‘Calendar’ By Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo.
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As a blogger I’d like to say that I discovered Emily Barker before you, that I had been tipping her for success before she’d even written her first song and like some sort of musical Clinton Baptiste (is there a J..J- a Joh. . .a JOHN in the audience ?) I am blessed with an innate ability to ‘sense’ talent. But of course that would be fibbing for pretensions sake and I, like many others, initially became entranced by Emily’s voice when her song ‘Nostalgia’ was used as the main theme for the TV show ‘Wallander.’ Suitably impressed I was soon to discover a songwriter who is hugely talented and blessed with a voice that could make statues weep.
Originally from Australia, Emily has been making waves in the UK for a number of years and 2011 heralds the dawn of her third and arguably finest album to date, ‘Almanac.’ The album is performed by Emily and The Red Clay Halo, a trio of all female musical collaborators consisting of Anna Jenkins, Jo Silverston and Gill Sandell who play violin, cello, accordion and flute respectively. ‘Almanac’ is something of a master class in song-craft and musicianship, suffused with elegiac poetry and heartfelt emotions whilst showcasing the purity and unaffected honesty of Emily’s voice. Well respected on the alt folk circuit Emily, with ‘Almanac’ has produced an album with the potential and commercial appeal to cross over to a wider audience and emulate the success the likes of Laura Marling and chums have recently enjoyed. Indeed she has already gained support from esteemed talent spotters such as Steve Lamacq, Gideon Coe, Tom Robinson and Cerys Matthews (mercifully Dave Lee Travis was unavailable for comment, but doubtless his ‘hilarious’ farm yard animal noises would have rendered our sides well and truly split) with 6 music’s Nemone making ‘Little Deaths’ her single of the week.
Throughout ‘Almanac’ run themes of love, loss, our relationship with nature and in ‘Bones’ the historical atrocities committed in the name of colonialism during Australia’s sometimes fraught birth as a nation -‘The whispered Sin on guiltless Knife/ the silenced ring of a bullet in a life.’ But set amongst these ostensibly dark themes there is the resounding sense of hope and of rebirth. For example ‘Ropes’ provides the listener with something of an anatomy of a disintegrating relationship, yet Emily appears refreshingly free of rancour and in fact seeks to find the positive ‘ The month of August saw us leave behind a love we swore we’d keep/ and I can afford no hope but I do wish you find yourself through losing me.’
It’s a beautifully literate, poetic and mature album and once again proves that music can be a thing of profound beauty in the right hands, or as The Times rightly pointed out ‘The hills have yet to be emptied of gold if you know where to look.”
We spoke to Emily minus her Red Clay Halo, about her musical career and the latest album.
VP: Emily, when you came to England from Australia was it your intention to make music here or was it purely a travelling holiday? How did the musical side of things actually kick off in Blighty ?
EMILY : I had enrolled at University of Perth, Western Australia and changed from Architecture to Landscape Architecture to a BA of Arts in the space of a few weeks and realised after a few months that I still didn’t feel I was doing the right thing. So I set off, like many young Aussies do, with a back pack and a UK working visa to travel the world. I had no intention of establishing myself in the UK music scene, I was working in pubs and record shops (Andy’s Records in Cambridge) to earn pounds with which to travel through Europe and elsewhere. After a few months of staying with friends of friends in the UK, I settled in Cambridge for a while and lived in the YMCA. I started doing some singer/songwriter floor spots and met Rob Jackson who played electric guitar with The Broken Family Band and also with Boo Hewerdine. Rob was doing a solo set at Cambridge Festival and asked me to sing a few songs. It went down really well and we decided to form a band. Unfortunately this was just a couple of months before my visa expired so we recorded the songs we’d played live and I set off to Canada. Unbeknownst to me, Rob sent a CDR with marker pen on it to John Peel of our home-recordings and he played some of the tracks off it. I arrived back in Australia after 3 years of being away with an email from Rob saying ‘COME BACK TO THE UK! JOHN PEEL HAS BEEN PLAYING US ON THE RADIO! LET’S MAKE AN ALBUM AND FORM A BAND!’ …So I did, we were called the-low-country.
