Music Features

Bestival 2012: Emily Barker (Interview)

Emily Barker and her band, The Red Clay Halo, have been steadily accumulating fans and winning plaudits these past few years. They’ve released three albums – Photos. Fires. Fables. (2005), Despite The Snow (2008) and Almanac (2011) – with each more successful than the last. Originally from Bridgetown, Australia, Emily has lived in the UK for over a decade and has been compared in the press to such luminaries as Gillian Welch and Laura Cantrell.

The Sunday morning at Bestival was unseasonably warm. Over by the Bandstand stage – where Barker and her group would play later that evening – Emily caught up with No Ripcord’s Joe Rivers. After climbing a hill to get a wonderful view of the festival site (not to mention some shade as a respite from the sun), she took the time to answer some questions.

How are you finding Bestival?

Really good. We just got here last night, and it’s our last festival of the season so we’re definitely making the most of it.

Have you had a chance to see anyone yet?

We saw a friend’s band last night, called Franky And The Jacks, on the Swamp Shack stage. Then we saw Son Of Dave, we saw Kill It Kid, and one other band whose name I can’t remember who were in the Spiegeltent.

So who are you looking to see today?

I don’t know. I don’t know who’s on! We’re going to go and see Speech Debelle – we’ve got a mate who plays double bass for her, so whenever she’s on, I’ll go and see her. We’ll probably go for a wander at some point, but we’re feeling pretty mellow.

You’re playing The Bandstand last thing tonight – how do you feel about closing the festival?

Well, one little section of it. It’s going to be good fun! It still feels like ages away.

Anything special planned as it’s the last performance at the last festival of the summer?

I reckon we might do a couple of new songs.

You and the band have just had a single out with Frank Turner. How did that come about?

It was an old song of mine that I released on my first album and when I first did a tour with Frank, he said, “Could I sing Fields Of June with you?” I said, “Sure thing”, so we started performing that live together and over the years since its first release, it’s changed quite a bit. We just wanted to do a current version that included Frank because we’d worked so much together. I first toured with him about six or seven years ago, not long after he went solo.

What’s he like to work with?

He’s great; I really, really enjoy working with him. He’s very inspiring and very, very hard-working. All of his band are just really lovely guys. We have a great time whenever we go out on the road with them. We’ve often done support for them and sometimes performed in the band as well as part of an extended line-up. We did Wembley with Frank like that and we played the Olympic opening ceremony.

How was that?

It was just mental! Absolutely fantastic.

You were on just before the official ceremony began – how full was the arena?

It was absolutely full. Completely packed – 80,000 people. We’d done the dress rehearsal in front of 60,000 on the Monday and 80,000 on the Wednesday, so it was such a big week; it was quite surreal and just wonderful.

Your albums are all self-financed and you put them out yourself. Your latest album is part-funded by – can you tell me a bit about that?

Pledge is fantastic. We used it to make our most recent album, Almanac, and I think we’re going to be doing another one involving Pledge as well, which we’ve already recorded.

So are they just involved in distribution and extra funding?

Yeah, it’s just to keep things going.

It’s a bit like Kickstarter then.

Yeah, that sort of thing. We financed our second album by doing house gigs, which was really fun as well. I contacted the mailing list and just asked if anyone would like us to come and play at their 50th, or their 21st, or just come and play in their living room or whatever, and we had a really good uptake on that. We just did loads and loads of house gigs for a few months and financed the second album that way.

How many house gigs did you play?

I can’t remember now. We must have done about fifty.

All around the world or just the UK?

Just the UK, but they’re great, they’re really good fun and you get to meet lots of nice people.

Do you think that’s the future for artists? Concentrating on a smaller number of fans in that way?

It’s just a great option to have I think. We’ve released three albums now which, for an independent artist like us, have done really well. In order to make a deal attractive to us we would need somebody very particular or a particular label who could move things up. Otherwise, I just think we’re really sorted in lots of ways. The next album’s potentially coming out on a label who can bring things to the next level.

What label is that?

I can’t say yet *laughs*

But it’s all in place?

Yeah, and we’ve also done a partnership deal, almost like an endorsement deal, with a company called Linn Records who have paid for the album that we’ve not released yet. They’re actually a hi-fi company who sell incredible audio equipment, based in Glasgow, and they do this thing called ‘studio masters’ – they’re the highest form of download you can get; it’s for the real audiophile. You get the whole sound spectrum. So, they’ll be releasing the album as studio masters.

How did you get involved with them?

They came to a gig in Glasgow that we did and really loved it. So, we ended up doing a deal with them. They are a record label but it’s not a traditional label deal so I think now there’s quite a lot of different ways of doing business. We’re enjoying doing quite a unique business plan.

In the UK there’s quite a folk resurgence at the moment. But your sound is rooted in the more traditional sound of folk.

Not really. I suppose it depends on how much you know about folk. Our music comes across to people who don’t listen to folk as a bit folk, but if you’re in that scene, you realise that there is a whole other level *laughs*

So I guess someone like Mumford & Sons would be the mainstream sound, then you’re the next level up, and there are levels beyond that.

Yeah, I know what you mean. But this album isn’t really going to be folky at all. Our latest album, Almanac, has definitely got that folky feel. Maybe the couple before that were more rooted in alt. country, for want of a better word, and the next one is just a rock-pop album actually.

A change in direction then?

I just don’t like to keep doing the same thing, really. I’m influenced by – and always have been influenced by – folk, and probably the folk resurgence in the 70s more than traditional folk. Fairport Convention, Pentangle, that sort of thing. But it’s time to move on now I think.

Is that anything to do with being on a label?

No, they didn’t have any creative say in what we did. I think it’s listening to different kinds of music and consciously being aware of not doing the same thing.

Being at festivals all summer and seeing so many different things must help too.

Yeah, I love so many different genres of music.

It must be boring to stick with the same sort of thing all the time.

Yeah, though there is a definite thread, but it’s not a huge part of it – it’s more subtle… than I realise *laughs*

So, what happens next? You’ve got this new album – when’s that due out?

It’s probably coming out in the spring.

And then there’s your other project, Vena Portae. What’s happening with that?

We recorded an album as well, in February this year in Molnbo in Sweden. It was in a house with the producer that I worked with on our first record, Ruben Engzell. He, my husband, Dom, and I are in the band together, and that’s very alt. folk-pop… or something like that – it’s hard to describe your own music! That’s really different to what I do with the girls and we’re going to be releasing that next year as well. We’ve recorded it all and we’re going to finish mixing soon and probably put it out in the summer, so a couple of albums next year!

When you’re doing that, do the girls do their solo projects?

Yeah, they’ve all got other things. We’ll probably have some time out, maybe a month, at some point next year and I’ll tour with Vena Portae.

Just around the UK?

UK and Europe, I think.

Do you tour Europe a lot?

We haven’t done much yet. Our first European tour was with Frank in April this year and I’m about to start a big European tour, The Revival Tour with Chuck Ragan [of Hot Water Music] from the States. We’re doing 34 shows in 36 days – all over the UK but mostly Europe. That’s going to be fun.

Do you ever get to go back to Australia to tour?

As soon as that tour finishes, we’re playing our biggest headline show ever at The Union Chapel in Islington on 21st November and a few days after that we’re flying to Australia for a tour there.

A tour and visiting people?

Yeah, and I’ll have some time off over Christmas!

Almanac, the third album from Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo, is available now through Everyone Sang. The Revival Tour, featuring Chuck Ragan, Emily Barker, Cory Branan, Jay Malinowski of Bedouin Soundclash, and Rocky Votolato starts its European leg in Cardiff on 16th October. Visit for more details.