Emily Barker turns the camera around to show me the unopened boxes and other signs of only recently moving into her new house in Stroud, in England’s south-west, nearer Wales than London.
On a table I can see a turntable and amplifier she and partner, Lukas Drinkwater – like her a multi-instrumentalist and producer – are rather proud of, but have yet to plug in. Maybe today, if the heat doesn’t deter her.
Ah, yes, the heat. Outside is a hazy greenness that looks a very long way from her original home in small town Western Australia, but those temperatures are creeping up every year towards the kind of baking Australians are used to. That sounds like a bonus for the UK, a land hitherto not overburdened with blazing sun, but there’s something disturbing rather than pleasing in it all for Barker whose growing concern about the planet’s seemingly inexorable slide into disaster underpins so much of her gentle but insistent new album.
A Dark Murmuration Of Words is the name of the album, and as we know, a murmuration – a large, coordinated pattern of birds swooping and curving through the sky - can be wonderful to see in action, the size and unanimity of it striking. But anyone who has seen Hitchcock’s The Birds also knows that sometimes a coordinated gathering of birds can be a portent of something very bad indeed.
It’s fair to say that Barker is not hugely optimistic on the record, whose musical roots are deeply in folk, a style of music long made for taking topical events into song, a genre with what Barker calls “a dissident legacy”. Two lines, across two songs, capture the bleaker eye: “Where have the sparrows gone?” and “This machine runs on its own”, capturing nature and man in conflict, the feeling of control being out of our hands.
Does she see bad things ahead? Already here?
“It was really a response to a lot of what was going on in 2019 with the collective awakening of the environmental crisis. And it was terrifying,” says Barker. “It’s something that I’d been aware of before, and I was brought up by parents who were very conscious of that anyway, but I think a lot of people really looked at the personal impact in a big way and started realising the scale of this emergency. It’s so hard to compute but for me, writing songs helps me to make sense of things that I can’t process.”
The sense she made was that loss and anger and hurt and grief, personal and societal, could not be hidden and in a song like Any More Goodbyes, the grief of losing so many species is palpable.
“It sounds like a breakup song, or that you are losing your partner, but that just all these creatures that we always thought that we would have: like when I grew up in the south-west of WA, the beautiful red tail black cockatoos,” Barker says. “I just can’t imagine when I’m home, stepping out the door and having one fly overhead, but they are on the highly endangered list now.”
The album then is “lots of processing the emotional response to the environmental crisis” but taking inspiration from the interplay within a murmuration, a kind of act local/think global attitude writ large for Barker.
“Apparently [individual birds within the murmuration] are only aware of the seven birds around them; they are not aware that there are so many more [further out], so it’s great thinking about community and connection and overall impact,” she says. “What I realised as I was really focusing on the environment was how that connects to society: people who are less well off, different racial groups, and how connected these things are in a society that is oppressing certain people, oppressing nature, oppressing women.”
There are two ways to look at this though. If all you know or care about is what’s immediately around you, you can’t imagine making a difference, or even wanting to make a difference and selfishness abounds. But an impact on the “seven birds” around you ripples out to the seven birds around each of them, and on and on and the “others” connect to you.
Which brings us back to one thing she has already touched on, the way the album deals with grief, personal and existential. If there isn’t a lot of optimism, there isn’t yet defeat being sounded in Barker’s songs.
“One of my ways of taking action, and not just processing my own grief, is by storytelling. With Strange Weather for instance, I really did want to find a way of having an emotional impact on my listeners enough that it might motivate them to do the best that they can. To look at the way they live their lives, trying to put pressure on governments, make the changes.”
That’s why she was particularly keen to highlight the story of Kenyan activist and founder of the Green Belt Movement of female-led environmental reclamation Wangan Maathai, the titular woman of an early single, The Woman Who Planted Trees.
“She encapsulates action and home. It wasn’t simple what she did by any means, she had to literally fight in order to save their forest in Kenya, but planting trees, or part funding the planting of trees, is something we can all do,” Barker says admiringly. “That idea that it doesn’t have to be huge what you do, but together if we all do a little bit, we can limit the damage.”
In other words, think of the seven birds around us and let it radiate from that. Big action is needed, governmental, corporate, international, but small actions multiplied has a role too.
“I’m absolutely aware that some people shut down and say I don’t know how to get involved in this, or I can’t process this, so I guess these [songs] are a passive call to action by tapping into some of the emotions that we are feeling.”
Gentle encouragements to action?
“Gentle encouragements is nicer,” she says with a laugh. “Can we use that please?”
A Dark Murmuration Of Words is out on September 4 through Thirty Tigers/Cooking Vinyl.