A couple of nights ago, the lucky people of Glasgow were fortunate to hear Emily Barker play an acoustic set at Glasgow’s Love Music in Dundas Street. Emily however, is no stranger to Glasgow. Far from it. It was at Gorbals Sound, Glasgow’s newest recording studio, that Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo recorded their fourth album, Dear River. Produced by Calum Malcolm, who previously, produced The Blue Nile and Lau, Dear River was released in July 2013. This was the latest chapter in a musical career that began back in 2002.

It was in 2002, that Emily Barker first arrived in Britain, from Australia. She was just nineteen and was a talented singer, songwriters and musician. In Cambridge, she hooked up with Rob Jackson, and they founded The Low Country. They went on to release two albums. Their debut album was Welcome To The Low Country. Released in 2003, on Now Recordings, Welcome To The Low Country comprised mostly of ballads. A fusion of folk and country music, Welcome To The Low Country was Emily’s musical debut. 

A year later, The Low Country released their sophomore album The Dark Road. Well received by critics, tracks from The Dark Road were played on radio. It looked as if The Low Country were on their way to enjoying a long and successful career. That wasn’t to be. The Dark Road proved to The Low Country’s musical swan-song. The next time Emily released an album, it would be with a new group.

In 2005, Emily began work on her debut solo album, Photos, Fires, Fables. This lead to the formation of The Red Clay Halo. Comprising Anna Jenkins, Gill Sandell and Jo Silverston, they were the perfect foil for Emily. Not only did they provide ethereal harmonies, but were multi-instrumentalists. Gill played accordion, flute piano and harmonium, Jo played cello, bass and banjo and Anna played viola and violin. As for Emily, she played guitar and harmonica. This was the lineup that played on 2005s Photos, Fires, Fables, which was Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo’s debut album. Released on Emily’s own label Everybody Sang,  the album received plaudits and praise, Photos, Fires, Fables was Emily’s third album in three years. Little did she realise it would be another three years before she released another album.

Between the release of Photos, Fires, Fables in 2005 and Despite The Snow in 2008, much had happened to Emily. After her critically acclaimed debut album Photos, Fires, Fables, Emily won the West Australian Songwriting Awards in 2005. She spent much of the time touring and building a following. Then in 2008, Emily played at the Cambridge Folk Festival and opened for Frank Turner in his autumn tour. Somehow, Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo found time to release their sophomore album Despite The Snow. Released on Emily’s own label, Everyone Sang, it built upon her debut album. Critics hailed Despite The Snow, which become a favorite of critics and discerning music lovers. It also featured a track which would become known worldwide.

For an artist, having their music feature in a film or on television series, allows their music to be heard by a much wider audience. Often, this includes people who’d never otherwise come across their music. This was the case for Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo. Nostalgia, which opens Despite The Snow, was chosen to be the theme to Wallander. Rather than use the original version of Nostalgia, it was rerecorded. Wallander became one of the most successful television series’ of 2008, winning several prestigious awards. Things got even better for Emily, when Nostalgia was chosen to spearhead the independent labels Storm The Charts’ campaign. This was the perfect way to round of 2008, the biggest year of Emily’s musical career.

Over the next three years, Emily continued the cycle of touring and recording. She was averaging an album every three years with Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo. Their third album was 2011s Almanac. Released to widespread critical acclaim, Almanac saw Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo’s success story continue at pace. Especially when one of the tracks from Almanac was chosen to be the theme song to the television series The Shadow Line. It seemed Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo were on a roll. Festival favorites who’d released three critically acclaimed albums, quietly and without any fuss, Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo were gradually establishing a reputation as one of modern folk music’s best bands. 

Following the release of Almanac, Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo did the usual round of tours and festivals. They also sang backing vocals for Frank Turner, including at the Olympic opening ceremony. Then work began on their fourth album,  Dear River, an album which saw Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo head to Glasgow.

Having written eleven songs, Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo headed to Glasgow to record Dear River at Gorbals Sound. Emily played guitar and harmonica, Gill played accordion, flute piano and harmonium, Jo played cello and Anna played viola and violin. Joining them drummer Nat Butler, bassist Lewis Gordon and Ted Barnes on guitar and mandolin. Once the eleven songs that became Dear River were recorded, the album was released by Glasgow record label Linn Records. 

When Dear River was released in July 2013, the critics were won over by what’s best described as a song cycle. An of contrasts and emotions, it’s an exploration of the self. Emily’s examines people and places plus travel and emigration. This is from both her and other people’s point of view. Powerful, potent and emotive, The Red Clay Halo provide a backdrop for Emily’s vocals, while producer Calum Malcolm draws upon over thirty years of experience. The result is a compelling fusion of folk, country and pop, Dear River, which I’ll tell you about.

Opening Dear River is the title-track Dear River. Just an understated arrangement accompanies Emily’s vocal. Veering between melancholy to hopeful, she relishes the chance to travel and see “bright city lights” and “streets I’ve never seen.” Despite this something’s not quite right. She can’t quite forget what’s she’s left behind. As strings, guitars and rhythm section combine country and folk, the “restless wind” Emily sings about, is a metaphor for her, who longs to be “where I long to be.” Akin to a novella filled with emotion and pathos, it’s a potent start to Dear River.

