Mumford and Sons
By Dan Kimpel
Mumford & Sons (PRS): British Bards and the Poetry of the Plains
Bonded in a brotherhood of acoustic instruments and rich harmonies, the four members of Mumford & Sons – Marcus Mumford, “Country” Winston Marshall, Ben Lovett, and Ted Dwane – strike resonant chords with ageless music. Nominated for two Grammy Awards: Best New Artist and Best Rock Song for their exuberant lead off anthem, “Little Lion Man,” the band will appear at the massive Coachella Music Festival in Indio, CA; the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Wakarusa Festival held in Arkansas. Across the pond, they will support Arcade Fire at London’s Hyde Park for an estimated 60,000 fans.
Rustic authenticity coupled with an infectious enthusiasm are key elements of what is often referred to as the “West London folk scene,” a designation Mumford & Sons shares with artists Laura Marling (whom the band has both backed and accompanied on tour) and Noah and the Whale. Formed as a loose aggregation of friends in the summer of 2007, Mumford & Sons would often join their compatriots onstage while performing simply for the joy of it on the streets near the clubs in West London. Only months later, the band members decided to record professionally; self-financing their project to maintain its integrity. Then they hit the road to take their music to the people.
Touring throughout the following year, the band performed everywhere from a barge on the Thames to the Scottish highlands and the famed Glastonbury Festival. When they returned to London, the stage was set – six months after their inception, they sold out the Luminaire club and embarked on their inaugural American tour in support of Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit. They ventured even farther a field when the band, along with Marling, were selected to perform, collaborate and tour India for the British Arts Council’s “Soundpad” project.
Meanwhile, a trio of self-recorded EPs advanced the band’s sound. For their full-length debut, Sigh No More, Mumford & Sons drafted Arcade Fire/ Björk/Coldplay producer Markus Dravs who commandeered Eastcote Studios in London; a classic room with a full compliment of vintage equipment. (The producer also demanded that the band purchase proper instruments commensurate with their musical abilities.)
Although elements of Anglo folk artists like Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch and Sandy Denny foreshadowed the sound of Mumford & Sons, their oeuvre echoes a love of American roots music. The sound is decidedly trans-Atlantic for good reason: The band’s namesake, Marcus Mumford, was born in the U.S. to British parents. Although they returned to England, Marcus and his family would come back to visit the U.S. every summer. “So I’m well-steeped in American music and culture. I would come home with beach blonde hair and ride a skateboard through this proper little British town,” he recalls.
From his mom’s record collection, Mumford gleaned influences of Bob Dylan and other singer/songwriters. His brother – also a Dylan aficionado – would create mix tapes of obscure bluegrass and country artists, all of which had a profound impact. Consequently, Mumford’s pensive lyrics in “Timshel,” which alludes to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and “Dust Bowl Dance,” referencing the author’s Grapes of Wrath, pay homage to the melancholic vistas of the American heartland.
A similar literary through line is evident in the song “Sigh No More,” the band’s title track, as it echoes Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in the lines, “Love it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you / It will set you free / Be more like the man you were made to be.”
Like the words of the bard, the songs and sounds of Mumford & Sons honors a timeless lineage and its constant reinvention. Marcus Mumford relates how songwriting is revealed within this continuum. “When you write a song it’s sometimes in a desperate moment when you can’t really articulate it. What I love about lyrics is what T.S. Eliot said: ‘Good poetry is felt before it’s heard.’ I’m a real believer in that. It’s those moments when you sit yourself down, and talk to yourself in the mirror.”