Interview: Emily Barker, Sydney Festival

Emily Barker
Image Courtesy of Emily Barker

Western Australian born, UK based folk musician Emily Barker is currently in Sydney taking part in the Sydney Festival – both as a performer at the Star Sky Terrace and running the world’s smallest venue Folk in a Box in the festival’s Hyde Park hub. Gareth Hugh Evans managed to catch Emily Barker at the start of the Sydney Festival to chat to her about writing music for television and film, running the world’s smallest venue, her links to the punk scene and what’s in store for 2014.

Gareth Hugh Evans: I guess I want to start from the beginning. According to Wikipedia you moved over to the UK in 2002. What was the reason for the move? Why pursue music there instead of Western Australia?

Emily Barker: To tell you the truth I didn’t move there to do music. I just had a two year working visa, I’d dropped out of uni because it didn’t feel right and I wanted to travel the world. So that was actually what I was doing, heading over there to be a bit closer to Europe and North America and the rest of the world. So I went over there and did that. I was doing music – writing songs and performing – in WA before that so I kept on doing that, kept writing songs and things while I was traveling. But initially I had no real desires to make a career out of it – it was something that I loved but I also loved doing other things so I hadn’t really settled on music being my “thing”.

GHE: And you started doing singer-songwriter nights in London right? I interviewed Frank Turner last year and he was saying he first met you at a singer-songwriter night in South London.

EB: Oh, good old Frank! I was based in Cambridge and I started doing singer-songwriter open mic nights and I met a bunch of musicians and sort of tapped my way into the local scene. One guitarist, a guy called Rob Jackson who plays a lot with Boo Hewerdine, he really loved my voice and he had a solo spot at the Cambridge Folk Festival. He just did instrumental guitar pieces but I came along and I sang a song and he also played one of my songs and did a cover of “Oh! Susanna” – a slow, long version, very sparse. We ended up recording that and it was lovely. I had a really great time but then my visa was up and I had to leave the country. I didn’t realise he was going to do this but he actually sent a CD-R with texta on it to [BBC Radio presenter and producer] John Peel and he loved this “Oh! Susanna” track and started playing it on his Radio One show and before I knew it there was lots of interest in – we’d called ourselves – The Low County.

I then wen’t home after about three years of travelling for a about 10 weeks and then went back to the UK to record my first album. We made two albums as The Low Country and then I moved to London and started doing open mic nights and things like that and I met Frank at The Windmill in Brixton.

GHE: Frank Turner said the night was called Sad-are-the-days or some other punny name like that.

EB: I didn’t actually meet him that night. I think that he saw me but I don’t know that we met that night. Then I got a MySpace message from him saying “would you like to come on tour with me”. I’d been on a proper tour, I’d just done gigs here and there, maybe four gigs in a row. But this was like a 30 day tour and I was travelling with the guys in their van – it was pretty rock and roll!

GHE: I’m probably glossing over a bunch of stuff here but you’ve also risen to prominence over in the UK thanks to a couple of your songs appearing as themes for TV shows. How does that even come about?

EB: For the second solo album Despite The Snow, because I released my first three solo albums on my own label, in order to raise money I was doing lots and lots of house gigs. I contacted the mailing list and just said to our fans “we need to raise our money would you be interested in having us (The Red Clay Halo) come and playing your kitchen, living room, wherever”. It went really well and at one of these places was a guy called Martin Phipps who was composing at that time the music for a BBC One series Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh. He ended up hearing us perform the song “Nostalgia” and then he rang me a few days later and said “could you like to come the studio, I’d love to use “Nostalgia” as the theme tune and title and end music of each episode of the series”.

So that was awesome and we got along really well. Then he was working on another BBC series a couple of years later called The Shadow Line and he’d got my [2011] album Almanac and on that album is a song called “Pause”. The director wanted female harmonies at the beginning and end and he was like “I’ve got the perfect thing”.

GHE: That’s got to build your audience.

EB: It was great. It really did wonders to raise our profile especially being completely independent. I was a total DIY artist so that was awesome. And since then I’m now working on my first full length feature film, the music from it. I also did some more work for Martin Phipps last year on a film called The Keeping Room. He got me in to write three songs for this film so it sort of launched my career as a composer for film and television.

GHE: I get the impression that you’ve really been adopted by the folk scene over in the UK. The music that you play seems quite influenced by Americana and American country music which you don’t see a lot of in English folk. How have you found being part of that scene?

EB: It’s a funny one. It depends on your musical background as to how you hear our music. Weirdly we’ve been really embraced by the punk scene in the UK and Europe…

GHE: Because of Frank Turner?

EB: Yeah. And I did this revival tour with a guy called Chuck Ragan and also a band called Crazy Arm out there and a label called Xtra Mile who release punk records. I guess punks are pretty open minded about their music and are influenced by so many things. And we toured with Against Me! as well. It’s a strange combination and I couldn’t quite work it out to begin with. To the punks we are just 100% pure folk but to the folkies of Britain we’re not – some of them are incredibly purest. We sort of tend to straddle all these fences but not quite be completely in that genre of folk or Americana necessarily. I’m really enjoying calling Americana in lots of ways – it’s a bit more broad.

