Indie Singer-Songwriter

So what is indie singer-songwriter music, exactly? Let's start by taking a look at some of the defining aesthetics of the genre. Then we'll delve into its history to give some context and perspective of today's independent artists. We'll compile some of the top indie songs of each era, as well, to offer an overview of the different flavors out there.

Of all genres that would qualify as indie, singer-songwriter music would surely be it. The genre music thrives on authenticity, confessions laid bare over a sparse instrumental backdrop, often an acoustic instrument like an acoustic guitar or piano. You're more likely to hear the real thing in a cafe or on the streets then you are on mainstream radio. Yet much indie singers and songwriters have crossed over in the 21st Century to enjoy more widespread commercial acclaim. Many of the best indie songs of the last 20 years feature personal lyrics accompanied by a lone instrument, stripped-down and minimalist, even if it's then fleshed out into orchestral grandeur and widescreen ambition.

How do you sum up a style that encapsulates the delicate mountain music of Iron & Wine; the misty, heartbroken lamentations of Bon Iver; the baroque pastoralism of Fleet Foxes; the curmudgeonly sadboy acoustic sketches of Sunkilmoon; and the quirky punkish leanings of Mitski or Frankie Cosmos?

So what is indie singer-songwriter music, exactly? Let's start by taking a look at some of the defining aesthetics of the genre. Then we'll delve into its history to give some context and perspective of today's independent artists. We'll compile some of the top indie songs of each era, as well, to offer an overview of the different flavors out there.

What Is Indie Singer-Songwriter Music?

Defining hybrid genres is a bit like performing sonic etymology. In this case, the easy answer is "indie + singer-songwriter." As any 5th grader can tell you, though, you can't use a word to define itself. So we need to take a look at each of those genres independently, to get a sense of what makes it its own unique genre.

Singer-songwriter music is an artist who performs their own material, often handling every duty themselves in the process. The most common setup is a solo artist performing their own songs on a solo instrument, usually something melodic like a piano or guitar.

The classic roots folk artist is the most common conception of the genre. Think Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Joan Baez, or one of the best female indie singers, Joni Mitchell, for example.

Indie music is a somewhat nebulous term as we often talk about here on We Are: The Guard. Traditionally speaking, indie music is any music produced with an independent spirit. This used to mean music made by, for, or about independent labels, for independent radio, often recorded in smaller studios.

Defining the genre is a bit more complicated than simply combining those two terms, however. Indie music wasn't always known as indie, for instance, as the genre settled into a constellation of identifiable sounds and styles in the 21st Century.

To get a clearer idea of how this music has evolved over time, let's take a deeper look into its origins during the different eras.

Indie Singer-Songwriters In The '80s

Technically, this all started in the '70s with the rise of independent labels and studios in the wake of punk rock, the style we most often associate with the sound we define as indie today really got going in the 80s. We'll begin our exploration of the genre there.

This overall genre was originally called 'college rock.' College rock was the original alternative, valued for its authenticity and experimentation as an alternative to the payola hit machines of the major labels. College rock would yield some of the original indie singers, as some punk bands and early alternative acts disbanded, with some artists spinning off to pursue a more solo direction.

Bob Mould is one of the best examples. After parting ways with the blistering, proto-noise punk Hüsker Dü, Mould's solo music is a template for the best to come. Even the motivation is prototypical, as getting sober was one of the motivations for going his own way.

On 1989's Workbook, Bob Mould traded in Hüsker Dü's trademarked walls-of-sound for a more delicate approach, favoring an almost Celtic flavor to his acoustic guitar playing, calling back to earlier experimental-leaning songwriters like Bert Jansch or Richard Thompson.

Elvis Costello is another iconic example of early independent singer-songwriter music. Costello combined the stripped-down aggressiveness of punk rock with the arty intellectualism of indie music and the primal id explosion of '50s rock 'n roll. Elvis Costello stitches together Buddy Holly-style rock with a half-a-million dollar vocabulary and a truly acerbic worldview and definitely also paved the way for others who would get their start in the 1980s. 

Another artist standing at the intersection of the past and the future is Robyn Hitchcock. Hitchcock emerged from the shambling wreckage of the eccentric neo-psychedelic The Soft Boys. Sonically, Robyn Hitchcock is nearly a dead ringer for '60s singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan or Syd Barrett. Albums like 1984's I Often Dream Of Trains don't elaborate much beyond the stripped down pallet of vocals and acoustic guitar, which are then dipped in a shivering Jell-o mold of chorus and flange and then frescoed with surreal and often hilarious lyrics. Hitchcock's music predicts the anti-folk/folk punk that would blossom in the coming decades.

Top Artists In The '80s: 

  • Bob Mould - Wishing Well
  • Elvis Costello & The Attractions - I Hope You're Happy Now
  • Robyn Hitchcock - Cathedrals

Indie Singer-Songwriters In The 90s

A lot of the sound and style that we often associate with this page of the genre, really got going in the 90s. This can perhaps be best seen and heard in two tragic male indie singers - Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith.

