Punks “going country” was already a cliche before No Depression ever became a thing. The history of hard music is full of instances of “softening”: Punks trading in safety pins and Ramones power chords for Woody Guthrie patches and rockabilly riffs; black metal acts like Xasthur going acoustic; David Lee Roth and David Johansen reinventing themselves as Just-A-Gigolo song and dance men. One minute you’re trafficking in tinnitus, the next you’re all-in on twang.
It usually doesn’t go the other way. Sure, there are outliers like Dylan going electric, but it’s not every day that a folkie trades in their balladeering for black metal. But that’s exactly the trajectory that Holy Fawn’s Ryan Osterman took.
Holy Fawn have only been around for a few years, but in that short span of time between 2015 and 2018 they’ve managed to put out two stunning albums and made a name for themselves outside Arizona. Their latest LP, 2018’s Death Spells, has landed on several year-end best of lists from publications like Stereogum. They’ve also drawn the attention of labels like Deathwish (home to blackgaze heroes Deafheaven) and the U.K.’s Holy Roar (which hosts groundbreaking heavy acts like Rolo Tomassi, MØL, and Svalbard), who are both set on releasing Death Spells on vinyl in the U.S. (via Deathwish) and the U.K. (via Holy Roar) in spring 2019.
Not bad for a group that was born from the ashes of a folk band.
Before forming Holy Fawn with Alexander Rieth (bass), Evan Phelps (guitar), and Austin Reinholz (drums), guitarist/vocalist Ryan Osterman was part of the “ghost folk” group Owl & Penny. O&P had a rotating group of members, but Osterman remained a constant from album to album. He penned gloomy folk tunes that were as indebted to the songs of Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst as they were to the freak folk scene that bloomed and withered on the vine in the early 2000s. Take a look at Owl & Penny's 2015 covers album Songs from other humans and you can get a sense of the artists who shaped and influenced Osterman's sensibilities: Björk, The Smiths, Sigur Ros, Jonsi, Brand New, The Tallest Man On Earth, and Devendra Banhart.
“Eventually, it was like what I wanted to do was not something that the rest of the band really felt like they wanted to deal with,” Osterman says, reflecting on Owl & Penny’s dissolution. “Owl & Penny was gloomy, too, but more folky. And what I wanted to do would have required them to venture a bit more into electric stuff.”
Listening to Owl & Penny albums now, it’s fascinating to hear how they presage the dense, grander compositions of Holy Fawn. While the blend of shoegaze, post-black metal, and ambient music that defines Holy Fawn’s sound is miles removed from the folk vibes of Owl & Penny, the lyrical concerns and Osterman’s androgynous voice carries over. Just like on Holy Fawn albums, nature imagery dominates on Owl & Penny songs: soil, vultures, harvesting, beasts, and wild woods.
“The wilderness has always been something that’s really resonated with me,” Osterman says. “When I was growing up, our house was in a part of the desert that was up and coming. There wasn’t a lot of housing yet, so at night all you’d hear is the wind and coyotes.”
You can hear those coyotes and winds between the notes of Holy Fawn’s Death Spells. The music that Osterman, Phelps, Reinholz, and Rieth conjure up sounds like the stillness of nature at night: Chords ripple like tree branches swaying in the breeze, beats crunch and snap like leaves cracking under heavy footsteps, and Osterman’s voice drifts through the gloom like smoke from a campfire. Anyone who’s spent time alone in the woods at night can get on Death Spells' wavelength. It’s a record about how beautiful and menacing the natural world can be, and the palette of electronic and dreamy rock sounds that Holy Fawn use to create that mood reflects those conflicting modes (is that a gentle breeze wafting on your neck or the breath of some hungry beast stalking you?). Shoegaze and post-black metal was made for this kind of nocturnal shit.
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While Osterman is the group’s founder and primary songwriter, he stresses the fact that Holy Fawn are a group. “I’ll mess around at home with my looper pedal until something sticks, and then I’ll make a recording that’s more or less a skeleton I can take to the guys and then we’ll all find ways to flesh it out. It’s definitely a lot more of a collaborative effort now as a band.”
While Holy Fawn’s growing profile outside of Arizona is a sign of great things to come (they’re even planning a joint tour with Belgium shoegazers Slow Crush in the spring), Osterman’s not about to quit his day job. When he’s not writing post-metal pastoral hymns, he works as a barista at Songbird in downtown Phoenix.
“I’m torn because I feel in this day and age you have to be realistic,” Osterman says. “Some of your favorite bands still work day jobs. I’m not one of those people where it’s like I have to not be working in order to create. I consider myself a professional musician: I take this very seriously and professionally. I just happen to do some stuff during the daytime as well.”