GHE: You seem to come back to Australia fairly often to visit your family and quite often play shows in WA. Have you ever tried to “crack” Australia?

EB: Not yet. We haven’t put in every effort that we could so far. But we are going to be – probably this year actually.

GHE: It seems a bit odd saying “you’ve done the UK, now you need to crack Australia”.

EB: It’s funny! We definitely have fans here but Australia’s so big. Wallander was broadcast here and that definitely helped. And I think with the latest record Dear River having a lot more exposure than previous records has definitely helped build a fan base. I’m constantly getting messages saying “you’ve got to come home!” and I’d love to particularly with this new record Dear River because so much of it is about the subject of home. It is an album that I would like a lot of Australians to hear.

GHE: So while you’re in Australia you’re playing Sydney Festival – you seemed like a fairly late addition, is that right?

EB: Yeah, yeah. I’m doing two things here. I’m running the smallest venue in the world called Folk in a Box. We’re up at the Festival Village from 5pm to 10pm every night of the festival except Mondays and Tuesdays. Folk in a Box is a one on one musical performance in the dark inside this box which is about 2.5 metres long by 2.5 metres high by 1.6 metres across. And there’s one musician inside the box and they play you a song – it’s simple but very beautiful.

GHE: Were you involved in the conception of Folk in a Box?

EB: Yes, it was me and my friend Dom [Coyote]. We conceived the idea and we run it mostly in the UK – this is its first Australian outing and it’s been an absolute hit. I think I’ve booked about 40 local, Sydney-based singer-songwriters and musicians and we’ve got a wonderful little community vibe happening down there.

GHE: I went along last night. It was funny because at the beginning you have this awkward conversation with the artist to begin with and then when they start playing it’s just magical. Because all of your other senses are deprived pretty much you have to concentrate on the music.

EB: Wonderful. I love hearing people’s response to being the audience member as well but also I really love the artist response as well. Everybody just comes away going “I wish every gig was like that” because you’ve got no barriers between you and the audience. There’s no microphone, there’s no stage. Initially people can find that idea intimidating but eventually they come out of it reconnected with songs that they’ve been playing as rote.

GHE: And then of course you’re playing shows at The Star Sky Terrace on your nights off on Mondays and Tuesdays as well.

EB: Yes!

GHE: So what’s next for you in 2014?

EB: I’m actually doing a show in Perth before I go home, the 2nd February. And then I’m heading back to the UK and doing a big headline show at Kings Place as part of the launch of Americana Music Association UK. Then I am working on this film – its current working title is Anywhere Away – so I’m going to be writing and recording that as soon as I get back. Then I’m heading out on tour with an Americana artist called Austin Lucas – I’m heading out to Europe with him for about 30 shows. And then I’m hoping to come back to Australia in April if I can.

GHE: I won’t make any assumptions about why you might be here in April.

EB: Ok, yeah no don’t [laughs]. Then basically lots and lots of festivals over the UK summer. I’m going be going to Europe at least three times this year as I’ve just signed a deal over there. I’ve not really done much there despite it being close to the UK.

GHE: I know a lot of Australian artists go over to Europe and love it. People just go out and see music a lot more.

EB: And people buy merch! The hospitably, in Germany in particular, is second to none. Then hopefully in September doing my first States tour. So lots of touring and writing and new record at some point – I’m going to do something different I think.

GHE: Feels like you just released the last record.

EB: I know. It takes a long time to do it. I’m also going to be doing at least two films this year.

GHE: Awesome! Well we might leave it there – thank you so much for chatting with us today.

EB: No worries.

Folk in a Box runs in Sydney Festival Hub in Hyde Park every night except Monday and Tuesday from 5pm to 10pm. Emily Barker’s upcoming Australian shows are below:

Monday 20th January – Sky Terrace at The Star, Sydney, NSW
Tuesday 21st January – Sky Terrace at The Star, Sydney, NSW
Sunday 2nd February – Astor Lounge, Perth, WA

3 Comments

  1. January 23, 2014 at 17:36

    […] Interview: Emily Barker, Sydney Festival […]

  2. January 24, 2014 at 14:53

    […] “We definitely have fans here but Australia’s so big. Wallander was broadcast here and that definitely helped. And I think with the latest record Dear River having a lot more exposure than previous records has definitely helped build a fan base. I’m constantly getting messages saying “you’ve got to come home!” and I’d love to particularly with this new record Dear River because so much of it is about the subject of home. It is an album that I would like a lot of Australians to hear” – Emily Barker chats to Gareth Hugh Evans. Interview here […]

  3. December 19, 2014 at 11:55

    […] 25. Vena Portae – “Flames & Fury” This is probably the newest song on the list, having only been released in the last few weeks, but when I heard it I couldn’t stop playing it over and over again. I guess it’s kind of country music. It’s kind of folk. It’s kind of pop. But whatever it is it’s super catchy and Emily Barker’s voice is in fine form. Listen to this song twice straight through and I can guarantee by the third time you’ll be singing along. Read our interview with Vena Portae’s Emily Barker here. […]


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