From tradfolk to psychfolk, from huge ensembles to solo small-pipes, we pick the best young folk musicians of 2023.
It’s a year since we wrote our inaugural article on up-and-coming young folkies, and several of the class of ’22 have already headed on to great things. This year, Frankie Archer lit up Later With Jools Holland, Louis Campbell played to a packed Southbank Centre, Sam Baxter was one of the undisputed highlights of this year’s FolkEast, and you can’t move at folk festivals without stumbling across a Maddie Morris or Granny’s Attic set.
So, who has caught our attention this year? We asked some of the more established folk musicians and writers in our little black book, took a look through our own notes, and then came up with a long list. Over a series of occasionally heated Whatsapp messages, we’ve managed to shave it down to the following selection, some of whom you will be familiar with, some of whom we reckon you’ll grow increasingly familiar with over the years to come.
Before we start, a word on the rules. Very simply, we were looking for musicians who are under 30 and who tend to engage, to some extent, with traditional music. We were also looking largely at the English tradition (with a couple of notable exceptions), simply because that’s where most of the judges work and tends to be the area of focus for the Tradfolk website.
So, without further ado, and in no particular order, here are the young folkies we think you ought to know about in 2023.
A veritable folk powerhouse!
If it was anyone’s year, it was Ellie’s. Having established herself firmly on the scene in 2022 with her first full-length album, Dwelling by the Weir, she then went on to boss 2023’s festival circuit and release a significant follow-up single, ‘The Stars Are Ours’ (produced by TJ Allen of Portishead and Bat for Lashes fame). She’s also a key part of two prominent bands – The Magpies and Filkin’s Ensemble (scroll down for more on them) – and a patron of Warwick Folk Festival. All of this while still in her mid-20s. Her self-penned songs bring in elements of the traditional music she clearly loves, and when she’s not holding court on a stage somewhere, she’s dancing with Chinewrde Morris or playing fiddle in the nearest session. A veritable folk powerhouse! If we had a Young Folkie of the Year award, we’d be sorely tempted to award it to Ellie.
“Cerys rips up the rule book and ruffles feathers as she goes.”
Predominantly known for her harp-playing skills, it was the spectral aesthetic permeating Cerys Hafana’s interpretation of ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ [Roud 196] that really caught our attention, demonstrating the musician’s abilities as both a songwriter and an original interpreter of traditional song. Explains Owain Shiers (Cynefin), “Since bursting onto the Welsh folk scene in 2021, Cerys Hafana has taken the triple harp world by storm, ripping up the rule book and ruffling feathers as she goes. She’s already released two albums and won Best Emerging Artist at the recent Welsh Folk Awards. One to watch.”
I’m really excited to see where they can go with the combination of instruments and influences next.
You’ll recognise the vocalist from earlier in this article, but there are other familiar faces in this 15-piece Brummie folk ensemble – notably members of Bonfire Radicals and the two founder members from Filkin’s Drift, from which this particular crazy gang gets its name. Jim Moray recalls, “I first came across Filkins Ensemble from their recent video playing ‘Wind And Rain’ (aka Two Sisters – Child Ballad no. 10) in a Tudor hall [see above]. The band sprung out of the fertile folk-crossover scene around my old stomping ground of Birmingham Conservatoire, playing traditional songs with an expanded lineup of strings, woodwind, brass, and an electric rhythm section, and featuring the wonderful Ellie Gowers on vocals. It seemed aimed squarely at my interests. I’m really excited to see where they can go with the combination of instruments and influences next.”
Innovative in just the right way, nodding to all the best places.
Alongside Sam Partridge (Concertina, Electric Guitar) and Bevan Morris (Double Bass), the Manchester-based Grace Smith Trio is taking the folk instrumental world by storm, their recent debut album, Overleaf, ratcheting up the praise. “Grace is doing a thing that many musicians take decades to do,” explains Sam Sweeney. “She’s making an honest expression of herself through her music, and I love it! It’s not throwback, pastiche, or unnecessarily ‘folkie’ in its approach. It’s new, fresh, honest and it’s catchy as hell. Innovative in just the right way, nodding to all the best places. I can’t wait to hear what she does next.”
Simultaneously ancient and modern, profound and direct.
Correcting a serious oversight from last year’s list, it’s a pleasure to include the phenomenal Brìghde Chaimbeul this time round. Already a legend of the Scottish smallpipes, Chaimbeul led the Highland Military Tattoo at the age of 17. Eight years on, she has three albums under her belt, the latest one – Carry Them With Us – having emerged this year. She has also garnered a BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award, a BBC Radio 2 Horizon Award, and in 2021 she performed to world leaders at the opening ceremony of COP 26. Guardian scribe, Jude Rogers, writes that Chaimbeul’s music, “feels simultaneously ancient and modern, profound and direct… [the] effect is both trance-like and immediate, heartfelt and raw,” and who are we to disagree?
