Feeling Folk An Interview with Folk Singer Jeremy Loops

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Delving into the meaning of folk music can be convoluted and tedious. For the sake of brevity, and context, it can be defined as music that provides a sense of place. But with today’s global village, boundaries of definition are constantly broken down as a melting pot of cultures combine in an attempt to create a universal appeal, and place becomes a murky concept. This is particularly pertinent in a country such as South Africa, where there continues to be so much division. Besides the obvious socio-economic reasons, a divisive factor also stems from a lack of understanding or shared experiences. So while we all share a place, how can we appreciate it together?

“I kind of call myself a modern folk artist, because I have beats and all sorts of new school things going on.”

Music is one course of action. Enter Jeremy Loops, a musician most often labelled as folk, but whose work draws from various influences, including hip hop and jazz. “I kind of call myself a modern folk artist, because I have beats and all sorts of new school things going on.” He doesn’t seem to mind the folk label, but while admitting that his music “certainly doesn’t sound traditionally Western” he veers away from putting too many labels on it. “Like other folk artists I do write stuff that’s about my life or about stuff I see happening around me….There’s certainly parts in the songs which are kind of driven by South African-specific things…there’s an undertone across the album [Trading Change] about personal power and the idea of chasing one’s dreams and that kind of thing which has…stemmed from growing up in this country and struggling through some of its nuances and finding my own path and being inspired by everything I see.”

He acknowledges music’s role in this country, but his philosophy is all-encompassing. “I think music’s role in South Africa is the same as music’s role globally which is to be everything that humans need…I love the fact that music is like the one thing that can really change the way a person feels very quickly…that is very much cross-culture, cross-genre. It can be political, but it travels very easily across political borders. It’s been interesting travelling the world the last year, performing to different crowds and always getting such a similar response to the music I’m making. Which I think is just a further representation that it doesn’t necessarily have a certain role to play in any country. Sure, in South Africa we might have some politically-charged music that has a particular place for a particular reason or addressed certain social ills and it’s important that we do have that happening, but I think music across all the genres, everyone uses it for different things and I really appreciate that. ”

He continually exudes a positive attitude, not only in conversation but also in his music and performance. “I don’t think that’s indicative of a perpetually positive attitude,” he muses when I ask him how he remains so upbeat. “I don’t think my positive messages are necessarily a reflection of me being a super positive person all the time. I write music to inspire me, so sometimes I write my happiest songs when I’m in my darkest moments.”

But on the stage it’s all light, as he entertains crowds with his loop pedal while juggling an array of instruments like his harmonica, ukulele, accordion, rain stick, banjo and guitars, completely capable of carrying a show on his own. But he enjoys collaboration as well and often works with rapper Motheo Moleko and multi-instrumentalist James Faul, and even pulls the audience into the creative process during his shows. His music has left a mark, not only in South Africa but further afield, attested by recent months touring the UK and Canada. The impact he has made locally was evident at the successful launch of his album Trading Change. Although this is his debut album he has been on the scene since 2010 and his debut, featuring hit songs Power and Mission to the Sun, has been eagerly anticipated for a long time.

“If you do what you love it will lead to a better life all around…”

Besides pursuing his love of music, he is also involved with Greenpop, an organisation he lent a hand in founding, which promotes sustainable living through greening projects. “I was inspired to start Greenpop because of a friend of mine called Misha Teasdale. He had this idea that he wanted to plant lots of trees to offset his carbon footprint…For me it was just something fun in the beginning. A way to get out into the community, to experience what was happening in our townships around this country. Starting to get a better grasp around what’s really going on at a grassroots level…Something I wasn’t ever acclimatised to growing up in privileged schools and stuff like that and I was really excited about that in the beginning. The idea to actually start a business around it just happened organically, because as we started going into these schools there was this massive need for greenery…You have to be living consciously nowadays. If we’re going to survive as a human race, that has to happen.”

Whether singing tunes or planting trees, he is pursuing his passions – something which he feels strongly about. “If you do what you love it will lead to a better life all around…no one knows what they want to do with their lives from a very early age. The few that do are very lucky, but a lot of us go through a lot of life really unsure. So I’m quite opinionated about not spending too long doing something you don’t like. It’s totally fine for us all to scratch around in the dark, trying to find ourselves…but it’s about knowing when to get the f**k out of those things you don’t want to be doing so that you can push through to the next level, because you’re not gonna find what the next thing is while you’re still stuck doing the same thing. I did a lot of that…but eventually I found what I was good at and what I enjoyed and as soon as a I took the plunge and started just doing it because I enjoyed it and was good at it, it was amazing how quickly everything started to form around it. And I’m not saying that happens for everyone…but if you want to start something new it’s going to have to come from a really inspired place and that generally only happens when you’re actually legitimately enjoying what you’re doing.”

The notion of finding yourself may sound existentialist or border on cliché, but the positive attitude that comes from knowing that you’re doing what you love makes it worthy of abandoning any concern over sentimentality. Once we know who we are, place might not seem so important anymore. The experience can override it and provide a new definition for folk. “Music… it’s not about where it’s from. Music is all about the music itself. You can have the most amazing band from the most isolated, random place and if they’re making music that speaks to people, the music speaks for itself.”

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