"We live in an increasingly complex, often incomprehensible world..." - Emily Barker talks making new LP A Dark Murmuration of Words
We often talk about artists with great work ethics, but few can match Australian folk singer Emily Barker.
Across her 15-year-career, she's released three solo LPs and three with her band The Red Clay Halo as well as LPs as part of projects Vena Portae and Applewood Road. To add to that, she's also found time to provide scores for film and TV.
She shows no sign of slowing down with A Dark Murmuration Of Woods, her latest solo LP, arriving in stores today (September 4th).
We spoke to Barker about the making of the album and why she's grateful she's been able to stick to her planned release date...
It’s a very strange time to be releasing a record, have you managed to enjoy the process at all?
"Isn’t it just! But, actually, I have enjoyed it and I’m so pleased to be going ahead with the release. Initially, when the lockdown happened, we considered pushing it back until 2021, but I’m grateful we kept to the schedule as it’s provided me with a sense of purpose and focus when festival and touring plans went out of the window."
"It’s been a challenge to adapt our usual release strategies and I miss live performance immensely, but I’ve really enjoyed sharing the two new songs and I'm excited to be sharing more soon. Luckily, people still seem keen to hear new music and it feels good to be able to provide some."
Did you have a goal of how you wanted the album to move on from what you did on Sweet Kind Of Blue?
"I had so much fun making Sweet Kind of Blue in Memphis with the wonderful Matt Ross-Spang, but, in the build-up to this record, I was listening to more recent albums like Phoebe Bridgers and Aimee Mann leading me to want a more contemporary sound. I felt my songwriting was benefitting from the focus of working on arrangements with my live band: Lukas Drinkwater, Rob Pemberton and Pete Roe, so I wanted to carry that through to the recording as well."
"Working with such great musicians means that I’m constantly challenging myself musically and expanding my toolbox as a songwriter. Another important factor for this album was a development in my process of writing lyrics - drawing on things I’d learned recently from having delved into writing poetry."
You worked with Greg Freeman, what did he give you as a producer?
"He was brilliant to work with. It’s vital that any producer be enthusiastic about the project and I got this from Greg from the get-go. From our initial conversations based on the demos I sent him, right through to finalising the mixes, I loved his vision for the album. My band and I were already working on arrangements and pre-production in Stroud where we all live and Greg would give us really useful feedback."
"In the studio, we built on those initial arrangements, whilst responding to Greg’s suggestions - it all felt really fluid. Greg worked tirelessly and passionately on this record and I’m very grateful."
What kind of album is this lyrically? Is there a theme to it?
"There are actually multiple themes, but when I looked at all the lyrics once the songs were complete, I noticed underlying connections. I cover the climate crisis, racism, inequality, local versus global and the meaning of home. I thought I was writing on disparate subjects but in the end, they all intersect. We live in an increasingly complex, often incomprehensible world, but as Wangari Maathai showed, the most effective solutions can be simple and local."
Which song on the album took the longest to get right?
"In terms of production, we seemed to go round in circles on ‘When Stars Cannot Be Found’. That song went through so many incarnations. I wrote it on piano then took it to the band. We did at least three completely different versions before we went into the studio, where Greg was able to describe how he had heard it all along. I’m so pleased with how it’s turned out and that’s the great thing about collaboration - without Greg’s input, the band and I would never have taken it in that direction."
And which came together most quickly?
"I wrote ‘Sonogram’ in a couple of hours. It was almost stream-of-consciousness. I couldn’t look at it too closely or it started to disappear. It was just a case of trying to capture it as I played and sang the lyrics out. I love it when that happens – it’s a rare treat. And then it ended up just as simple in the studio - me and the piano, nothing else."
When did you settle on A Dark Murmuration of Words for the title? Were there any other titles in contention?
"'A dark murmuration of words' is the final line in the second song on the album, Geography. It jumped out of the list I made of potential titles and once that had happened it felt inevitable. There are so many ways in which it works, not least the allusion to how the patterns created by flocking starlings come about by each bird only paying attention to its seven closest neighbours. It also felt like an apt description of the deafening clamour of social media and fake news."
Are you able to make any live plans at the moment? Or are you looking towards 2021?
"Festivals that cancelled this year have been rescheduled for next year. But I’m reluctant to book a tour at this point as we just don’t know where we’ll be in a few months. My agent feels the same. He’s already had to reschedule some artists three times! I don’t want to add to that workload just yet..."
How have you spent lockdown? Have you kept writing?
"I’ve been writing a lot of poetry. Taking the opportunity to listen to music on vinyl, which is a luxury for someone who is usually on the road for most of the year. Sampling lots of amazing independently roasted coffee. Discovering the natural beauty that surrounds where I live, on walks and jogs through the countryside. There’s been no time to rest though - the work doesn’t stop when the recording is finished, so I’ve been planning, making videos, doing livestreams and doing interviews..."