Bringing It Home

12 April 2012 | 1:45 pm | Michael Smith

Of course Emily Barker had no idea when she deferred her Uni studies and headed off to the UK where it would lead. Ten years on she’s bringing her third album and UK band home for another celebration.

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Bridgetown born and raised, Emily Barker had started a degree in architecture at the University Of WA before deciding, no, it was landscape architecture she was interested in. That changed to a straight BA, but the reality was she was too restless to study. The world beckoned, so in 2002, donning a backpack and a work visa, she headed for the UK, settling in Cambridge, where the nascent musician came to the fore. Playing the odd gig, she met guitarist Rob Jackson, they cut a demo, she came home to Perth, he called her to say get back quick – the late John Peel had been playing the demo. Next thing you know, Barker was in a band with Jackson.

“That had been an alt-country band,” Barker explains, on the line from Stroud, not far from Bristol, between packing for a first European tour. “When we disbanded I didn't really know what I wanted to do, but I wanted to make a solo album, and I was working with a producer from Sweden called Ruben Engzell. There were definitely a few tracks where I could hear strings and I'd always wanted to work with string players – I was inspired by some of Neil Young's more folky, acoustic-y stuff, whatever you want to call it, such as Comes A Time and Harvest, where strings featured quite a lot, and harmonies.

“So for the first album [Photos.Fires.Fables] they [Anna Jenkins (violin), Jo Silverston (cello) and Gill Sandell (accordion), collectively her band, The Red Clay Halo] as well as a whole load of other musicians played, and when it came time to start gigging the album, I couldn't take everybody 'cause it was a logistical nightmare, so we worked out how we could cover a lot of the parts and thought, 'Well, the cello can act as the bass in certain things,' and all of them played other instruments – we're essentially multi-instrumentalists – and we all swap over and change things around in our sets and that covers quite a lot of it.”

Six years on, Barker and her all-female band are returning to Australia to introduce their third album, Almanac, which is much more than the term some UK critics have used to describe them – chamber pop. “I grew up listening to Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, so there's definitely that sort of '70s folk revival sound – definitely influenced by that, for sure. Most of the songs are about beginnings and endings and cycles and transitions and moving on, coming to dead ends and having to work things out.

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“Then there's a few other songs that sort of relate to that I suppose, but don't quite fit the theme so snugly. There's one called Bones, all about Indigenous and Colonial relations in Australia. I studied Indigenous studies at the University Of WA and was just blown away by how much I learnt, truths about what happened during colonisation, and ever since I've been completely fixated on the subject and read as much as I can.”

As it happens, her first European tour was as support for English 'folk punk' singer-songwriter Frank Turner, with whom Barker has been recording. “We performed on his latest album, England Keep My Bones, and we're also releasing a song together in the summer in the UK here, a duet called Fields Of June, which is one of my songs from a while ago. We did a little demo of it as a free download giveaway when we were on a UK tour with him last November.”