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Interview: Emily Barker on AmericanaFest UK and New album ‘A Dark Murmuration of Words’

Emily Barker
Credit: Emilie Sandy

Originally from Western Australia, Emily Barker released her first solo album, Photos.Fires.Fables, back in 2006.

Since then she’s become one of the leading lights of the British Americana scene, performing across the country at shows and festival and winning critical acclaim, including the UK Artist of the Year at the 2018 UK Americana Awards. She’s also worked on TV and film – her music provides the theme tunes to the crime dramas Wallander and The Shadow Line, and she wrote the soundtrack for Jake Gavin’s debut feature Hector. Her latest album, ‘A Dark Murmuration of Words’, was released in September 2020.

Ahead of her performances at this year’s AmericanaFest UK – where she’s also nominated for UK Artist of the Year and UK Album of the Year – I caught up with Emily to talk about the festival, her experience of releasing a record and performing in lockdown, how she approaches her songwriting and more.

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You’re performing at AmericanaFest UK this week – what can we expect from those sets?

Yeah, I’m performing on a few occasions actually. So the label that I released my latest album with, ‘A Dark Murmuration of Words’, that’s Thirty Tigers label and they’re doing a special showcase on Tuesday night. So I’m doing a song as part of that as well as hosting that whole online event with a singer-songwriter buddy who’s on the same label, Robert Vincent. So there’s that. And then on the Thursday night I’m performing at the John Prine tribute show and then again at the awards ceremony. So there’s various things happening and they’ve all been done in advance, so the plus side of that is me and my husband get to sit on the couch and have a drink and watch everyone! [laughs]

You’ve also been nominated for UK Album of the Year and UK Artist of the Year at the awards – congratulations!

Thank you!

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How did you react when you found out you’d been nominated?

I was really, really happy! Especially as there’s been, for everybody it’s been a bit of a tough time, and we haven’t been able to tour or do our job properly in the way that we usually get to do. So it was a good bit of news, yeah.

How have you found the experience of moving towards online performances?

Initially it was really odd, I have to admit. I really wanted to connect with fans so I participated and it was really weird to begin with. Just things like not having applause in between songs and only getting feedback via messages. So it took a little while to get accustomed to, and I didn’t do loads but I did some for promo around the album.

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My favourite live stream that I’ve done so far was in November. My band and I, we did a full-blown production with multi-camera angles with this great production team and studio quality audio, and we broadcast live and we were all playing together live, rather than me sitting in my writing room with my slippers on [chuckles] broadcasting from my own computer! It was so fun and we hadn’t all played together since we made the album, which was the year before that, so November 2019. So it really felt like the world tour and album release rolled into one night. It was really fun. So I’m gonna look to do some more of those, ’cause just having the collaborative side made such a difference.

We’ve already touched on the album a little bit – can you tell us more about it?

Yeah. It’s my new record, it came out in September, beginning of September on Thirty Tigers label. And it talks about a lot of different issues which I feel are all very much connected – environment and race and oppression of people and oppression of environment and the ways that they interconnect, sort of wrapped up into this metaphor of murmurations and how starlings, they’re only aware of the nearest seven starlings to them and that’s how they maintain their distance and form these beautiful patterns. So it’s sort of this idea of cohesion and the ways that we connect, I suppose.

You’ve mentioned the focus on the environment and social issues with this record. Was that something you consciously wanted to do when you were making it or did it evolve during the process of putting it together?

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I guess it evolved out of the time. I wrote a lot of the environment songs, which I’ve written about in the past quite a lot, but in 2019 when it felt like the climate crisis was really at the forefront of our conversations with our peers and we were all very conscious of the state of the world in terms of environment and I think we all felt pretty desperate to try to do something. And my something was writing songs, as well as looking at my own personal impact and how I could in my small ways make a difference and improve. And then in some bigger ways, I guess, through storytelling and writing these songs. So it’s something that I’ve been conscious of and written about in the past but it felt like there was more of an urgency to write about it when I was in 2019.

Were there any aspects of releasing the album during the pandemic that you found particularly difficult or challenging at all?

I found not being able to gig really challenging. Initially when this all happened we had no idea how long it would last for, and so at the beginning of the year I talked to all my label and management team and we wondered if we should hold off until this year to release the album. But I’m glad we didn’t because gigs aren’t gonna happen for a long time still. And it really gave me a sense of purpose and structure to my life, to be focusing on all the other aspects of promoting a record after you’ve made it. So getting the artwork together, getting the film, the music videos together – everything that’s the more forward facing stuff – getting that together was a real good way of keeping me busy.

But I really struggled with not doing gigs. I’m sadly more accustomed to it now [laughs]. And maybe in some ways it’s a good way to shift the focus. Because a lot of the gigging that we do isn’t obviously very environmentally friendly, so it gives us a chance to step back and look at that and think about ways that we can improve when it comes back and maybe not be as reliant on tour as we were in the past. Which is potentially good for people’s mental health and physical health and just getting rid of this idea that we have to be in all places at one time, and that frantic sort of lifestyle. I miss it, but I also feel like if I was plonked back into it right now it’d be really intense and I wouldn’t be able to handle it. So yeah, a gradual stepping back into that world and seeing which parts we want and which parts we don’t.

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I also wanted to ask about the Machine EP you released recently. Can you tell us more about that song and what drew you to rework it?

