the theme of things coming from the heart, the fear the heart has of losing things and needing a physical heart to beat to make us exist, were present throughout all the songs in some form. That’s when we came up with the name Le Coeur (the heart) for the album.

What bands have influenced you? What influence does Faun have on your work?

Nicholas: we were a lot less folk based when we started – we were more influenced by the likes of Jane’s Addiction, NIN, Smashing Pumpkins or shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine but the folk elements just started creeping in. In particular, there was an Australian band in the 90s called Lothlorien that were hugely influential. They fused Celtic melodies with African rhythms and the album Aurelia was absolutely incredible. Naomi and I used to go see them all the time and that was the first time that I really started to realise that folk music wasn’t just baby boomers trying to be Bob Dylan with generic predictable three chord songs – it opened up a big world for me. Of course, with us it naturally ended up being much darker, more along the lines of Dead Can Dance. Also, their singer/guitarist Nic Morrey built my Appalachian dulcimer, hammered dulcimer and bowed psaltery for me.

I remember when a goth DJ from a club we played at in Germany gave me a copy of a magazine that had a disc of music and videos which had an early Faun song on it. Most of the other music wasn’t that interesting but the Faun video was a great moment of discovering someone else who was combining old folk with dark electronica in a way that was really intriguing. Since then we have played a few festivals with them and had some good times together. They have been really supportive and it was great that Rüdiger from Faun played percussion on “Hall Of Leaves.” I originally did some percussion on that but I’m not a percussionist and we really felt it needed something better. We kept hearing Rüdiger’s playing on it so we asked him and within a few days it was done. He is one of those people that lives and breathes drums and is an absolutely phenomenal player – it really lifted the song and made it exactly what we were striving for. I think part of Faun’s influence is just how encouraging it is to see a band with electronics, hurdy gurdy, harp etc become a platinum selling band that sells out huge venues – not that we’re about to have a platinum record any time soon (haha!) but it’s great to see a band of really great people playing great music and doing so well with it. The integrity and quality they approach everything with is really inspiring.

There is an eclectic, international approach to the music. Talk about that synthesis, why have you intermixed cultural influences?

Nicholas: It has always seemed like a natural thing to do, rather than a thinking “wouldn’t it be cool if we mixed this with this” kind of thing. Melbourne is a very multicultural city and we grew up with that around us all the time. My background is half Greek and half garden-variety-Anglo so there’s also that mix of tonalities but I think ultimately we just gravitate to things that resonate with us. If things really click and resonate they will ultimately find their way into your own art subconsciously but it has to happen naturally – we’re not trying to be some cheesy “world music” project.

There’s also the elements that some of our guests have brought to the album – for example, none of us are about to take up Erhu (two string Chinese fiddle) but our friend HakGwai Lau from Hong Kong is a great erhu player and also comes from a metal and post-rock background so his style fitted perfectly on “One Of My Friendly Days”. Phil Coyle has studied Persian frame drumming for years and his playing completely captured the atmosphere we were going for on “Pilgrimage”.

Naomi: I think our mix of cultural influence really comes from our curiosities about sound and instrumentation and a love of the unusual. We are the kind of people that are really excited by seeing a new instrument in the flesh! We are attracted to unusual things and different sounds and tones, we appreciate the craftsmanship in an instrument and the time and energy spent creating these things. 

I saw a Jouhakko for the first time the other day played by Songleikr (Norway/Denmark) at the Faiere Worlds online festival and straight away I was curious to know about this beautiful instrument and what it was, where it came from, how the sound was being made. 

Again, living in Melbourne, we’ve always had the chance to see a lot of different styles of music, or at least been able to find them if we sought them out. The inclusion of various instruments in the band was firstly a matter of interest, then secondly a matter of coming across them for sale or knowing someone who made them. 

