Jacken Elswyth “Banjo With the Sound of Its Own Making”

I’m not sure there will be a better concept for an album in 2021 than Jacken Elswyth’s Banjo With the Sound of Its Own Making. Musically, it’s lovely as she spins quiet, intimate improvisations on a mountain banjo she made throughout 2020. Elswyth is a folk musician and instrument maker by trade, but her banjo playing gets me every time. She has a label solely dedicated to collaborations with other musicians, exploring the myriad of ways her playing intersects with improvisation, drone, and ambient music. Within all of this wonder, though, Banjo With the Sound of Its Own Making is the ultimate expression of her practice.

Augmented these moving solo laments are recordings of her actually making the mountain banjo used in the music. Pieces like “Sawing” and “Planing” are exactly what the title simply, magnified by the resonating plucks and strums. On the former, the repetitive grinding as she slices through wood is intense, but the familiarity of the sound adds a surprising warmth. Her gentle strums fuse with the screeching bowed strings and metallic whirrs to create a full, organic soundworld, transporting the listener to torchlit, backwoods sawmills. 

“Planing” ratchets up the intensity, quick, anxious picking giving way to dissonant drones as she works the wood into shape. It’s a deeper, more visceral sound than the saw, but the effect is similar and oddly rhythmic. Two interludes offer a respite from the action, with garden sounds, children’s distance voices, and chiming bells offering additional textures of life and breath.

Two traditional tunes, “Cumberland Gap” and “Lost Gander,” show Elswyth’s banjo in full bloom, her straightforward approach singing across the glade. The way she mixes all these elements, from soothing birdsong, the tangible construction recordings, solemn improvisations, and luminous standards is a feat on its own. Banjo With the Sound of Its Own Making is an excellent example of creating an entire world and doing so much with a few tools. Elswyth invites listeners into so many aspects of her world, sharing not just her music, but pieces of her work most wouldn’t otherwise experience. It’s a vulnerable position to dig into, but she makes the most of it and creates a wonderful, memorable experience. Banjo With the Sound of Its Own Making is quickly becoming one of my favorite releases this year.

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