“I came here once for church service and I wore this outfit, so I thought I’d wear it again,” artist Emily Sundblad said on Monday night before launching into a song with the musician Matt Sweeney. The two were performing together at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Greenwich Village for the release of their new collaborative record For Shirley Collins.
The LP—released on vinyl by White Columns, Algus Greenspon, House of Gaga, and the Green Gallery—consists primarily of covers of the titular British folk singer, who was prominent during the British folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s. Collins covers made up the bulk of the material performed Monday night.
The songs were sparse and often dark, not unlike the strain of British folk music that would influence heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden decades later. “They are very bloody, and they are very detailed, and they are very much about what goes on in the kingdom…swords,” Sundblad said.
(In contrast with some of this lyrical content, the spring-night atmosphere at the performance was still and pleasant. At select moments I’m pretty sure I could hear snatches of both the dodgeball game and AA meeting happening adjacent to the church.)
Sundblad’s lilting vocal intonations were reminiscent of traditional Appalachian forms like bluegrass. “Some of the songs are very old, and some of them are more sort of sea shanty-style almost,” Sundblad told ARTnews in an interview after the performance.
“I think Shirley Collins first heard them in Appalachia, so they are not of American origin, but maybe they were somehow mingled with the American Appalachian culture,” she said.
Sundblad has tried on different identities over the years, many performative at their core. For her 2011 exhibition at Algus Greenspon, “Qué Bárbaro,” she covered the Nazareth-via-Roy Oberson-via-Everly Brothers classic “Love Hurts” with Peter Drungle and a string ensemble.
Her stab at Traditional British Folk Singer was similarly captivating in its ability to ride the line between performance art and something more formally attached to music history.
“I went into the church when a friend was in town, and we went in on a whim and I hadn’t realized what a special and incredibly austere-but-beautiful space it is in there,” Sundblad said. “I just figured that it would be very nice to play there and do something slightly outside of the art-world context.”
The program ended with a cover of the mournful 1968 version of the Everly Brothers song “I Wonder If I Care as Much,” with Sundblad approximating the song’s psychedelic guitar lead with her voice. The effect was both uplifting and melancholic. Next to some of the earlier, older Shirley Collins songs the duo performed, it felt downright poppy.
Sweeney—who has in the past has played with everyone from Cat Power to Kid Rock to Guided By Voices—provided minimal but effective accompaniment, steeped expertly enough in the folk idiom to further place the performance into its own category.
When asked about his own experience performing in places of worship, Sweeney said that in Europe he had played at a fair number of deconsecrated churches but “as far as playing an active church, I guess maybe never.”