THIS ISN’T ONE OF THOSE REAL ESTATE PROGRAMS but it is worth noting that Emily Barker was moving into a house in Stroud, south-west England, when last we spoke in 2020. Not for renovation or flipping, no grand designs on Grand Designs, the West Australian singer/songwriter, who had been in the UK for 20 years, and her on and off-stage partner, Cornwall’s Lukas Drinkwater, were about to set up a proper home.
As if moving house wasn’t enough stress, Barker was managing it at the same time as the release of her then-new album, A Dark Murmuration Of Words, a musically and intellectually powerful album that would suffer for the world being rather taken up with a plague rather than attend to new music.
They loved the house (“Oh, it was so lovely.”). They no longer live there. They don’t even live in England anymore.
“It was brief but beautiful being in that place. But the longing for home became too much during the pandemic and stopping touring,” says Barker, who is as known for her soul-based writing as her folk-driven songs, her albums criss-crossing styles like someone criss-crossing the world, including Sweden with her song Nostalgia used as the theme for Kenneth Branagh’s version of Wallander.
“You have that feeling of being with family when you are on the road: my husband would often tour with me; my drummer in the UK, Rob Pemberton, is a sort of brotherly figure, and you form such close relationships. Without that sense of community, it just became apparent that I needed to be with my family.
“And my dad’s getting older and has a few health things, so that was a part of it. And just wanting that feeling of being an auntie, a sister, being a daughter, on a more regular basis.”
Those all sound like very sound reasons – if you look through her extensive catalogue of songs, you’ll find Barker has never left Australia, both its physical presence and its emotional hold, behind in her writing. And it turns out it was Drinkwater who suggested the move back to West Australia. It’s just that while Barker declares that “I will be touring obviously, but I get to be a bit more fulfilled I think, personally,” there’s no getting around the fact Australia, and WA in particular, are not exactly on the touring routes in the UK, USA and Europe that she had built up over decades, and rather inconveniently distant.
“It’s just a way longer commute,” Barker laughs. “That’s how I’m thinking of it.”
The transition back “home” was helped by a five-and-a-half-month sortie back here towards the end of 2021, where, trying to stay sane while being confined to a hotel room for quarantine for more than a month, they recorded an album of Barker’s formative Australian songs, called Room 822. https://www.bernardzuel.net/post/emily-barker-lukas-drinkwater-room-822-review
Incidentally, to confirm how efficiently they work, as well as that album they completed the laborious process of applying for a spouse visa for entry to Australia while in lockdown. Show-offs!
You’d have to think helping make an album of classic, if not always famous, Australian songs from the likes of The Waifs, The Church, Deborah Conway, Stella Donnelly, Kasey Chambers, You Am I and Paul Kelly, among others, must have helped Drinkwater. That would look good on your CV at Immigration wouldn’t it? Who knows if it helped, but his visa got approved pretty quickly.
“Out of the 10 songs we did on that up, the only ones he knew were Tomorrow, by Silverchair and [Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’] Push The Sky Away,” says Barker, though the benefits were greater still. “It was, honestly, a lifesaver in so many ways being immersed in a project.”
Album, visa, staying sane – sounds more than enough, but that level of creative activity was not unusual during the pandemic.
“Creatively, initially it was not amazing during the pandemic because it didn’t feel particularly inspiring, but the longer I stayed home the more I felt like I need to write now.”
And write she did. Barker had at least 20 songs for consideration for an album she recorded in the second half of 2022, songs from which will begin to trickle out later this year. And she immersed herself in another passion, writing poetry, a collection which will be published “soon”, though anyone who saw her on a recent tour supporting Ella Hooper would have had a taste as she performed one of the poems mid-show.
This kind of creative activity which would shame the rest of us lazy dreamers, becomes even more impressive when Barker admits that it took months to “move on” from Dark Murmuration … because without having a chance to tour it properly during the pandemic it felt like unfinished business.
In fact, it took long for songs to come along, but poetry filled that space, the process of learning and refining this new craft quite thrilling. But even that wasn’t enough.
“At one point I decided I need to do something to keep myself engaged and stimulated so I signed up for this online course at Berklee Music School [in Boston] in harmony: the mechanics of how harmony works with modulation, chord relationships. Very technical and what I got out of it was this whole expansion of my toolbox, so to speak, for songwriting,” Barker says. “And I could feel on that course that I was really looking forward to getting to the point where I’m gonna start writing songs. It re-energised me.
“Once I started, I thought gosh, this is how I need to spend my time.”
Emily Barker will play Duke Of George, Fremantle, March 9; Wesley Anne, Northcote, March 24; Yackandandah Folk Festival, March 24-26