Ulvesang is Creating a Prophetic Neofolk from Nova Scotia’s Arctic Edge

Ulvesang

There is a narrative quality to the plucking strings of the Canadian neofolk band Ulvesang, something that binds it to its European folk musical roots and the echoes of a pagan past. Like many of the central European neofolk bands from labels like Prophecy Records, typified by influential projects like Empyrium, Vali, and Neun Welten, Ulvesang brings a more traditionally melodic tone to their music than the industrial influenced neofolk bands so typical of the genre. Vocals echo rather than sit on top of the instrumentation, making it feel like an avalanche of sound, taking you into a memory of a music that feels eerily familiar. Like much of the nature infused neofolk we have covered, Ulvesang is best heard outdoors, with rain tracing an ambient track as an uncredited collaborator. 

There is a deep well of power to Ulvesang, which is more heart than historic exercise, which makes it a piece of the vital resurgence of revolutionary neofolk taking place right now. Along with bands like Nevelung and Aradia, they prove there is no contradiction in terms when traditionalist folk revivals meet a liberatory vision: we are here to create a synthesis between pieces of the past and a well crafted future. In that Ulvesang is more than a soundtrack, the cresting guitars beg your attention on each track. This is especially true of their 2018 album The Hunt, which takes up the tradition of forest ritual and let’s the sound rather than lyrics set the tone.

Ulvesang has become a key part of the antifascist neofolk movement, and is working on a split with Ashera. We interviewed Alex from Ulvesang about their musical vision, how folk traditions can be a part of the struggle against oppression, and how they are helping to lead a revolutionary sea change in neofolk.

How did Ulvesang come together? Who were your influences?

We had been part of the same group of friends for a number of years and realized we shared some common musical interests. We ended up talking about starting to jam and write neofolk/darkfolk music together. 

Our influences are harder to pin down as we both have similar, but also diverging influences. Overall though, Ulvesang is influenced by SWANS (although it’s arguable that there isn’t much reflection of that in the music), Michael Cashmore’s work with Current 93 and Nature and Organisation, Agalloch, Ulver, Nebelung, and Empyrium (among other bands and genres).  

There is almost a cold in the music, a sense of solitary meditation. How does the region you’re in influence your music?

Nova Scotia is a province of extremes in some senses. Outside of Halifax it is quite rural, economically deprived, and encompasses a variety of naturalistic conditions within a fairly small area. There are highlands in Cape Breton, farming valleys approximately an hour outside of where we are, many areas of undeveloped woodland and we’re almost entirely surrounded by ocean. These elements certainly help drive the sense of atmosphere. Some of the more “cold/meditation” vibes you mention are more internal for both of us and probably gets reflected in the music that way. 

Melancholy is a full character in your music. How do these emotions play a role in your songwriting?

We both have our struggles with mental illness and are fairly open about that in an effort to reduce stigma. Depression, anxiety, among other issues play a substantial role in our day to day lives and consequently impacts the type of music we write and play. There is not a lot of genuinely “upbeat” music either one of us turns to, particularly if we are not feeling fantastic. Both of us are people who, while easy to get along with, don’t tend to have a lot in common with most other people and we have few genuinely close friends who are from overlapping groups. That sense of isolation is often present when you struggle with mental illness, often just as a symptom of the illness itself really. Late stage capitalism and social media (and COVID-19) also have many ways of isolating people, but that’s a lot to get into here. 

What is your writing process like? How do you pull together the layers that end up on the final track? What instruments are involved?

The instruments involved are mostly guitars, bass, synth, samples, and vocals. Then there are some other random instruments we put on the tracks depending on what we want to go for. The writing process usually involves trying to put into music an idea we have in mind, and if that sounds good we try and build upon it. Usually you start off with the foundational riffs and tones and then from there you can move onto some accent notes, harmonization, and additional layers of guitars or vocals, etc. 

What role do ancestral traditions and spirituality play in the music?

Difficult to say. When we started Ulvesang I (Alex) was active in a number of occult/spiritual communities. Among them was a lot of work with Northern mystic traditions. I am fond of the iconography of my Celtic background and Ana’s Slavic and Central Asian history. 

However, I feel some of those elements have been irreparably damaged by their co-option by right-wing elements and consequently they play very little role in anything we do any longer. I specifically walked away from any open involvement with Norse mysticism because far too many of its adherents are exactly what their critics claim they are, which is a shame because it is a fascinating and functional spiritual tradition and it should never have been poisoned in that way. I lost interest in associating with the broader occult scene for the most part as well. People can strangle life from just about anything, so I’ve since chosen not to associate with any of it.  

What was the concept behind your album The Hunt? There is almost a prose sensibility to the music, as if it’s taking the listener into a painfully intimate struggle.

The Hunt was written during a process of personal struggles and hardships. We don’t want to get into too many of the details as they are private to some extent, but we hope listeners can get their own meaning from it or even possibly relate.  

How does antifascism drive your music?

