Interview: Emily Barker on her new album and working 16 hour days

Emily Barker is an Australian singer-songwriter who has developed her career in the UK. She was given the impetus to make music her full-time career when her song ‘Nostalgia’ became the theme song for the BBC series ‘Wallander’. Her music is a blend of folk, blues and soul which is a perfect definition of americana. Confirmation of this was given in 20128 when she won The Americana Music Association UK’s Artist of the Year Award.Emily Barker discussed her new album, ‘Dark Murmuration of Words’, Marry Waterson and working 16 hour days in remote Pembrokeshire with Americana UK’s Martin Johnson.

 How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of coronavirus?
Thank you and yes, I’m doing fine as is my family back in Western Australia where there have, thankfully, been very few cases – it’s pretty remote out there! I hope you’re doing OK too, and family.

This is an incredibly challenging time for musicians, why are you releasing new material now instead of waiting until you can tour to support it?
We talked about pushing the release back to next year but soon realised that there’s no guarantee of touring even then so we decided to stick with September. It will feel really strange not being able to get out there and perform these songs live with the band – that’s such a fun element of a release. But I’m grateful it’s going ahead regardless as it’s given me such a focus during what is such a strange time. Also, I think people are still hungry to hear new music and to have some continuation of the “normal”. I certainly look forward to getting out there again and being able to be sharing live music with fans and band alike.

‘The Woman Who Planted Trees’, your latest single is excellent. How did it come about and who made the superb video for it?
I learned about Wangari Maathai and The Green Belt Movement through a short documentary I found on YouTube and was blown away by her story. I found it at a time when the climate crisis was at the forefront of news and conversation last year and it gave me a chink of hope in what was otherwise a very overwhelming and sombre realisation of the extent to which we’ve damaged our earth. The simple act of planting a tree can have a profound effect on the immediate community – in Wangari’s case by empowering the women in her community through teaching them forestry skills, and by restoring soil health so that fruit vegetables could grow again – but it can also impact globally by reducing emissions and provides a connection which is vital for getting us through the tough times. The video was made by Stroud-based director Joe Magee who is an internationally renowned illustrator, filmmaker, and graphic designer. We made it when the lockdown was eased and called upon Bristol-based actor, Corinne Walker to star as the protagonist.

What is behind the title of your new album ‘A Dark Murmuration of Words’ and what influenced your songwriting? Also, it has a striking cover, is there a story there?
The title is the final line from the second track on the album, Geography. It came to me when I was sitting in some sand-dunes on the south coast of Western Australia looking up at the sky at some migratory birds. I felt for a moment that I was one of them with this constant pull and movement between my two homes: UK and Australia. I’ve written so many words on the subject of home over the years and I imagined them all up in the sky migrating between these places. My songwriting was influenced by a lot of literature. Poets like Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Danez Smith, Tracy K. Smith. Books such as Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Breath by Tim Winton. And podcasts such as Seeing White, Mothers of Invention, and Costing the Earth. That also inspired the title. The cover is by a Stroud-based artist called Ange Mullen-Bryan whose work I adore. I wanted to reach out and explore the rich artistic community we have here in Stroud through collaboration. I sent the songs to her as well as the lyrics and she came up with this beautiful idea for the cover and that gorgeous colour palette.

Your last studio album ‘Sweet Kind of Blue’ emphasised the Southern soul side of your music, what were the musical influences for the new album?
I was listening to a lot of Aimee Mann, her latest album ‘Mental Illness’, also Laura Marling ‘Semper Femina’, Rhiannon Giddens ‘Freedom Highway’, Carole King ‘Tapestry’ (always!), Brandi Carlile ‘By the Way I Forgive You’, Phoebe Bridgers ‘Stranger in the Alps’, Aldous Harding ‘Designer’, and Emmylou Harris ‘Wrecking Ball’.

How and where did you record it and who with? Did the final result meet or exceed all your expectations?
We recorded the main parts in one week in a converted chapel in Pembrokeshire in November 2019. We did most of it live apart from strings and a few other overdubs. It was a really immersive experience as we worked up to sixteen hours each day and the studio is so remote that the only other place to go was to the nearby farmhouse where we were staying. We were all so absorbed by what we were doing that we didn’t y notice the hours passing. The results absolutely met my expectations which are always high.

How are you ensuring that as many people as possible will hear the new album under the current lockdown arrangements?
Normally I’d be out touring of course, but even under normal circumstances, there’s a lot of social media messages and newsletters to my subscribers. I guess the additional element is the number of livestreams – I’ve enjoyed doing some of those with the likes of G7 Capo, PMT, Sound Lounge, and Destination Country. And I’ve been walking around town with a sandwich board strapped to my body prophesying the end of the world unless you repent and buy my album.

You recently worked with Marry Waterson. How did that come about and what did you learn about your music from the collaboration? Are you thinking of working with any more artists?
We met at a songwriting retreat organised by Kathryn Williams here in Stroud. I’m a huge fan of Lal Waterson’s work and was already familiar with Marry’s music too so was thrilled when Kath paired us for a writing day together. We came out with a song called ‘I’m Drawn’ and the collaboration continued from there. I love Marry’s lyrics, she has such an interesting, poetic way with words. Right now I’m not collaborating with anyone as I’m focusing on this album alone. Lukas and I have also just moved house so we’re painting, tearing up floorboards, and watching YouTube tutorials on how to use belt sanders! I’ve been writing poetry which is a new endeavour for me but have some works being published soon.

Coronavirus is challenging the whole world at the moment, but it is not the only challenge we face. What do you think is the next biggest challenge and how do you think music can help the world?
For me, there’s a realisation that all the most fundamental issues are interconnected – it’s something I noticed when I looked back at the songs on the album, I’d thought I was writing about disparate subjects, but everything is wrapped up in how we behave as a society and our individual actions within. The big issues are always there, the fight for equality, freedom from oppression, protection of the environment, and diversity of species, these issues get moments in the spotlight, as the climate crisis did last year, but are quickly side-lined by other events. Music can help by telling stories that keep the important things at the forefront, inspire action, or help people deal with the anxiety and guilt that these monumental issues generate. As part of that message, many musicians are also striving to be more responsible by adopting business practises leaving a smaller footprint.

Looking to the future, you have had a successful career to date, particularly with your media work, but how do you see your music developing over the next few years?
I don’t look that far ahead. I’m just thinking about this album now. New songs written later down the track will guide me to where I need to be at that moment.

At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share who is currently on your playlist?
I’ve had a Road Trip playlist for a long time, where I share the music that the band and I listen to when we’re on tour, but when lockdown began I thought I’d start a new playlist, which I’ve called Songs for Staying Home – it’s a more relaxed, contemplative collection, and I’ve been including some of the recommendations I’ve been getting from fans, so it’s a two-way street, which I’ve been enjoying. You can check that out here:- current faves on the list currently include Elizabeth Cotten, Phoebe Bridgers, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Laura Marling, J.S. Ondara, Archie Roach, Blaze Foley.

Finally, are you still an Australian living and working in the UK, or are you starting to go native?
I have dual citizenship so there’s definitely some amount of going native, but if you listen to many of my songs, you’ll start to get the picture that I’m constantly wrestling with the concept of “home”. If it helps, I eat Marmite when I’m at home in the UK, but Vegemite when I’m at home in Australia. Or maybe that doesn’t help!

Emily Barker’s ‘Dark Murmuration Of Words’ is released on 4 September 2020 on Thirty Tigers

Author: Martin Johnson

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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