Celebrating the female voice in music.
Smoke Fairies are Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, a folk-blues duo hailing from London, who in September of last year released their debut album, Through Low Light and Trees. The band, who took their name from the summer mist that collects in the hedgerows of their native Sussex, have recorded with Jack White on the 7″ double a-side “Gastown”/”Riversong” and supported his third band The Dead Weather on tour. The girls visited Ireland in December to play both St James’ Church in Dingle (as part of this year’s series of Other Voices) and Dublin’s Workman’s Club.
At school in rural England during the mid-late ’90s, best mates Katherine and Jessica hoped they would one day escape their hometown and dive headlong into the landscape and myth of America, the promised land of their dreams. Little did they know that by 2010, they’d have lived in New Orleans and Vancouver, recorded with 21st century icon White and toured across continents. Their connection began in the school choir and deepened by picking up their parents’ guitars and obsessing over Jessica’s mum’s vinyl albums collection, dominated by American ‘70s classics. A year spent in New Orleans in 2002 also helped shape their sound which evolved even further when, back in England, they discovered more British folk at the Sidmouth Folk Festival.
After another spell of writing last winter the Fairies headed for Sawmills studio in rural Cornwall in the Spring to record their debut album, which they released last September. Through Low Light And Trees is an exquisitely shivery blend of alternative folk-rock and a more humid, bluesy brand of Americana, a sound both eerily ancient and thrillingly modern, with beautifully interlocking harmonies and guitar parts behind the spectral melodies. Through its 11 tracks the album smoulders with an honest and often painful emotional intimacy.
Smoke Fairies’ own fairytale continues to unfold. Having toured with Richard Hawley across Britain late last year and supported Laura Marling for a month, they went on to release Ghosts: A Compilation of A-Sides, B-Sides and an EP from the Recent Past exclusively for the US market. Most recently Jessica and Katherine added supernatural, angelic backing vocals to Richard Hawley’s current EP False Lights From The Land. When the calibre of White and Hawley are entranced, you know this isn’t fairytale, but the absolute truth.
I was lucky enough to get to speak with Smoke Fairies’ Katherine recently about the band’s sound, meeting Mr White and the notion of home. Here is what the lovely and eloquent lady had to say:
Irish music magazine Hot Press recently described your sound as “avant-folk with harmonies”. Do you think that’s a good sum-up of Smoke Fairies’ sound?
It’s a difficult kind of music to describe. I think we’ve been called many things, although I haven’t heard the avant-folk one, but I think, basically, we’re trying to do something different. I think we’ve arrived at our sound via listening to lots of folk and blues so inevitably those influences have come out, but I wouldn’t like to say its one thing or the other. We’re trying to do something that is unique and also draw from the influence of ’70s bands we’ve grown up listening to. In a way, I think the style of music we play is territory that’s already been chartered by other bands, but I think the harmonies and perhaps the unique sounds of our voices maybe sets it apart slightly, sets us in a different direction. It certainly is a hard one! If I had to describe it I would say it’s atmospheric and dark and definitely drawing on the influence of folk and blues but not really settling in either of the camps.
When you and Jessica were growing up, music genres like grunge and pop would have been quite big but you chose to listen to folk and blues. What kind of bands did you guys listen to?
Well Jessica’s Mum had a lot of records from the ’70s and ’60s. There was a lot of Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Grateful Dead- all kinds of guitar-based bands that really were paving the way with harmonies and the ways in which they intertwined their guitar parts. We’re really interested in the way two guitars can work together, not kind of competing for space but using the space and weaving around each other and creating quite a transporting atmosphere. So that’s why we gravitated toward that sound because it just seemed more interesting to us than what was happening at the time. And I think it had a kind of artiness and timelessness that really appealed to us.
Where do the ideas for your songs come from, Katherine?
