Fern Knight is the eponymous third full-length release from this fixture on North Philadelphia’s internationally renowned musical community. As the primary cover for Margaret Wienk’s singing and songwriting, this record fully unleashes her style of melding acoustic and electronic sounds, her careful orchestration alongside the improvisational strengths of the quartet, well-placed strings and crystalline vocals. Displaying her classical roots and psychedelic leanings,Fern Knight is now released into the world by the VHF label. The band just completed a West Coast tour where they were filmed by trendsetting webmags MOG.com and Naturalismo.com.Â
The new recording highlights the sonic cohesion of the quartet, featuring longtime member Jesse Sparhawk on harp and electric bass, Jim Ayre on Flying V and drums/percussion and noted Sun Ra scholar James Wolf on violin. The album was skillfully captured on 24-track analog tape by Greg Weeks at Hexham Head and mixed by Brian McTear at Miner Street Recordings. The calm surface of harp, cello and violin are juxtaposed against the perfectly timed distorted squalls of a Flying V with the grounding blanket of electric bass underneath. All throughout is a dark undercurrent of lyrical and vocal mystery. The overall effect is a lush and pastoral ode to all things living, a running theme that winds through the lyrics: “All is lost / and all will run / over graying ground / to the rays of the sun,” sings Wienk in the album’s closing track “Magpie Suite: Part III.” The spirit conveyed on Fern KnightÂ (vhf #110) is that of a beautiful green age in an apocalyptic landscape about to be laid to dust and its struggle to escape this end.
Â Â Â Â With its third, self-titled CD, the Philadelphia band Fern Knight has made a quintessential freak-folk album.
Harp, cello, acoustic guitar and violin create a Baroque chamber vibe; drum rolls, cymbal splashes and vocal echoes and harmonies expand the sense of space; distorted, overdriven electric guitar raises dark, psychedelic blisters in the melancholic sound; and leader/songwriter Margaret Wienk sings with airy restraint about the endangered natural world and the power of love.
But Wienk, a New York-born, classically trained double bassist who landed in the city of brotherly love by way of a 10-year stay in Providence, R.I., thinks freak-folk has had its heyday, “and we’re on the other side of it now.”
After Devendra Banhart, Johanna Newsom and Wienk’s Philly cohorts in the band Espers took freak-folk to “a real high point,” the scene got saturated with a lot of bands, “some really good and some kind of boring,” she says.
And while she loves acid-folk’s neo-hippie sense of community and says she “can wander back and forth between genres,” she is much more comfortable labeling Fern Knight “a prog/psych thing.”
Â Â Â Indeed, Wienk started dreaming of being in a band when she was 13 and found a copy of “Relics” in the cutout bin, thus discovering the pre-“Dark Side of Moon,” Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. “It was really life changing,” she says. “I never looked back. I quit track and field and started playing lots of instruments.”
A few years later, it was on to King Crimson (“the first four albums”). Later, while in Providence gigging with Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores, and playing cello intermittently with Espers, Wienk started delving into French, British and Canadian folk music and, eventually, Indian classical music.
Melding all those influences, Fern Knight carries listeners on languid, ethereal waves into medieval times: 1969, say, or 1970. Through the mists tinkle exotic traces of Alice Coltrane’s 1970 “Journey in Satchidananda” – “I think I listened to that every day in 2006 on my way to work,” Wienk says.
But the true touchstone is King Crimson’s 1969 debut, “In the Court of the Crimson King.” “We were hoping to emulate that record and evoke the same sort of imagery,” Wienk explains. “Ours is not a concept record, but
there’s a pre-apocalyptic theme that definitely runs through the songs: What are we going to do about this beautiful world that we are destroying?”
Wienk – who also collaborates with Espers’ Greg Weeks and Brooke Sietinsons in the Valerie Project, a collective that fashioned a new soundtrack for the 1970 Czech New Wave film “Valerie and Her Week of
Wonders” and hopes to do more – wrote much of “Fern Knight” during a six-week trip to the Irish countryside. “It really made me realize, coming back to the city, that some changes need to happen. That’s what the whole
‘Magpie Suite’ is about. We’re not trying to change the world with this record, but I think that’s the mood.” Derk Richardson/SF Chronicle 5/8
Several weeks ago Fern Knight – the least acidic sibling in Philly’s acid folk family – played a stripped-down show at Tin Angel.
Not having violinist James Wolf onboard that night was like having one onion skin-thin layer peeled away. As the spookily precious sound of “Silver Fox” unfolded, the absence of Wolf’s quietly menacing swirl drew the ear to the cautious sensuality of Margie Wienk’s voice.
“Once across the lake we’ll find an empire of our own/ we can make a garden where we’ll finally be alone,” she sang. Yet as “Silver Fox” continued, Wienk’s crystalline tones found the song’s sword of Damocles. Suddenly it was all fields of darkness and chains encircling the lovers’ throats. “We can’t survive out here amidst the winter’s storm,” goes the finale.
So much for flowers and romance.
It’s that haunted mix of gray fatalism and lush fruitfulness – of chamber classicism and gritty Anglo folksiness – that marks Fern Knight, Wienk’s third CD with harpist/bassist Jesse Sparhawk and husband/percussionist/guitarist Jim Ayre.
“There’s something to be said about why it’s a self-titled album,” says Wienk before leaving for the band’s first tour of the West Coast.
“I feel like for the first time I have come into my own and the band’s come into its own. That’s not to say that the singer/songwriter/cellist is disavowing their first two efforts – the far moodier Seven Years of Severed Limbs and Music for Witches and Alchemists.
