Interview: Smoke Fairies’ Katherine Blamire on being “Carried In Sound”

Credit: Annick Wolfers

Learning production techniques from Head, Jack White and Phil EK and playing bin lids.

Smoke Fairies, Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies have been releasing music for over 16 years and have been friends for much longer. They are now relishing the freedom that being independent artists has brought to their creativity which is reflected in their DIY new album ‘Carried In Sound’, which features found sounds and lush vocals. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Kathrine Blamire at home in London over Zoom to discuss ‘Carried In Sound’ and how she and Jessica Davies have managed to maintain such a long working relationship. She explains that the big secret to their longevity is that they’ve managed to learn how to be part of a duo and how it is important to give the other person room to express themselves. As part of the move to being independent artists, Katherine Blamire explains how she took the opportunity to produce the new album, and how she had learnt such a lot by watching how producers of the calibre of Jack White and Phil Ek had worked with Smoke Fairies. She explains how this time they went for a more organic sound which included beating bin lids and various household objects and using a broken snare drum her neighbour had bought at a car boot sale. Finally, while Smoke Fairies have created a DIY indie folk album, Kathrine Blamire does admit to having a weakness for ‘80s power ballads.

How are you, and where are you?

I’m great and I’m at home in my flat in London.

Smoke Fairies are over 16 years old and you’ve been friends longer than that. What are the dynamics between you?

I don’t like thinking about time but I suppose it is about 16 years. I’m not sure how to answer that question because I don’t really know anybody with the same sort of relationship as we have. Jessica and I have been friends since we were 11 or 12, meeting at school. Obviously, that was quite a formative time but something just kind of clicked, and I think it is a friendship that has had lots of different phases, really, which you can appreciate once you start looking back over a number of years. What’s kept it going does relate a little bit to this record because we called it Carried In Sound’ and I think there is a feeling we’ve been carried by music through our lives, and carried along by it in our friendship. It has kind of been the glue that has kept us together, we spend a lot of time together outside of music, but music is the real connection point that makes it very strong. While we both write songs and we are both inspired by music it is never as interesting without the other person, I think.

In terms of your own creativity, what does Jessica add to it?

That’s a good question. For me, it is having that person who helps you filter a lot of the stuff that you do. I write quite prolifically and I’d say Jessica writes more good quality stuff less often, so for me, I need that filter and that reflection point to decide which ideas to go with, and which ideas to let go. I get very hung up on writing because I think there is already so much in the world. It is very hard to start a new album and I just tend to lose the points sometimes because we’ve written so many songs, and the world has so many songs, what more can I bring to the table? But having that other person to encourage you when there is something unusual you are doing that stands out or warrants further exploration is really helpful. Also, beyond that, I guess it’s that Jessica brings an addition to things that you wouldn’t expect. I will come to her with an idea and we will start playing together, and it is always the part she comes up with I’m like, I don’t think that goes at first, and then while it seemed strange at first it becomes the only part it could be. She has quite a knack for getting an odd take on things, I guess you would call it an off-kilter take on things. We are not like traditional musicians where we know the ins and outs of what we are doing, we kind of know how it feels and we know what feels right. So we sometimes approach things from a stranger angle with more experimentation, and I would say Jessica is good at that and stops things from being too ordinary.

Is ’Carried In Sound’ your pandemic record?

To some degree. We started it around about the time of the pandemic, I was living with Jessica at the time and we started to think about the songs we had in the bank. One of the things about having a musical partnership for so many years is you have this whole history of songs that are floating around from the past, even from when we were kids. So, there are elements of songs that you remember and think that if you adapted or changed that, or brought in a new section, it could be something really interesting. There were quite a few songs like that, that we brought out of the ether of our past, but also songs that had just not fitted with previous records, and that started to bring about the vibe and we started writing new songs. I know it is the wrong way of saying it, but what was great about the pandemic, or I should say what helped us, we had to rely entirely on ourselves to get this project off the ground, and I’ve always wanted to produce a record and we agreed we were going to do it like that.

It became very empowering not to have all the options of going to a studio, to have a whole range of instruments to choose from, and then that became the palette for the album. As we moved away from the pandemic the perimeters of the album had been set and we were working really well so we decided to continue. I guess that period of time was a real point of reflection for many people, and you find yourself looking back over your life and wondering about things you’ve said and done and been, and who you are now and where you are going. It is also a time of a lot of loss, and I guess that it just felt important to express some element of grief in some personal way to process things. Yes, the pandemic did influence the record but it spanned a wider timeframe, but I think the pandemic started the thinking of how it would sound, what it was going to be about, and how we were going to do it in a way that we carried through.

As the producer what decisions did you make? I suspect you didn’t say turn it up to eleven.