Skilled beyond his years.
There’s a worrying tendency for young folk musicians to be celebrated purely because they sound so much like their influences. In the case of Sam Grassie, the obvious comparisons are with Bert Jansch. While the initial similarities are unmistakable (on occasion, he even looks like the former Pentangle man), it’s in his abilities to accompany his peers that you start to hear his undeniable talent. Sure, he can knock out a spotless ‘Angie’, but hear him accompanying the equally wonderful Naima Bock; catch him in his unassuming position onstage at the Moth Club in Hackney, where he seems to have a kind of residency; dig into his work with the Janschly-named Avocet or Broadside Hacks, and you’ll see someone skilled beyond his years. When Sam Grassie gets around to recording an album of his own, we’re likely to witness one of the finest folk guitarists of his generation.
Incredibly talented and fiercely driven, Will is already a stalwart on the English folk festival scene.
You couldn’t throw a stick at Sidmouth this year without hitting Will Allen. The bearded maestro was everywhere. A multi-instrumentalist in the Nick Hart vein, Allen was previously shortlisted for the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award. He has since made his mark as a sought-after ceilidh musician (Urban Folk Theory), a dance side musician (you’ll have seen him with Tower Ravens Rapper), and as a performer in his own right. Catch him with Brown Boots, as part of the Helen and Will duo, and as a solo artist playing melodeon, fiddle, bouzouki, banjo… the list goes on. Incredibly talented and fiercely driven, Will is already a stalwart on the English folk festival scene. You’ll be seeing him for years to come.
A singer of Cornish songs, old and new, her voice leaps through octaves as if they weren’t there.
We first came across Daisy Rickman at the monthly Broadside Hacks Folk Club in Hackney. While not an official member of the Hacks, we were told in no uncertain terms to keep an ear open when she took the stage for her set. And, boy, were we grateful. A singer of Cornish songs, old and new, her voice leaps through octaves as if they weren’t there. Very much part of the psychfolk world that seems to be burgeoning again at the moment, you’ll hear elements of the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and Anne Briggs, all melded together into the entirely original Daisy Rickman. A great visual artist, too. Ideas and talent to spare.
Seb Stone engages his audience with the air of a storyteller far past his early twenties.
Having won the Future of Folk Award at Bromyard Folk Festival in 2022, Seb Stone is a name that has been quietly creeping on to folk festival and folk club lineups across the country. He’s a traditional singer of mostly unaccompanied songs who also plays Uillean pipes and whistles. Seb has a fine voice (he had singing lessons at the Royal Academy of Music, dontchaknow?), clear as a bell, and engages his audience with the air of a storyteller far past his early twenties – we’ve heard him sing some of his local Sheffield and Derbyshire carols with great aplomb.
It’s his willingness to stretch the tradition that really excites us.
You may recognise Owen Spafford from these pages, where we’ve written about his duo with Louis Campbell, his trio, The Weaving, and his work with George Sansome, or you may well know him as the winner of the All-Britain Fiddle Champion in the Fleadh Cheoil na Breataine (2019). Whichever way you’ve come across this young folk musician’s work, you’ll no doubt understand that he’s exceptionally skilled. As adept in traditional settings as he is in experimental surroundings, It’s his willingness to stretch the tradition – to “run with an idea”, as Martin Carthy puts it – that really excites us. There’s a real sense that Owen Spafford could go anywhere.
From the hearty rumpus of Medieval bangers, to unaccompanied folk song… it’s always a delight when the Goblins play.
Martin Carthy has been speaking about this London-based gang at most of his recent tour dates, picking them out as his favourite young folk musicians. While the most instantly striking thing about them might be their outfits (imagine a historical reenactment society obsessed with Elizabethan peasant garb), at the heart of the band is one Sonny Brazil, a talented box player who lives to improve their tradfolk knowledge and skills. Alex Merry (Boss Morris) says of them: “When I first heard Goblin Band, they struck a familiar chord, much like Circulus in their heyday—b’decked in bells and high-spirited. It’s been pure joy to get to know them and their music. I’ve been fortunate to dance with them a few times, too, and they know their Morris tunes. From the hearty rumpus of Medieval bangers, to unaccompanied folk song, through to beautifully homespun tunes – it’s always a delight when the Goblins play.”
- Ellie Gowers
- Cerys Hafana
- Filkins Ensemble
- Grace Smith
- Brìghde Chaimbeul
- Sam Grassie
- Will Allen
- Daisy Rickman
- Seb Stone
- Owen Spafford
- Goblin Band