“I was just a little uncomfortable in my role as producer for those records.”
With Fern Knight Wienk knew exactly how she wanted every melody and string arrangement to ring out. The core quartet contributed more to the overall aesthetic than they had previously. There are fewer overdubs so it sounds like the band’s live blend of earth, air, angelics and evils. “Plus Hexham Head’s analog sound, Brian McTear’s mixing skills, Greg Weeks and the Fat City mastering was the winning combo-meal for a great-sounding record.” Weeks is Wienk’s recording engineer for Fern Knight, her partner in their Valerie Project side-band and of course, the main man of Philly’s Espers.
“GW is totally my bro and a good friend, and musically we think in parallel ways,” says Wienk.
Yet while there’s a hint of Philadelphia in everything Wienk does now (that includes the interaction between herself and Gillian Chadwick for a clothing line, Woodland Bop, and their witchy ensemble Ex-Reverie) neither her music nor Fern Knight started here.
Wienk’s family moved from Wisconsin to Ithaca, NY, when she was eight. With musicians into roots and reggae in upstate New York she started a goth band with a sampler and a drum machine. “I guess I wanted to be contrary.” That’s where disconnects in her music started. When she began eking out folk songs with a psychedelic edge while living in Providence in the ’90s, Wienk didn’t want to be branded a singer-songwriter. “I didn’t even have a band yet let alone an idea of what I’d be,” she laughs. What she became was what a friend suggested – the name of a great aunt in that pal’s family, Fern Knight. For all her family’s moves and travels, it was one trip that inspired her – Ireland, 2006.
“I visited for six weeks with Jim right before we moved to Philadelphia together,” says Wienk who notes that the inspiration for much of Fern Knight comes from that moment in time. “It really was an otherworldly place and influenced me profoundly,” she says. “That helped shape the arc of the new album, especially since lots of songs of this album were based on our experiences there.”
There’s a streak of blue sky that exists on Fern Knight not found on their previous efforts. “Loch Na Fooey” and “Bemused” are about oceans and lambs. Lambs! The narrative verse form tells a good sweet story in “Synge’s Chair.”
“I wanted songs to be less dark with fewer minor chords and more major ones, less oblique lyrics and more direct narrative verses… I think musically a bright ray of sunshine comes through.”
But there’s the uneasily quavering watery effects on her voice and the way the feedback winds its way through everything from “Bemused” to the distant tentative howls of “The Magpie Suite: Prelude, Part II, Part III.” The latter may start as a song cycle written as an ode to all things green and living. But even the songs that act as exaltations of beauty show that nothing good lasts. “They were contrasted by the pending environmental destruction we see here at home and the suite itself explores the slow erosion of our earth and a descent into self-inflicted destruction and what direction we as a species might take in the end.”
Wienk then stops talking as if she suddenly realizes all the good and the bad, all the gold and the black, of Fern Knight at once. “Juxtaposed next to songs about an impending apocalypse, I guess then the scary songs are darker than ever. Oh well.” A.D. Amorosi/Philadelphia City Paper 5/15
All Philly transplants should have the work ethic of Margaret Wienk. She arrived from upstate New York two years ago towing the woodsy recording project Fern Knight, and practically overnight she was collaborating with Espers guru Greg Weeks on Music for Witches and Alchemists, the follow-up to her little-heard debut Seven Years of Severed Limbs. Music came out on the Virginia label VHF-progenitor of such spacey fare as Doldrums, Pelt and Flying Saucer Attack-and Fern Knight fit just fine into Espers’ extended family.
Wienk is about to see her self-titled third album released on VHF, and again it feels like an event. Produced by Wienk, it was recorded on analog tape at Greg Weeks’ studio and mixed by Brian McTear. The infamous Lord Whimsy penned the liner notes, and the CD packaging is presented in a deluxe LP-inspired gatefold made with recycled paper and soy-based inks. Wienk even secured a record release show with the experimental French musician Colleen at University City’s respected International House.
Along the way Fern Knight grew into a road-tested quartet that includes bassist/harpist Jesse Sparhawk, guitarist/percussionist Jim Ayre and violinist James Wolf. Wienk plays guitar and cello, and leads the band with her folk- inspired singing and psych-tinged, pastoral lyrics. Weeks may not contribute the “acid leads” he did on the last album, but Fern Knight’s gentle musings are nonetheless spiked with some surreal creepiness, from the wavering opener “Bemused” to the three-part closer “Magpie Suite: Part III.”
Newcomers may be reminded of the similarly elfin Joanna Newsom or even put off by the medieval vibe, but if anything, Fern Knight has grown more unique and palatable with this record. And there remains something happily hypnotic about Wienk’s delivery that makes time slip by almost without us noticing.Doug Wallen/Philadelphia Weekly 5/14
ÂWith the haunting melodies and traditional instrumentation of traditional British Isles folk (cello, harp, fiddle, acoustic guitar) underpinning Margie Wienk’s delicate vocals, Fern Knight’s new self-titled album evokes themes as disparate as man’s communion with nature to a story of twins who escape from the circus. Carrying the sonic ambition and bucolic palette of early seventies prog while maintaining a decidedly humble and atmospheric demeanor, Fern Knight’s new songs ache with emotions that run the gamut from funereal to whimsical. Tyler McWilliams/naturalismo.com 5/9
ÂNorthern Liberties’ nu-psychedelic/chamber-folk scene strikes again with the third volume of “Fern Knight” (Revolver, B+), a magical mystery trip built around the wispy incantations, guitar and cello work of the Espers’ Margaret Wienk. Jonathan Takiff/Philadelphia Daily News 5/7