Last week, on a music-fueled trip to the UK, I had the immense privilege of stopping by the Young Vic Theatre to hear a performance at Folk in a Box. With room for just one musician and one listener, it is boasted as being “Britain’s smallest venue,” but it’s really so much more.
When you enter the box, you and the musician sit on chairs facing each other, at what can’t be more than ten inches apart. You’re so close you hear each individual guitar string as it’s plucked. You hear every tremor in the musician’s voice. The music bounces off the walls and you realize that the sound waves being produced are hitting your ears and the musician’s, and that’s it; the live equivalent of headphones.
The box is pitch black. There’s nothing to see, nothing to smell, nothing to taste, and except for the chair you sit on, nothing to feel. Sound is the only sense you can experience, and you’re completely immersed in it.
The song commands your complete attention; you have actively walked into a space with the sole intention of listening to music. There’s no cash bar to the side of the stage with a line of people waiting to buy crap beer, there’s no one there to see or be seen by, and there’s no way to covertly distract yourself with your cell phone as you sit through the opening band. There is no microphone, no backing vocals, no amplifier. There’s just you, one musician, and one song. And it is amazing.
When I took my seat in the box, a woman’s voice asked me if I wanted to hear a cover song, a dark song, or a happy song. I decided to go with the dark song because I had heard of people leaving the box in tears, and I wanted to test my limits. The voice said, “Okay, then. This is a song called 'Sparkle Eyes'.” The musician, who I found out later to be the amazing Gill Sandell, began to play. I started to shut my eyes, but the box was so dark that it honestly didn’t make a difference. The sound filled the room, and while I didn’t cry, I felt my breath become heavy as imagery from the song flooded my mind. It took a few seconds for me to realize when the song ended. I blurted out, “That was amazing. Thank you” because clapping seemed like too weak a response for what I just experienced.
My friend and I decided to go back the next day, since we’re both fans of Emily Barker and she had said that she’d be in the box then. It felt slightly like cheating, since part of experience is the serendipitous and anonymous artist-listener matching, but we decided to do it anyway. Emily gave me the option of a happy song or a somber song, and I found myself frozen with indecision. I sat silent for a few seconds before saying, “I genuinely don’t know. I guess I want to hear whatever you’re in the mood to play.” “Alright. Well, this is a bit of a sad song. My grandfather spent World War II living in exile on the German-Dutch border, and the only way he could let his family know he was alive was through letters. So, this song is called 'Letters'.”
Okay, I admit it: somewhere between her foot-stomping drumbeat and the line about fleeing burning cities with empty stomachs, I teared up. Hearing a song for the first time is an emotional experience, even in the most casual of circumstances, but there’s something about being a part of Folk in a Box that’s just so intimate; it intensifies everything a song can make you feel.
When my song ended, I quickly wiped my eyes and mustered a heartfelt thank you before taking one last deep breath and exiting the box.Folk in a Box appears next at the Stroud Fringe Festival on August 31st, and the Kings Place Festival in London from September 13th-15th.