Interview: Emily Barker on “Fragile as Humans”

Credit: Luke David Kellett

Bringing a more contemporary songwriter feel to americana and folk.

It is four years since Emily Barker released “A Dark Murmuration” of words, and her new album “Fragile as Humans” is the chance listeners have had to hear how the pandemic influenced her songwriting. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Emily Barker at her London base over Zoom to discuss “Fragile as Humans” and why she has moved her permanent base back to Australia. She explains that the pandemic made her feel isolated from her family as her home state of Western Australia closed its border. The songs on the new album were written in 2021 and 20222 and reflect the introspection experienced by many people during the pandemic. The album was recorded at Luke Potashnick’s Wool Hall Studios. Emily Barker explains how he helped her craft a more contemporary sound for her songs, and how she was surprised how the songs responded to his suggestions. While Emily Barker is one of Australia’s leading artists, she explains how hard it is to be a touring musician in such a vast country with such a relatively small population. The good news for UK fans is that Emily Barker will be headlining a tour in January/February 2025.

How are you and where are you?

I’m just back in London from Australia, which is where I live now because I’m kicking off the album here. I’ve moved back permanently to Australia, but I’m still spending a lot of time here. It’s sort of the reverse of what we were doing before. It is partly due to COVID and the feeling that I couldn’t go back because Western Australia closed its borders which made me suddenly feel very far away. Also personal reasons, mostly family, just wanting to be with family after being away for twenty-one years.

We last talked around the release of “Dark Murmuration of Words” which has proved to be very successful. Did the level of success take you by surprise?

It was hard to tell because we went into lockdown when it came out, which was such a shame because I didn’t get to tour it properly, but despite the circumstances, it managed to get out there and people seemed to really enjoy it. I’m still playing lots of the songs from that, and enjoy being able to play them live now.

Your new album “Fragile as Humans” got a four-star review in Mojo.

Yeah, I was very pleased with that It was nice it came in a bit early as well because it obviously helps pique interest.

It was reviewed in the main album section, and not restricted to the folk or americana sections.

I guess it is not so obviously folk or americana, it is still songs of a type but it doesn’t necessarily sit so easily in those genres.

Was that deliberate, or is it just how the songs worked out?

It was more just meeting Luke, the producer, and then also feeling a bit restless and wanting to explore different sounds. I was listening to music that still at its heart was folk and americana or singer-songwriter, but just dressed differently. People like Pheobe Bridgers, Aldous Harding, and quite a lot of contemporary singer-songwriters, I suppose. I grew up listening to so many old-sounding records, and I’ve definitely made some of them, which I loved but I guess I just fancied doing something more contemporary with the sound.

You also seem to have taken a more personal view, you’ve looking in on yourself more than you have previously.

Yeah, it was quite a time of introspection for a lot of people because a lot of the songs were written in 2021 and 2022, and I was in the UK and working from home and the world felt a lot smaller in a lot of ways because of the pandemic, So, it was more introspective, I suppose, because of that but I like to think that even though the songs are quite introspective in some ways, they speak to experiences a lot of people went through then but continue to have, like the quieter side of ourselves.

The album has a sense of darkness but it is also hopeful.

That’s how I think most of us get around. We are all nuanced and complex, and experience a whole range of emotions and thoughts, even in the space of five minutes. I’m glad it comes across as dark in some places, but still hopeful too, yeah.

What was it like recording at Wool Hall Studios and were you influenced by earlier visitors?

That was great. I met the producer, I was introduced to Luke Potashnick, and that’s where he works out of, he has his own studio there. He and his wife moved to Wool Hall in 2016, I think, and they’ve been slowly doing it up and repairing it because it was quite dishevelled. They live there, and Luke’s studio’s there. It’s just outside of Frome and Frome is such a hub of creativity, there’s so much music going on around there. I was living in Stroud at the time so it was about an hour or so away and we just took our time, and I went down each day, and sometimes stayed over. We just took our time with it, and it is such a beautiful countryside setting, a great space.

Did you know what you wanted before you went into the studio, or were some things worked up during the recording?