Ana and I have always been politically progressive people, but I think when we began as a band, there was less of a direct intention to be involved with formal political affiliation at the time. Our politics over the last handful of years have intensified and become more outwardly and aggressively left. That aside, there was a change in the fringe music scenes we grew up loving a few years back that saw an immense increase in right-wing and fascist aesthetic and intentions (or at least it was more easily detected). It became cool to be a fascist, rather than just flirt with the “edginess” of it (granted, that’s still highly problematic for a lot of reasons). It felt like everything at all times became about rejecting any sense of progressive change and equality and instead was an attempt to use music as a recruitment tool for hate and regression. Not a vague hate like in the sense of rage against religious institutions, or against systems of oppression, but a hate that was manifested on an individual level. People hating each other in a way that was just oppressive in and of itself, and the scene is/was fucking proud of it. Antifascism became a much larger piece of our band identity in the wake of this because we were revolted by these people and the scene’s embrace of right-wing political posturing, or at least refrainment from denouncing it. 

What does it mean to take an antifascist stance from within the neofolk scene?

Neofolk, all “post-industrial” music really has always had a touch of traditionalist/fashy aesthetic. There were always bands who were outright fascists or hardcore right-wingers and there were a lot of artists who liked to flirt with the aesthetics for shock value. Or to be transgressive. But transgression has a shelf life. Throbbing Gristle in the 70’s using fascist aesthetics while satirizing the government and religious institutions of the time was transgressive. Some asshole in his basement branding his albums with “cleverly placed” Tiwaz runes and claiming he’s been “mislabeled by the left” in the late 2010s is not transgressive. These people know what they are doing and know what they are affiliated with. Most of the rest of the scene became dominated by the “apolitical” who only ever seemed to have an opinion when “muh speech” seemed to be threatened, generally mocked progressive goals and seemed to have no problem associating with the genuine fascists. 

Establishing ourselves as openly, actively Antifascist in this climate lets new listeners, or listeners who are frustrated by the ever present right-wing element, know that there are left-wing bands who oppose fascism while still writing objectively good music. We need more artists involved in these sorts of fringe communities to take that stance. We’re roundly mocked by nazi chuds anytime we openly discuss progressive ideals on our social media, but we just laugh and bully them off. And the more we’ve done that, the more we’re finding our audience is filling up with people who are thrilled to see us doing it and  want to be a part of it. 

Tell us about the split you are doing with Ashera. How did you come together? What’s the concept behind the collaboration?

We are friends with Ashera and met through antifascist networks among neofolk/darkfolk bands. Due to this shared genre style and values, we thought it might be cool to do a split together. On top of that we have other commonalities as well. It seemed like a good fit. 

What’s next for Ulvesang? What other bands would you recommend to antifascist neofolk fans?

We’ve got a couple of small collabs (the split above being one of them) on the go and we are finally in the process of working to record our third album. Executive dysfunction largely erased our capacity to do much of anything outside of work for most of the last couple of years. Some other antifascist neofolk bands are the ones we have actually met online through A Blaze Ansuz and LEFT/FOLK. We can recommend Ashera, Nokken + the Grim, The Serpent and the Light, Autumn Brigade, Sieben, Alsarath, and more. 

How can we build an antifascist neofolk scene?

More bands making more music under the banner while not being afraid to hold left wing and antifascist ideals. Our music is largely instrumental and is more emotional than it is anything else… so it’s hard to call our music itself an “obvious” antifascist statement, especially where we don’t usually have lyrics at all. We do that by how we project our personas online and how we interact with our environment and our daily lives, and networking with other like-minded individuals. Complain to your labels if they’re printing fascist or cryptofash material, message bands and hold them accountable or ask them point-blank questions about some iffy content they might be putting out or associating with. Avoid working with fascist artists, research bands and labels, and build up the voices of marginalized people while doing so, especially those who are part of the scene. Promote things that are obviously against right wing ideals, etc. In short, there are a lot of ways to be an antifascist artist without feeling like you have to write covers of “Nazi Punks, Fuck Off!” or something very direct like that. We applaud all of the folks who are not afraid to stand up to Nazis and challenge them, whether it’s something big or small. 


Ulvesang was featured in the LEFT/FOLK compilation album and they are included on the Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify. Check them out on Bandcamp and listen to their track below, embedded from Spotify.

Ashera’s New Album ‘Rob the Rich’ is a Soundtrack for 2020’s Uprising

In just a matter of months really, Ashera has become one of the defining bands of a new wave of explicitly antifascist neofolk. It is hard to call this a genre since what binds it together is largely not based in the actual sound of music, it is more in a type of negative space. If neofolk has so often been ceded to the far-right, assumed to be a romantic nationalist artform created by and for racists, the very existence of an antifascist neofolk that rejects that world had the effect of being a novelty. Ashera was one of the bands that helped move the concept from a curiosity to a new operative principle. We are now entering an era where hundreds of bands are taking on this mantle, bringing in a massively diverse wave of neofolk, black metal, and intersecting types of music all brought into a kind of (dis)harmony by its disallowal for fascist politics.

