Interview: Emily Barker reflects on her 2020 success and AMA-UK nomination

Emily Barker helps celebrate the UK americana music scene while maintaining her world view

Americana UK last interviewed Emily Barker in August to discuss her then new release ‘A Dark Murmuration Of Words’. At the time, it was clear the new album was special and this has been confirmed by the various plaudits the album has received making many Best Of Year lists and resulting in Emily Barker’s nominations for AMA-UK UK Americana Awards 2021  for UK Album Of The Year and UK Artist Of The Year. Emily Barker has achieved her success despite the challenges posed by the lockdown. As well as her nominations, Emily Barker is also a featured artist for AMA-UK’s virtual Award Show and AmericanaFest UK 2021. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up again with Emily Barker to see how the second half of 2020 went, the importance that AMA-UK has for the americana community and the satisfaction of sharing a virtual stage with artists of the calibre of Steve Earle, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams Chuck Prophet, Grant Lee Phillips, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell and more. She also gives the background to her new EP ‘Machine’ which maintains her world view.

Hi again Emily, it is 6 months since we last spoke, I hope you and your family continued to keep safe from COVID. 

Thank you, we’re all well. Hope you and yours are too!

When we spoke in August you had high hopes for your album ‘A Dark Murmuration of Words’. Did you ever imagine it would generate the level of interest it has? 

It’s always a nervous time when you finally release an album that you’ve been working on for months or sometimes years. This one meant a lot to me, so it’s been particularly rewarding for me to read how fans and critics alike have connected with the songs.

It has been very hard for most artists, why do you think you were able to overcome the limits of lockdown to get exposure for the album where other artists have struggled with their product? 

I was in the very fortunate position that when lockdown hit, I had completed and mastered the album, but was still in the planning stages for releasing it. Of course, it’s been difficult, because so many of my fans tend to buy albums at live shows. I think lots of other artists have risen to the challenge in inspiring and imaginative ways.

As someone with dual citizenship, how have you kept in touch with your Australian fans and what has been the Australian response to the album? 

The album has had the best reviews of any of my albums so far in Australia, which I’m really happy about. At the same time, it’s been incredibly frustrating that I haven’t been able to go back to play shows at a time when the album has been getting so much attention – not to mention how difficult I’ve found being unable to visit my family.

I interviewed Stevie Smith a couple of months ago about AMA-UK AmericanaFest 2021 and she was very excited about the artists who were going to play virtually. What does it feel like being nominated for UK Artist Of The Year and UK Album Of The Year? 

It’s always an honour to be nominated for these awards in particular because the AMA-UK is such a community-oriented organisation.

When I spoke to Stevie Smith she recognised that COVID had posed a challenge but that the virtual nature of AmericanaFest UK 2021 meant that the potential audience would be wider because it was now open to the whole world. Do you think that this could be an opportunity for you to bring your music to its widest audience? 

I know Stevie has been working especially hard this year to make sure that the virtual AmericanaFest UK has as much impact as possible and I’m really excited to be involved. All the work the AMA-UK and Americana UK do in bringing Americana to a wider audience is very much appreciated by artists and fans alike and I think all those watching are in for a real treat this year.

Is your AmericanaFest UK 2021 appearance going to be solo or will you have any supporting musicians? 

I’ll be making three appearances, as well as introducing the Thirty Tigers showcase alongside Robert Vincent. Two performances will be as a duo with my husband, Lukas Drinkwater, and one is with my band – we all live in Stroud, so it’s been relatively easy for us to get together, though we’re all missing the on-the-road camaraderie of touring.

What will you do if you win either or both of your nominated awards and what would it mean for your career? 

I know this might be easily said because I’ve won awards in the past, but in the americana world, it really is enough just to be mentioned in the same breath as the other artists who have been nominated. I mean, just go and look at that list…

AmericanaFest UK 2021 has a balanced performer list. Do you think that things are beginning to change for female artists? 

