Emily Barker Interview

Emily Barker is an Australian singer-songwriter and composer currently residing in the UK. She is an artist that continually challenges herself and seems to thrive and excel on a more than full workload. Her early career featured recordings as a duo in The Low Country followed by solo albums leading to a number of critically acclaimed recordings with The Red Halo Band. Her 2015 album The Toerag Sessions, recorded live to tape at London’s Toerag Studios, featured solo recordings of material from her earlier albums.  She subsequently formed Applewood Road with American artists Amy Speace and Amber Rubarth and recorded the album of the same name with them early this year to extremely positive reviews.

Her varied work schedule has also gained her awards for composing and writing the theme music to the BBC TV’s Wallander, starring Kenneth Brannagh, followed by the theme music to the BBC TV drama The Shadow Line. She has also recently composed music for Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room and a soundtrack for the feature film Hector directed by Jake Gavin.

This year also found Barker in Memphis Tennessee recording an album not yet released and including some of the finest Memphis session players. Lonesome Highway had the pleasure of an invitation to a preview of the album, at Alley Taps, Nashville in September. The preview suggested possibly Barkers strongest work to date and featured the collection of musicians that play on the album.

Lonesome Highway arranged to meet with the convivial and bubbly Barker when she arrived in Dublin Airport and given the rush hour traffic travelling from the Airport to the city centre and a potential sixty-minute journey, suggested they conduct the interview during the journey. Barkers response was ‘great idea, good time management’. Not surprising for an artist that never seems to waste a minute! 

Starting at the present time and your recent recording at Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis Tennessee. How did that come about?

I was looking for a producer to work with having worked with The Red Halo Band for about nine years. We had developed a quite distinct British sound over that time and when we decided to stop working together the gates were really wide open for me as to what direction I should go in. I started writing a lot, I think I had written about fifty songs for my next record and within those songs there were a lot of different styles going on. The songs also included quite a few co-writes that I had started doing when I went to Nashville a few years ago and continued back in the UK.

So stylistically there were a few different things going on with the songs. I started looking around for a producer and ended up asking the engineer that I had worked with on the Applewood Road album in Nashville, a guy called Chris Mara who works at 1979 Studios, to recommend an up and coming producer for me to work with. He had worked with this guy Matt Ross Spang, whom I googled to discover that he had done the Margo Price album and Jason Isbell’s record Something More Than Free and also found out that he had worked at Sun Studio for eleven years. His story is really interesting, when he was fourteen he went to Sun Studio to record a song with his friends and fell in love with the studio. As soon as he got his driver’s licence at sixteen he got a job as a tour guide there and would drive there after school and do the tour guide thing and then sit in on the sessions which always started in the evenings as the studio was closed during the day. So eventually when the head engineer left Sun he got the job as lead engineer at the age of nineteen. He actually restored the studio with the original equipment that Sam Phillips had, gave it a new lease of life and got it up and running again.

Anyway, I sent an e-mail to Matt after we were introduced by Chris and I sent him my Toerag album as I thought he would be into that sound as it’s all analogue and recorded to tape. He loved what he heard and asked me to send him some of the songs, I sent him five songs at first and he asked for another batch and with them he picked out the soul and blues thread that I had running through some of the songs and him been from Memphis would have been tuned to that type of sound. He suggested some artists that I should listen to like Dan Penn and Ann Peebles, who I really loved and already knew because when I was a teenager I grew up listening to a lot of soul music, what inspired me to sing was hearing Aretha Franklin.

When I’d come home from school I’d lock myself in my bedroom and try and sing like Aretha. I’d never really written in that style but it is music that I really love. So we got talking about a plan and I went over in February of this year to meet up.  He arranged to meet in this place called Sam Phillips Recording Studio.

I didn’t know where that was so I put the address in my sat nav and arrived at this building where there was a lot of construction works going on. When I finally managed to work out how to get in and opened the door I found this beautiful old studio and Matt was in there with Rick Steff who plays keys on the record. He went on to tell me that this was the building that Sam Phillips designed himself in 1958 and over the course of a couple of years built it. It was like stepping inside Sam Phillips mind. It’s a lot bigger than Sun and has two studio rooms and it had all the Sun Record Label and Administration upstairs including Sam Phillips office and it looks like he just stepped out of the room, all sixties style and red shaggy carpets and white vinyl seating It’s incredible.

The Memphis session musicians you had at your album preview show at Ally Taps in Nashville were amazing players. How did you recruit them?

Indeed. David Cousar on guitar, played with Al Green, Rick Steff on keys plays with Lucero and has worked with Dexy Midnight Runners, bass player Dave Smith has played with Norah Jones, John Mayall and drummer Steve Potts played with Neil Young. Matt pulled them all together, they’re local Memphis, incredibly down to earth. Unlike Nashville, which has a large commercial infrastructure for music, Memphis has had its heyday and doesn’t have the same commercial infrastructure. These musicians, if they’re not on tour, are hanging about and happy to get the work and (laughs) at a reasonable price. The sound happened for the record partly through the songs that I wrote, many of which are quite ballad sounding and could have been produced in a whole different way, but because of Matt’s Memphis sound background and these guys playing as they do, it came out as being more of a country soul album I guess. 

How long did the album take to record?

