interviewed by Carl Slaughter
Filk music. Never heard of it. Neither had I until I listened the Vixy and Tony‘s mesmerizing song “My Heart Was Like the Moon.” They have won 2 Pegasus awards, one for songwriting, one for performing. Tony gives us the inside story on the Filk genre and the band.
CARL SLAUGHTER: WHAT EXACTLY IS FILK?
VIXY AND TONY: Filk is a type of folk music associated with sci-fi and fantasy fandom. It’s something that’s been a tradition at SF conventions for several decades. Late at night, after the rest of the convention has wound down, some hardy folks with guitars get together and play songs until the wee hours. The name “filk” started off as a typo, which stuck. The name is appropriate because it’s a slightly tweaked version of folk music. For more detail on the topic of filk music, you can look up the Wikipedia article on filk music. Some of that Wikipedia entry was written by me as a matter of fact. (Where by “me”, I mean, Tony, the one being interviewed.)
IS THERE A FILK ASSOCIATION WITH MEMBERSHIP, CONVENTIONS, AN AWARD, MUSEUM, HALL OF FAME, BOOKING SERVICE, ETC?
There is no single membership or association for filking. Filk is a community, rather than a club. Filkers are just people who like SF and like to write songs about their favorite books, shows, or movies. They like to gather together at SF cons and share songs. Anyone who wants to, can show up at a filk circle and participate. Filkers are very accepting and welcoming.
You can sometimes find online mailing lists or other social groupings of filkers. For instance, where we live, in the Pacific Northwest, there is a regional filk mailing list and web site called the Emerald Forest Filk Society. There is also a filk mailing list for the United Kingdom, there was an IRC channel at one point, that sort of thing.
Over time, the filking at SF conventions got to be a large enough thing, with enough people participating, that they started to become entire convention “tracks” of their own, and eventually, spun off into their own separate conventions. There are now several regional filk conventions held annually, in various places around the world. Our Pacific Northwest convention is held in late January/early February, and it’s called Conflikt.
Some of the filk conventions give awards. For example, the OVFF convention, held yearly in Ohio, gives the Pegasus awards for various songwriting and performing categories, and the FilKONtario convention, held yearly in a suburb of Toronto, has a yearly Hall of Fame awards ceremony.
IS FILK ON THE ITINERARY OF GENRE/INDUSTRY CONVENTIONS, FAN CLUB MEETINGS, WRITER WORKSHOPS, ETC, OR IS IT MORE INFORMAL?
Filk can be very informal, springing up organically at SF cons. That’s how it started in the first place, of course, and it still happens that way much of the time. However most SF conventions will reserve one or more rooms for filk circles late at night, and some of the more interesting conventions will have concert performances of some of the more well-known filk musicians. Our local Pacific Northwest regional convention, Norwescon, has a very active music track that encompasses filk, nerdcore and general geek music. Coincidentally, at the time of this writing, the person running the filk track at Norwescon, Dara, is also the one running the Emerald Forest Filk web site and mailing list that I mentioned earlier.
At SF conventions which host filk tracks, you will sometimes find that the panel schedule will include filk-related panels, such as songwriting workshops, harmony workshops, guitar workshops, that sort of thing. If you attend one of the actual dedicated filk conventions, then the entire convention is devoted to those things, and the entire weekend will be filled with panels, concerts and filk circles.
WHAT’S A TYPICAL SUBJECT OF A FILK SONG? AUTHOR, STORY, CHARACTER, THEME, SUBGENRE?
Filk songs are about a wide variety of topics which either directly or tangentially touch upon SF fandom. You can get songs which are very specific retellings of a particular book or movie, or maybe they are like fan fiction, imagining other stories in those same universes. The Vixy & Tony song “Apprentice” is one example of such a song, where we imagined a backstory for a character in the Firefly television series, and told the story through the eyes of an entirely new character.
Geek and fandom topics are also a big subject for filkers. Songs about computers are a large part of filk, as are songs about going to SF conventions, songs about being a geek (or a fan) in general, songs about mythology, or literature, or math… the list goes on. Let’s just say that filkers can write about anything they want, it’s just that we tend to write about the things we love the most: SF and geekdom.
Filk songs can be serious or funny, originals or parodies, and can encompass many different styles. Mostly filk songs are in the style of folk music, but can also range to celtic, to rock, to rap, and other styles. Although there is usually a certain specific flavor to filk that is hard to describe, anything can be a filk song if you have written the song with the intention of it being a filk song. Anyone who actively participates in filk circles and is a part of the community, anyone who self-identifies as a filker, and who intends for their songs to be enjoyed by the filk community, is a filker, and by definition, the songs they write are filk songs.
There are other genres which are very similar to filk. What separates those genres from filk is simply the association and self-identification. For instance, if you write geeky songs in other genres but you don’t attend filk circles and aren’t a part of the filk community, then they’re not technically filk songs. Nerdcore, for example, is specifically geeky hip-hop music, and you don’t usually see a lot of crossover between filkers and nerdcore artists, although some crossover does indeed occur. There is a lot of comedy music out there, very hilarious songs which can also be very geeky. But if the artist writing and performing those songs aren’t also filkers, you can’t really call them filk songs. I enjoy all of those kinds of music very much, of course, I’m a consumer of just about any type of geeky music I can get my hands on. Most filkers I know are the same way. For example, I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Coulton, whose songs are frequently enjoyed very much by filkers, so JC has a lot of fans in the filk community. But he’s not really a member of the filk community himself, and so his songs aren’t filk songs.