Yeah, well this song, I guess in some ways is an outlier sonically on this album but it’s a really important song to me. And it’s a theme that I’ve written about before on previous records, but I did a lot of touring in the US opening shows for Mary Chapin Carpenter all over. We travelled by bus and slept on a bunk and I’d wake up in a different city every day and go for a run, just absorb what was happening. And it became apparent that the wealth gap was written along racial lines as well. It seemed like poorer communities were of BAME origin people. So that was a thing that I’d noticed. And I also watched this amazing film by Ava DuVernay called 13th, which talks about the 13th Amendment in the US Constitution and how slavery is possible still now through the penitentiary system. It’s an amazing documentary.

So I felt like I wanted to write about that. And it was sort of odd because the lyrics in it talk about statues in the park, and then obviously the tragic murder of George Floyd last year and this response with statues being torn down as symbols of empire. So it felt, although it was written a couple of years before, it sort of felt quite prescient to try and focus on that song again in some way.

Let’s talk about your songwriting process for this album. Were there any songs that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write?

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That’s a good question, I’ll cast my mind back. Well the last song on the album, Sonogram, that one just sort of came to me within about half an hour or something. Often I work on the music and the lyrics separately and I have a musical idea and then I really work that out before I even start thinking about lyrics. But with this one I just wrote at the same time. And then others I definitely laboured over for a lot longer. Machine came very quickly as well actually. I’m trying to think of some that took a while longer… Geography was a hard one to get, but it gave me the title in the end for the album too, from one of the lyrics.

Do you have a typical writing process? Or does it vary with the record or if you’re writing for TV or film as opposed to for yourself?

It depends. Sometimes I write with other people – that’s always really interesting because you don’t know what you’re gonna make at all and often it’s not something that either of you would write on your own. So that’s quite cool. And then mostly I would say I follow a pattern of collecting music ideas when I have 15 minutes of noodling on the piano and I’ll record that or on the guitar, and then constantly writing down ideas for lyrics and things like that. And then it’s a case of the harder work comes in when you’re like, ‘right, I’m gonna clear the diary and start properly piecing all these bits together’. And that’s often how I work, yeah. And then once I’m in a flow of writing, because for me it’s quite cyclical, and usually I’ll write and write and write in the lead up to an album and then I’ll have something like 40 songs and then I’ll record the record and then after need to just not at all think about writing anything. So I’m just stepping back into the phase of writing now and then once I’m in a flow then I find it goes from the piecing bits together to songs like Sonogram where it all comes together at the same time.

Do you find it quite difficult narrowing songs down between the writing and recording process?

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Yeah, really, really hard. Like I lose all perspective because they’re all really important to me, all the songs, and so I really rely on other people’s opinion about things to help me whittle it down. I guess there’s some that feel obvious to put on and then some hang together as well, with a theme. But even then there can still be 20 songs or something. So it feels harder to put it together. But for this album we recorded 12 songs actually, and then when it came to doing the track listing we didn’t intentionally keep two off but the way we’d sequenced the album it felt like that was enough. Like anything else would dilute it somehow. So we’re gonna release a couple more tracks this year.

Do you ever get writer’s block? And if so what’s your way to deal with that?

Yeah, I definitely get writer’s block. But I know that it’s always a temporary thing and I maybe just need to step away from it. Or just write something, and then let it sit for a while and come back to it later. Just let it stew. And I often find when you look away from it and go for a run or go for a walk or not be focusing at all on the song, something will trigger this idea and you’ve suddenly got it.

I also wanted to ask about the Wallander theme which is probably one of the things you’re best known for – how did that come about?

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Yeah, so I was at a house party in London and a composer called Martin Phipps was there, who was one of the guests. He was working on the Wallander score and he hadn’t found the theme tune yet and he heard my song Nostalgia and felt like the mood of it really fitted the series. So he rang me up the next day and asked if I would come down to the studio and just play around with the song a little bit. So I did that and the directors really loved what we’d done, and it became the theme tune, which was amazing. As a DIY artist, totally grassroots, I didn’t have any team around me at that point, it was the sort of exposure you couldn’t pay for. So yeah, it was a really fortuitous moment, playing at that house party.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

OK. Ummm… oh my God. It’s probably a Carole King or an Aretha Franklin song, I reckon. I’m gonna pick Way Over Yonder by Carole King. I love that one.

What’s next on the horizon for you? You’ve mentioned you’ve started writing new music, possibly touring again – is that the focus for the foreseeable future?

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Yeah. I’m not planning on any touring to be honest because I don’t think we can make plans at the moment, and it feels like such a huge amount of effort for everybody to go to to then have to reschedule and postpone. So I’m just trying to let go of that idea for now. I’d like to do a couple of other really big production live streams, so that takes a lot of organising planning that. And also doing writing. I’m also studying, I’m doing an online course at Berklee University, a music one – it’s a good time to do that, it feels. And yeah, just trying to promote the album and keep that going. We’ll be releasing a couple of other little bits and bobs of music throughout the year, like a couple of the songs we didn’t end up putting on the record.

See Emily Barker performing at AmericanaFest UK this week:

Thirty Tigers #Storyteller Guest Showcase – 8.00 PM, Tuesday 26th January
John Prine Tribute Show – 7.00 PM, Thursday 28th January
UK Americana Awards 2021 – 8.00 PM, Thursday 28th January

Tickets to Americana Fest UK 2021 are available here.

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Emily’s latest album, ‘A Dark Murmuration of Words’, is out now on Everyone Sang/Thirty Tigers.

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