Interview: Emily Barker

emily barker

As she gears up for an autumn tour of the UK, Qmunicate spoke to singer-songwriter Emily Barker about collaborations with Frank Turner and Chuck Ragan, her Dutch-Australian heritage and her excellent new album Dear River.

Hi Emily, how’s it going?

Excellent thank you, I’m just preparing to fly out to Nashville for the Americana festival in Nashville. Three British singer-songwriters have been invited out to play the BBC Introducing stage and I’m fortunate enough to be one of them. I’m supporting Shelby Lynn and it’s really exciting, because I’m a big country music fan. I’m looking forward to Austin Lucas and Lucinda Williams especially.

In a few weeks you’ll be out touring the UK. How much say do you have in the choice of venue? Which are your favourite cities to play?

Well I used to do all the booking for the band myself but we’ve got a really great agent now with a great ear for where would sound good. I’m a big fan of the Oran Mor in Glasgow actually, it’s beautiful but this time I’m really excited for the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. It’s our biggest show to date so that should be pretty special.

You’re often described as a folk singer. Do you think of yourself that way?

To be honest I don’t really. Maybe if you approach it from a mainstream perspective there are certain folky elements to what I do but to the people who are really a part of that tradition then I think they would find me more rock-y. I’m influenced by all that but not necessarily of it.

You’ve also started doing guitar tutorials on Youtube, Where did they idea for that come from and was this an attempt to produce a modern take on the handing down of folk songs?

Well, I’m not a great guitarist, I just muck around until I find something I like but people seemed keen for it. I’d never thought of it like that but I really like that idea. I’d like to eventually do all my songs so that people who want to play them can too.

I first came across you when you collaborated with Frank Turner on ‘Fields of June’. How did that come about?

Frank took me on tour with him in 2006 and he liked my music, especially that track, which was originally on my first album so we would perform it as a duet on stage together and he kept suggesting that we make a recording. He recorded his part on his tour bus in America and I did mine in a studio in Glasgow. (I mention that I had always assumed that they were in the studio together) Well, we had had a lot of experience from performing it together on stage so I instinctively knew how the two voices should go together.

And of course you appeared with Frank at the Olympics. What was it like as an Australian being part of such a British gathering?

It was an amazing experience being part of something which took such a huge amount of organisation. I’ve lived in Britain for twelve years, more off than on, plus Australia has all that history as a colony so being British is a big part of me. It was definitely a fantastic thing to be part of.

Dear River is your fourth album. How do you think it differs from the first three records?

I think it’s definitely more of a rock album. I think I chose to move away from the folk/Americana feel and we actually had the money for a producer this time rather than doing everything on a shoestring. I’ve definitely been influenced by who I’ve been listening to: PJ Harvey’s fantastic Let England Shake and the Decemberists’ The King is Dead, Nick Cave, Low, The National…

I drew more from real life characters and stories this time round. If there’s a theme running through the record it’s about “home” and how, apart from just being a place, “home” is family and the people around you. I was finding out about my grandparents who emigrated from Rotterdam to Australia in 1952 and then I went walking with a friend of mine along the river. He’s from the Noongar people of Western Australia and even though they’ve been here for tens of thousands of years they couldn’t be Australian citizens or own land until 1967, they had no place to call home and that inspired the song ‘Ghost Narrative’.

You’ve talked in the past about how you’re inspired by characters in novels and films.

Yes, for example ‘Orlando’ on my first album is obviously from the Virginia Woolf novel.

Although then I just took that idea of a dalliance between Prince and Princess from the first section rather than delving into the gender politics which is something I’d like to do.

Your backing trio The Red Clay Halo take their name from a Gillian Welch song and use some pretty unusual instruments, such as musical saw. How does this affect your song writing?

Gillian Welch, and that album in particular, was huge for me growing up. There was red dirt everywhere and she really captured the feel of that place.

The girls are such talented musicians; they probably play 10 or 15 instruments extremely well. It’s all about pushing yourself and not falling into patterns. You try not to be too predictable. We’re touring together as a quintet this time with the same band as made the album because the new songs were written with drums for the first time and we really need drums to capture that full sound.

How was your time on the Revival Tour with the likes of Chuck Ragan?

Chuck is a real hero of mine. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had touring, just a total bunch of dudes, coming together to share and collaborate and reinvent their songs. Most of the artists on that tour have their roots in rock music and then reinvent their material for a more stripped down setting so I guess I had it easier than those guys (Did they ever ask for tips?) No, but they did ask for harmonies which was really lovely!

Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo play Oran Mor, Glasgow on October 13th.

[Max Sefton]

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