About

Jon Wilks on stage at Cafe #9 in Sheffield. He is playing an Atkin acoustic guitar, standing in front of an old-fashioned microphone. The image is black and white.

Shorter version

Jon Wilks is a prominent fingerpicking guitarist and singer who performs traditional English folk songs and broadside ballads, often specialising in traditional folk songs from Birmingham and the wider Midlands, of which he has recorded two albums, Midlife (2018) and Up the Cut (2021). With his background as a former editor of Time Out magazine and contributor to Dazed & Confused, The Guardian and other publications, Jon has a keen eye and ear for storytelling. During his live shows, he mixes entertaining folk song performances with fascinating tidbits about the original singers and collectors that he has unearthed during his extensive research on traditional folk music in the UK.

Aside from being a talented musician and performer, Jon is also the founder and editor of Tradfolk.co, a website dedicated to the traditional music and ritualistic culture of England. He has released four solo albums, three albums and two EPs with The Grizzly Folk, and an album and EP with Japan-based indie band, Cut Flowers. He co-arranged and performed tracks on Jackie Oates’s Gracious Wings album and was a part of Slow Jane, the quartet that created videos of Nick Drake songs during lockdown.

In addition to his music career, Jon is the presenter of The Old Songs Podcast and gigs whenever he can. His talent has been recognized by Guitarist, one of the world’s biggest guitar magazines, which featured him as one-to-watch in July 2022. He was also the subject of an acoustic session on Mark Radcliffe’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Show in May, 2023.

Longer version

Background

Jon Wilks was born in Solihull, England in January 1977, into a family of educators. His mother was a head teacher at the Nelson Mandela Community School in Birmingham, while his father taught Shakespearean studies at several universities, including Birmingham and King Abdul Aziz in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Wilks spent a significant portion of his childhood abroad, including three years in Nigeria as a toddler and five years in Saudi Arabia from ages eight to 13. While living in Jeddah, he attended the Continental School. His paternal grandparents met in the 1940s through their involvement in community dancing at Cecil Sharp House, and his grandfather was a morris dancer in the early 1950s with Beaux of London City.

Upon returning to England in January 1990, Jon enrolled in Alderbrook Comprehensive School in Solihull, where he completed his secondary education before attending Solihull Sixth Form College. It was during these years that his passion for music flourished, as he played in several bands and participated in the emerging Britpop scene in Birmingham during the mid-90s with his band, Gentry.

Jon attended Thames Valley University in Ealing for a year, before transferring to the University of Wales, Bangor, where he studied English Literature. It was during this time that he became more interested in the fingerpicking guitar style for which he is now known, initially learning to interpret the playing techniques of his musical heroes, Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy. He would regularly perform at the Greek Taverna in Upper Bangor, often in return for a pint of beer, a packet of cigarettes and a plate of boiled potatoes.

After completing his degree at Bangor, Jon secured a job as an English teacher at Fukushima High School in Yame City, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. He lived in Japan intermittently for the next ten years, transitioning from teaching to freelance writing, and later to magazine editing. Jon’s first writing job was with Japanzine, where he worked under the editorship of James Hadfield. He steadily climbed the ranks to eventually become the editor before relocating to Abu Dhabi, where he accepted the position of editor for Time Out magazine.

Jon’s stint with Time Out spanned several years, during which he was promoted to the role of editorial director for Time Out Tokyo. He received recognition for his coverage of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, including his blog documenting the experience of surviving a catastrophic earthquake. His reporting earned him several awards.

At the end of 2011, Jon moved back to England with his wife and children, settling in Whitchurch, North Hampshire. He left Time Out and began working in digital marketing, handling campaigns for various brands. He even worked as a content strategist for the renowned British Museum for a period. Jon primarily focused on start-ups and, in 2016, co-founded the award-winning non-alcoholic drinks company, REAL Kombucha.

In 2021, he created Tradfolk.co, a website that blends his expertise in journalism, music, and digital marketing to establish what he calls, “Time Out for folkies.” Jon continues to work as a content strategy consultant with Torque Partnership.

In May, 2024, Jon was a key part of resurrecting the long-dormant Whitchurch Folk Festival. It had been a dream that he shared with Paul Sartin, and the pair used to discuss it over coffee at Kudos, their local coffee shop. After Paul’s passing, the Sartin family asked mourners not to send flowers, instead requesting that they donate money towards the resurrection of the festival. With the considerable help of Claire Patterson, booking agent for both Jon and Paul, the event took place on May 11th.

Music

Jon has a long and varied musical career, having played with multiple bands and recorded several albums.

From 2003 to 2007, he played with the indie group Cut Flowers in Fukuoka, Japan, touring frequently around southern Japanese cities and music festivals. He produced two of their records: Early Recordings in 2005, and You Come Around in 2007.

After leaving Cut Flowers, he formed the duo The Grizzly Folk with Jon Nice (a British friend also living in Fukuoka), where they combined traditional English tunes and songs with original recordings. Their style was influenced by the “twee” scene that was popular in Japan at the time, centred around the Tokyo duo, Tenniscoats. Together, they produced three albums: Gurning at the Moon (2014), Lairy Through the Town (2015), Leftovers (2018), and three EPs: 5-Weight (2008), Baibaba Bimba (2016) and Tape Machine (2020). Jon and Jon remain close collaborators to this day, with Nice frequently involved as a musician or videographer in Wilks’ musical projects. In 2020, Jon brought Nice into the Slow Jane project, alongside Lukas Drinkwater and Katherine Priddy, where they covered Nick Drake songs during the lockdown.

In 2015, Jon started a blog on The Grizzly Folk’s dormant website to explore his interest in traditional music and utilize his skills as a journalist. He conducted interviews with various people involved in traditional music, often suggested by his neighbour, Paul Sartin. These interviews included notable names such as Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson, and Lisa Knapp. Jon’s blog ran until 2018, but the interviews became the foundation for his larger project, Tradfolk.co, which he launched in 2021.

Jon’s exploration of traditional music led him to focus on traditional English songs in 2016, which he recorded on his first solo album, Songs from the Attic. He continued to delve into traditional songs from Birmingham and the Midlands for his subsequent albums, Midlife (2018) and Up the Cut (2021). In addition, he recorded an EP of songs in 2019, The Trial of Bill Burn Under Martin’s Act, featuring contributions from Mikey Kenney and Nick Hart. His latest album, Before I Knew What Had Begun I Had Already Lost, was released in May 2023, featuring collaborations with Lukas Drinkwater, Akito Goto, Jackie Oates, and Jon Nice. In 2021, he also released a recording of Mary Ashford’s Tragedy with the singer Katherine Priddy.

Jon hosts and produces The Old Songs Podcast as part of Tradfolk, where each episode focuses on a traditional song and features artists with a particular connection to it. The podcast has featured notable guests such as Billy Bragg and Jim Moray and is sponsored by EFDSS.

In July 2022, Jon was featured as one-to-watch in one of the world’s biggest guitar magazines, Guitarist. His fourth album, Before I Knew What Had Begun I Had Already Lost was featured as folk album on the month in The Guardian (May 2023), and led to his appearance as the featured guest on Mark Radcliffe’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Show sessions in the same month.

In May, 2024, Jon’s performance of ‘October Song’, by the Incredible String Band, was included on a live recording of the Les Cousins Tribute night, held earlier in the year at Moth Club in Hackney, London (which Jon helped to organise). The “Official Bootleg” came out on Broadside Hacks Recordings as a limited edition cassette and download.