Emily Barker on Music, Migration, and Fragile Humanity

by the partae
Emily Barker on Music, Migration, and Fragile Humanity

Welcome back to Australia, Emily! After living in the UK for 20 years, how does it feel to return home and share your music with your roots again?

Thank you very much! It feels so good to be home after such a long time away. I’m loving being close to family and the Indian ocean! Until now I’ve not released any of my albums whilst living in Australia so although I’m in the UK right now at time of release (because it’s where most of my fanbase is) I’ll be back shortly after to do a series of West Australian, then east coast, tour dates.

Your new album, “Fragile as Humans,” explores deeply personal themes. Could you tell us about the inspiration behind this shift towards more introspective storytelling?

It was an introspective time because the UK was in lockdown and Western Australia so firmly shut its borders so there was no way of getting back. Touring stopped and life became smaller. There was time to think, to go deep, to read, to witness and sit with sides of myself that I hadn’t previously had time for. Alongside the discomfort of self reckoning was a whole load of beauty though and I came to see the time as a gift. I think despite the songs being introspective, they’re potentially far-reaching in that so many people could relate to what I’m exploring lyrically.

“With Small We Start” is the opening track on your album and seems to set a warm, acoustic tone. What was the creative process like for this song, and why did you choose it to kick off the album?

‘With Small We Start’ felt like a light entry to an album that contains some weightier content and in some ways the song is more akin to some of my previous work in style (whereas I think some of the other songs are more of a departure stylistically).  I had the verse melody for this song kicking around for a while. I kept coming back to it but couldn’t match it with a chorus / other section. I finally found the rest of the song when I was on a writing retreat in Stroud and going for really long walks through the woods on the grounds of Hawkwood. I actually had two choruses and couldn’t decide which one was working best so decided to use both – that’s what you hear at the end with the faint backing vocals singing ‘northern lights’…

“Feathered Thing” addresses themes of grief and loss, inspired by personal experiences. How did you approach translating such intimate emotions into your music?

Sometimes I write more on the nose but at the time of writing this song I’d just had a miscarriage and found it too painful to write about directly. I was reading a lot of Emily Dickinson and kept coming back to her poem ‘Hope is a thing with feathers…’ This idea of hope manifested in the image of a bird, stuck with me and became central to the lyrics in ‘Feathered Thing’. I’d just seen the devastation of some bushland in the southwest of Australia and a tiny blue wren sifting through the ash which to me symbolised life after tragedy.

Your collaboration with producer Luke Potashnick on this album seems to have been quite intensive and collaborative. Can you share with us a bit about that process and how it influenced the final product?

I’ve never worked with a producer in this way before where he became my editor as well. We put each line under the microscope and it was brilliant because sometimes as a writer you go…”well, that’s good enough for that line I think” – he spotted every one of those I’d done and asked me to dig a bit deeper, be persistent. I loved that. I think it’s ultimately made the songs stronger even though it was just a few tweaks here and there. Sonically, I trusted Luke’s vision and musicianship from the get-go. We seemed to be on the same page immediately and both felt the songs had a cinematic feel to them that the production should push. I’m so pleased with what the songs became, couldn’t be happier.

The album features a mix of solo tracks and full-band productions. How did you decide which songs would benefit most from a fuller arrangement?

We knew it would be an album of roughly half solo(ish) and half band. I think the only one that changed was ‘The Quiet Ways’ which started without drums but I think the drum sound on that track might be my favourite thing about the record! So yeah, we had ideas on this before and also it was partly to fit with budget, but it was cool that there was the possibility to respond to the moment and change tack.

Your single “Wild to be Sharing This Moment” has a cinematic quality to it. Can you elaborate on the production choices behind this song and how they contribute to its atmosphere?

This album has a lot of drones, Wild to be Sharing perhaps has the most. That means there’s constant tension and release throughout as the drone notes sit more comfortably within certain chords and then more awkwardly in others. I feel this creates a cinematic atmosphere. Also, we wanted to really push the dynamics to give it scale. There’s so many quiet, quiet moments on the album that we contrast with epic ones.

You mentioned experimenting creatively throughout the album. Could you share an example of a moment where you pushed yourself outside of your comfort zone during the recording process?

I pushed myself harmonically in these songs in terms of chord progressions and extensions. I wanted to favour the odd and unexpected but pull it together melodically. I think with Luke’s taste too, he pushed some of the production sounds beyond what I might have thought safe and I’m soooo glad for it. They’re now my favourite sounds on the record.

“Call it a Day” reflects on your experiences living in the UK for over two decades. What aspects of your time there influenced your songwriting the most?

I think it influenced me topically. I couldn’t stop writing about “home”. What it means. Is it the people? The place? The story? But I think also the sound here, there’s an introversion here that has always appealed to me and allowed me to access the quieter, more vulnerable sides of myself.

Your upcoming shows in Perth must be exciting after returning home. How do you envision these performances reflecting the themes and energy of your new album?

Yeah I can’t wait to gig this record on homeshores! I’ll be doing a range of solo, duo (with Lukas Drinkwater on double bass), and also full band shows. I think, in keeping with the record, I want to make sure there’s loads of dynamic range and lots of drones.

As you prepare for these live shows, are there any particular songs from “Fragile as Humans” that you’re especially eager to perform live, and why?

‘Wild to be Sharing This Moment’ feels particularly pertinent at this time and, having performed it live quite a bit already, I can see that it moves and connects people in the crowd. That feels like the hugest honour.

Finally, if you could convey one overarching message or emotion to your audience through “Fragile as Humans,” what would it be, and why is it important to you?

I’m glad you asked. In a word: compassion. We desperately need more of it to navigate this complex and polarising world in which we find ourselves.


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