Emily Barker is a hugely talented and accomplished singer and songwriter across a range of genres, including writing for film and TV. She’s originally from Western Australia; she’s been living in the United Kingdom for the past few years but has returned to home shores for a string of dates that includes appearances at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, ahead of the release of her album Shadow Box at the end of this month:
Sunday 19 January – Fanzone – (2.40 p.m.)
Monday 20 January – Americana in the Park – Toyota Park – (7.00 p.m.)
Wednesday 22 January – Women’s Refugee Centre Fundraiser – Welder’s Dog (3.30 p.m. – 3.50 p.m.)
Wednesday 22 January – Welder’s Dog – Tamworth, NSW (5.00 p.m. – 7.00 p.m.)
Emily’s Tamworth plans started when she had an invitation from a music industry contact who’s an artist manager she met in Nashville at the Americana Fest, who happens to be Fanny Lumsden’s manager.
‘Fanny and I are friends,’ Barker explains, ‘and our managers met and became friends. And since then we’ve had this nice communication going with us sort of helping with any questions on the UK and him helping with any questions on Australia, even though I’m Australian, obviously, [but] I’ve lived over there for such a long time. So he’s been really helpful and he’s one of the people who’s who does some of the organising and bookings and things like that. So he got an invite and sent my stuff around to a few people and then various other things came from that. I think we’re doing about four shows and the one that he was a part of was Americana in the Park.’
The other places she’ll be playing are mostly venues she’s played before, although there is a bigger plan behind the tour schedule.
‘I just got married to Lukas Drinkwater, who’s my accompanist as well,’ says Barker, ‘so we do loads of duo shows. It’s not our honeymoon – we’ll have a proper honeymoon later – but you need to be able to get away, so close to the wedding, with managing to go on tour just after the wedding. So I said, “What about if I book it and we take our time and have a few days off in between?” He’s always up for playing music and being on tour together. So I thought I’d just go to places that I knew would have us back and that we did well at before.
‘We’re basically going to hire a car in Brisbane and then drive down the coast and then to Adelaide. And then from Adelaide we’ll fly back to WA. So we’re covering a lot of miles and I haven’t checked the routes but I think we’ll be able to get through, with the fires and everything. So it’s a gig and then got a couple of days off or a few days off, and then a few gigs. It will be pretty easygoing. I haven’t spent much time travelling around Australia, either, it’s mostly just hopping in planes and going to the capital cities. So it will be great to just do a bit of a road trip.’
While Barker will have her husband along for the journey, there was something important that she didn’t bring with her to Australia.
‘I have a beautiful 1938 Gibson guitar,’ she says, ‘which I left at home in the UK because it’s so old and the glue is old horse glue and too much variation in temperature causes the bracing to come away. So I’ve bought my Australian guitar with me, which is a more modern one, which is a maker called Scott Wise, who’s from Margaret River. He’s an incredible luthier and I’ve had that guitar for years. And Lukas has a Chadwick folding bass. It’s amazing. You can take off this back panel and then the neck is hinged. And you fold the neck into the back of the body. So it becomes just the size of the body of the bass without the neck. And then you take the strings off and everything packs inside it really neatly. And so put that in the hard case and then fly with that from Perth to Brisbane and we’ll fit it in the car.’
Of course, the instrument she can’t help but bring with her – her voice – may also be vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity, but Barker says, ‘I’m lucky – I’m probably going to lose it now – but I’m lucky, I’ve never had to cancel the gig because I didn’t have a voice. Even when I’ve been really unwell, I’ve always been able to sing. I’m sure my luck will run out at some point, but I have done various lessons on voice maintenance and stuff like that, which has been really invaluable.
‘It’s like a muscle and the more you do it, the more fit you get. So that’s part of it. But then also I feel partly with the voice it’s psychological, and sometimes if you are feeling vulnerable and for whatever reason personally, then that can be reflected in your voice. Even when you’re unwell, it’s partly technically knowing how to get around those moments. And it might be working on your sound a bit more with the engineer or it might be relying more on the mic in a way and using your body in a different way to support yourself, or choosing different songs. There are always ways, if you are feeling more vulnerable, to still do a great show and the audience don’t feel like they’ve been ripped off in any way, but preserve a bit more if it’s a bit weaker for whatever reason.’
Barker possibly didn’t have a choice about which career she was going to pursue, given her upbringing. Her mother had an old nylon string guitar, she says, ‘and she used to sit us four kids down and play us songs. Children’s songs or children’s folk songs like “Rockin’ Robin” and “The Fox Went Out”. And she also had this Alan Lomax folk songs book, so it was songs like “Goodnight, Irene” and “House of the Rising Sun” and things like that. She would get us to sing along and then we learned how to harmonise. It took me ages to realise that not everybody knew how to do that. I thought it was just part of childhood and being a kid is that you know how to do a harmony.
‘Then my dad also – he’s such a keen listener, so he had a great record collection and we used to listen to old records and that was our entertainment cause we didn’t have a TV. So we’d listen to records and know every word and scan through the lyrics. I think that was a big part of my music education as well.’
It is no mystery, therefore, that her younger brother Joel Barker is a musician who has released several albums. Her other siblings, says Barker, ‘do it locally, on a community level, and they play different events and they all write songs and go out and do gigs in whatever capacity, and they sing with their kids and stuff like that as well.’
As an adult Barker pursued formal education in music because, she says, ‘I started getting frustrated being a singer only and not being able to join in the band conversation. So I started learning piano in order to have that language and theoretical understanding. Then I started picking up a guitar and writing with a guitar and learning about chords and more about theory.