Instead, Ashera’s romanticism can be said to be grounded in a type of anticapitalism. Deborah and Justin Norton-Kerston, the two members of Ashera, are both organizers, grounded in the world of labor strikes and eviction defense, so this energy pervades everything they have produced, which has been a lot. 

In a lot of ways their new album Rob the Rich shows that neofolk was really just a starting point as they push their way into everything from psych and prog rock to Appalachian hill folk. Genres have a utility, they give us starting points and can spark creativity by allowing a common musical language, but they can also create boundaries that are best when broken. The new 10-song release is a wonderful extension past the limits of antifascist neofolk, which has the effect of both expanding what we could expect from the band and the genre itself. One of the featured tracks, “The Battle of Portland,” is a seamless mix of the noise of the protest confrontations that converged on Portland in the summer of 2020 and the fluid, synthesis driven sound that was the foundation of their first EP, Antifascist Lullabies. Other tracks, such as “All Cops Are Bastards,” feels more like the acoustic “singer-songwriter” melodies that mark the soundtrack for summer hippie festivals and jam-band revivals. Antifascist neofolk is starting to stake its claim not just on a particular lyrical or ideological frame, but also its own distinct relationship with folk music and how it wants to create a 21st century synthesis. Rob the Rich is a vital part of that process.

We interviewed the band about this new release and are happy to embed it here for the first time so that those who have made A Blaze Ansuz something special are able to hear it first. We have also added several tracks to the Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify, which we will continue to update to allow it to remain an ever-growing space for building the space. Ashera has never shied away from a “contested space,” to be open about who they are in a genre that was not immediately welcoming. That principle-first approach helps to drive the space open for all of us, and we need more bands that will follow Ashera’s example.

What was your thinking going into this new album? How did it evolve from your earlier work?

In terms of thematic concepts, Rob the Rich shares a focus on antifascism with our first EP. The idea here though was to explore some aspects of fascism such as white supremacy, privilege and patriarchy more closely, whereas the Antifascist Lullabies EP was kind of more just revolt and burn it down. I mean that stuff is still there in Rob the Rich too, but that ‘fight the war’ aspect takes a little bit more of a backseat on this album to exploring different aspects of fascism, how they are used, how they affect society, and how we can fight back against them aside from, and in addition to, going out and punching Nazis.

You seem to be branching out past the narrow focus on neofolk. How do you think about genre in the project, and do you feel held back by it?

I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it as being held back by genre. I love neofolk music and our roots as music collaborators goes back to the first band we were in together, The Cloverfields, which was a pagan neofolk band that played the pagan festival circuit in Southern California. But it has always been hard for me to stick to any particular genre, and I went into writing Rob the Rich with the idea that I wasn’t trying to force it to be a strictly neofolk album. So I just went with it when other stuff like blues, shoegaze, psychedelic, and classical influences started weaving their way in. 

There are still some strong elements of neofolk throughout the album that are meant to help keep it in the family, so to speak. The vocals have a lot of reverb on them, for example, and the whole album has a dark folk kind of atmosphere. “Eat Your Landlord” is a good example of a song on the album that has a lot more of a traditional neofolk sound than some of the other tracks. So I guess if I think about it in those terms. I do feel like genre is a bit confining in terms of the art of creating music, at least that’s true for my creative process and direction. It may be helpful for other people and their creative process and that is totally fair and valid too.

How does the year (2020) play a role in the album? It seems like it is a major character in the story.

This album wouldn’t be the same if it hadn’t been composed and recorded in 2020. I started composing the album in late April 2020. Breonna Taylor had been murdered by police in Kentucky the month before, and it was only a few weeks later that police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement erupted again, and the Portland uprising began. All of that played a big role in the album as we explored themes like white supremacy, institutional racism and police brutality, the revolt against capitalism, the growth of anarchism and socialism, and the disturbing spread of neo-fascism. Musically, a lot of the harmonic dissonance in the album is designed to convey the tension and anxiety that I think we’ve all felt this year as a result of the pandemic and all of the socio-political stress around the protests and the election season. Walk us through your production process. 

How do you write music and what does recording look like? 

A song usually starts as an idea for lyrics, whether it’s a line of verse or just a general theme. Then I’ll sit down with an acoustic guitar and start toying around melodies. Every once in a while a composition will start musically with some sort of hook that I have running through my head. 

The title track on Rob the Rich is a good example of that where I had the idea for the guitar hook before the lyrics. Most often though, some of the lyrics come first, and then I sit around humming a line of lyrics while noodling around on the guitar trying to find the right melody and chord progression for the ideas and feelings I want the lyrics and the song to convey. 

Once a song is written, the recording process always starts with the ritual of laying down a kick drum beat that I use as a metronome when recording the other instruments. That happens even if the song isn’t going to have any percussion in it. From there I’ll build the song by recording the rhythm section: acoustic guitar, bass, maybe piano. After that I record at least a scratch vocal track of the lyrics and basic vocal melody, and then I build other instruments like lead guitar, banjo, mandolin or baglamas on top of that. If there is any percussion other than the kick drum it usually gets created toward the end, and then once all of that is there we record vocals over it. 

