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Baker's Dozen

Kernow Calling: Mark Jenkin’s Favourite Albums
Sean McGeady , January 18th, 2023 09:12

Cornish bard Mark Jenkin talks Sean McGeady through the soundtracks to his teenage summers, long drives to the hospital, and lonely afternoons hand-processing celluloid, from Junior Wells to Joni Mitchell

Photo by Steve Tanner

Mark Jenkin had every intention of tidying his studio, but the day before our interview, he hauled his flight case out of hiding, pulled out his pedals and synths, set up a tape loop on his wet bench and started making music instead. “I did the opposite of tidying up,” he says. “I created a fuckin’ massive mess.”

We’re glad he did. Jenkin’s studio feels as much like an antiques shop as it does a place of work. There are hundreds of CDs, stacks of home-taped VHSes that date back decades, and a wall of books on everything from filmmaking to fishing. Two turntables sit atop a record cabinet, near a clapperboard, several Super 8 cameras, and a rusted chunk of old railway line used for foley. There are no chairs, only upturned apple crates. And the walls are barely visible between mounted flags, artworks and photographs.

It’s here, in a Victorian former primary school in Newlyn, that Jenkin hand-processes, edits, scores and sounds his films. He’d been a filmmaker for more than 20 years before Bait, a fraught story of gentrification in a Cornish fishing village, became his unlikely breakthrough in 2019. The 16mm black and white drama established the director as one of British cinema’s most distinctive creators – and one of its most formally playful. He shot the film in silence, on a hand-cranked Bolex camera, before recording dialogue and foley here in the studio. The resulting post-synced sound, coupled with Bait’s thick, glassy drone score, lends the picture an uneasy atmosphere that had many critics liken it to horror.

His follow-up hews closer to the genre proper. Featuring Jenkin’s partner, Mary Woodvine, as its lead, Enys Men is an elliptical folk-horror tone poem in which the laws of time and space are steadily but inexorably uprooted. Like Jenkin’s other work, it is deeply ingrained in Cornish soil.

His Baker’s Dozen touches on Kernow’s cultural past and present too, drawing lines between multiple generations and artistic disciplines. Baked into the celluloid of Enys Men, for example, are the primitive recordings of a Newlyn maid singing the words of a legendary Launceston poet, and an ancient approximation from one of British music’s most celebrated linguists. Jenkin’s albums, though, stretch well beyond the West Country, taking in the discrete musics of Manchester, Chicago and Jamaica. He plays choice tracks on cassette, CD and vinyl as we chat (“I don’t listen to digital music – Spotify and that stuff”). He doesn’t do silence. “I really like quiet,” he says. “But I can’t have silence. If I’m in the room on my own, the internal monologue starts up, so I’ll put music on. To drown out the voice in my head saying, ‘This is shit and worthless, don’t bother with it’.”

Creative limitations play an important role in Jenkin’s own work and in that he consumes. “In terms of the music I’m making,” he says, “my productivity has gone down the more equipment I’ve bought.” He remains reluctant to call himself a musician, despite having composed one of the most mesmeric scores of the past decade in Bait. He’d say that was an accident. Don’t believe him. Enys Men’s score is every bit as strange and compelling too. It’s serene and Eno-esque, yes, but Jenkin dials up the tension until the quietly eerie blooms into full-blooded sonic terror, infrasound included. There may be no more frightening track this year than ‘Knoukya Knoukya’.

Many of Jenkin’s Baker’s Dozen picks are debuts or sort-of-debuts too, first-time recordings or albums that represent the crystallisation of an artist’s approach. “It’s all downhill after that,” says the director. “That’s the fear when you’ve just got your second film coming out.”

Enys Men is released in UK cinemas on 13 January. To begin reading his Baker's Dozen, click the picture of him below