For the December 2013 issue of The Ocelot I took a trip to Oxford to see Emily Barker & The Red clay Halo in concert at the Church of St John the Baptist. Whilst I was there I was lucky enough to grab a word with Emily herself, one of Australias finest exports and an incredible songwriter.
How’s the tour been so far – you must be approaching half way?
We are on gig number 11 tonight and I think I am doing a few solo shows in Cornwall afterwards. But with the group there are about 28 shows so we are approaching the half-way point, which is sad, it’s been amazing., We have a great team of people and a really good community and we are all travelling around on the bus which is fun. We all sleep on it and wake up and have tea in our pyjamas.
Is that how you would have normally toured in the past or is this smaller affair for you normally?
This is the first time we have toured on this scale which has been really fun for everyone. Previously it has been me and the three other girls, just the four of us, travelling around in my Citroen Berlingo.
Any tour highlights so far? I’m guessing the Shepherds Bush show?
It was. And it was a surprise. Sometimes London can be tough, it definitely was a stress in the lead up to it, with such a focus on that show the whole time, with extra press and radio and things. Lots of artists put themselves under pressure for their London shows and we certainly felt that but it went really really well and was a great turnout which was a huge relief. That was the biggest space we tried to play in before so it was a bit of a milestone.
That was the biggest show you’ve done under your own name? Obviously you’ve done bigger ones – like the Olympics!
Yeah, but under other people’s names! (Emily regularly plays alongside Frank Turner) But that one was great. One of my other favourites was the tiniest venue on the tour, a wooden shed type thing on the North Yorkshire moors, called Farndale. Only 100 people are able to go to the shows and everyone says it has a feel like The Wicker Man, League of Gentleman or like Jim White’s Searching For The Wrong Eyed Jesus. It was a little odd – this tiny, cute little room that people travel from far and wide to hear music in. I guess when there is not much around locally people will do that.
Is one of your tour booking criteria that you don’t want to do traditional venues and want to play interesting and unusual places?
When I was doing all the bookings myself I definitely used to have that in mind, ending up playing church halls, churches, little sheds and lots of house gigs. When we are just the quartet our music definitely works better in more intimate spaces or spaces with high ceilings. Now we’ve got a drummer I think that the music suits different types of venues and would feel really good in a more traditional rock venue. But our booking agent does have in mind that we do generally suit somewhere slightly off the beaten track.
Is playing live a big part of what you like about being a musician, a song writer?
Yes, I love it, definitely. It is quite extreme I suppose, the two aspects of being a singer songwriter; you write the songs in a very introverted, sort of reflective process but I do love the other side which is about getting out and performing these songs to lots of people. I tend to write little bits and pieces if I’m on the road and then try to pull all these ideas together in the lead up to the next album.
Have you been pleased with the reception that Dear River has got?
Yes, It’s amazing, we have never had such good press!
Was it an easy record to make or was it a long drawn-out process?
The song-writing all happened in a relatively short amount of time because I wasn’t touring very much. I came up with a theme, for the record, which is all about home. It gave me parameters for my writing and I found it liberating to be working to a concept rather than just writing about whatever.
It gave you more direction then?
Very much so. It is my personal story of home but always looking at the bigger picture – moving from Australia, travelling, settling in the UK but it covers other themes of emigration and exile, colonialism and indigenous Australian politics. I got really studious about it; I did loads of reading and research.
It is different way of writing to a lot of artists who write purely based on personal experience and casual happenings, rather than a having more depth. Do you find other artists input into what you do, subconsciously or are you more isolated in the way you approach your own music?
I definitely listen to different artists at different times but more to inspire a sound. I am quite conscious of not repeating ourselves and so musically I try to go in different directions, even in a small way. So when I was writing Dear River I listened to certain artists to try and be influenced by them, like PJ Harvey, The Decemberists, Nick Cave, Low. When I wrote Almanac I was listening to lots of 70’s folk revival music, which I feel came out in the final record.
Where do you think you are going to go next with your writing, is there an intentional direction that looks intriguing to you?
I recently went to Nashville and at some point, it might not be the next record, but at some point I would like to do a straight up country record. But I’m not sure if that will be next.
TV themes are something that helped break you, is that something that you would look to do again or is it more if it happens it happens?
I really want to write more for TV and film. I recently wrote for a feature film; Martin Phipps, who has been responsible for getting my songs on the TV shows so far, called me up a few months ago as he is working on a film called The Keeping Room, which should be out next year and he needed some songs written for it. I am also working on my first feature film; doing the whole music for it. It’s mostly song based although once upon a time I used to write music but I won’t be scoring it as such, just writing the incidental music and the songs.
You’ve moved around a lot, but you are now settled in the West Country, does it remind you of somewhere?
It does remind me of where I am from in the South West of Australia, which is quite similar, quite rural I love Stroud, it is very beautiful with rolling hills, the rivers, great pubs but its also just so convenient for travelling – the M4 is right there, the M5 is right there, the train only takes an hour and a half to London, and it is regular trains, it’s got everything and its cheap.
Do you get a chance to check out the local music scene?
Back in Stroud I do, there is a great pub called the Prince Albert in Rodborough, they have fantastic bands and really support local music. There is a wonderful local band called Hot Feet – everybody should look at them! They are really young and talented, like Fairport Convention but more contemporary .Such a great sound.
You have done collaborations before, is that something you like to do and would angle towards doing again if the right one came along? How about with your tour support, Mr Chris T-T?
We are singing a couple of songs together in this show! I am singing one of Chris’s songs, called Gulls which it is an amazing song that Chris first played it to me on this thing I do called Folk in a Box, which is the world’s smallest venue! There is one performer and one listener, two chairs, all in the dark and you get one song. Chris helps run this.
Sounds amazing, where do you do this?
We do it all over the place. If no audience comes in we just play to each other, and Chris played me this song, Gulls, it is brilliant. I am singing on that song with him and he is singing Fields Of June with me. I love collaborating with people although songwriting with others I haven’t done very much, it’s quite a nice challenge.
So it is more “I do one of yours you do one of mine and we just rearrange it”? For somebody who is used to writing solo collaborating on a song, must be a very different way of working?
It depends on the person, I prefer collaborating separately, so with someone coming up with an idea like the beginnings of a song idea and I’ll do a melody and the lyrics or I’ll come up with a musical idea and vice versa. I’ve not done very much sitting down in a room with other people and writing a song – I’d like to do more.
That situation must be a bit pressurised and forced – “You’ve got three hours, now write me a hit” – It’s how the Stones started!
Its how they do it in Nashville too, they have these big writing rooms and the publishing houses just send their writers in there- it’s crazy!
Finally from me – do you have any advice for singers, songwriters – what should they be doing or not doing?
Get out there and gig – open mic nights, local pub shows – everything comes from there.
So if you love a contemporary folk and Americana sound, or just great songwriting, check out Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo’s current album Dear River. And catch them live if you can, as the show was utterly beautiful, in particular the moment an electrical storm settled around the church, just as support artit Chris T-T was at his most profane. Coincidence? I think not!