It feels awkward even saying I was the producer because Jessica has such a huge influence on the decisions made, but I guess in our musical relationship I’ve always been the one who pressed the buttons and such, and I’ve always recorded our demos for stuff. It was kind of a natural fit to carry that through. We’ve learnt a lot from other producers, we’ve worked with some pretty cool people over the years who have had a kind of strong presence in the studio, or a way of doing things, from Head who we worked with on ‘Through Low Light and Trees’ who talked about the musical palette you are using, to people like Jack White.

We recorded with Jack White for something like two days, but it stuck with me, his approach to creating an immediate sound, through to Phil Ek who worked on our last record. Sometimes he could be a really tough guy to be in the studio with because he really pushed you vocally and in your performance, and made you work hard for the right take. Thinking back over those experiences I think there is a lot to be gleaned from that, and I just felt it was a natural, or even cathartic, point to bring together all that stuff we’ve learnt from other people and to see whether we had our own way of doing things. For me, it was about trying to create something very beautiful which was the number one goal, and we wanted it to be kind of washy, orchestral even in terms of the voices we were playing with sounding like an orchestra we were playing with.

We then brought in our collaborator Neil Walsh who plays the viola, and we had several sessions with him layering the viola, I really enjoyed the process of working with him and guiding him through that layering. Then it was about creating this expansive cinematic world that seems like it has very few elements but which is quite rich tonally. That is the ethos of it, really, and I love working with the voice as an instrument, so you’ve got the main vocal lines and you’ve got this cathedral of other versions of us taking you on a journey, and building the journey of the song. It felt really great to be able to be free to do that to the extent that we wanted because often in studios you are very pressured for time, and sometimes that vocal orchestra can’t be as expansive as you want. It was very freeing, and I think it is a testament to where Jessica and I are in our relationship. When we started this I don’t think I was capable of producing a record, but now we are able to be each other’s critic. You learn to lose your ego, learn to lose your preciousness, and not to take things personally when they are not the right thing to do. It sounds very simple but it can take years to get to that sense of equilibrium inside where you decide to serve the song and not yourself. Coming back to your first question about staying together so long, I think that is why we’ve managed to stay together for so long because we have learnt how to be a duo in its purest form. We are both contributing something unique to it and allowing space for the other person to express themselves, and that isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Is this the start of something new for Smoke Fairies? You’ve recorded a more DIY album and you are now independent artists which, as you say, gives you more freedom, so are you going to pursue this sound or will the next album be completely different?

I don’t think we’ve settled on a course yet, but it has given us another way of working which enables us to keep going in a way that is truly independent. We’ve had a community of Patreons who we’ve been communicating with the whole time. I don’t feel we’re in any scene or clique in the music industry and we’ve felt very separate in many ways. We can feel fairly isolated, and having that community of Patreons connects you to people and reminds you there are people waiting for it and wanting it, and almost yearning for more which is hard to understand unless you are in contact with them.  That has been really helpful, and there is an infrastructure around it that is very people-based that feels helpful to us continuing, but I don’t know whether there’s a point when you want to bring in other influences to see where that takes you.

It is going to be quite hard to let go of the reigns at that point and that could be an issue. How easy would it be to let someone else in, I don’t know, they would have to be the right person. I’m not sure, that’s an open question, I think we will continue in some way as we are, but maybe take it to a bigger place. The record was recorded with beating bin lids for drums and smashing things in the house for cymbals, creating a much more organic soundscape. The snare we used on the recording, the neighbour next door was 7 or 8 at the time and had bought a rickety old snare at a car boot sale, and even when you put the leaver down the bottom of the snare was still all floppy. I just loved it, it was all broken and messed up, and it sounded like a snare but it didn’t hit you the same way. I really enjoyed experimenting with that soundscape, but I think we might want to go back to something with a heavier sound. It will depend on the songs, they normally lead us to where we want to go.

You’ve recently completed a tour of churches. What was the idea behind that and what were you hoping to get out of it?

We had previously toured with Rasputina, a band from the States, who are a kind of gothic cello band, we’d supported them in the States and then they came over here and we did an album that was live at St Pancras Old Church in London, a very old church, and we did a whole tour with them backing us up. It was a really magical experience, they came up with some amazing string arrangements, and we always remembered that tour as being very special. I think there is something about churches, and all sacred spaces, for me, have this atmosphere you experience when you step inside, and you are forced to have a reverence for the space regardless of what you believe.

There is an idea of focus, a way of being that you adopt when you are in those spaces. We wanted people to be focused and uplifted to somewhere otherworldly to sort of get lost in the sound. Churches enable you to be very contemplative, I think, and drift into your own thoughts. We actually really like the sound of hymns, old kind of classic hymns that have these soaring choruses and are foreboding and uplifting at the same time. That strange ancient way that grabs you, they take you somewhere else, they take you out of your own life. I guess that’s what we were going for, and the voices when you are harmonising there is something really circular about the reverb when you get lost in what you are creating. It is like you are part of the audience and part of the creator at the same time if that makes any sense. It is a strange experience because the sound you are making is constantly coming back to you and you are harmonising back into it. A really interesting experience.