Recording vocals always starts with getting a good take for the main melody vocal. Then we play around with different ideas for harmony vocals. We generally record quite a few different harmonies for each song and then decide what we like and want to use later on during mixing. For this album we had a good friend and old bass player of ours at Unit-42 do the mix. So that process was a lot of fun sending tracks back and forth, talking about the songs and shaping them together. And there is a lot of clean up that takes place during the mixing process too. They come back and say hey I want more of this, or you should re-record that, or you know you can do it better. I really enjoy the collaborative aspect of creating music.

How does anticapitalism inform your creative mission?
An anticapitalist vision has always been central to Ashera’s music and the kind of culture that we’re trying to foster through the music. It’s the soil that project germinates in. Anticapitalism was certainly a theme of our first EP, and on this new album songs like “Eat Your Landlord” and Rob the Rich are steeped in everyday folk resistance to the forces of capitalism. Even other songs like “Consequences,” “Betray Whiteness,” or “All Cops Are Bastards” explore things like patriarchy, white supremacy, and police violence that are all used, shaped, and in some cases even created by capitalism as tools of oppression that serve to maintain the status quo and ensure its continuance. So in a lot of ways anticapitalism has a strong influence on our creative mission.

Check out the full album here, and their music video for “All Cops Are Bastards” above.

Announcing a New Antifascist Neofolk Compilation to Raise Money for Black Lives Matter Arrestees

We are happy to collaborate for a project from the Left/Folk collective, pulling together antiracist and radical neofolk musicians in a project to raise money for the Black Lives Matter National Bail Fund. You can buy the album directly on Bandcamp or you can send over your receipt for a donation directly to the National Bail Fund.

IN SOLIDARITY: Songs of Struggle and Liberation puts together a motley crew of Left/Folk (antifascist neofolk) artists from across the Americas and across the ocean for a great cause. This compilation of songs, curated by the Left/Folk collective in collaboration with A Blaze Ansuz, is a showcase of artists working within the post-industrial/neofolk aural tradition without compromise to apolitical and far-right influences within the neofolk scene. The music on this compilation ranges from lyrically driven folk to mythic and cinematic instrumental pieces, always bridging the gap between these forms of music and a wide range of leftist political traditions. The artists on this compilation are uncompromising in their political ideals and their creative integrity. These are folk songs for the struggles we face in 2020, a logical evolution of protest folk music merging with post-industrial music culture. With artwork featuring images of abolitionist John Brown and symbols of militant international cooperation, this compilation is a signal to those who are navigating the complicated musical landscape of this era that another world is possible… a world that is willing to face injustice and push back against the sociopolitical corruption that is coagulating into fascist movements across the planet.

The time is now, not later, as the social clock marches toward midnight… the light of liberty grows ever dimmer. Left/Folk is a call to action and an establishment of an alternative future, through contextualizing the past and identifying the present. If you are reading this, it is likely that you are aware that neofolk has a long and sordid history of far-right implication, complacency, and infiltration. Left/Folk seeks to change this paradigm, to shift both perception and intention in a direction devoid of such elements. Left/Folk is in many ways, a logical synonym to antifascist neofolk. It is a pointed identifier, that divorces the pursuit of neofolk from the baggage of neofolk, without ignoring the cultural history or purging the music of its own aural character or revolutionary potential.

The Left/Folk collective recognizes this in the context of what we are seeing as a growing chaos in the streets, and an amplified show of force by the State that feeds off this polarization. As society in the US is in freefall, as protesters and press are beaten and arrested in the streets, as the people cry out for justice, it is becoming clearer and clearer that to be inactive is to be complacent. Folk music has long been a vehicle for political ideas, for change, for affirmation, for action. In 2020, we are faced with the necessity to act, in any capacity, even if many people are relegated to distanced, quarantined measures of mutual aid. Violence in the streets, repression in our communities, and continuous acts of protest are all part of the political atmosphere. Art must reflect this brutal reality; it is no longer time for pretending it is not there. Until we exist in an equitable society, until it is truly established that Black Lives Matter, and that we refuse to live in a police state.

Proceeds of this compilation will go towards The National Bail Fund Network in support of Black Lives Matter and ongoing protests in the struggle against systemic racism and State repression. When members of the press and citizens practicing their rights are targeted by the police, beaten and arrested in droves, we cannot stand by in silence. The National Bail Fund Network is a national project that works with organizers, advocates, and legal providers across the country that are using, or contemplating using, community bail funds as part of efforts to radically change local bail systems and reduce incarceration.

 IN SOLIDARITY: Songs of Struggle and Liberation becomes available at midnight, officially, October 2nd via leftfolk.bandcamp.com for #bandcampfriday

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Azure Down Releases New Single, “Syncretism”

While a little different than our normal fair, the band Azure Down, a project from the folks behind Ashera, have released a new track. “Syncretism,” is a psych-jam track from their upcoming debut album We Search for Neptune. Check out the track, and add it on Spotify here. We are including the lyrics for the song below so you can sing along.