Well, I mean over time it’s changed. We travelled a lot when we were younger; we went to live in New Orleans for a year and coming back to London it was quite hard to leave that life behind. We then moved to Canada because we felt we still hadn’t fulfilled…well, we still kind of had itchy feet. So we went to live there and there was another feeling of being detached so we moved. It was kind of an atmosphere where we didn’t truly feel we belonged. I guess you create a lifestyle and then you leave it behind. So we moved back to England again. So a lot of the songs we write are revolving around the theme of that feeling of loss and disconnection. And we’ve always been quite nostalgic in our lyrics. It’s kind of that looking back and longing, the feeling that comes with that and thinking about the things that disappear from your life and how you miss them. I think that’s quite a universal feeling and the process of travelling makes it more poignant somehow because the disconnection is so severe. A lot of themes have come from that but there is also a storytelling element to our songs. On the album there’s a song called “Eerie Lackawanna”, which is kind of looking back at old age and the story of someone’s life coming to an end. And there’s another one called “Dragon” which is more of an imaginative story and we really like that method of storytelling as well.
So you would say that the places you live and have lived would influence and shape your music?
Definitely. Like when we moved to New Orleans I think it was quite a pivotal time in our lives. We were young and I think a lot of the experiences you have then have quite a strong impact. It was when we were developing our sound and we were really allowed to experiment with our sound. It didn’t feel like there were any boundaries there; people weren’t pigeonholing like the way they do sometimes. They weren’t saying, “Oh no you can’t mix those two styles” or “Hey, you’re from England- what are you doing playing this kind of music?”; there’s none of that. It was a nice experience; it really is a melting pot. I think our music still maintains that kind of feeling.
Do you think Smoke Fairies are settled now? Are you pleased with where you are at the moment or have you plans to travel again?
Well a lot has changed now and we knew we had to settle down to make a real go of it because you can’t be travelling all of the time. It really feels like it was the right decision to come back to England. I think sometimes you have to leave home to realise where it is, do you know what I mean?
Yeah, I can understand that.
We’ve kind of gone around in a circle and now we’ve come back to England. I really feel at home now and I feel really connected to it and I love the countryside. We live in London, which has its own madness going on, but I love the history and just feel at home basically. Life now involves touring so maybe that’s taking the edge off settling down a little bit. It still feels like we get to experience a lot and we still get to feel transient, which is something that we both enjoy.
The single that you released with Jack White (double A-side “Gastown”/”The River Song”) – that was recorded in Nashville?
Yes, that’s right.
It was actually partly down to a chance meeting in bar. We heard that he was going to be there and we had a gig down the road and had a few records with us, so we said, “Let’s go down and see if he turns up”. We just thought it would be a fun thing to do and we really liked his music so were really excited to meet him, if he did come. And when he did arrive we just approached him and I put the record on the DJ’s turntable and asked him to play it. I just went up to Jack and said, “This is our band playing right now”, and I gave him the record to take away. He got in contact with us a while later and asked us to support The Dead Weather. So that was quite a surprise! We were really excited, so went down and did that and then he asked if we wanted to go to Nashville and record a song, which was really unexpected.
Yeah, it was really exciting.
I read online that you guys worked in a burger van at one time- any truth in that?
Am…yeah, that did happen! We did have a job together selling burgers. We had a lot of jobs growing up as we went along to support ourselves because it takes a while to make money from music. It’s never entirely secure so you have to have a load of odd jobs going at the same time sometimes. The burger van was one of the earlier ones. That was a particularly horrible job! My main job was cutting onions- I had an entire sack to do every morning. We didn’t really ever get called by our names either; Jessica was “Blond One” and I was “Other”, which I found a bit annoying because I didn’t even have a distinguishing feature! It wasn’t the best experience, being called “Other” and cutting onions but I guess it’s character-building…
Haha, maybe so. And you guys have been friends since school. Do you always get on well?
Yeah, we get on really well. We spend so much time together – it is a bit ridiculous really. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world I could spend that much time with and not get completely frustrated with. We know each other really well and share a similar sense of humour. Our sense of humour is pretty much interlocked actually, which helps. But, you know, things are tough sometimes and you do have arguments but I don’t think having arguments is a bad thing- it’s the way you deal with them. We’ve learned how to do that I think.
