On a Sunday afternoon in 2002, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Western Australia took a train from Cambridge to London to play her debut show in the capital at the now seminal roots and country venue Come Down And Meet The Folks, in Camden Town. Emily Barker had only recently arrived in the UK and this was her first real introduction to the UK’s nascent Americana scene. She was excited. And she was early.
“I sat at a table sipping an ale and took in the scene around me,” she wrote on her website, “your typical, living room-style British pub, but with people arriving in either cowboy boots, a stetson, a neckerchief, and often all three. Cowboys and cowgirls in London – who would ever have thought it? That was my introduction to a whole new community of roots-music loving people who would gather every Sunday to listen to bands and singer-songwriters playing folk, gospel, country, blues, rock’n’roll – a melting-pot of influences we now call Americana.”
From small-town Australia to Americana UK award winner
Eighteen years on and Americana music in the UK has burgeoned beyond belief, with a flourishing roster of artists, festivals and music industry professionals all dedicated to the genre. Barker is at the forefront of this scene, a fact reinforced in February 2018 when she attended that year’s
UK Americana Awards Show at Hackney Empire and walked out onto the stage to receive the coveted UK Artist Of The Year award from Frank Turner.
“I felt really honoured,” she says, sitting in the front room of a pub in the genteel city of Wells before a mid-afternoon soundcheck at the city’s Cedars Hall. “I’d been a part of that scene, so the award felt like recognition for all the work beforehand. I knew I’d had a strong year and everything had picked up in a big way. I was hopeful but I wasn’t expecting it.”
Solid gigging and a drive to succeed
For Barker, the UK has provided a rich terrain in which to carve out her career. After arriving in the UK and settling in Cambridge, she formed the-low-country, an outfit that released two albums – //the-low-country// (2003) and //The Dark Road// (2004) – with tracks from the latter being picked up by John Peel. She gigged relentlessly, building a devoted fanbase. By 2005, Barker had moved to London and released her first solo album //Photos.Fires.Fables// on her own label Everyone Sang.
The album prompted the creation of a trio featuring Anna Jenkins (violin, viola), Jo Silverston (cello, bass, banjo, saw) and Gill Sandell (accordion, piano, flute, guitar). Under the name Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo, the new ensemble recorded their debut album //Despite The Snow// in 2008.
How a TV sync deal fuelled the fanbase
The album attracted widespread critical acclaim, but it was the TV synchronisation of opening track //Nostalgia// that would elevate Barker’s status as a songwriter of real note.
“I was performing at a house concert, raising money for the album. Martin Phipps, who was the composer working on [BBC1 TV series] 'Wallander', just happened to be there. He rang me up a couple of days after and asked if I would come down to his studio to re-record the song so it fitted with the atmosphere of the series.” The track was used as the central theme and closing credits music for the show and soon had an impact on her career.
“We happened to be doing a tour, which I’d booked us and it was ridiculous. There were so many people at the gig. I was like ‘what’s going on?’”.
Prolific songwriter: from feature film soundtracks to creative collaboration
Emily Barker and The Red Clay Hero released their second album //Almanac// in 2011. This yielded the track 'Pause', a sparse, poignant and haunting arrangement of lone electric guitar and pipe organ. It was the second Emily Barker composition to attract the attention of composer Martin Phipps, who used it as the theme tune for the major 2011 BBC2 drama serial 'The Shadow Line'.
A third album with The Red Clay Hero followed, and Barker continued to work with Phipps on TV and feature film tracks. Other projects have included the 2012 Anglo-Swedish folk project Vena Portae and the band Applewood Road, with fellow songwriters Amber Rubarth and Amy Speace, whose eponymous 2016 album of finely crafted songs in the storytelling tradition was recorded old-style through one microphone with minimal accompaniment straight to stereo analogue tape.
The warmth and purity of analogue sound was also a driving force for Barker’s second solo album, The Toerag Sessions, a highly-acclaimed, intimate collection of songs from across her career recorded live to tape, with no overdubs and no editing, at Liam Watson’s legendary all-analogue Toe Rag Studios in Hackney, London.
Making a blues and soul album with legendary Memphis musicians
Barker’s lush, pristine brand of country folk places her firmly within the Americana firmament, but when she was looking to record her latest album 'Sweet Kind Of Blue' in the US, it was noticeably Memphis, not Nashville, that held most allure. As a teenager in Australia she had been transfixed by soul and blues singers such as Betty Lavette, Anne Peebles and Aretha Franklin. Now, two decades on, she set out to record an album that encompassed these soul and blues influences. She enlisted producer Matt Ross-Spang, noted for his work with Jason Isbell, John Prine and Margo Price.
The album was recorded at Phillips Recording, a purpose-built facility created by the legendary Sam Phillips in the late 50s. Ross-Spang brought in some of Memphis’s finest musicians: Rick Steff (keyboards), Dave Smith (bass), Dave Cousar (guitar) and Steve Potts (drums), whose combined credits included Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Booker T & The MGs and Neil Young.
Getting into the groove
Apart from Steff, with whom Barker wrote the album’s title track, the first time she met the musicians was on the first day of recording. “We only had four and a half days to get the core band down live to tape. I shook all their hands and I gave them all a hug and said ‘thanks for working with me’ and then played them 'Sweet Kind Of Blue'.”
What happened next had a profound impact on Barker. “I went to my vocal booth. Then Steve Potts went ‘One, two, three...’ and we went into this song. I think I just almost lifted off the ground. I could not believe the sound, it was sooo groovy. There’s a lot of groove on that record… it’s in their blood.”
Asked if there is an overriding theme to the album, Barker says, “I guess it’s about relationships in general – the dissolving of one and the finding of another”.
Taking care of music business and promotion
In many ways, Barker exemplifies the qualities needed by an artist self-releasing albums in the 360 degree industry model of the 21st century. She still releases on her own label, Everyone Sang, and runs fan funding campaigns to finance the recording and promotion of her albums.
Sitting in the relative cool of the stone-floored pub in Wells, as the temperature outside touches 32 degrees in the shade, Barker talks the MU through her working processes: her fan funding, manager, booking agent, distributors and publisher. She’s built up a network of trusted partners and her all-round astuteness and drive are impressive.
How champions of country folk music are helping Barker to break through in the US
In addition to her talent and her calm professionalism, Barker is also likable, gracious and good company, attributes that go a long way when forging trust and friendships in the sometimes fickle and ego-strewn music industry.
They are qualities that have clearly endeared her to her numerous champions along the way, such as Bob Harris – who took Barker to a BBC Introducing showcase in Nashville, and country folk-rock superstar Mary Chapin-Carpenter, with whom Barker has toured extensively in the US, and who seems committed to promoting Barker’s music to the wider world.
Keeping up with creativity and songwriting
Barker’s output is prolific. She wrote 50 songs in the run-up to //Sweet Kind Of Blue// and recalls that the experience left her feeling drained.
“I felt like I’d exhausted my creative self. And so it was actually quite difficult starting up again because you always doubt if you’re going to be able to write. And I read a few great articles about songwriting. One by John Prine in 'American Songwriter', in which he said ‘Just show up every day and honour the songwriter in you’. And I loved that. So I was like ‘okay, I just need to begin’. Because I know that I can do this...”
Listen to Emily Barker on Spotify