High in the sky and I’m shining down on you
High in the sky and I’m falling down on you
High in the sky and I’m whispering your name
High in the sky and you’ll never be the sameHere on the ground and you’re trying not to fall
Here on the ground and you start to hear my call
Here on the ground and you feel their disdain
Here on the ground playing in the falling rain

And I want to fly keep my feet up off the ground
And I want to fly, and I’ll fly

Deep down below and you’re swimming in my tears
Deep down below and you’re bathing in my fears
Deep down below and you fight for every breath
Deep down below and I’ll save you from yourself

And I want to dive, sink into the depths below
And I want to dive, and I’ll dive

And you feel like you’re alone
Even though you have grown
All the seeds that you have sewn

In the darkness of your mind
Is the darkness of my mind
You can feel yourself unwind

And I want to fly, get my feet up off the ground
And I want to fly, and I’ll fly

And I want to dive, sink into the depths below
And I want to dive, and I’ll dive

credits

released February 20, 2020
Music by Azure Down
Lyrics by Deborah Norton-Kertson
Track Art by Justin Norton-Kertson

Ashera’s New EP “Antifascist Lullabies” is a Declaration of War

The Portland based neofolk duo Ashera evolved very consciously out of the explicitly antifascist neofolk trend that has been perc0lating (and we have been encouraging). There is an intentionality to this, to refuse nationalism a place in romantic post-punk and to allow for a romantic revolutionary music of our own. We interviewed them earlier when they released their first singles “1,000 Dead Fascists” and “Capitalism Must Burn,” but then dug in even deeper with them on this latest release. There are a lot of questions about how this thing known as antifasicst neofolk is going to develop, and they are trying to stand in front and draw a line between the complacency of the scene’s past.

 

Why is antifascism front and center in your music? Why is it not good enough to just be a non-fascist band?

We made a conscious decision to place antifascism at the center of our music because antifascism is where we are in life, it’s the social experience that we’re having and with which we’re engaging. It’s the story that we want to tell, the picture we want to paint, the song we want to sing. Antifascism is the values and legacy that we want to leave for our kids and for their children.

This moment that our society and our world is currently in is too important and too historic for us to be fence sitters and appeasers. The situation that has developed within the neofolk music scene is a microcosm of that. Fascists have taken over the scene. If the rest of us don’t speak up and act out to counter that—if we aren’t explicitly antifascist—then we are enabling fascism and conceding important ground in the struggle.

When the fascist creep is on the march and we can all see it gaining ground, then you are either explicitly anti-fascist or else at the very best you are actively choosing to enable the existence and the spread of fascism within this music scene and within our society. At some point someone must draw a line in the sand. That was done with the creation of antifascist neofolk.

 

What do you think radicals are missing by not engaging in art, spirituality, and romanticism?

As people who are skeptical of institutions of wealth, power, and religious doctrine, and as labor and social justice organizers in our communities we can understand the overwhelming sense of realism, mechanism, and historical materialism—the angst and anxiety of immediate economic necessity, social, and philosophical upheaval in which we can so easily get bogged down. But there is so much about the human experience that we miss out on when don’t take time to dream, when we don’t make room not just to appreciate but to engage with and actively cultivate art, spirituality, and romanticism in our lives and in our society.

We are both skeptical people, and Justin is an atheist. But when we see and hear our favorite music performed live, when we dance with hundreds or thousands of other people who are feeling the same ecstatic emotions created through a shared, live, interactive, tactile-audiovisual experience, we get a rush of adrenaline and emotion that is hard to describe as anything other than a spiritual experience. It’s an experience that fuels our own creative urges, our own music, our own will to dream.

On a personal level, we think radicals miss out on valuable experiences and lessons in this life when we don’t engage with art, poetry, and music. We miss out on feelings of insight and ecstasy when we don’t engage with and cultivate non-dogmatic spiritual experiences that aren’t rooted in hierarchical and patriarchal belief systems. We miss out on important moments with ourselves when we don’t take the time to lay in the grass, stare at the clouds, and dream.

On a societal level, when we don’t allow ourselves the room to play and have fun, to write stories, to romanticize and mythologize our histories and our lived experience—when we don’t create our own fables to tell our children with moral lessons in equity, anti-colonialism and anti-racism, in the ethics of radical cooperation, mutual aid, and antifascism, when we fail to engage in dreams of a better world and to create real or imagined utopias with beautifully diverse, just, and equitable communities—then the left and our movements are bound to lose. Then we are devoid of a very large and important part of the human experience, and we can be sure that the forces of fascism and other forms of reactionary authoritarianism will fill the void with songs and mythologies of national superiority, racial supremacy, and making America great again in the service of imperialism, wealth, and power.

 

How do folk traditions play into your music? Do they inform your politics in any way as well?

