Faun Fables Mix Up Folk With an Avant-Garde Sensibility

If you're Dawn McCarthy, of Faun Fables, you'd think you wouldn't have to deal with life's mundane details. She seems to live in a slightly different world from the rest of us. "Ethereal" and "hypnotic" are words often applied to her music, and her persona. True to the name Faun, bestowed on her when she was a little girl in Spokane, Wash., she sings about the moon, sunsets, being lost. Listening to her music, you might guess she's a pure bohemian spirit who, assuming she's real at all, might need to be reminded of the necessity of lunch.

Contacted at her home in Northern California, though, she's talking about the dilemma of getting a rebuilt engine for the Winnebago, which stalled out in Chicago. It's especially a problem with kids, she says. (Kids?!) She has a couple of them, 4 months and 2 years, with her husband/collaborator Nils Frykdahl, noted for his pagan goatee and association with another avant-garde group sensibly known as the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.

Kids are also the reason McCarthy didn't pick up the phone the first time; she was in the middle of a diaper change.

She's been too busy to notice that Faun Fables, which played at the Knitting Factory in New York last weekend, gets special attention in the calendar section of last week's New Yorker: "The warmhearted California-based duo Faun Fables... makes music that is folk-rooted but untraditional, sometimes veering into angular rhythms and dissonant harmonies.... Their powerful, clear voices exude joy."

There's joy, but more than that in the new album Light of a Vaster Dark (Drag City), which McCarthy acknowledges is partly a meditation on death. Their music, dominated by her voice, plaintive and urgent, unusual percussion, and fiddle and flute, soars from medieval-sounding folks songs to fringey blues that may remind you of '60s psychedelia, bits of Jefferson Airplane before they lost their freak soul, and offers fresh intuition: "The parade made the people in this big town look each other in the eye."

This tour, their first in about two years, promotes the new disc, which will be officially released Nov. 16. Less deliberately planned than 2006's The Transit Rider (Drag City), which recounts the odyssey of a lost subway rider, the new album "came together in a less-conscious way," McCarthy says.

Though she's most associated with the West Coast and New York, she says the source of this record came not far from here. "The inspiration comes from a long time ago, 10 years ago, riding on a train through North Carolina, seeing the sunset on the hill, with houses there. It was a physical sensation I had—reflecting on death, and feeling very peaceful about it."

Few avant-garde bands stick with their errant muse this long. Most break up after making a statement or two, or they go mainstream. Faun Fables, which began making music on the edges of perception in the late '90s, seems true to its course, making provocative music that will probably never seem suitable for radio.

"I wouldn't know what else to do," McCarthy says. "As far as pop, maybe I do sabotage the potential for popularity I could have had. It was like, if I'm gonna bother with it at all, I have to be true to me. I feel I'm living within my muse, but you can't have the art itself without the day-to-day life."

Just then she's interrupted by her 2-year-old, who's ready for breakfast. She calls to Frykdahl: "Can you get her some yogurt or nuts or cereal or something?"

Kids add a layer of practicality to an artist's life, she admits, but says her daughters have been more inspiration than impediment. Parenthood seems to have added a couple of muses to her personal pantheon.

"Despite all this practical stuff, they bring in this world of imagination and play—and a sense of wonder in life," she says.

She brings them along on the tour, in the Winnebago, with a "wonderful" nanny who tends to them while she and Frykdahl are performing.

She describes the duo's show at the Pilot Light: "It will be a lot of percussion, and flute, body percussion, breathing and stomping and a capella singing and storytelling."

The fact that they're both folk music—the oldest form of pop music—and avant-garde makes sense in their own algebra. Their music is both very new and very old.

"It's elemental," McCarthy says. "Life is circular, and much of what we do is recycling old things. You're tapping into something that's really there, at the roots." (One line, sung by Frykdahl, refers to "a song your grandfather knew but your father forgot.") Faun Fables makes the very old and very new sound like the same thing.

"Yes, that's true," she says. "It's elemental."