Four and a half days, we did it completely live so I would play one of the songs to the guys on guitar or piano and we would talk about the groove, it’s all about the groove in Memphis (laughs) and then we’d go to our stations in the studio and Matt would hit record and we’d start playing. So with the core band, which was those guys, we did ten songs in four and a half days and then got some horn players down for some of the songs and also had a quartet came and did string parts as well. Backing vocals were by an incredible woman called Susan Marshall, who I did the vocals together with. We did the whole thing in seven days and mixed it as well while I was there. 

When can we expect to hear the final product?

It should come out early next year.

Working back from that and the The Applewood Road venture and album which is superb.  How did you manage to write and record the album given the geographical distances between yourself Amy Speace and Amber Rubarth? 

Well it all happened quite spontaneously. We had met in a café in Nashville and hadn’t intended forming a band, but having a few mutual friends who made the introductions, we decided to go to Amy’s house and write a song together. So we wrote the song Applewood Road and recorded it at 1979 Studios in Nashville standing around one microphone and loved what we had done. It was initially going to be a one off song but anyone we showed the song to encouraged us to do an album and so we did. We didn’t have any plan after the album to tour but along came a label who encouraged us to tour. We have done a lot in the UK with it and we may look at doing something in America, we’ve had some good interest in Nashville so we will see. We are all singer songwriters in our own way so we could only do it when we all have the time together. It’s never going to be a full time thing for all of us it’s more of an add on, unless of course someone finances us to do it as flights are involved for us all to get together.

I’m intrigued by your TV work. Did that work come by way of a commission or were you approached on the basis of music you had previously written?

I was doing a house party at Tufnell Park in North London, playing in these people’s garden and after the show this man called Martin Phipps came up and bought one of my CDs. He rang me a few days later, it turns out he is a famous film and television composer, and he asked me if I’d be interested going down to his studio and re-record my song called Nostalgia to fit with a BBC series called Wallander starring Kenneth Brannagh based on the books by the Swedish Author Henning Mankell. So I went down and did that and the director loved it and it became the theme tune of the very popular TV series. From that and through Martin I got more work on another crime thriller called The Shadow Line which I did the theme song with a song called Pause. I then got my own film commission from a writer called Jake Gavin, it was his first script and he ended up getting funding for the film which is called Hector which stars Peter Mullan and I did all the music for that.

Was this all after the release of your album Dear River?

 Wallander happened in 2008 and Dear River came out in 2013 and I started doing the Hector work in 2014. So yes, the film actually came after Dear River.

Dear River for me contains what I would consider signature tunes. That struck me before I was aware you were involved in film

Well thank you

Continuing to work backwards, had you a game plan when you came to the UK from Australia in 2002?

I had no plans for a career in music, I came over because I had dropped out of university. I had been doing an arts degree there but didn’t feel that was what I wanted to do. I was already a musician and had done some touring but was a little bit disillusioned with the Australian scene at that point, not that I’d done national touring. Australia at that time was all about music you could dance to and there wasn’t much of a listening crowd around. My intention was to go travelling around the world basically, I was working in bars and waitressing saving up money to go travelling through Europe, back packing.

I spent six months in Brazil, I loved their martial arts called Capoeira, the dancing and whole subculture there. I ended up in Canada having travelled for three years and during that time I kept on writing songs and at one stage was based in Cambridge where there was a really great music scene going on there particularly with The Broken Family Band who becoming really successful. I was opening for them from time to time and ended up meeting Rob Jackson, who’s a great guitarist and we formed a band accidently (laughs) called The Low Country just before my visa expired. He had a set at The Cambridge Folk Festival and he invited me to sing a few songs with him, I also sang a couple of my songs which he accompanied me on.

It went down very well so we decided to record those songs just before I left for home. He sent the recordings into John Peel who started playing the songs on his radio show. Having returned to Australia after three years the last thing I expected was to get a call from Rob telling me that John Peel had been playing our record and that he kept getting gig requests. So we said ‘let’s do it’ and made a couple of albums which was the beginning of me moving to the UK to try and pursue a music career.

From there to The Red Halo Band. You recorded three albums with them?

Yes. I did do my first album Photos, Fires, Fables with them and another bunch of musicians also but hadn’t actually formed the band at that stage. I followed with Despite The Snow, the album that Nostalgia is on and then Almanac and Dear River all of which were recorded as Emily Barker and The Red Halo Band.

On the basis of the various projects you are involved in do you consider the UK as the right location for you career wise particularly with the TV work you have been involved in?

I would love to do more work in America, I’ve done quite a few shows in Nashville which is inundated with talented artists, however If I could get a working visa I’d consider basing myself out there for a while. Having said that I think the UK music scene is very strong at the moment and is where a lot of my fan base is. I also tour a lot in Germany and throughout Europe and the UK is an ideal base for those markets. I’m just about to do a tour of Germany with Scottish band Runrig , they’ve been around for forty years and we are playing stadiums in Germany, which is a very loyal market for musicians. I’m also very excited about working back in Australia where the market has changed and Americana is now a growing genre there as it also is in South East Asia where they particularly love when artists come over and tour. It’s also on the way to Australia which makes it very convenient. I’m actually interested in world domination I guess!

I can’t believe this is your first trip to Ireland! How did the tour come about?

I know, I know! I’m going to love it and I’m delighted to be here. It really doesn’t make sense that I haven’t been here before Ireland being such a music loving country.

The tour came about through Ciaran Lavery, who is a friend of mine and came over and opened shows for me in the UK, he did five shows with me last year and out of the blue he emailed me to see if I’d be interested touring with him over here which I was very much up for and I was free which helped.

Interview by Declan Culliton - Oct 2016