Sweet Kind of Blue: acclaimed musician Emily Barker talks to Northern Soul
Early one cold and rainy February morning last year, Australian musician and Northern Soul favourite Emily Barker woke up in Nashville and got in her car for a journey to Memphis. She picked up a cup of black coffee at a local coffee shop, put Dan Penn’s Nobody’s Fool album on the car stereo, and took off for the home of the Blues, arriving there, spookily, just as Penn’s splendid Raining in Memphis came on.
“I heard above the music the wonderful, mournful sound of the trains rolling in and out of town, just as they do in the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train, and just as they do in so many blues songs,” she recalls. “‘Hello, Memphis,’ I replied to their call.”
But she wasn’t there as a tourist, although later she was to hear some fabulous stories. Barker was there to meet producer/engineer, Matt Ross-Spang, to discuss working on her next album. Ross-Spang had worked at the legendary Sun Studios for 11 years as head engineer and, before that, had been a tour guide and an intern there. At 16, he would finish high school, drive to Sun, show excited tourists around the hallowed ground where the likes of Elvis, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King had recorded and, after the last visitor had left the building, start work as assistant engineer learning how to record. Now he’s a fully-fledged Grammy-winner with the likes of Jason Isbell, Margo Price and Drive-By Truckers on his CV.
“I had a load of songs that I wasn’t completely sure what to do with after I’d stopped working with Red Clay Halo,” says Barker, who is best known in the UK for her mournful Wallander TV theme. “So I guess I was looking for the producer who could help me shape them. Literally every one of the friends I talked to in Nashville recommended him and, immediately, I sent him some demos and he started firing ideas back at me that I loved, mentioning people like Dan Penn, Ann Peebles and Bill Withers. We hit it off straightaway. He completely got what I was trying to do and he brought in not only some of the hottest players in town, but the ones he knew would work straightaway because we didn’t get together until the first day. We worked it all out on the floor then just hit record on the tape machine. It was a dream.”
As we talk before her set at Manchester’s Band on The Wall, it’s just hours since the announcement that the resulting album Sweet Kind of Blue has been nominated for UK Album of The Year with Barker also in the running for Artist of The Year at the Americana Music Association UK Awards in February. Evidently, it’s not just me who thinks that Sweet Kind of Blue, a deep-fried, Blues ‘n’ Soul Memphis groove thang, is quite something. It’s also quite a departure from her earlier, folkier records. For Barker, though, it’s more of a return to where her love of music started, back when she would sing her heart out to Aretha Franklin records in her girlhood bedroom.
“I feel like I’ve come full circle,” she laughs. “When I was a teenager, I got really into 60s soul singers, Aretha being my favourite. At 12-years-old, my tiny country town in the south west of Australia, Bridgetown, hosted its first Blues Festival. A population of 2,000 people suddenly became 7,000 for three days on the second weekend in November 1993.”
She continues: “Every café and pub, the town hall, school assembly room, the show ground’s oval, all became venues with Blues music bass lines bouncing down the street and clashing in the air. The following year, my high school suddenly upped its game in the music department and went from having the option of learning recorder or playing a Casio keyboard, to having a drum kit, a couple of electric guitars, electric basses and vocal microphones.
“Everyone became a musician. I became a singer. I auditioned for the school’s Year 10 band and got the role. Being in love with Soul and Blues, we learned Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally, Aretha Franklin’s Respect, Koko Taylor’s Wang Dang Doodle and many others. I performed at school assemblies and graduation ceremonies and after school I would shut myself in my room and have a Best of Aretha compilation on repeat as I taught myself how to ‘belt it out’ without losing my voice. So, I did feel like I’d come full circle, recording in Memphis at Sam Phillips Recording Service. The songs, the recording studio, the sound, the musicians, the feel, it all tips its hat and winks back to those last days before I hit my teens, falling in love with singing and falling in love with Soul and Blues music.
“Just being in Memphis felt like one of those moments when you have to pinch yourself and say ‘wow, look where my life has lead me, this is really happening’. A south west Aussie country bumpkin kid, who used to lose her voice learning to sing in her bedroom, goes to Memphis, Tennessee to make an album in a studio built by Sam Phillips, the man who forever changed the course of music history by bringing Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll to the world, and without whom that Bridgetown Blues Festival may never have happened.”
She adds: “I keep thinking of Dusty Springfield. We dreamed the same dream. So, yeah, there are a lot of records I’ve done, ten I think, and some people might have been surprised if they’d only heard me solo or with one of my other bands, Red Clay Halo or even Applewood Road. But there are at least 20 other bands in my head. At the moment the focus is on Sweet Kind of Blue and I’ve started writing songs for another record, although I’m currently clueless about where they might take me. But I really enjoy having a lot of different outlets for creativity because I listen to so much music and I’m influenced by a lot of different styles and composers and songwriters.
“Most of my music career has been based here in the UK and I left Australia really before I started working properly as a singer-songwriter. So, I guess Americana, just because it is such a broad church, is a good description for what I’m doing right now.”
For a highly entertaining short film inspired by Emily’s adventures with the BBC’s English language Wallander TV, do check out In Search Of Wallander.
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