Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo

From R2 Magazine – July 2013

It may be Emily Barker’s Australian roots that have led her to base herself in the English outback, Stroud in the Cotswolds, over 10000 miles the “tiny little country town” of Bridgetown in Western Australia where she was born. Emily’s latest album, Dear River, explores ideas of emigration and how we define the concept of home: a song cycle exploring Emily’s own experience of migration and drawing in the experiences of others, including her Dutch grandparents who in 1952 moved to a new country to forge a new life.

Emily explains that basing an album around the exploration of an idea arose from hearing PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which she describes as a “lyrically conceptual album”. She had “been pretty preoccupied with ideas of home since moving to the opposite side of the world and Dear River is a concentrated effort to answer the questions where is and what is ‘home’. Starting in Australia, which was my first home; journeying around the world, which was my second idea of what home was; and choosing to settle in the UK. But I have taken on board other people’s stories as it is people who give you a sense of place.”

Bridgetown, named after its defining feature, might sound rather bleak, however Emily talks of the blues festival, the river and how it has “become quite an artist’s haven.” The river is an important motif on Dear River, the title track describes a yearning for the simplicity of childhood as represented by the River Blackwood. Emily’s childhood home was full of music: her mum played guitar and used to “sit us children down and teach us how to harmonise and sing old folky songs” and she was heavily influenced by her father’s “great record collection” of folk revivalists, singer songwriters and rock. She was particularly inspired by soul singers and as a teenager used to lock herself in her bedroom “and try to sing like Aretha Franklin.”

On Dear River Emily also explores the idea of home from the perspective of Australia’s indigenous people. “As I was growing up I realised that I am of European ancestry and yet I am living in this place that was originally the land of the indigenous people and as they weren’t considered citizens until 1967 and weren’t able to purchase land they were effectively told that Australia couldn’t be their home.” The quiet force of the album underlines the strength of Emily’s feelings: “There are so many injustices and so much oppression still there.”

It might be a reaction to the open skies of Western Australia that has inspired Emily, with her musician and ‘theatre-maker’ husband Dom Coyote, to create Folk in a Box. It is, she claims, “the smallest music venue in the world.” The box is an architect designed white wood structure that resembles a confessional: the performer enters from one side and the audience member enters from the other. “A one on one musical performance; they hear one song then leave the box”. The idea came about when they took over a “failed camera obscura” at the Standon Calling festival a few years back and is currently touring the country, most recently at the Spittalfields’ Festival in East London.

Emily has garnered quite a high profile of late, appearing with Frank Turner at the Olympic Opening Ceremony and providing music for the TV programmes Wallender and The Shadow Line. She has contributed a couple of songs to The Keeping Room, a film to be released in 2014 and is interested in composing for film and television work. She also plays with a Swedish/Anglo side project band, Vena Portae, who will be releasing an album next year.

Peter Tomkins

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