Emily Barker - The Toerag Sessions - Folk Radio

The new album by Emily Barker is a collection of solo versions of her songs recorded live to 2-track tape at Toerag Studios in London with Grammy-winning producer Liam Watson. Having spent much of 2014 on the road with The Red Clay Halo and Vena Portae, Emily had also been fitting in solo shows whenever she could and gradually the idea to record a solo album crystallised in her mind. With The Red Clay Halo on hiatus after their final tour last year, Emily took the opportunity to go into the studio to record her own selection of songs from her back catalogue. Many of these songs are the ones she usually chooses to play at solo shows, with a few additions. The songs go right back to her first UK band, the-low-country, through all her albums with The Red Clay Halo and, to bring things bang up to date, the album includes a brand new song, unavailable anywhere else.

The record opens with two long-standing live favourites – Little Deaths and Nostalgia – both of which have also received wider public attention through their use in the soundtracks to two television dramas. Little Deaths (from the 2011 album Almanac) was the theme music to BBC TV’s The Shadow Line (which won an Ivor Novello for best TV soundtrack for series composer Martin Phipps) and makes an ideal showcase for Emily’s precision fingerstyle guitar playing. Nostalgia, which appears on 2008’s Despite The Snow and was used as the theme tune for the BBC’s Wallander crime thriller series, is a real slow-burner and displays the full-throated power of Emily’s vocal range to good effect, from the song’s hushed opening to its thunderous close.

As far as I’m aware, this is the first studio recording of Sideline, although it was frequently played live in the early days of Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo. A slow 12-bar country blues, Emily’s love of Americana (and its roots in Appalachian music) underpins this lonesome lament for an absent partner. Her harmonica playing is especially well-served by the analogue reverb and it’s great to hear, at last, a studio version of this song.

Disappear also first appeared on Despite The Snow and soon became a staple of The Red Clay Halo’s live repertoire; it’s a song which has developed over time from the measured, almost demure, original recorded version into a real foot-stomper. To my ears, the heart of this song lies in Emily’s skills as an arranger as well as writer; there’s a tension between the heartbroken lyrics and the primeval wail of her bluesy harmonica that never fails to give me goosebumps at the same time as it makes me want to leap around the room flailing at an air guitar.

The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that the songs on The Toerag Sessions haven’t been sequenced in the chronological order that they were written. I asked Emily about the thinking behind this and she explained that it was “like composing a set list for a gig – You think about mood, arc and flow and trying to keep your listener engaged”. This has paid dividends in an unexpected way with the juxtaposition of two songs – Letters and Home – separated in time by a decade but linked by a common theme. These two songs were intrinsic parts of the live shows she and The Red Clay Halo played in support of 2013’s Dear River album, the unifying theme of which was “home”. As Emily said at the time: “Home is not only a place, but also is made up of the people we know and the stories we inherit from our family and ancestors.”

So it’s entirely in keeping with the sequencing of the album, as well as Emily’s choice of material, that the two songs should appear here side by side. Letters is one of Emily’s most plaintive ballads, its lyric describing a harrowing tale of separation and flight from conflict. Over a reverbed guitar, its heartfelt refrain evokes a sepia newsreel found in a dusty attic, its patinated images no less heartrending for the passage of time. Home, meanwhile, which Emily first recorded in 2003/4 with the-low-country before re-recording it in 2007 with The Red Clay Halo for Photos.Fires.Fables., is a poignantly introspective Country-tinged song which takes its inspiration from the first part of the quote above, namely that “Home is not only a place, but also is made up of the people we know”, a truth which is felt all the more keenly when we’re separated from our loved ones and which Emily captures perfectly in the song’s steady rhythmic heartbeat, counterpointed by a quietly pulsing bassline.

All Love Knows opens the second side of the vinyl version of the album and it’s a definite highlight for me. It, too, has come a long way since its first appearance on Despite The Snow and its Americana vibe is now much more upfront. Well, I say ‘Americana’, but Emily’s loping rapidfire chord changes evoke some of the best of Neil Young’s early work, so maybe ‘Canadiana’ would be a more appropriate term! While I may be struggling with labels, I can say that this is a really nice reworking in which Emily’s harmonica playing has just enough edge to counterpoint the optimistically lovelorn lyric, which she delivers with tenderness and grace.

It’s followed by a pair of songs that first saw the light of day on her 2004 album with the-low-country – and the first of which gave that record its title. Underpinned by a slow strummed electric guitar with a short reverb, The Dark Road is a thoughtful song with one of Emily’s trademark literate lyrics, an understated, poetic masterpiece with a sting in its tail, a coda of distorted guitar and a howling harmonica. The more I listen to it, the more I’m drawn into it, to the point where it’s becoming, for me, not just ‘a’ highlight of the record but ‘the’ highlight. Which, of course, begs the question of how you would follow it – and the answer is: with Lord I Want An Exit. A stunning reminder of the brilliance of Emily’s songwriting, Lord I Want An Exit tells of a man left truly bereft by the loss of his partner, for whom his own passing can’t come too soon. It’s a highly sensitive, emotionally charged subject which Emily fearlessly tackles head-on, with compassion and empathy; the anguish felt by the song’s protagonist is beautifully drawn in this raw and open-heart rendition.

The uptempo Blackbird is well-placed in the running order to lighten the mood and bring a ray of audio sunshine to the proceedings. It was a perennial live favourite of The Red Clay Halo from their earliest days right through to their last shows and always got a great reception. Along the way it underwent a complete transformation from the somewhat restrained version on Photos.Fires.Fables to become a real foot-tapper and it’s that incarnation of the song which informs this solo version. Emily’s fast, fluid and rhythmic fingerstyle playing really comes into its own; combined with the raucous harmonica break, it gives the song a distinct bluegrass feel.

Penultimate track This Is How It’s Meant To Be rounds out the selection of previously released songs; it appeared on Photos.Fires.Fables but I can also recall having heard it played live a couple of times, both in 2012, at the Half Moon in Putney (in March) and again at The Red Clay Halo’s headlining appearance at the Union Chapel in November. Its sparse, bluesy arrangement is well suited to the heartache of its lyric; in less capable hands it would be a breakup song, plain and simple, but Emily’s almost whispered performance brings out the sense of desolation implicit in its plaintive narrative in a way that makes you want to give her a big hug before going out looking for whoever did this to her. This ability to take seemingly everyday happenings and find in them the shared bond of humanity is something that Emily excels at and This Is How It’s Meant To Be demonstrates that skill to perfection.

The album concludes with a brand new song, Anywhere Away, the title track to the forthcoming British movie Hec McAdam (starring Peter Mullan and Keith Allen). It’s a quietly reflective tune filled with a sense of world-weary introspection tempered by the hope for a brighter future and brings the record to its natural conclusion, gently depositing the listener back in the real world, refreshed and ready to face whatever the day may bring.

At this point in her career, it would have been a fairly simple matter for Emily Barker to have released a greatest hits compilation; instead she chose to record a retrospective collection like no other. The pared down arrangements are compelling, her lyrics are well-observed and poetic while her performance is up close and personal in a way that makes you feel that she’s singing just for you. Above all, The Toerag Sessions demonstrates without doubt that a well-written song will repay the simplest of arrangements and still sound, not just like ‘a good tune’, but will also let the individuality of its writer shine through. This is a masterclass in the art and craft of songwriting and an instructive and insightful record by one of today’s leading singer/songwriters. A record to be cherished and played again and again; The Toerag Sessions is the very definition of essential listening.

Folk Radio
26 March 2015