Our previous album, Despite the Snow, was recorded in 4 days in a barn in Norfolk. The first two days were so freezing all the instruments kept going out of tune so we had to scrap all those recordings but thankfully the last two days were warmer and we managed to stay relatively in tune. So that was a lot of pressure to put ourselves under but I had wanted to do a live album for such a long time (I think since reading about how Neil Young recorded ‘Harvest.’) It was a really good but difficult experience due to time limitations and things like the weather, which part-inspired the title: ‘Despite the Snow.’
The first album ‘Photos.Fires.Fables.’ was done on zero budget. I met a wonderful young man, Ruben Engzell, who produced it and we met musicians at gigs and asked them to play in return for me cooking them a meal. It took us two years because we had to do it in Ruben and the studios down time.
So, ‘Almanac’ has been a much easier process as we’ve had a budget thanks to Pledgemusic.com and also private funding from Spareroom.co.uk who are friends of ours. We worked in a great studio called Cafe Studios in Bow. We tracked the album up which meant we didn’t all need to be there at the same time. We did guide tracks with vocals and guitar, then the drums, the double bass, then cello, etc etc and layered it all up studio album style. This made logistics a lot easier but I think a little magic was lost in that we were seldom all there at the same time- it wasn’t a ‘band’ experience like you get when doing a live recording. Having said that though, we’re all really pleased with the results and we had a great time arranging all the parts together over 4 days up in Leicester prior to the recording.
I really enjoyed working with Ted Barnes who co-produced the album with me. He’s very instinctive, very talented and very experienced at recording. His input was invaluable. Cherif Hashizume was the engineer and he too was wonderful to work with. So focused and meticulous and got a great sound from all the instruments.
VP: Would you say it’s darker than your previous work? It appears to centre around the end of things whilst also touching on themes of renewal. I believe the album title comes from Primo Levi’s poem of the same name which is about the way man continues to ‘destroy and corrupt’ our environment?
EMILY: I don’t know if it’s darker than my previous work or not…in lots of ways it feels lighter to me, but that’s quite hard for me to judge being so close to it. Definitely there is the continuous theme of beginnings and endings throughout the album. The first song I wrote for the album was ‘Little Deaths’ which is about the death of dreams and plans. Another ‘ending’ song is ‘Ropes’ which tracks the breakdown of a relationship month by month. ‘Bones’ is about all the untold atrocities committed by settlers upon the Indigenous Australians.
So those topics are definitely heavy, but where there are endings, there are beginnings and this is what I hope comes across. A good example of this is ‘Calendar.’ This song was inspired by Primo Levi’s poem ‘Almanac’ -which also inspired the title. It’s a poem about how man is destroying the earth- an insight into the future where the cities are swamped by sand and the earth is parched. The song ‘Calendar’ is a question to us all and presents us with a choice. It’s a beginning. So it’s an album about continuity and cycles.
VP: Who are The Red Clay Halo and how did you get together with them? I believe one of their number has a link to my home town, Liverpool.?
EMILY: The Red Clay Halo are three women. They are exceptionally talented musicians and some of my absolute best and dearest friends in the world. They are Gill Sandell (accordion, flute, guitar and backing vocals), Jo Silverston (cello, banjo and backing vocals) and Anna Jenkins (violin and backing vocals.) I met Gill through The Broken Family Band as she was playing accordion for them at the Cambridge Folk Festival the same year I played with Rob Jackson. We hit it off immediately. I met Jo when Ruben (producer of Photos.Fires.Fables.) and I were at The Troubadour in London. We saw her play and said to ourselves “we must get her on the album!” Thankfully she said yes. Jo was studying at Trinity College at the time and I asked her if she knew any shit hot violinists and she recommended…Anna Jenkins. Who by the way, also plays with Amsterdam (Liverpool connection!) So we’ve played together now for 5 years. We formed the band after the release of ‘ Photos,Fires,Fables’ haven’t looked back since.