Just a strummed guitar accompanies Emily’s urgent vocal. Adding to the sense of drama are the guitars. They drive the arrangement along, while strings add a wistful backdrop.  It’s as if Emily has to take flight, has constantly to be one step ahead of her pursuer. They’re the “crows at the door” she sings about. Emotive and tension fills her vocal, in case this time, she won’t escape in time.

Chiming guitars provide a deliberate, melancholy backdrop to Emily’s wistful vocal on Letters. Calmly, she paints pictures, of someone taking flight, constantly evading capture. When Emily sings: “we fled towns on fire, our stomaches empty,” it seems very real. Her lyrics are evocative. There also poignant. They describes what victims of war have endured for far too long. Drums and reverberating guitars add to the drama, while strings are the perfect accompaniment to Emily’s vocal, which sounds as if she’s seen things no-one ever should see.

The Leaving sees the rhythm section provide a slow, thoughtful accompaniment for Emily’s ethereal vocal. Her vocal is heartfelt. There’s a sense of security, as if Emily knows where she’s from and belongs. Despite this, she’s like a nomad, always on the move, with just her memories for company. With its combination of folk, country and indie pop, this is one of the real highlights of Dear River. It showcases Emily’s vocal and songwriting skills beautifully.

Jangling guitars, pounding rhythm sections and hissing hi-hats add a dramatic backdrop for Everywhen. Emily’s vocal is equally emotive, as she delivers some descriptive lyrics that paint otherworldly pictures. Sounding like Stevie Nicks, circa Rumours, she delivers a soulful vocal with power and passion. Adding to the modern folk sound are fiddles, handclaps and the rhythm section. They create delicious, hook-laden fusion of musical genres and influences that represent a musical coming of age for Emily Barker.

Meandering, melancholy guitars join Emily’s tender, pensive vocal on Sleeping Horses. Understated and beautiful, the combination of guitar and vocal proves powerful. Especially given the descriptive, intelligent lyrics, which paint pictures in your mind’s eye. With the addition of harmonies and harmonium, the words ethereal, heartfelt and spiritual describes this track.

A bluesy harmonica joins the rhythm section as the hauntingly beautiful Ghost Narrative unfolds. Soon, The Red Clay Halo join forces. Harmonies sweep in, the rhythm section provide the heartbeat and searing, rocky guitars strut across the arrangement. As for Emily, ethereal and impassioned describes her delivery of some descriptive, gothic lyrics.

There’s a real traditional folk sound to A Spadeful of Ground. Just a banjo accompanies Emily’s vocal, as she delivers an accusing vocal. “You’ll have blood on your hands,” she warns. This is no surprise, after lyrics like: “for you will lie, for you will hurt.” The arrangement is dark and broody, while anger, frustration and betrayal fill Emily’s vocal. So does, disappointment at not knowing someone properly.

I’m sure The Cormorant and the Heron would be one of the songs Emily played during her acoustic set at Love Music. It allows her to showcase her ethereal, breathtakingly beautiful vocal. It’s the focus of your attention. With care, the rest of the band compliment her vocal.  A deliberate piano is joined by drums, before strings add a wistful accompaniment. Harmonies coo, matching Emily’s vocal. They too, soar with the same beauty and elegance asThe Cormorant and the Heron.

In the Winter I Returned sees Emily return to theme of travel. Meandering guitars, pensive strings and harmonium accompany Emily’s vocal. Her tender, heartfelt vocal delivers some of the best lyrics on Dear River. Sadness fills her fragile vocal, as she wonders longingly: “how many years until, you count me as your own?” 

Closing Dear River is The Blackwood, where briefly, Emily sings unaccompanied. Sounding like a combination of Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell, you hang on her every word. Then guitars, rhythm section and harmonium sweep in. Punchy, soulful harmonies are the perfect accompaniment to Emily. She gives us another glimpse of her combination of power, passion and ethereal beauty.

Emily Barker has come a long way since The Low Country released Welcome To The Low Country. Leaving The Low Country after The Dark Road probably helped Emily’s career in the long run. She had established a reputation and knew what it took to make a record. Now she was ready to form her own band. 

Meeting Anna Jenkins, Gill Sandell and Jo Silverston, who’d become The Red Clay, Emily’s band was the next step in her career. The Red Clay were ying to Emily’s yang. They proved the perfect foil on Photos, Fires, Fables, Despite The Snow and Almanac. With every album, Emily’s songwriting and voice improved. She was fast becoming a master storyteller, one who could paint pictures with her lyrics. This was the case on Dear River, which was the finest album of Emily Barker’s career. It was as if everything had been leading to this.

Eleven songs and just thirty-seven minutes long, Dear River is an exquisite album. A fusion of folk, country, pop and rock, Emily’s vocal veers between heartfelt and heartbroken, to emotive and ethereal. As Emily delivers the lyrics, she experiences a wide range of emotions. Whether it’s anger, betrayal, frustration, hope or hurt, Emily’s portrayal is very real and potent. No wonder. Dear River has been eleven years in the making. Everything has been leading to Dear River, Emily Barker and The Red Clay’s musical Magnus Opus, which was recently released on Linn Records. Standout Tracks: Letters, The Leaving, Ghost Narrative and The Blackwood.


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