Music is ripe with tales so far-flung that tropes are built around these stories, most common of all is the myth of the outsider musician who comes seemingly out of nowhere. As the archetypal narrative trajectory goes; they are unpolished during their infancies only to fulfil their promise come their official record label debut. However, this pretension doesn’t apply to The Cotton Field Scarecrowes – an Americana folk duo made of elder brother Johann and the younger Shahrhyl Sultan – the moment they blipped on our social media radar, they already sound produced and ready for an album.
Yet there’s still a story to their formation, one that’s appropriately folkish. As it turns out, Johann and Shahrhyl are half-siblings who were only reunited in 2011 after some 20 years of absence from each other. Discovering their shared interest in classic rock, particularly that of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Johann lent his younger brother some of his older materials. One and half year later, The Cotton Field Scarecrowes were born.
Both brothers grew up musical. Johann was a product of Malaysia’s ‘90s underground, having had been in an Ipoh punk rock band with one cassette EP to their name (Toxin 99%). Meanwhile, being 7 years younger, Shahrhyl’s gigging days only came the decade after. Yet both shared backstories not dissimilar to each other; the former was imparted with a history of rock by his uncle while the latter inherited his talent from his musically-inclined father and paternal grandfather. Separation didn’t hinder the brothers’ hereditary career path – music runs in the family.
Story plays a part in their sound as well. From the first listen to their music, it’s immediate that their brand of folk is unabashedly indebted to America of yore – right down to subject matter (Nashville, winter), imagery (archaic postal letters), turn of phrase (“God bless”), and even the slave era garb they wear in the press photos (they are called The Cotton Field Scarecrowes after all). There’s self-awareness to this though, Johann purposely appropriated Americana folk in its literal sense – folklore told orally throughout generations – as a parallel to modern life.
“We are not 100% costumed to the field-workers – we are all indeed ‘a slave’ to something, a legal property of another and forced to obey, just in a different situation,” Johann elaborated, referring to their compositions as “work songs for the modern day.” Considering their respective day jobs as Senior Art Director and Project Coordinator of big corporations, we understand the strain the 9-to-5 lifestyle can have on the soul.
There’s weirdly no sense of disingenuity to their songs despite the cognitive dissonance of having a Malaysian duo playing something that sounds authentically Americana. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Johann is a genuine enthusiast of American folk history, a music genre that’s innately spiritual and hopeful despite its moody overtones. He describes the freedom he gets from the music as ‘escapism’, and it makes sense – The Cotton Field Scarecrowes are interested in telling stories.
“Sometimes I see myself from standing out of nowhere on Mojave desert to some scramble eggs and bacon at the diner,” he tells us. Continuing later that “… whatever that comes out from my imaginations is purely a transmission.”
None of this would work had the two not sound adept at the genre they are adapting, you could almost mistake them for a Sub Pop signee. Incredibly, this isn’t that much of an exaggeration considering Ed Brooks – who had worked on Fleet Foxes’ debut (coincidentally the closest comparison we can think of) – mastered their upcoming album, Dancing Hymns and Broken Rhymes, which is set to be released this month.
Dubbing the album as ‘bleak folk hymnody’ (“A whirlpool of melancholic symptoms and jubilation,” as described by Johann), the debut is a collection of what he would call ‘hope songs’. An album where the brothers’ differences and similarities come to a meeting point they affectionately liken to a ‘hope note’. There’s an oblique quality to how the band defines their music – hopeful, melancholic, vintage instruments, aged whiskey, God’s grace – but there’s one thing that is constant with these key words, they’re parts of a story.
In Johann’s own words as appropriated by us, The Cotton Field Scarecrowes are “something to escape with.” And with that, God bless.
The Cotton Field Scarecrowes comprises principal songwriter, vocalist, and acoustic guitarist Johann Sultan and lead guitarist Shahrhyl Sultan. Their debut album Dancing Hymns and Broken Rhymes is set to be launched on 17 November ’13 at Annexe Gallery.