‘In the last few years I’ve had some lucky breaks with writing for film and television, and I felt the whole time, Oh my god, when are people going to realise that I don’t know what I’m doing? I’m just fluking, just writing from instinct rather than having a lot of composition knowledge. Although I’d had quite a bit of experience from working with string players in a band, but not in a formal way. So I started getting composition lessons from this great teacher who [taught] me about how to arrange scores and string ensembles and things like that. So that was amazing. And then just going deeper, a little bit deeper into that theory and sort of expanding the toolbox for my songwriting is what came from it as well.’
Working on music for film and television is a form of collaboration – with a filmmaker rather than other musicians – and not the only Barker has undertaken. She has collaborated with several artists, and recorded releases have resulted. These collaborations, she says, tend to come about via happenstance and meeting people.
‘A recent collaboration that came out last year was with a British folk artist called Marie Watson,’ she explains. ‘We met at a writing retreat organised by a wonderful singer-songwriter called Kathryn Williams. She invited 14 different songwriters to this one place and we all wrote different songs with each other and were partnered with different people each day. And Marie and I really clicked. So we decided that we would keep on writing together. Then we enjoyed our following writing sessions and suddenly realised we had an album.
‘Then with Applewood Road, which was another collaboration, I was going to Nashville regularly and meeting more and more people. But I started out with just knowing a handful of people and them meeting me for coffee or whatever. This one particular person I was meeting, Amy Speace, I asked her, “Can you recommend anyone I might be able to write with?” Because I’d just gotten into this co-writing thing. And she said that a great person to write with would be Amber Rubarth. And then she said, “Well, you know what, she just lives around the corner. I’ll give her a ring and see if she wants to come for coffee.” So she came and joined us, and the three of us were sitting, chatting, and we all said, ‘Hey, why don’t we all write a song together?” So we wrote a song and it came out so beautifully.
‘That’s the great thing about collaborating: it wouldn’t be what you would ever write on your own. So it comes out as something that you couldn’t have possibly imagined before because you have all these different people influencing the creative process. So we wrote one song and said, “Oh wow, this feels really special.” Then we continued working together and had an album. So lots of it is just happenstance, I would say, through through meeting people and having some sort of creative connections.’
Barker believes that the key to collaboration is ‘being open and not holding on too preciously to what you know, and instead being willing to allow the collaboration to go where it will go. And that doesn’t mean being totally passive, but just allowing space for something that you wouldn’t predict would happen’.
Writing for screen is quite a different exercise because it comes with a brief.
‘One [was] a film called Hector,’ she says, ‘and I wrote all the music for the film, but the director loved my songwriting. So it was sort of a song-based score, but there were lots of instrumentals rather than lyrics. So I started by writing songs, because to be honest I didn’t really know what I was doing entirely. I knew that I wanted to do this job, but where do I start? It’s such an overwhelming prospect, the idea of writing all the music for film. So I thought, I’m going to start with a few songs that I think capture different moods or different themes throughout and that can maybe resonate with certain characters.
‘So I started there then took little motifs from each of them and used instrumental motifs and then developed them into other pieces of music, and worked with lots of different musicians on creating what I could hear in my head. So that was a really different way to work, and also having a brief is really different because usually as a songwriter it’s all coming from you, and it’s really refreshing, actually, to be trying to support somebody else’s vision. He wasn’t a musician, the director and scriptwriter, but he could hear the music in a way. So it’s sort of about trying to understand what he’s hearing and write to that. That was fascinating and I really enjoyed it.’
With so many different types of projects, Barker has been able to work in such a way that they each receive the attention they need.
‘Most of them have a bit of a life cycle,’ she says. ‘So the Marie album, which I did last year, that one always was going to be the 2019 focus. And whilst that was happening – as in the release and the gigs and some festivals – I was writing for my next record and working on what’s going to happen this year. So they went alongside each other quite nicely. I’m not writing anything for film right now. Those jobs come along quite sporadically. And then it’s a case of saying, ‘Well, how am I going to fit this in?’ and then clearing things. So it’s not too tricky, really. It’s busy, but it’s good busy.’
Barker’s new album, Shadow Box, is a collection of different recordings, including some cover songs. When thinking about covering someone else’s material, Barker says, ‘I don’t want to listen to it very much, and I just want to get an impression of it. Obviously you need to get the chords and the lyrics. But it’s almost like you want it to sink into you [but] you need to put your own personality in it and not be too influenced by the singer or whichever musician, and just make sure that it’s you that you’re putting into it. So I think in some ways not knowing it too well is quite a good thing, because then you can interpret it more for yourself.’
With so many different elements to her musical life, and such prolific output, it seems logical that Barker must actually dream music – and she does.
‘Sometimes I dream a melody,’ she says. ‘Mostly in melodies, but sometimes lyrics as well. Sometimes if I’m halfway through writing a song, I’ll start writing the lyrics in my dream, and then wake up and think, Oh my god, I need to write that down. I usually have a piece of paper and a pen near me, so I can do that. But sometimes you go back to sleep and wake up the next morning and think, That was so crap! Or, Oh my god, that’s so great. I just dreamt that and it’s brilliant.’
Barker may not be widely known to Australian audiences but she certainly deserves to be – her talents and skills are evident as soon as you listen to any of her releases. No doubt audiences at Tamworth and elsewhere will be delighted to have the opportunity to experience her wonderful music live.
Emily Barker’s other Australian dates:
Friday 24 January – The Newsagency – Sydney, NSW
Sunday 26 January – Smith’s Alternative – Canberra, ACT
Wednesday 29 January – The Workers Club – Melbourne, VIC
Friday 31 January – The Wheatsheaf – Adelaide, SA
Saturday 8 February – Bridgedale House – Bridgetown, WA