VP: The album has many highlights but I’d like to discuss one track ‘Pause’, due to the fact that it marks a pause in the album and has a celestial otherworldly feel to it , possibly in no small apart to it featuring a ‘pipe organ. How on earth did you get something of that size into the studio? (winking smiley to denote humour)
EMILY : Hee hee, we managed to get into the Royal Festival Hall! Phil Nicholas, our manager, was a producer at South Bank and as his leaving present (he’s sadly moved to Australia) he asked if we could get 2 hours in the festival hall on the pipe organ. It was like jewel-thievery in scale of operation. Cherif Hashizume, our engineer, managed to set all the mics up and sound test the pipe organ within 45 minutes but Gill, who was to play the thing, got stuck on a train and delayed. By the time she arrived we had about half an hour and she had NEVER played one before in her life! So in this space she spoke on the phone to a technician at the South Bank centre and then boshed out a beautiful pipe organ part. We all felt like super heroes afterwards.
The song came to me one afternoon when I was at home in Australia. I could hear my mum and dad somewhere in the background pottering about. It was a rare occasion when the lyrics, melody, chords, everything comes at the same time and I wrote it in about 1/2 an hour. The lyrics serve to remind me to take time out from our busy lives and spend some time with those we love. To appreciate the people in our lives, to not take them for granted. To pause and realise the riches we have.
VP: Do you still play house gigs? Do you enjoy finding innovative ways of funding your musical projects?
EMILY: Yes we still play house gigs. We funded ‘Despite the Snow’ through this. We love doing them. Always great fun meeting people from different parts of Britain and learning about their lives and community. We’ve had to always find innovative ways to fund the albums as we’ve not had offers from labels. Also, I’m very impatient and refuse to wait for one to come along! Having a DIY attitude means I enjoy the challenge of working out how we’re going to do things independently. Our manager, Phil Nicholas, has been wonderful in this way of helping strategise.
For ‘Almanac’ we have gone through Pledgemusic.com which has been a great way of interacting with fans and feeling like you’ve got a community of people involved in the process of making the album. Pledge have been so supportive and I thoroughly recommend artists funding their albums this way.
VP: Which sort of artists have influenced you over the years and if you could pick one song you wish you’d written what would that be?
EMILY: Neil Young has been the hugest influence on my writing. I love the way he has changed and not been trapped creatively. Aretha Franklin is right up there too. When I was a teenager I would lock myself in my room and try to sing like her. In the beginning I lost my voice then I discovered my diaphragm. She is the best singer in the world.
My parents listened to loads of 60’s and 70’s folk revival music which had a big impact on me: Joni Mitchell, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Bob Dylan also Carol King is a big influence. Contemporary stuff I love: Laura Veirs, Gillian Welch, Peter Broderick, Joanna Newsom, Grizzly Bear and so, so much more. I adore the song ‘First Time I Ever Saw Your Face.’ I think it is the best love song ever written. I wish I had have written that one.
VP: Are you still based in the UK, or do you split your time between here and Oz?
EMILY: Still based in the UK. I live in Leicester and am soon moving to Stroud. Before this I lived in London for 6 years on a narrow boat. I go home every year to Bridgetown which is in the South West of Western Australia. It’s a beautiful part of the world. My dream is to eventually spend half time there and half time here.
VP: Have lots of people discovered you, (erm, like me) since your song ‘Nostalgia’ was used for the theme of TV show ‘Wallander?’
EMILY: Yes! It’s been amazing. I have people coming up to me at gigs saying ‘You’re the Wallander girl!’ Hilarious. It’s been a very popular show and we’ve sold loads of albums off the back of it. Last winter my mother-in-law and I were sitting at the kitchen table for days on end packaging up envelopes (the label shop is in my parents-in-law’s spare room.) My song ‘Nostalgia’ got on ‘Wallander’ through doing a house gig in Tufnell Park. Martin Phipps (composer for the series) was at the party and loved the song. He rang me a couple of days later and asked if I would come into the studio to do a new recording of ‘Nostalgia’ so as to have it on a BBC1 drama show. Of course I immediately said…yes.
VP: Five words to describe ‘Almanac’……
EMILY: Adventure, renewal, cycles, decay, love.
‘Little Deaths’ By Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo
‘Nostalgia’ By Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo