Back in ye olde early aughts, “freak folk” ruled the land. Championed and perhaps encouraged by photogenic weirdo Devendra Banhart, artists influenced by elegiac or subliminally psychedelic folk acts from the 60s and 70s—Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Incredible String Band, Michael Hurley—started coming out of the woodwork. For a hot strange minute, indie record bins were dominated by worshipers of UK folk (Espers, Nick Castro & the Young Elders), delicate and idiosyncratic singers (Joanna Newsom, Scout Niblett), and sublimely earthy fingerpicking guitarists (Jack Rose, James Blackshaw). Standing apart from the crowd was Josephine Foster. With her fondness for opera, her powerful pipes a la Jefferson Airplane-era Grace Slick, and her reverence for the ancient and old-timey traditions that the likes of Fairport Convention and Shirley Collins had recontextualized in the 70s, Foster approached the music from a decidedly nonrock perspective. Her lo-fi early recordings, such as the 2001 CD Little Life (reissued as a ten-inch by Fire in 2013), sound like wax cylinders from another century. Later in the 2000s, the Colorado native played in poppy Chicago duo the Children’s Hour (with guitarist Andrew Bar), the rustic Born Heller (with bassist Jason Ajemian), and full-tilt acid-folk rock band Josephine Foster & the Supposed, all while maintaining a solo career. By the next decade, she’d moved to Spain, whose musical traditions further colored her sound. She’s since returned to Americana strangeness, collaborating with Nashville folk collective the Cherry Blossoms on the 2019 album Mystery Meet.
Foster’s new album, No Harm Done, reminds me of some of the best work she’s ever recorded, specifically 2005’s Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You (which Fire reissued last year for Record Store Day). It turns out that’s no coincidence: my favorite tune on the album, “Sure Am Devilish,” dates back to the early 2000s. The song is classic Foster, accompanying her distinctive voice—airy and laconic but piercing and controlled—with wavering guitars and piano. It’s equally soothing, unnerving, heady, and catchy. Foster’s secret weapon on this album is Matt Schneider of Moon Bros., with whom she quarantined in Nashville this spring. Schneider’s old-school 12-string guitar adorns the ragtime-flavored lead track, “Freemason Drag,” and his serene pedal steel and supple electric bass grace the gorgeous “The Wheel of Fortune,” where Foster sounds every bit the weary and worldly globe-trotting vagabond she is. The hymnlike “Conjugal Bliss” is a song Foster often plays at weddings, accompanying herself with a chiming autoharp. Her freak-folk past rears its head on the esoteric “Love Letter,” which ambles along in a nearly indecipherable meter that Foster has described to me as “completely irrational.” Now that’s how the freakiest of folk comes to be, folks! Not every song on this album has been kicking around in Foster’s brain for years the way “Sure Am Devilish” has: she and Schneider also collaborated on new tunes, including the sublime, partially improvised “Old Saw,” which Foster tells me “sort of washes all my chakras clean.” She says she set out to create “something mellow” on No Harm Done, because “the times call for gentleness.” I say she and Schneider have succeeded—with every listen, I drift further into bliss. v