A little bit country and a little bit folk, The Cotton Field Scarecrowes have great stories to tell.
TWO half brothers. One who grew up in Ipoh, Perak, and the other in Shah Alam, Selangor. They make up the band The Cotton Field Scarecrowes, which has a vintage Americana flavour. Cue the Dust Bowl, Route 66 and the Great Depression. Something wrong with this script? On any other day, perhaps, but not today.
The Cotton Field Scarecrowes, comprising Johann and Shahrhyl Sultan, are mining a pool that’s perhaps rarely been mined on these shores (not as unabashedly, anyway), but not every artiste is hoping to have an album or songs race up the charts for the sake of commercial gain. And Dancing Hymns And Broken Rhymes, the duo’s recently-released debut, represents an artistic statement that goes against the grain of convention.
Surely this is commercial suicide on every conceivable level? “I chose this direction because of my passion for American folk and history. This album is all about pride of passion – it was never meant for the charts. It was just something I needed to get out before it became a regret,” said songwriter Johann, at a recent interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
But surely there’s a line between music purely being a labour of love and seeking some degree of audience acceptance, at least for the sake of longevity?
Johann may not be a father yet but he has paternal instincts for his craft: “I’m not setting any expectations for this. I’m just going to watch it grow like a child. It can be good or bad. It can fall or rise. Ultimately, what it achieves is beyond our control,” philosophised the 36-year-old senior art director.
His single-minded pursuit isn’t without reason. In fact, he has had an explicit interest in all things related to the land of the free from a young age, having been exposed to its history and culture via the record collection of his parents, uncles and aunts. And the musical interest took on a literary curiosity, after which he bought books on the United States, devouring its history and arriving at the point where he was even putting brush to canvas, depicting various landscape images of that nation.
So, from the ground up, Dancing Hymns And Broken Rhymes was always going to vaunt an American flavour, particularly that of the South.
“This album actually grew from an unfinished solo project in 2011, a one-man band with music very much inspired by the sounds from Mississippi, New Orleans ... American roots music from the 19th century, when slavery was commonplace,” revealed Johann, who started his music journey playing in punk/ska band Toxin 99% in Ipoh between 1994 and 2000.
Dancing Hymns And Broken Rhymes may have had a lengthy gestation, but the album itself was written and recorded in three months at Johann’s home studio in Petaling Jaya, where the brothers surrounded themselves with a plethora of vintage musical instruments and equipment to achieve its rustic sounds.
More than just music, this eight-track excursion is an experience in (deliberate) lo-fi sonics, warm instrumentation and earthy vocals, from lilting opener Grass Beneath The Petals to moody closer Tall Moon.
It wouldn’t be too difficult to perceive Dancing Hymns And Broken Rhymes as a tad depressing, but what it really embraces is melancholia, including the ace in the album’s sleeve, Letter From Tennessee, the standout track with “single” potential.
Johann reckons that these brooding tunes contribute to the healing process for the ailing, even if common knowledge suggests that the human spirit is uplifted by upbeat music.
“I’ve received funny feedback where people have told me that the music will surely get the attention of the troubled – those who are heartbroken, divorced, depressed and have financial issues,” Johann conceded with a hearty laugh.
In the end, his troubled friends concurred with the feedback, judging by the messages they left on the band’s FB page. But this is purely by accident and not by design, he intimated: “I meant to give people hope. I’ve always felt this music can cushion the soul. While upbeat music can get you up, my music puts you at peace.” But misery obviously still sells in the arts.
Johann’s listening diet during the making of the album included the likes of Fleet Foxes (he even got engineer Ed Brooks to master Dancing Hymns And Broken Rhymes), Leonard Cohen, The Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks and Son House, and it’s this rich resource that’s contributed to the lyrics and themes on The Cotton Field Scarecrowes’ debut.
But how does one synthesise the experience of being in a foreign land and in a different time even? “I’ve looked at many old pictures of the American south, and I try to plant myself there and imagine the surroundings. I also write poetry, so I always have a sketch pad of ideas and I pool everything together when I write,” he explained, sharing that his lyrical themes are generated from snapshots of his dreams.
Currently, he’s slipped into a massive Beatles phase, so who knows where the next album – which is already in the works – could head. His love for rock’s classic era is never far away, though, having been weaned on records by Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and the like.
The Cotton Field Scarecrowes is helmed by Johann, but his brother Shahryl is his lynchpin, without doubt. Some of the nifty guitar work on the album can easily be traced to the 28-year-old sibling, having come from a background of playing somewhat more technical music, funk-rock inspired by the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers. “He used to play in a band called Locust Daydream. After not having seen him for years (the boys share a common parent), we finally hooked up again, and when I learned he was playing music too, I knew there was potential for us to work together.” And when the dots were connected, The Cotton Field Scarecrowes was born.
Johann’s keen eye for detail is sprawled across the album’s inlay and artwork, too. Arty black and white photos adorn the CD package and rumour has it, the house in which the photo shoot was conducted is haunted, but that’s a story for another day.
At the moment though, it’s all about the “bleak folk hymnody” on Dancing Hymns And Broken Rhymes, which Johann succinctly describes as “folk songs”. But it’s a brand of the genre that contains elements of the darker side of life: “I like injecting morose and morbid subjects into the songs. I love contradiction, too, like finding hope in a dark situation.” There couldn’t be a more accurate sales pitch for The Cotton Field Scarecrowes’ outlandish debut.
> Dancing Hymns And Broken Rhymes is available from Merdekarya, and http://thecottonfieldscarecrowes.bandcamp.com.