The whole bardic tradition and its modern singer-songwriter form has always inspired us. We love songs that aim to tell stories. Music is storytelling through melodic, harmonic, rhythmic sound. Music is poetry and auditory art that prompts us to feel, that explores the human condition and the whole range of possible emotions that we navigate in our late-stage capitalist society. Music is the expression of our dreams, our aspirations, our history. Music is the sharing of stories among people and across space and time, from one generation to the next. In that sense music is both folk tradition, and at the same time it is an expression and vital vehicle for the transmission of folk tradition.

As people who love storytelling, we both have a long fascination with folklore and mythology, from comic book superheroes to tales of ancient goddesses and gods. The cowboy consumerism and militantly blind patriotism of white-U.S. culture can be more than a bit vapid. So we binge watch TV shows about people with superpowers and we delve into ancient stories about magick and faery folk to try and connect with our past, with something larger than ourselves that is fantastic and inspiring. For both of us our first bands, and in some sense our lives as music artists began with pagan neofolk music that was rooted in a particular mythology, folklore, and spiritual tradition that we were both a part of, and which is where we actually first met. Through this new and modern incarnation of a presumably ancient spirituality, we hoped to find something in neopaganism that would help us connect with not just our cultural ancestry, but with the pagan ancestral roots shared in common by all cultures around the world, as well as provide us with a spiritual framework that—we hoped as pre-capitalist and pre-Christian—wouldn’t be as racist and patriarchal in nature as the religious tradition and culture we grew up with.

This tradition of covens that we were part of teaches that there are five magickal arts: agriculture, natural medicine, astrology, dancing, and music. So those of us who were musicians would get together and play folk music with guitars, flutes, mandolins, banjos, dulcimers, and bodhráns. We would provide music at seasonal rituals and other celebrations, and eventually we formed a band on the side called  Cloverfields that played at pagan festivals around Southern California and spawned other future bands that we were both a part of.

But in addition to music and storytelling, another important folk tradition that we learned in part through neopaganism, a tradition that is important to our music and very much informs our politics is the folk tradition of resistance. Communities of rural and working class people have always been at the heart of resistance against institutionalized wealth, power, inequity, and hierarchy. That tradition of folk resistance goes back thousands of years and beyond to the slave revolts of antiquity, to resistance by common, rural, and indigenous folk around the world against forced conversion to Christianity, and more. In communities that practice neopaganism, at least here in the U.S., there is a strong sense of shared resistance against the patriarchal Christian juggernaut that upended our ancestors’ old way of life, that replaced and destroyed so much of our cultural heritage, an institution that has so deeply shaped and distorted the modern world we live in today. We practice the folk tradition of resistance to fascism, racism, patriarchy, hierarchy, and authoritarianism in our churches and our spirituality, in our schools and in our sports stadiums, in our places of work and our governments, in our streets and through the folk tradition of telling stories with music.

 

Neofolk is heavily infiltrated by fascists, what can we do to change that dynamic and remove them for good?

We don’t know if we can remove fascists from neofolk anymore than we can remove them from society in general without becoming one of the things we most despise as antifascists, genocidal authoritarians. But what we can do is resist them, shut them out, make them irrelevant in the neofolk music scene. We can send them crawling back into their holes.

To do that we need to cultivate an “everyday antifascist” value and attitude within the neofolk scene. That means we need more neofolk bands and artists to make statements that are explicitly antifascist if not in the content of their music and art, then at least in its other aspects. Refuse to perform with them. Refuse to book them. Refuse to record with them. Refuse to give them your money and your time. We can take this genre back by boxing out bands and artists who use romanticism and the mythologizing of our past to fuel white supremacy, immigrant hysteria, and fascism.

But if we do want to have any hope of truly defeating fascism, then we can’t just be against fascism as a reactionary default. We need to purposefully carve out space to be romantic, empathetic, passionate and emotional in the expression of our everyday antifascism. We need to find and create our own cultural mythologies rooted in the values of antifascism. We need to have bold visions and share our dreams with each other by writing antifascist poetry, singing antifascist songs, and telling stories of utopias built in the empty pockets of violent empires. We’re beginning to create it here in Portland with a strong antifascist presence at protests and the cultivation of everyday antifascism in our organizing spaces throughout the city, with the amazing antifascist displays, banners, flags, group chants and renditions of “Bella Ciao” at Timbers soccer games. We are beginning to create that here with music too, with the cultivation of Pacific Northwest antifascist neofolk. We can take back neofolk and make this scene a space that is as much explicitly antifascist as it is romantic, artistic, passionate, and visionary.

 

We have added Ashera tracks to the Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify, and are embedding their new album from Bandcamp below.