Nicholas particularly has really fallen in love with each instrument he has ended up buying. A great example of this is the Bell Cittern which we found on tour in London. A friend had taken us to an amazing music shop called Hobgoblin Music and Nicholas sat for a whole hour playing this Bell Cittern – Kirstin (our accordian/synth player on that tour) and I had gone through playing dozens of instruments in the shop in that time. We actually left the shop empty handed, it wasn’t until we had gotten home after the tour that Nicholas realized he was pining for that instrument. When he rang the shop to see if it was still there and if it could be sent over, the guy in the shop remembered him immediately and made some comment about being surprised he hadn’t come back for it already! It’s a love affair, mainly Nicholas and his instruments…. ;-p

Walk us through the music writing process. How do you mix organic instrumentation with electronic sounds?

Nicholas: In the studio it is always about what serves the song and what best conveys the atmosphere and emotion we’re trying to create. These days we tend to write as we record but the initial idea is usually sparked with a riff or melody on an acoustic instrument and then we build around that. When we are layering things up we approach it the same way you would approach an orchestra: each instrument has it’s own range of colour and frequencies so we use each one to fill in that particular part of the sonic spectrum. 

Naomi: That love of the instruments and sounds we have really come to the fore in this process… we really just like using instruments with sounds that we love to create our music, whether it’s a fat synth sound Nicholas has created or a riff on the sansula. You’d be surprised sometimes how these disparate instruments can really compliment and contrast each other so nicely and work together to create a mood or convey a feeling.

Nicholas: Live is a totally different story though – we usually choose the parts that are the most central to the song and go from there. We don’t try and make it sound like the album but we try for the right impact for the song. Sometimes that means I’m playing dulcimer and guitar in the one song, maybe using extra delays and things to suggest the layering on the album or Francesca will loop certain cello parts live. We do use a laptop live for the beats and synthetic elements but we don’t want to do some cheesy karaoke version of it – it’s important to us that the bulk of it is still performed live by actual humans and we are just using Ableton for beats and synthetics.

What drives most of your lyrics?

Naomi: My lyrics are usually driven by personal experiences. With the odd fairy tale or myth thrown in. Most of my lyrics are about dead people actually! (Or the fall out thereafter) This is probably the first album that is more about life than death, with two of the songs being literally about the birth of our children. And even then there’s still a ghost on the album with the inclusion of a cover by the late Robert Bohem. 

I often write lyrics that are about deeply personal things, usually buried in metaphor so as not to be too exposed and also to allow interpretation and relation to the listener. I’m a fan of multiple interpretations and meanings in art, so I think being aware of that sometimes drives the lyrical style. 

For example the song “Stable“ had once been interpreted to be about being repressed by a partner,  but the song is actually about a friend who had a mental health episode one day, it was written in first person. I was so pleased that there could be a totally different meaning in the song for someone else and I suspect that this person related to that idea because it was how they felt. 

Nicholas: There was someone else who messaged us and told us that that song had helped them through a rough breakup – again, its not what the song was intended to be but it’s great that it was interpreted in a way that helped them.

Naomi: I think it’s really important that music can show that other people have felt as you have. There’s nothing more isolating than to think you are the only person to have ever suffered like this, it’s a real comfort to be able to relate to heavy emotions in a song (and art in general) to help us through sad and difficult times. It’s funny, we hesitated to release this album when Covid19 hit. But I went for a walk one day listening to Le Coeur and realised that there’s so much in it that relates to this current world situation and how comforting it was to be to listen to this album right now. The themes of struggling past depression to get on with it, of being scared that things won’t work out, but the hope and beauty in contrast of birth and renewal and hope, these matters of the heart, were actually quite appropriate right now. So here we are!

What role does ancestral or pagan spiritual traditions play in the music?

Nicholas: It’s funny, I have always been drawn to scales and tonalities that are a bit different to the standard western major and minor scales but I didn’t really know where that came from. It was only when I was working with a friend who plays Greek Rebetika that I found out that the scales I was using were actually Greek scales – he gave me a print out of a list of Greek scales and I recognised them as being present in my music for years. I found it really interesting that my Greek heritage was coming through in ways I had never expected – I’ve only recently started learning the Greek language but the Greek musical language was sort of innate. Since discovering that, there are more overtly Greek aspects coming through, such as lute and guitar solos in “Hall Of Leaves” and the rhythms in “Too Late She Cried”. Thematically, there’s always an undercurrent of various alchemical and pagan ideas but again, it’s more of a subconscious thing – an example of general interests and worldview being present in the music without trying to deliberately encapsulate those ideas.

