Interview: Emily Barker

Emily Barker is one of those names that has been around the UK Americana scene, since it was both identified as a ‘scene’ and as a distinct musical genre.  A pathfinder, a trailblazer, and first with her Red Clay Halo, then as part of Applewood Road a consistent purveyor of great music.  She stretches the musical parameters, and possibly herself with a wonderfully soul soaked new record, Sweet Kind of Blue, recorded in Memphis.

So the new album then, do you see it as a departure or extension of what you’ve done before?
I see it as a return to my roots in many ways. It was the voices of blues and soul singers such as Aretha Franklin and Koko Taylor which first inspired me to started singing when I was a teenager. When I started writing though, I found that the songs came out in a more country/folk style, perhaps with a little blues twist here and there. But this album has more of a soul feel than anything I’ve done before so it is a departure I guess, but for me, more like coming full circle.

It’s got some real soul to it.  It’s at times a record for dancing to?
That’s awesome! I was dancing away in my vocal booth when we were making the record, so I’m glad that comes across.

It has a 70’s feel too.
The production, song-writing and performance was definitely 70’s-inspired. When the producer Matt Ross-Spang and I first started talking production ideas, we had a playlist of artists and recordings which were firmly set in that time frame. Songs by the likes of Dan Penn, Ann Peebles, Dusty Springfield, Bobby Darin and Burt Bacharach.

I really dig the organ on it. Whose idea was that, and who is it playing it?
That is the great Rick Steff. He’s incredible. A local Memphian, and his dad played trumpet in Elvis’ band, so he grew up breathing music. It was Matt’s idea to have all the musicians who played on the album. He’s worked with them all before and knew there would be a great dynamic in the room between us. We tracked live and we only met for the first time on the first day. So we worked really quickly, recording 10 songs in 4 days with the core studio band: drummer Steve Potts, bassist Dave Smith, guitarist Dave Cousar, everything with keys by Rick Steff, and myself. Google them all – they have the most ridiculous CVs! It was slightly intimidating, but thankfully they’re all complete darlings.

There are a great couple of videos that come with it – you got Danni Nicholls dancing?  
Haha! I did indeed. It didn’t take much! She’s well groovy and was up for it. We had a lot of fun making the video for Sweet Kind of Blue.

Your music gets featured a lot in television & film. Why do you think that happens?
I was very fortunate to have one of my songs, Nostalgia, used as the theme tune to a major BBC1 drama. It all grew from there really. I’ve since done a score for a feature film called Hector and had other songs of mine used as theme tunes as well or been asked to write songs specifically for film/TV. I’m not sure why entirely, but I’m grateful for it and I really enjoy writing to a brief rather than always from myself.

You’d like to do some acting?
I’ve done a small amount and really enjoyed it. So yes! Why not.

The video in a greasy spoon is lovely. Did you came up with the storyboard?
I came up with the concept and then the storyboarding was done by a professional, Max Baring, who also directed and filmed it. Because the song has an American blues sound to it, I wanted to set the movie in England, to highlight the universality of the road trip theme.

You don’t strike me as the sort of person who eats in a lot of roadside cafes or chuck wagons?
Haha, I certainly don’t! I’m a vegetarian and I’m wheat-free so there’s nothing on that menu that works for me apart from perhaps a plate of baked beans. But I like the look of them.

Was it nice to make a record on your own? No Halo or AWR?
It was amazing. I stepped in there trying not to have too many preconceived ideas of what it would come out sounding like. I just wanted to connect with the incredible musicians Matt had pulled together and be open-minded about where the songs went. It was highly collaborative and a lot of fun and I’m so proud of what we did.

Sounds like you really let go?     
Totally. It was liberating.

What’s the Sam Phillips connection?
This is the studio he always dreamed of building. He designed it himself after the success of Sun Studios and the record label. But it never really had the profile he envisaged it would have. So it’s so great that it’s currently getting a new lease of life with investment from the Phillips family. Matt has recently refurbished and moved in Studio B, so it’s fully functioning once again.

And being Memphis helped get you what you wanted?
I don’t think I could have made that record anywhere else in the world. It’s got such a Memphis sound to it.

It feels like a record that could have been made anytime in the last 30-40 years?
That’s cool. I like timelessness. I like the classic sound.

‘More’ feels like Phil Spector or 60’s Motown. Are you a fan?
It was Dave Cousar, the guitarist, who said, “why don’t we do a Motown thing with this song!?” It started out in 6/8 and then it became what it did. We were all vibing off that groove. So yes, I’m a fan of Motown but if I had to choose between Stax and Motown, then I’m a Stax girl.

You long for a ‘beehive’?
Not yet. But you never know…

I’m interested in the records mechanics, the transitions between songs – you swing up, then down a lot, yet it hangs together wonderfully. Did you ponder this a lot?
The track listing was really difficult because of the ups and downs, and it took ages to decide, but we got there in the end. I like albums with light and shade and I think we made one of those.

You still think in record terms?
Huge yes.

Is that old-fashioned?
Probably but I don’t care.

I only got the record electronically, so I’ve no idea of the sleeve, the players etc. Does that make you sad?
No. I’m grateful people get it in whatever way they do. I’m happy if people listen and enjoy it. I’m not going to tell people in which way they should listen to it.

Can I ask you about one of the songs, ‘Crazy Life’ – you sing about how you ended up here, and you’re a nomad it appears to me.  An Aussie living in Stroud, working in Memphis/Nashville constantly touring – is that tough?
It is tough sometimes but mostly so informative when you have to re-find yourself over and over again in the world. Just when you thought you were someone in one place, you move on, meet different people, and realise you’re someone else. It can be hard to bridge all those selves/places sometimes. But I definitely love to keep moving in different ways: creatively, physically, and mentally. There’s so much out there and so much to learn. There’s also a lot to learn in standing still.

Does anywhere feel like home really?
My greatest sense of home is by the river in Bridgetown, Western Australia, and with my family back home there, or with my partner anywhere.


Where next then?  Musically and geographically?
I’ve just started writing and collecting inspiration, but it’s too early to say.

About Rudie Hayes 150 Articles
Rudie is the weekly host of the syndicated radio show - The Horseshoe Lounge Music Session - playing the best American Roots and hosting terrific live guests.
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