Interview with Emily Barker
During her recent Irish tour, Folk and Tumble had the chance to sit down for a chat with Emily Barker in Belfast’s Sunflower Pub.
FT: You’ve taken in quite a few Irish dates this tour, how has it been going?
EB: It’s been good. Dublin was brilliant. It’s a little hard to get people out in more rural areas to be totally honest, but we had a really fun time last night in Kilkenny. That was really nice. It was such an intimate room at the back of the pub, and so cosy, so it was a really lovely atmosphere.
FT: And touring in general, how hard is it?
EB: In general, I absolutely love touring. I have enjoyed travelling. Being from Australia originally, and immigrating over to the UK. I started doing my music over here. And the reason I did that was I was travelling all through Europe and South America, and it just helped combine my love of travel with my love of music. I guess the downside is you don’t get to spend much time in each place, but it depends on mode of transport. Sometimes it’s easier than others to see around places. In general, I love it. This tour Lukas and I have been doing the tour and staying mostly in the van. We came over in the ferry and slept on that.
FT: The rock’n’roll high life?
EB: Yeah! (laughs) The down side of this tour is I’ve been unwell for the whole time, so when you get unwell, that’s when it can be less than great. Being on the move when you’re ill isn’t nice, but I’m coming through that now.
FT: Your sound has really evolved over the last number of albums. Each album has been different. You covered folk, country, Americana and jazz. This new album is really soul influenced. Why soul, and why now?
EB: Well I didn’t intentionally set out to do it, but I grew up listening to a lot of soul music when I was a teenager, and I actually fell in love with Aretha Franklin’s music and her voice. I used to shut myself in my room after school and tried to sing like Aretha, when I was like 13 or 14. Then this blues festival started in my hometown when I was a teenager so suddenly there was a platform for all the local kids to perform and we all kind of gravitated towards soul because of the festival and also roots music in general.
Blues, soul and country are pretty big in Australia anyway. So, that’s really where I began singing. In a way inspired by Aretha and then I moved to the UK, and was influenced by British folk artists over there, but, I think I never lost that passion for soul music, and American folk, which has got that bit more of a blues element to it. So quite a lot of my albums have had a bit of that element in them in general.
Then I met the producer Matt Ross-Spang via various friends, who had recommended him as an up and coming guy, who was seen by many as the next big thing. He’s worked at Sun Studios since he was 16 years old, and he really wanted to introduce me to Memphis, I had never really been there. I had been to Nashville quite a few times, but never Memphis. So I went down there, to the Sam Phillips studio, and immediately fell in love with the building, and it was such a no-brainer to do the album there. There’s such a wonderful feel and history to the place.
FT: And a new set of musicians for you too. The album itself sounds so tight and together, and soulful?
EB: Yeah, well thank you. It was great! I met everybody on the first day. I hadn’t met any of them before, and we just gelled. We pressed record on the tape machine and it was very spontaneous. We kind of worked out each song while we were sitting around, and then recorded really quickly.
FT: It sounds like you had been playing together for a lot longer, there is such a sweet sound to the record.
EB: I think that’s down to the musicians. They are all so experienced and knew just what kind of sound we were looking for. They were all in their 60s. I think one of the guys was in his 70s, and they had been playing that sort of music forever, plus they had all been playing as a unit for quite a long time as well, so that all helped. They were just so in tune from the start.
FT: Can I pick up on one song in particular, ‘Sister Goodbye’. Fantastic song, based on Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Just wondering why this particular person caught your attention to write a song about?
EB: Well I stumbled across her biography called “Shout Sister, Shout” and I was already a fan of her music, and I was really struck by her story. She started playing guitar when she was four years old, and brought gospel music to the nightclubs and rose to fame; it’s the most remarkable story. Like, she was the first person to do a stadium gig because she invited people along at a really cheap ticket price, to her wedding in Chicago baseball stadium, and she was rocking out in her wedding dress. She was just an amazing force. What was really saddening is that, by the end of her life she had been forgotten about, and she was really there at the beginning of rock and roll. Then she was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia.
FT: And part of her failure to be recognised was the colour bar that existed in the States at that time.
EB: Yes, definitely. I think being African-American and being a woman as well she just wasn’t given the credit and legacy she was due and deserved.
FT: It’s not the first time your songs have touched on political issues. Your earlier work has very powerful protest songs about the position of the Aboriginal people in Australia like ‘Bones’ and ‘Everywhen’.
EB: That’s true actually. Even going back to ‘Ghost Narrative’ on the ‘Dear River’ album as well. Yeah, that album was about me thinking about home, and acknowledging that I was a white person on what was originally indigenous Aboriginal land, confronting that and realising that this beautiful place where I had grown up in the South West of Australia was stolen land. There are no aboriginal people left in my town now. None.
FT: You went back to study, and learn more about the issues.
EB: Yeah I did. I went back and studied at the University of Western Australia, I did a year of indigenous study, specifically about Australia, which was incredible, but saddening to know that I had to go to University to find out about it, that it’s not in the school curriculum. There’s much more awareness now with various indigenous filmmakers, in particular, having a strong impact on how people look at history in Australia.
FT: You’re probably sick to death talking about ‘Wallander’ but it did open a lot of doors for you.
EB: Absolutely. Prior to ‘Wallander, I was completely DIY. I was booking every show myself. I mean, I booked this whole Irish tour myself, so I still like to do it occasionally, but now I have a UK manager and various team members around the world who help out and I really appreciate. It brought my music to a whole new audience as well. And ‘Wallander’ lead to other things as well; ‘The Shadow Line’ and then ‘Hector’.
FT: People saw you in a new light and a source for deeply atmospheric soundtracks?
EB: Well yeah. Thank you. It did open those doors which was nice.
FT: In terms of acting, you’ve turned in some remarkable performances in your videos. Would you like to do more in film or TV?
EB: I would love to! It’s not something I’ve been actively seeking but if it came along, I would be flattered and probably jump at the opportunity.
FT: Emily thanks for taking the time to talk to Folk and Tumble and good luck with the rest of the tour.