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Coupled with the word indie, a soft, but strong rebellion is born. Indie music is often defined as rejecting mainstream trends and going against the grain. In the 90s, a surge of indie acoustic artists sprouted from underneath the indie rock umbrella. Bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes, and artists including Elliot Smith and Sufjan Stevens picked up cult followings who craved honesty and acoustic guitar. These artists frequently paint elaborate pictures with their lyrics. For example, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea discusses themes of love, nostalgia, and tells the story of Anne Frank.
Is there a difference between acoustic music and folk music? The answer- sort of. Acoustic music can be folk music but isn’t always, like how a rectangle can be a square. Both styles of music are emotional, stripped back, and relevant in representing American culture and history. Some say that acoustic pop songs are talking to an audience, while folk music is more conversational, talking with an audience.
When the baroque guitar became the most popular stringed instrument, guitars began to look a little more like the indie acoustic guitars we know today. An adaptation of the baroque guitar is the Spanish guitar, which came from the vihuela. The vihuela originated in Spain during the Renaissance and typically had five or six strings. In the late 1700s, only 6 string vihuelas were being produced. In the mid 1800s, Antonio Torres Jurado created the first larger guitar that resembles the ones we use today. Over time, luthiers have figured out how to make guitars more resonate by utilizing different types of wood and body shapes. Today, the most popular acoustic guitar brands include Taylor, Martin, Gibson, and Ibanez.
From 1989 to 2009, artists performed stripped back versions of their hits on MTV’s show Unplugged. After the show, many artists would release the sessions, and in a few instances these indie acoustic song versions went platinum. Eric Clapton’s session sold 26 million copies. Mariah Carey and Nirvana also had Unplugged sessions go Platinum.
In 2016, streaming service Spotify began the Spotify Sessions, a series where popular artists record 2 stripped back songs: one original and one cover to be released as singles on their playlists. Pop artists like Taylor Swift and Harry Styles offer stripped back acoustic versions of their songs, while indie artists like Henry Jamison, Phoebe Bridgers, and Maggie Rogers let listeners enjoy new acoustic versions of their favorite songs.
While they do not exclusively play acoustic music, artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Big Thief have taken off in the indie acoustic-indie folk worlds. Big Thief vocalist, writer, and guitarist Adrienne Lenker can frequently be seen playing a 12-string ‘72 Martin acoustic guitar. Having studied guitar at Berklee College of Music, Lenker’s skillful, indie acoustic guitar parts create an intricate bed for her unique, storytelling lyrics.
An artist who has defined this genre, as well as some other avenues within the indie world is Bon Iver. For Emma Forever Ago remains one of the most popular acoustic albums. Written and recorded in the quiet of a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, Justin Vernon recalls a breakup and comments on the world around. Though it was released in 2007, the album has a timeless effect due to its gentle acoustic instruments and layered vocals. The songwriting is strong and melodic without being overproduced. The album hit number one on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart and has been named certified platinum in the United States. The tracks on For Emma Forever Ago are known to be some of the best indie acoustic songs.
From rock, to pop, to R&B, acoustic versions and covers have given songs second winds. The acoustic version of “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters has earned a spot amongst their most streamed tracks. Zella Day’s most popular song remains her stripped back version of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” In 2004, Maroon 5 released a whole EP of acoustic versions of their hits.
Acoustic venues exist throughout the world. Some of the most popular and most historic are right here in the United States. Boston’s Club Passim, formerly known as Club 47, has been around since 1958. The venue is located in historic Harvard Square and has brought live acoustic and folk music to the neighborhood. The club boasts a star studded roster of past performers including Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Bonnie Raitt.
In Nashville, The Bluebird Cafe hosts weekly songwriters rounds featuring some of the best accomplished as well as up and coming acoustic talent. A round is a style of show in which performers sit next to each other and play songs one after the other. Oftentimes, writers discuss their creative processes, inspirations, and play stripped back versions of their songs. Garth Brooks played showcases at the Bluebird Cafe before being signed to Capitol, and the venue was even featured in the TV show Nashville.
In Los Angeles, both Largo and Hotel Cafe are known meccas for indie acoustic music, launching the careers of many key indie artists, including Elliott Smith.
Acoustic music has and will be around forever. The original acoustic instrument is the human voice, and with the earliest string instrument dating to 13,000–BC, acoustic music is defined as one of the oldest (and longest) human traditions. String instruments typically consist of strings vibrating over something hollow that resonates. Acoustic stylings have extended through various genres including folk, rock, jazz, and soul. Also known as unplugged, acoustic music is void of heavy production, so it often relies on emotive songwriting and skillful performance. In the early to mid 1900s, acoustic music was created in response to the electric rock songs that were gaining popularity. Artists looking to return to their roots began paving a different path.
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