Interview and gig review on behalf of http://www.slatethedisco.com
Welcome back to Cambridge, Emily – you’re pretty much an adopted local, right?
Thank you! Cambridge was the first ever place I lived when I moved over to the UK all of 11 years ago. I haven’t lived there for about 7 years now mind you, but I do have many very fond memories and much to be grateful for from my days spent there.
You even used to work in the much missed Andy’s Records?!
I did indeed! I made some very strong friendships and also it was my portal to the vibrant music scene as so many of the staff were musicians themselves. I learned a lot about music too which was great.
You played the Cambridge Folk Festival again as well this summer; did you enjoy that?
I really loved being back there. I first played CFF in 2002 when I did guest vocals for Rob Jackson and also The Broken Family Band. It was my performance with Rob though that made he and I decide to form a band, the-low-country, and forming that band meant I had to live in the UK. So, the folk festival in part is responsible for me living here all these years! It was great to play on the Radio 2 stage to a packed tent with my band. Felt like a milestone.
For anyone who may be new to your music, what can they expect?
I think our music is a little difficult to pigeonhole. I certainly have difficulties describing it. It is influenced by folk, country, rock, punk and classical. It can range from foot-stomping to atmospheric shoe-gazing. There’s lots of harmonies and a very healthy array of instruments including cello, violin and accordion.
There seems to be a definite sense of ‘place’ and ‘home’ on your fourth album ‘Dear River’? Was this a deliberate theme?
It was indeed. It’s the first ‘concept’ album I’ve ever written. The subject is ‘home’. It’s my personal story of home but always looking out at the wider context to cover sub-texts of exile, immigration, indigenous politics and colonisation.
This was your first label funded album – was there any noticeable differences in the production of that as a result?
Yes indeed there is a noticeable difference. I signed to an audiofile label called Linn Records. They design and build incredible music systems. So naturally their passion for sound quality extends to their label. This meant that they gave us budget to work with a world-class producer: Calum Malcolm, in a state-of-the-art recording studio: Gorbal Sounds Studio in Glasgow. So the result is a more polished and hi-fi sounding album. We’re really pleased with the results.
You tend to vary up your tours a bit! How was the record store tour this year?
It was wonderful! Having worked in independent record stores, I was very keen to do something to support them, as well as wanted to promote the record grass-roots-style at the time of release (knowing the tour wasn’t until the autumn). Therefore doing a record store tour, seemed like the perfect idea. It really took me back to the basics of touring to which was great: me, my car and my acoustic guitar traveling around the country. It was so simple and so rewarding meeting all the shop owners and all the people who came along. A record shop is like an artery leading straight to the heart of a community. So it was a joy to experience this.
Then there was the ‘Folk in a Box’ concept which you’ve been taking all over place again this year, how did that come about and what’s been the response to it?
It came about by accident at Standon Calling Festival a few years ago. It is the brain child of Dom Coyote and I. It’s the smallest music venue on earth and the experience involves two people sitting in a dark space no bigger than a confession booth, one is a performer and the other is the “audient”. One song is performed and then the door is opened and the next listener enters. Punters and performers aboslutely love it. It’s so unique and so personal.
And then you’re visiting us as part of a massive Autumn tour also – do you enjoy being on the road?
I love being itinerant. Before I became a musician, I travelled the world for 3 years as a backpacker. There’s something about the temporary or transitional that really makes me be in the present more and not take time for granted.
On the subject of live music, you played a rather large gig last year…how was it playing the Olympic opening ceremony with Frank Turner?
It was both incredible and surreal. It was an honour to be a part of and to feel the electricity in the air of such a mass-scale event. My favourite moment was after the show when we were escorted backstage through the corridors where all the NHS children and nurses were waiting to head out. All the kids put their hands out to high-five us as we passed. There were hundreds of them! They were so excited. It was beautiful.
And finally; if there was one song you wish you could have written, then it would be…
‘Comes a Time’ by Neil Young.
“Our music is a little difficult to pigeonhole’, Emily Barker told us last week, “I certainly have difficulties describing it. It is influenced by folk, country, rock, punk and classical”. Quite a collection of influences there, but then that’s certainly not a bad thing. This might be down to her varied backgrounds and experiences – whether it be her origins in small town Western Australia, or appearing on a mocked up green and pleasant land at our Olympic ceremony – but there’s an individuality to Emily Barker that has made her one of the most intriguing artists around. A full house at the Junction 2 on Monday night certainly signified that Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo are reaping the rewards of their steadily growing fame, and perhaps tellingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience at a gig with an age range as mixed as this.
The support act for the night promised to be just as unique. Brighton-born singer-songwriter Chris T-T covers ground ranging from political and social satire to reworking the poems of A.A.Milne, but tonight we found him in a slightly more downbeat mood. Singing of such jolly subject matter as Alzheimer’s and domestic abuse amongst others, it was slightly hard work for a miserable Monday evening if I’m honest. Performance wise he was solid and as honest as ever – the traditional folk elements that he does so well were still there in the likes of ‘M1 Song’ – and the duet of ‘Gulls’ with Emily Barker was probably the stand out; but by the time she returned to the stage for the main set donning a sparkling golden jacket there was a definite sense of the (well delivered) gloom being lifted.
Right from the off Emily Barker and her accompanying group the Red Clay Halo had the audience at ease; kicking off with the title track of their latest LP ‘Dear River’ they immediately set the tone for what was to be a well-crafted and captivating set. They have an ability to create wonderfully absorbing music, which combined with the heartfelt words of Barker and the soothing harmonies of all female vocals makes for incredibly engaging songs. It wasn’t the type of show that was ever going to have the audience leaping up from the comfort of their seats, but an equal sign of its effect was the utter silence from the audience that each song was afforded. No more so was this the case than in the likes of ‘Letters’ – a poignant tale of her Dutch grandfather escaping Nazi invasion – and ‘Home’, an acoustic solo rather sheepishly dedicated to her first UK home of Cambridge.
Instruments came and went throughout the evening; in fact everyone involved seemed to be accomplished with several. It is however the large use of strings and clarinet that give so many of the songs a brooding feel – it’s no wonder two of the tracks performed have been used as themes for major UK crime thrillers – and it’s these that help to continuously draw out the touching and often pertinent subject matters in hand. Barker went back to her roots on several occasions, ‘Everywhen’ talks of colonial land use back home in Australia, while her own geographic displacement is at the forefront of set closer ‘The Blackwood’ – both conveyed with a crackling of emotion. The encore for the evening further exemplified the range of musical styles that Emily Barker draws upon. ‘Fields of June’ came filled with suspense-ridden violins and rasping Gallic accordions, before the show culminated in exactly the kind of twist that make her so gloriously unpredictable. A cover of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ meant we could throw in soul music to that list of influences listed, and as she closed off the evening with effortless style you couldn’t help but applaud the ability of the whole band to master so much, so well. And it turns out she was right – you can’t put your finger on their musical style or how it would be described, but hey, who would want to be pigeonholed anyway?