Members:

Justin Norton-Kertson – guitar, banjo, bass, midi/synth
Deborah Norton-Kertson – vocals
Reeve Bushman – guitar, drum machine, vocals
Ashera makes multi-genre music with a focus on neofolk, dark folk, and radical antifascist culture and politics. They are from Portland, Oregon,   
Album Links
Social Media Links

An Anti-Fascist Revolt: An Interview With Ashera

The goal with A Blaze Ansuz was to help give a name to an emerging music scene, antifascist neofolk and related genres that were bucking the trend of far-right romantics taking over our music. The hope was that once this became a real current then more bands would feel comfortable emerging into this space, and Ashera, from Cascadia (Portland, Oregon), is definitely a part of this trend. Created by Deborah and Justin Norton-Kertson, two organizers in Portland, this music was explicitly political from the start.

In this interview we talk about their background, what fuels their antifascist commitment, and how this new project came together.

How did Ashera come together? What was the inspiration to start it?

The two of us have known each other and lived together as partners for almost 15 years, and Ashera is the latest in a number of bands and music projects we have created together. Interestingly enough, this particular project was inspired by A Blaze Anzuz and your attempt to consciously create the genre of antifascist neofolk.

When you first announced the creation of A Blaze Anzuz and this new genre of music, we were excited to learn about other musicians engaging in this work. It wasn’t long though before the thought occurred to us that it had been six years since we had created any music of our own, and for the first time in years we were actually inspired to do so.

During the Occupy movement in 2011 we shifted heavily into activism and found ourselves spending most of our free time out in the streets protesting Wall Street and police brutality. We formed a band from that movement called Patchwork Family Band, but it fizzled out over the course of the next year as we all moved on to other things. After the end of our local Occupy Portland we were disillusioned, broken spirited, and tired. We stopped creating music for a while and became full-time activists. However, we have realized that we have lost a huge part of our identity by stopping making music together, and Ashera is our moment to reclaim that identity and merge it with our passion for social justice and antifascism. It’s a perfect moment for us to channel our energies into music that can change the world. We are inspired again and it feels great. So without trying to sound like a couple of suck ups, thank you!

What history do you have in songwriting? Is this your first musical project?

Well no, this is not our first musical project. As we said, we have been together as companions and musical partners for about 15 years. The first groups we started playing music with together were pagan neofolk bands like Anam Cara, The Music Committee, and Happy Death Band back in the early 2000s. I don’t think though that either of us were particularly aware of neofolk as a specific genre at the time. It was just what we happened to be doing, and in retrospect we recognize it for what it was.

After a few years, we and some of the other musicians in those early projects moved away from pagan neofolk into folk rock, dream pop, and shoegaze with bands like 7 Story Sound and Azure Down. During those years we spent quite a bit of time at a cabin near Lake Gregory in Crestline, CA just jamming and composing music together.

Our band Azure Down came to an abrupt and unwanted end in 2009 when the two of us moved to Portland for work during “The Great Recession.” A few years went by without us playing much music before we helped form Patchwork Family Band in late 2011.

Tell me about the first single, “1,000 Dead Fascists.” What inspired you to use this shocking title? Is there a bit of humor at play here?

We very much believe that it is vital to come together through grassroots organizing and movement building to defend our communities against fascist incursion and stop the rise of fascism by any means necessary, and that is what this song is about, albeit it in exaggerated form. We aren’t pacifists. In fact, we would argue that pacifism is an immoral and unethical philosophy, particularly in the face of fascism with its ideologies of violent ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, and supremacy (most often but not limited to white supremacy) that historically have resulted in mass atrocities, ethnic cleansing, and genocides here in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere in the world. So we aren’t entirely sure that it would be accurate to say humor is at play here.

At the same time—in the sense of shock value, exaggeration, and the unexpected—emphatic irony is certainly at play here in the song and its title. You expect calls for genocide to come from fascists. You don’t necessarily expect people who claim to be antifascists to call for something like a thousand of dead bodies in the streets. And no, we aren’t actually calling for the genocide of fascists or anyone else, we aren’t advocating that people start killing fascists. We definitely want to make that clear despite the purposefully shocking nature of the song and its title. At the same time though, like we said, we believe that we must defend our communities against fascism by any means necessary in order to prevent horrors such as the Holocaust from ever occurring again, and that is what this song is about. Of course, we want to see that happen through grassroots movement building that brings tens, hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to confront and stop fascism before it’s too late, and we actively engage in that kind of movement building work in our community. In the 1930s and 1940s it took a world war, hundreds of millions of deaths through that war, and a horribly atrocious Holocaust before fascism was finally stopped. We absolutely can’t make the mistake of appeasement a second time. We need to draw a line in the sand so to speak. We need to stop this new rise of fascism before another Holocaust happens. So let’s come together and build a movement that can do that through sheer overwhelming numbers so that we don’t ever again come to a place where we need 1,000 Dead Fascists in the streets to become a reality in order to stop them.

Why do you think it is important to bring antifascism to neofolk?

It is important to bring antifascism into everything we do, whether that is music, sports, literature, television, theater, or other kinds of art and cultural expressions. In these times where we are experiencing a serious and rapid resurgence of fascist ideology and organizing, so it is vital that we create an antifascism that comes to dominate the cultural expressions of our society.