Naomi: Lyrically I’ve sometimes drawn from fairy folk lore and myth. When I’m tired of singing “woe is me” (haha!) it’s a rich world of images and strong archetypal characters to delve into. Like so many classic stories that have been around for so long, there’s something in them that still seems to somehow apply to our modern lives. Our base human endeavours and needs seem to still be the same somehow.

Why have you chosen to take a stand against the far-right? Why do you think it is important to be antifascist?

Nicholas: Largely because it’s the decent thing to do. Unfortunately we’ve reached a point now where the far-right can’t be dismissed as just a few random hicks that are annoying but fairly inconsequential. The rise of these repulsive populist leaders that deliberately cultivate far-right bigotry and steps toward authoritarian regimes has really made the need to stand up against it more urgent. We have the benefit of 20th century history to see where this paths leads and to wilfully turn a blind eye to that is just not an option. We now see a country that was seen as a pillar of democracy that is now using military personnel in unmarked vans abducting people on the street, we see idiots all around the world in pseudo-third reich regalia chanting hatred and bigotry and the list goes on and on. I feel like we have direct evidence of the 1930s and 40s to warn us – we can see the signs and it’s absolutely imperative that we heed them. I don’t really care how left you are – we can debate the pros and cons of capitalism all day but fascism is not something to be debated. It has no place in a civilised society.

Do you feel like there is a growing circle of folk inspired musicians who are building their own scene?

Nicholas: Yes, definitely. It is of different size and scales in different regions but it is definitely there. A lot of our touring is done in Europe and the explosion of medieval and related bands there is incredible. Festival Mediaval in Germany is a perfect example: thousands of people over three days of everything from traditional medieval, to medieval metal, Celtic folk, electronic hybrids, Balkan music etc… all folk inspired but taken to so many different directions. Menuo Juodaragis in Lithuania is another one – it is heavily centred on Baltic pagan traditions but is very musically diverse within that. We are lucky enough to have played that a couple of times and made great great friends and discovered great new bands. 

What’s coming next for you?

Naomi: Well, we are still in stage 4 lock down in Melbourne for another 3 weeks at least, so no concerts for us just yet. We did manage to record a video of a (no audience) live performance in between lock downs that’s just gone up online! That was a great bit of luck that we had planned it for that particular day… if we’d planned it a day later we would have had to have cancelled it!  But we do have two future concert bookings – one on Australia’s winter solstice in June 2021, and one in 2022 at a festival in Germany.

We had hoped to be touring the show we did in Melbourne Fringe Festival last year through Australia. It involved having a choir and puppeteers performing with us. I hope that we will eventually be able to do that run of shows and have a kind of post-covid belated launch tour of Le Coeur next year. There’s a bit of catching up to do before we move onto the next phase of writing and recording the next album… although if things continue as they are and live performance and touring is not viable, that actually might be the next thing to start thinking about!

What bands would you recommend for antifascist neofolk fans?

Nicholas: I’m never quite sure where the lines between neofolk, psych folk, neomedieval, pagan folk etc are but some of our friends that I’d highly recommend are Wendy Rule (US based Australian pagan folk), Garden Quartet and ZÖJ (Australia, traditional Persian mixed with post rock influences), Irfan (Bulgarian ethereal), Louisa John-Krol (Australian faerie folk), Undan (Lithuanian folk released by Dangus, the label that released the limited edition CD version of Le CœurFaun, Sieben, Kelten Zonder Grenzen (Netherlands)… and for the times when you just want to drink a bunch of mead and jump about you need La Horde from Belgium. All are great artists that are all on the good side 😉  

Check out a few of their albums from Bandcamp below, and make sure to subscribe to the Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify, which we added Dandelion Wine tracks to.


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