Carlton Heston’s Freak Folk Is A World Of Its Own

There’s something to be said for people who make music by themselves. Recording vocals, guitar, bass and percussion into their laptop then meticulously editing, modulating, and double tracking into the throes of the night. It’s no easy task, and there’s an element of world-building to it all — obsessing over texture turns into the music’s atmosphere, and fixations on song structure becomes a part of the musical language. For freak folk rocker Carlton Heston, the singer’s music opens a door to an ethereal darkness that’s almost nightmarish in execution. Defined by Heston’s quivering yet striking voice and penchant for the dark and unnerving, the singer’s acoustic guitar driven output is truly something to behold.

“Most people get into music when they’re young and move on to something serious,” says Heston. “I just never moved on to anything serious.” 

Since 2014, Heston’s put out a steady stream of singles and mixtapes online under his name. They run the gamut of being delicate and forlorn folk tunes to escapades into dissonant noise. Out of a love for Halloween, he’s released a handful of holiday-appropriate compositions for the past five years. He released his first proper album Songs about Roadkill in 2016, A Child’s Guide to Carlton in June 2018, and Screamers, The and Glovember & December later that year. The songs contain a dark texture and are even creepy at some points. But that’s all a part of the plan, according to Heston.

“I think the best way to listen to [Screamers, The] is to go a couple days without sleep and put it on really loud,” notes Heston. “Especially the title track — it works well.”

Heston began gaining traction in 2016 with the group Fenokee Tribunal, an extension of Heston’s solo work. Featuring Heston on lead vocals and guitar, Robert Nelson on upright bass and Leeland Woodward on percussion, the group’s sound was marked with yelps, percussive freak-outs, and plenty of guitar noodling to go around. They sounded like something out of a backwoods fever dream, a gang of mystics and prophets with the goal of getting as far out as possible. Songs like “Horned Ghoul” and “Bewitched By Worms” possessed an old-time element while still gleefully venturing into the darker corners of the avant-garde. Here, Heston formed his chops of disregarding genre convention, instead conjuring an avant-folk concoction that’s almost primal in execution.

Though creating left-field folk music is what Heston might be known for, the singer also has a passion for animation. On “Man from Orleans,” an electric blues-rock dirge, the video is full of psychedelic imagery from eerie smiley faced men dressed in red dancing to a dog-like creature in overalls exploring an abandoned church. When Heston first began writing music, it was mostly just to score his animations, which were oftentimes these creepy DIY pen-on-paper montages following ghoulish characters trotting around whatever dream-like sequence Heston thought up. As noted by Heston, the animations came to be out influence from Pink Floyd’s The Wall animator Gerald Scarfe, Fritz the Cat and 1978’s The Lord of the Rings animator Ralph Bakshi, and surrealist cartoonist Sally Cruikshank.

Eclectic for sure, Heston doesn’t waste any time in exploring whatever his interests may lie — even politics. In 2018, Carlton Heston ran for Congressperson of Georgia’s 6th District as a write-in candidate against now incumbent Lucy McBath and Republican Karen Handel. 

“At the beginning of that year I was thinking a lot about death,” says Heston, “so I thought I might as well run for office.”

Heston ran a campaign based on “whooping Phizer’s and Pharma Purdue’s ass” for their decisions that led to the opioid crisis, abolishing all taxation of earned income and establishing a land-value tax, lowering the drinking age to 18, as well as taking on NSA spying and repealing the Patriot Act. He explains that it was an tough campaign — many news outlets refused to cover his campaign and he was shut out of the debates. Instead, he filmed his own debate Clint Eastwood style with a chair. Though the singer only managed to garner eighteen votes, he says it was a positive experience.

“I encourage everybody to run for office so they can at least understand how much of an upward battle it is,” he says. 

With dozens of songs to his name, Heston is set to release his next solo effort Boos for Bezus on July 19th. Offering a completely uncategorizable sort of sound — the only comparisons the writer can think of are Tom Waits at his most manic and Beck’s anti-folk debut Mellow Gold — Carlton Heston’s music is entirely his and his alone. 

“There's music I'd like to hear that doesn't exist yet, so I try to make it exist,” says Heston. “Anyone else who'd like to hear it, or make it, is welcome to come along.”

Carlton Heston will celebrate Boos for Bezus at Patch Works Art & History Center in Cabbagetown on July 19th at 4 p.m. RSVP to the show here. Listen to Carlton Heston’s music here.