What feedback have you had from the audiences?

I suppose that was one of the really nice things about it, reconnecting with the audience again and we have a little merch stand set up at the end, and people come along and want to get their record signed and have a little chat. It’s been interesting to note that people have had quite an emotive response, and they talked about things in their lives that the music might have been a balm to help with, or somehow has carried them through certain times. I don’t think you can get better feedback than that as an artist, to feel that you’ve had that kind of effect has been really powerful to learn about and really helpful because that’s the sort of encouragement that carries you forward. So yeah, it has been really good and I think people have enjoyed the atmosphere of those venues, and I’d like to do more if I’m honest. I’m preferring them to stinky old clubs now, which is a different experience. The thing is they change the way you perform, when you are in a club you are not really that reverent to the space.

Is there a possible live album in the works?

I think our sound guy did record some of them and I haven’t picked through them to see what the tracks sound like, so possibly. We have a podcast we used to do and we are thinking of reviving it again, so I was thinking of picking through the recordings. We find that when we are in certain situations the atmosphere can feel quite tense, and our banter becomes completely erratic. We were going to pick out some of our craziest banter and do a podcast around it. There was one venue where it came up in chat between songs about the first song we’d written, and I ended up singing a song that I’d written when one of my parent’s chickens had died when I was younger. A very sad song about “Johnny The Chicken” who died, sadly, very early in his life. But then, when we’re playing in a church the next night we aren’t really going to play silly songs about dead chickens there, it’s a very different situation.

How do you see yourselves, are you folk or is that just an easy classification?

I think we’ve been difficult to categorise, and in some ways that has pitched us outside of any kind of scene or genre, and to some people’s ears we switch and change because sometimes we focus on harmonies and at other times we can be quite heavy and dark and make our sound very electric. I don’t really know how we see ourselves and I don’t think I feel part of anything, which can be very confusing. We’ve been doing this for quite a long time and you do have your ups and downs, and then you just accept who you are. To me, the most important thing is that we are creating stuff that is true to who we are, and whether the world sees that as a neatly categorised thing is irrelevant.

I guess ideas about success have shifted, the most important thing is that the record is good and the record is authentic to what you wanted to say. Whether or not it gets on the radio and whether or not people understand it at a mass level becomes less and less important. It would be nice to be more understood, I suppose, but I feel the people who do find the need to be rewarded for that journey, and they need to feel they have come somewhere really special and something that has been crafted so that their emotions are really safe, to be a really comforting sanctuary. I think that’s all we really care about is that it connects with people on an individual level, and what we’ve learnt is that that is really happening, and those people have helped us to create something on our own terms.

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

I’ve been listening to a lot of vinyl again, but that is all kind of old stuff. One of the bands I discovered recently is Hen Ogledd, and they are a collection of people, one of whom is Richard Dawson and I just really love it. If people haven’t heard that band then I recommend they check it out because there is a whole catalogue of great stuff. I’m looking at my playlist and I can see a lot of ‘80s power ballads, which is a little bit embarrassing. I’ve been listening to the new Lemon Twigs album recently, and that was interesting, and also the new Sufjan Stevens album. Those seem to be the last two albums which I’ve been listening to which aren’t completely embarrassing. I was running to ‘Free Fallin’ and I actually fell over which was really ironic, and I wouldn’t recommend that.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

It would be very nice if they gave ‘Carried In Sound’ a go, give it a spin. I hope people who haven’t discovered our music before might give it a listen. It is a lot to delve into, over the years I can’t even remember how many albums we’ve made so starting with ‘Carried In Sound’ and working backwards would be the best approach. Also, if they want to give our podcast a listen, that’s quite amusing and it’s called ‘Smoke Signals’. It is good if you want to hear something less serious about the music industry and our experiences.  We are just very grateful to be still doing it, and I do feel this album is the truest piece of music we’ve put together in the sense we delved as deep as we could.

There’s a lot of reflection, and trying to look honestly and fearlessly at what it’s like to get older and have a lot to look back on, and also a lot to look forward to. You learn a lot from the ups and downs you go through, and you learn how to love and receive love. I think that even though the album covers a lot of grief and loss and grief not just for people but also for yourself and the way you change and develop, there is a sense of hope in there around that process enabling you to be stronger and be able to accept yourself and others around you. Also,  sparking new relationships that have a real chance of providing a proper home is a big sense of it as well. We are both in a good place in terms of relationships and making homes. I think this record is charting a little bit of that journey as well. It is light and shade as always, but I hope people will find their own experiences reflected in there too.

Smoke Fairies’ ‘Carried In Sound’ is out and is an independent release.

About Martin Johnson 389 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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