Parody is a very common theme in filk music, some of the most brilliant song parodies I’ve ever heard are filk songs. Some people in the filk community specialize in parody, and that’s all they do. Filkers often use the word ‘filk’ as a verb to mean that they have written a parody of another song and that their parody is intended to be a filk song, as in, “I filked ‘Horse Tamer’s Daughter'”. Sometimes people get this confused, and think that the words “filk” and “parody” are synonymous when they’re not. Though filkers do tend to write a lot of parodies, not all parodies are filks and not all filks are parodies.
HOW DID YOU TWO TEAM UP?
I met Vixy at Orycon in Portland, where she was performing with her husband Fishy under the band name “Escape Key”. We became good friends, and when Fishy got bored of playing the guitar, I started playing guitar for her when I could. Eventually we formed an official duo, “Vixy & Tony”, which was what other filkers had already come to know us as by that time. Vixy and Fishy aren’t their real names, by the way, they’re just Internet handles that stuck, and now all their friends know them by those names. We all live together in a big house in Seattle, where Fishy makes art for Burning Man in the garage, and I’ve set up a little home recording studio upstairs, next to Vixy’s crafting space. I’m working on our second album now, in fact.
WHO DOES THE SONGWRITING, WHO PLAYS WHICH INSTRUMENT, AND WHO SINGS?
For the older songs, before we teamed up, Vixy wrote everything: Music, lyrics, arrangement, all of it. But that was very hard for her, doing it all by herself, so after we teamed up, now we have a pretty good collaboration system: Vixy writes the lyrics, and then we collaborate on the music. Usually we start with a first draft of the lyrics, sometimes just a verse and a chorus, then decide upon an overall style for the song. Then I start coming up with chord progressions on the guitar, based on the desired style. She gives me feedback on the way the chords fit the lyrics, and we make changes to the chords to fit the lyrics or vice versa. She will either come up with a melody based on the chord progression, or, sometimes she will already have parts of a melody in her head, and I will write chords which fit that melody, and fill in the gaps. Sometimes I will make a suggestion to change the melody to fit the chord progression I wrote. Occasionally I’ll write sections of words or melodies myself, or provide suggestions for the lyrics in spots. Frequently we will collaborate on the verses and choruses but she will leave the bridge up to me (she calls me her Civil Engineer because I make her bridges for her).
Instrumentally, I play the guitar, Vixy plays the djembe (it’s a kind of standing drum), and we have friends who help us on other instruments. On the albums, we’ll get a wide variety of musicians to play the parts using instruments that we could never bring to a filk circle. I do all the album production, selecting and hiring other musicians where needed, in order to get the exact sound we want. Live, we’re quite different than on the albums. In live concert performances and sometimes in filk circles, our best buddies are Betsy Tinney on cello and Sunnie Larsen on fiddle. Vixy is our lead vocalist, but I will occasionally sing a little bit, and Sunnie also sings on a few songs. We try to play with other musicians wherever possible, so you’ll frequently see us collaborating with other people, mashing up our band with theirs. At Betsy’s recent party for her solo album “Release the Cello”, at one point we managed to get something like ten musicians on stage at once, all playing on the same song, all of us friends who had played together before in other combinations. Betsy’s a bit of a musical nexus, you see.
HOW OFTEN DO YOU PERFORM?
We try to go to at least a few conventions per year, where we can play a concert and/or participate in filk circles. Sometimes after we do a concert we are too tired to go to the filk circle that night, but we try to get to the ones that we can. In between conventions, we occasionally play at Wayward Coffeehouse in Seattle, which is SF-themed and owned by a wonderful loud Browncoat from Australia. So we probably only do about 5-10 shows a year… it’s just a hobby you see, we’ve got day jobs.
MY FAVORITE OF YOUR SONGS HAS MESMERIZING LYRICS, BUT I’M NOT SURE I UNDERSTAND THEM. CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT ALL THIS MEANS?
The song “My Love Was Like the Moon” is one of our cover tunes, it’s written by our good friend Blake Hodgetts, another filker from Oregon. Blake wrote it with female pronouns, and when Vixy sings it she usually changes them to male pronouns. It’s a fairly straightforward relationship song, much like many pop songs about relationships that have gone before it. But we cover this one because it’s particularly beautiful and expresses its sentiment in a special way. It contains extremely geeky references and metaphors about math and science (it’s the only song I’ve heard that mentions phi, the mathematical “golden ratio”), yet it’s gorgeously poetic and painfully poignant. It’s about the experience that many of us has had: being in love with someone and depending on that person, but discovering that you aren’t able to be everything that they need you to be. In the end, because you love them, you have to let them move on, and continue to grow, which they will do better without you. In our lives, as we move through different relationships, many of us have been on either side, or both sides, of that particular equation. So the song is one that usually resonates quite strongly with many listeners.
Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.