We happen to be musicians, and it so happens that we have been neofolk musicians since our earliest projects together. Given the particular tendency of fascism to try and co-opt the romanticism, the dreams, and the vision of neofolk music, we feel a particular responsibility to help develop this extremely important genre of specifically antifascist neofolk music.

We feel that music is particularly important in this new antifascist cultural project. Music has always been a means of eliciting emotional responses, of bringing people together around a common interest and sentiment. If we leave this music to the fascists, that is a victory for racism, xenophobia, and violent nationalism.

With the incursion of fascists into the neofolk scene and their blatant attempt to pervert its vision, it is all the more important that we take back this genre of music and use it to fuel the antifascist movement and to create a deeply ingrained culture of antifascism that can and will be an important factor in beating back the fascist creep and creating the better, more just and equitable world that those of us on the radical left so emphatically and sincerely envision.

What ways do you think people can fight fascism in the neofolk scene?

We must not be silent. We must create purposefully and blatantly antifascist neofolk music. We need to confront and challenge fascists at neofolk shows and festivals whenever and wherever we encounter them. And we need to consciously create a purposeful antifascist neofolk scene that brings antifascist neofolk bands and musicians together in community and confederation.

As we were raising our two now adult children together and trying to navigate how to handle situations when they had done something wrong, one piece of advice we were given by Deb’s Dad was “be sure to get their attention.” This has never been more true than it is right now, and it is part of the reason for the title of our song 1,000 Dead Fascists. If you don’t grab the attention of people when harm is being done, then no will look up and fight back. Too many people are all too happy to keep their heads buried in the sand and go about their lives so long as the harm isn’t affecting them directly.

Look at how long the current immigrant and refugee concentration camps have already existed here in the US. Right now, there might not be a movement to close those camps without the bold, attention grabbing, and (to some people) controversial actions of Occupy ICE for example, which was started right here in our city of Portland, Oregon. We must rage, fight, and scream into the void in order to hopefully get people to wake the fuck up and get involved in the fight to crush fascism before it is too late.

What bands are inspiring your work?

Indigo Girls has been a huge inspiration since they hit the scene in the early 90’s. With songs like Our Deliverance, Shame on You, and Pendulum Swinger, they have mastered the art of combining their folk roots with activism and anti-fascist ideology. In fact, the first song we played together when we began hanging out almost two decades ago was an Indigo Girls song called World Falls.

The other obvious and classic inspiration in terms of antifascism and folk music would have to be Woody Guthrie. He is such a giant in the genre of antifascist folk music that it seems cliché, it is impossible for us not to mention him. After all, who doesn’t love songs like All You Fascists Bound to Lose and Solidarity Forever? Also we must mention Bob Dylan. The first song Deb ever learned on guitar was “The Times They are a Changin.”

Another more recent inspiration is Wadruna, a Norwegian neofolk group formed in 2006 that has also been written about by A Blaze Anzuz. We first saw them perform a few of years ago at a music festival outside Portland, and were blown away by their raw connection to their Nordic roots, which we both share in our own ancestry. In fact, our song 1,000 Dead Fascist is very much inspired by their sound. Apart from their amazing music, we have been inspired by their stance against the use of Nordic culture and traditions to promote fascism and racist, nationalistic rhetoric. When we first heard them we weren’t sure where they fell on this, and we felt that we needed to do our homework and find out if they were part of the fascist tendencies in the neofolk music scene. We were thrilled to learn that they have made statements to the contrary, condemning such ideologies embraced by their some of their fellow Nordic musicians. Their courage to take back their rich musical, cultural traditions has inspired us to do the same here in the US.

Finally, we also feel like we have to mention Pink Floyd and Roger Waters as big inspirations of ours. Waters has a long history of antifascism in the music he writes, and his bold stance on the need for the music community and the rest of the world to support the people of Palestine in their struggle against Israeli apartheid through the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement is more than admirable.

What is next for Ashera?

We have releases two singles (1,000 Dead Fascists and Capitalism Must Burn) off of our upcoming antifascist lullabies EP. We’ll be releasing that EP at the end of this summer or sometime in the fall, depending on how the remaining recording and mixing sessions go. After that, we have a vision for another album or series of albums called Fan The Flames, which will be an antifascist neofolk re-envisioning of labor and anticapitalist songs from the IWW’s Little Red Songbook.

At the same time, we are continually being fired up by the daily news and we firmly believe that neofolk music needs to branch out beyond its Western, Eurocentric roots. We’d like to explore topics such as immigration, the Water is Life movement, the events occurring on the Big Island of Hawaii at Mauna Kea, and do so in a way that does not involve cultural appropriation. Not only are these topics directly related to both the problems of fascism and capitalism, but it seems that time is speeding up and the stakes get higher with each passing minute. We must continue to channel our outrage into music for the unheard masses in hopes that we can do our part to bring real anti-imperialist freedom to every corner of the globe. Lofty goals for sure, but what is at stake is the future of humanity on this planet and it doesn’t get much bigger than that.