It developed through conversations, but I think Luke and I just connected on that and I trusted his vision. We knew we wanted to make it feel quite filmic, so very atmospheric, and we thought a lot of drones throughout would be a way of creating that, and pushing the dynamics by making sure there were very, very sparse quiet moments and contrast that with very much more arranged bigger instrumental parts with many instruments as well. So just working with those dynamics, and moods as well.

Did any of the songs surprise you in their final arrangements?

Definitely, all of them in a way. Some of them felt like they would be more straightforward, ‘With Small Wee Start’ isn’t really obvious but I definitely could hear that before we began. For some others, like ‘Loneliness’ I wasn’t so sure how we would go about producing that and what Luke’s ideas would be, but I really loved how sparse that is throughout, and it obviously fits with the sentiment of the song.

How are you going to play the songs live?

Well, I’m just about to do an instore tour around the UK, so playing in lots of record shops, and that will be mostly solo except for the Rough Trade, Bristol, and Rough Trade, London, and they will be with a full band, Lucas Drinkwater on bass, Kit Hawes on guitar, and I’m stealing Frank Turner’s drummer Callum Green. So, two shows together as a band, and I’m just in the process now of announcing my UK headline tour which is in January/February next year, and that will be with a band. Of course, there will be songs with me solo or as a duo with Lucas, and we will try and do what we did on the album which is to be really minimal and then be much bigger in sound as well.

Are you going to keep the new sound?

I have no idea. It has been three years in the making, so I haven’t thought about what comes next.

Did your 2022 album of covers influence your writing?

I suppose, yeah. I guess those songs were songs that I’d known for some time, and as a songwriter, you just absorb everything you are listening to, even if it is just subconsciously.

What is your Australian career like?

It’s different, very, very different because there are so few people out there, particularly in Western Australia where I’m from, you just can’t do as many gigs because it’s not possible as there aren’t as many towns. A lot of those towns don’t have a venue or have an original music night, there may be a pub where you can see a covers band. So, it’s a very different scene over in Western Australia, but on the East Coast it’s a little bit different, you just have to not overdo it, particularly in Perth, otherwise, you are asking the same people to buy tickets every couple of weeks or whatever. I just keep my powder dry a little bit, and keep it for a special event of some sort. So, when I go back I’ll be doing an album launch in Perth, and a couple of record store shows as well, and a few regional shows as well. It is such a big, big place with so few people around that you can’t be as busy, but that’s quite nice having that between touring over here, and I still tour America. It’s a big commute to anywhere but great when you are there, it’s really beautiful, it’s paradise and I get to see my family and the dog. It’s great and we have a really good lifestyle.

Playing record stores is now a key part of the publicity machine for artists. What do you get out of it as a musician that you don’t get from a normal gig?

I used to work in record stores so I appreciate them as a community hub, I suppose, and I did my first record store in 2013 when I drove myself around for the ‘Dear River’  tour. It was just great being able to meet with fans in a more intimate setting and during the day a lot of the time, to celebrate three years of work or however long it has taken to bring an album as a physical thing into this world. It feels really good to be doing that, signing copies, meeting people and hearing how they might connect to the songs. I think it is an important part of the whole process, which during COVID we didn’t get to experience because it just existed online essentially. It was hard to feel like an album had come out into the world, even though someone might send you a photo saying they’ve got the vinyl. You couldn’t have those conversations or feel like it was out there. So, for me, I think it is a way of acknowledging the work and the whole process and meeting people as well.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers. What are three of your favourite tracks, albums or artists on your playlists?

I was introduced to a couple of new people the other day, Lomelda and Allegra Krieger. I came across Allegra Krieger in a café and I was like, who’s this, she’s really good. I’ve been listening to Willy Mason recently. I also like the Bonnie Light Horseman, their first record, in particular, is gorgeous and was partly the inspiration for my latest album.

Emily Barker’s “Fragile as Humans” is out now on Everyone Sang.
Details of Emily Barkers UK dates can be found here.

About Martin Johnson 415 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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