You released your debut album last September. Considering you have been together for such a long time, it must have been a great feeling to finally get it out there.
Yeah. Some of the songs had been kicking around for a while. I think when you know there’s a chance for songs to be aired in the light of day you end up writing a lot more. So I think right before the album was recorded we had a lot of good material and one of the songs we even wrote while we were in the studio. It felt really great to get it all out there. It’s like they had been building up for a while. I mean, we had released material before that had been split into singles and EPs but it felt great to put a full-length album, a full collection of work that was recorded at the same time. I feel like there’s a real feeling that goes through the whole record that ties it together, so I’m really pleased with that.
What music would you listen to for fun or to unwind, Katherine?
Hmmm…I like a lot of music that isn’t folk and blues. I’ve just started listening to punk and New Wave and I’m getting quite into that. It’s actually really inspirational because it gives you a different way of thinking, you know. I like listening to things that are quite different because when you bring those influences in they’re kind of hidden behind your own style but they do help you think of a different way of thinking of the song. We’re releasing a single called “Strange Moon Rising” and the b-side to that is going to be “Requiem”, which is a Killing Joke song. I hope people will enjoy it because it’s not really the style that people would associate with us.
This new feature on 4fortyfour is specifically aimed at celebrating the female voice. What women in music would you say you admire?
I really like Gillian Welch- she’s a great musician and I really like her voice. I keep buying t-shirts off her site because they’re really nice! I kind of admire people that seem like independent spirits I suppose. We just supported Laura Marling…
Yeah she really is. She strikes me as someone incredibly talented and unique. She’s incredibly self-aware and it’s amazing how she translates that into her songs.
Let’s get a bit nostalgic, Katherine- do you remember the first record you ever bought?
Oooh… Well, the first record I ever bought…that’s actually really embarrassing! It wasn’t even a band. See, it’s because I only got a pound a week pocket money so my options were a bit limited, I couldn’t really afford anything. I went to the market in Chichester [the girls’ hometown] and there was this bargain bin that said “£1” on it so I looked in it and it was all panpipes. There was this picture on one of the albums with these big mountains and it said “the haunting sound of the panpipes on it” so I bought that. I got home and put it on and thought, “This really isn’t very haunting…” So it was a bit disappointing as a first buying experience. I think I bought Blur’s Parklife after that and I listened to that continuously. Quite a strange choice but yeah- I’d say that was the first proper one.
The shortlist for Ireland’s Choice Music Prize Album of the Year has just been announced. What was your favourite album of 2010?
Oh that’s difficult because there’s been quite a lot of really great ones. I’ve been listening to a lot of John Grant, his album [Queen of Denmark]. So I guess I’ll say him. But there’s lots that I liked.
And can I ask what your favourite albums of all time are? Perhaps there’s one that really left a mark on you?
Really difficult again. Well, it boils down to a few albums, I guess. I don’t really want to sound like someone who has a favourite album, in a way, because that makes you sound a bit strange to me, but Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills and Nash had a big impact on me, so maybe I’ll go with that. I like the cover as well. I like how the whole thing looks so I like holding it.
Ok, so to wrap it up, Katherine, what can fans of Smoke Fairies look forward to in 2011?
Well, we’re on tour this month so we’re looking forward to going around the UK but I hope we’ll get back out into Europe again because we just came back from there and we covered some good ground. I’d like to go back and build on that. We’re also looking to record some new material; we’ve already got some new songs coming on and I can’t wait to get them down.
Great! Well thanks very much for chatting with me Katherine and best of luck for this year.
No problem; thanks Elaine.
Smoke Fairies debut album Through Low Light and Trees is available to buy now- stream the album in its entirety here. You can find out more about the lovely ladies by visiting their official website or MySpace page.
If any of you readers out there would like any particular female artist, female-fronted or all-girl band featured here, please give me a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to oblige.