In a way, Jeff Buckley also exists in the intersection of past and future folk music. Buckley was the son of Tim Buckley, himself an influential psychedelic musician. Their relationship was a fraught one, however, with Tim Buckley being a notoriously absent father. Perhaps this gave some of the punk edge and self-destructive spirit to Jeff Buckley's music. Lord knows he wrote some of the best indie music of all time, whatever the origin.

Jeff Buckley would take the stripped-down immediacy and raw honesty of traditional singer-songwriter and folk music and polish it like some glistening jewel, forming elaborate modern sculptures of acoustic guitar and soaring vocals.

Elliott Smith is the proto-indie everything. Like some of his associated artists of the 80s, Smith also got his start after splitting with a noisy, abrasive speedpunk band - the late, great Heat Miser. From there, Smith would go on to create some of the most inspired, inspiring albums of acoustic music ever, independent or otherwise. Elliott Smith is the gold standard for independent artists everywhere. His guitar playing is impeccable, for one thing, more ragtime or country blues than rock 'n roll. His lyrics are inspired, emotional, empathetic, intuitive, making his music the template for sensitive, introspective, emotional girls and boys the world over, forevermore.

One of the best male indie singers, Smith's music would become more fleshed out intricate with each album, borrowing as much from The Beatles or ambitious artpop like Scott Walker as Dylan or Johnny Cash. His death at his own hands is truly one of the great heartbreaks of underground music of any era. We Are: The Guard miss him dearly.

Best Of The '90s:

  • Jeff Buckley - Grace
  • Jeff Buckley - Lilac Wine
  • Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah
  • Elliott Smith - Roman Candle
  • Elliott Smith - No Name #2 (from Roman Candle)
  • Elliott Smith - Tomorrow Tomorrow

Indie Singer-Songwriters In The 2000s

Like most indie music, things got truly weird in the 2000s. That decade also delivers some of the best, boldest, most striking, ambitious music of the genre, of all time.

The beginning of Sufjan Stevens' States series are some of the most iconic, distinctive sounds of that decade. They're some of the best of this century, showcasing what is possible when you blend art and authenticity. Stevens is actually able to make songs about Superman, Casimir Pulaski Day, train workers, gold miners, and widows sound hip and emotional. It's a neat trick, coming off as both precious and genuinely moving in a way that Wes Anderson hasn't been able to pull off since his earliest films.

Joanna Newsom is one of the other main faces and forces of 2000s, showcasing what's possible with the genre while still staying true to its roots. Like many of the other artists we've mentioned, Joanna Newsom faces the future while remaining rooted in the past. It brings to mind classic luminaries like Vashti Bunyan, whom the freak folk movement Joanna Newson was a part of, alongside contemporaries like CocoRosie or Devandra Banhart.

Like much of the 2000s genre, Newsom's music can be polarizing. Some find it the next coming of Joni Mitchell while others find it unbearably cloying, more likely to give you diabetes than epiphanes. Either way, it's a necessary stethoscope to detect the pulse of 2000s indie music and culture.

Best Of The 2000s:

  • Sufjan Stevens - Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
  • Sufjan Stevens - Decatur
  • Sufjan Stevens - Chicago
  • Sufjan Stevens - Casimir Pulaski Day
  • Sufjan Stevens - For All The Widows In Paradise
  • Joanna Newsom - The Bean and the Sprout
  • Bon Iver - Flume
  • Bon Iver - Skinny Love

Artists Of The 2010s

Like most indie music in the 2010s, artists went every direction all at once in the second decade of the 21st Century. On one hand, we have great examples of classic, stripped-down, lyrically-driven music. Some of the best female indie singers like Laura Marling or Angel Olsen didn't seek to reinvent the wheel, instead focusing on strong songwriting, solid musicianship, and heartfelt lyrics, sometimes fleshed out with interesting arrangements or atmospheric production. Others would just update '60s fare with millennial themes like Father John Misty, sounding like Harry Nilsson for a world of celebrity politicians and influencers.

Artists like Mitski illustrate that the artists in this lane don't need to limit themselves to overly-earnest acoustic ballads made by straight white people. She brings a real sincerity to a world of bubblegum garage punk, like The Vivian Girls being fronted by Karen Carpenter.

Frankie Cosmos is another artist blending a unique style and worldview with a punk-style minimalism. It's equal parts cute, fun, and weird and very, very much herself. It also shows how the future of indie singer-songwriter music is wide open, falling somewhere between indie rock proper, punk rock, and other non-rock music.

Best Of The 2010s:

  • Laura Marling - Take The Night Off
  • Laura Marling - I Was An Eagle
  • Laura Marling - Master Hunter
  • Mitski - A Loving Feeling
  • Mitski - Once More To See You
  • Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear
  • Father John Misty - When You Are Smiling And Astride Me
  • Sun Kil Moon - Carissa
  • Josephine Foster - No One's Calling Your Name
  • Aldous Harding - Fixture
  • Aldous Harding - Zoo Eyes
  • Courtney Bartnett - Elevator Operator
  • Frankie Cosmos - Apathy
  • Frankie Cosmos - Vessel
  • Frankie Cosmos - Outside With The Cuties

We Are: The Guard can't wait to see where it goes in the next decade. We'll be here covering it all, every step of the way.