Young Folk: Kütu Culture in Clermont-Ferrand

Clermont-Ferrand, in the Auvergne, is experiencing a boom in folky, introspective musicians, including Cocoon, Zak Laughed, and the Kütu Folk collective. Here, Rockfort explores the latter's home-spun aesthetic.

Bang in the middle of France, the Auvergne city Clermont-Ferrand usually springs to mind as Michelin’s operational base. Surrounded by mountains and extinct volcanoes that enclose lakes, it’s also the home to over 30,000 students – almost a quarter of the city’s population. And that means a thirst for music.
Even so, it takes a thorough head-scratch to conjure up anything that might appear to represent the city’s contemporary musical signature. Sure, there’s Canteloube’s folk song cycle ‘Songs of the Auvergne’ and the regional predilection for bagpipes. There’s also the city’s Rue Serge Gainsbourg. Clearly, a vacuum is ready to be filled. This was recognised in February 2008 when Le Monde hyperbolically declared Clermont-Ferrand the new capital of French rock. The newspaper reckoned there were 800 groups in the region.

Unless you were hanging around the city’s bars and clubs, it would have been impossible to test Le Monde’s assertion. This year, though, the Kütu Folk label has issued albums by local acts Leopold Skin, St Augustine, Pastry Case and The Delano Orchestra – the latter of whom were mentioned in the Le Monde piece. Self-described as a collective, Kütu Folk – the word kütu is a pun on couture – was founded in early 2006 with the aim of promoting folk acts from Clermont-Ferrand and the region. Early releases were home-made and home-spun – CDs were sandwiched between stitched-together sheets of paper.

Musically, the label’s releases aren’t regional folk. All are introspective. They’re also all English-language. Kütu Folk clearly isn’t in thrall to tradition. And, as becomes clear, Kütu Folk isn’t really about folk at all.
The Delano Orchestra (pictured, above) is the nom-de-musique of the pseudonymous multi-instrumentalist Derek Delano, also known as A Delano. His 12-track album – ‘Will Anyone Else Leave Me’, the follow up to 2008’s ‘A Little Girl, a Little Boy, And All the Snails They Have Drawn’ – is hardly folk, but closer to Sparklehorse than anything associated with the traditions of the Auvergne. Keening trumpet, strings and banjo frame downbeat songs that, although intermittently erupting into sudden post-Spiritualized sonic maelstroms, are tense dissertations that reflect an immersion in these non-French influences. Burying his wounded, 200-year-old-sounding voice in the mix, M Delano sounds utterly defeated throughout. As the crescendos rise and fall, a desolate pall spreads from the speakers. Well-conceived and seamless, ‘Will Anyone Else Leave Me’ is a fine addition to the glumster pantheon. But it doesn’t necessarily reveal anything about Clermont-Ferrand.
St Augustine’s album, ‘Changing Plans’, has a simpler relationship with sound that might be thought of as folk. Built around an acoustic guitar, the songs feel like solo creations with arrangements devised later as part of the recording process. These fill the songs with (more) plaintive trumpet, subtle organ wash and strings that weave in between the sweet melodies and arpeggios. In their lower register, the vocals oddly echo James Taylor. ‘Rainy Country’ adds colour with some nifty Phil Spector borrowing – the castanets of ‘Be My Baby’ and the guitar refrain from ‘Then He Kissed Me’ – and mid-tempo sections. Little Girl dumps some fuzz guitar lead onto the acoustic strumming . But overall, ‘Changing Plans’ is too samey, too polite and low tempo to really grab the ears. Acoustic-based introspection needs something more than craft alone to transcend.
Leopold Skin (pictured below) is more curious. Obviously influenced by Devendra Banhart, the album ‘Leopold Skin and the Blue House Dandelions’reveals Daniel – that’s who Leopold Skin is – taking his acoustic guitar up a more interesting path than St Augustine. Opening with the drone of a tamboura, ‘Last Night’ sets Leopold Skin’s second album up as open to unusual texture. With Banhart’s fey vocal and slight glottal stop, our Daniel is certainly confident, but tolerance for his Violet-Elizabeth Bottisms might be limited. That said, his grasp of arresting settings is assured. The Turkish-sounding guitar lines and general kif-infused mood of ‘Wild Flowers’ marks the song as a highlight. Another standout is ‘Building Shelters’, a lovely soundscape that drifts along, gaining intensity all the while. But the almost cod country of ‘Walk and Talk’ is less attractive.
Similarly open are Pastry Case, whose ‘Wheelchair and Jogging Suit’ might qualify them as France’s first post-Efterklang outfit. The fractured biscuit-box rhythms are present, as are the chanted vocals, xylophone glissando and unsettling cartoon-like atmosphere. Tweety noises zoom in and out. As do random pointless uses of the F word. While ‘Hey Hey’ allows bits of fractured hip-hop in, it’s hard to warm to this collage of the à la mode.
Pastry Case might be a bit cold and deliberate, and Delano Orchestra border on the anodyne, but the patchiness of the vision doesn’t matter. It’s extraordinary that an independent label in a city the size of Clermont-Ferrand has found this many distinctive voices. Clermont-Ferrand might not match up to Le Monde’s vision of it as the new capital of French rock, but it’s in pretty good hands. As Kütu Folk have realised.
© Kieron Tyler 2009