I think AmericanaFest UK has had a very balanced performer list from the beginning – it’s something they’ve always been aware of and have made great strides to address – from being led by a woman CEO, to having prominent women on conference panels and as keynote speakers, to having women not only fairly represented in the awards, but sometimes dominating certain categories. The whole a’mericana movement has provided a home to women whose music is often pigeonholed in other genres. We’re still operating in an industry that is dominated by a certain demographic, much like the rest of the world, but there are positive signs that things are changing.

You are releasing an EP, ‘Machine’, which includes the album track and 2 alternative versions. What drove you to write that particular track and what do the alternative takes add? 

I wrote ‘Machine’ a few years ago after touring extensively in the USA and seeing first-hand how so much is divided along racial lines, a story that is told in stark detail by the statues in the parks, all celebrating colonial, slave-era “heroes”. That experience came back to mind when watching Ava DuVernay’s incredible, harrowing documentary ’13th’, which outlines how the US Constitution’s 13th Amendment inadvertently paved the way for modern-day slavery in the US penal system; it reveals the flaws in otherwise well-meaning attempts to correct fundamental systemic problems – you can put a shiny new badge on an old machine, but the cogs keep turning regardless.

How effective do you think EPs are in helping promote an artist’s recorded music? 

For me, it’s not really a question of promotion, but of telling a story – I think the most important element in americana is the storytelling. I wanted to experiment with different ways of telling this particular story, so I see the alternate versions in a similar way to photographing a subject from different angles, perhaps they will reveal something new about the song.

In terms of activism, do think a holistic approach that links multiple issues is more effective than simply challenging global problems on an issue by issue basis? 

I think all of us have a tendency to concentrate on specific issues, one at a time, depending on what captures our imagination in any one moment. Sometimes that works, because it’s easier to generate a collective focus on a single issue. However, when I was writing the songs for ‘A Dark Murmuration of Words’, I came to the unavoidable conclusion that everything I was writing about was linked. If there is an underlying systemic cause that connects to all the major global issues we face, then perhaps dealing with that is just as important as campaigning on specific, more obvious symptomatic issues?

 ‘A Dark Murmuration of Words’ has a striking cover and I would have expected that the associated merchandising would have been very popular if you had been able to tour the album. How have you managed the impact that the lack of touring must have had? 

Firstly, thank you, I’m so glad you like the cover. It has a story of its own: with this album, one of the things I wanted to do was to try to remain as local as possible, all the band live in Stroud, all the filmmakers who have made videos for the album are local, Ange Mullen-Bryan is a local artist whose work I was introduced to and I loved the atmosphere of her paintings. I got in touch and sent her an early mix of the album to see if she’d be interested in painting something for the cover. Not only did she say yes, but she ended up doing the painting whilst listening to the album, so it’s almost a performance piece in its own right. When she showed me the results, I was blown away, it felt as though she’d captured the story of the album in one image; it’s a bleak, desolate landscape, yet the most striking focus is the flock of birds, which I saw as a representation of the hope that threads through the songs… I’m an optimist really.

2020 has been a good year for you, 2021 is starting very well, what are your plans for the rest of the year? 

Oh wow… well like everyone else, all my plans for last year went out of the window, so it was a case of making things up as I went along. I don’t really see this year being much different. To be honest, I’ve been enjoying the freedom to follow my imagination a little more than I can when my diary is so packed full with touring. After the fun we had with the Livestream we did last November at the Brunel Goods Shed in Stroud, my band and I are talking about doing another one, working with the Northern Cowboys team again. I have some new music coming up and I’m always writing poetry and new songs. Alongside that, Lukas and I are renovating our new (old) house in Stroud, which is a lot of fun.

When we last spoke you shared your road trip playlist with AUK readers. Who are you currently listening to? 

Well, I just put together a new playlist of songs inspired by my recent collaboration with Girls Run the World coffee (Our Gorongosa) from Mozambique, The Green Belt Movement from Kenya and Colonna Roastery in Bath, UK, listen here.

Finally, is there anything you want to say to our readers? 

To both you and your readers: thank you for the support over the years, and particularly last year, I hope you are keeping safe and well and finding some good tunes to help you through these strange times.

Emily Barker’s ‘A Dark Murmuration Of Words’ is out now on Thirty Tigers

Photo credits: Emilie Sandy

About Martin Johnson 387 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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