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Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo - Dear River - Stereoboard

24 July 2013
Huw Baines

Armed with her acoustic guitar and a harmonica, Emily Barker is an arresting presence. As she held court during a brief instore at Spillers Records in Cardiff on July 22, her fans brushed shoulders with stacks of albums as well as stripped-back renditions of songs from her latest release, 'Dear River'.

Spillers is a Cardiff landmark, having first opened its doors in 1894, and it's treasured by the Welsh captial's music fans. Barker stopped by as part of a tour of independent stores, having slung a mattress and her guitar in the back of a van before hitting the road, calling everywhere from Kingston to Plymouth.

Celebrating the release of a record that deals with the concept of home, on a very personal level, by travelling extensively may seem a little back-to-front, but in reality it fits rather well. These record shops are part of the fabric of their towns.

"My husband's uncle had been buying records in a shop in Sheffield, Record Collector, for 30 years," Barker said. "It's the same guy who's selling them. There's something so wonderful and local about them all."

'Dear River' is Barker's fourth record with the Red Clay Halo - also comprised of multi-instrumentalists Gill Sandell, Jo Silverston and Anna Jenkins - and traces her journey from her hometown in Bridgetown, Western Australia to the present, with toes dipped into the river motif at different stages.

"There's the idea of a river to link all these different themes," she said. "Mostly it's my personal story, starting out by the Blackwood, this river in Bridgetown, and then moving out, travelling the world and settling in the UK, a home away from home.

"It then tells the story of lots of other people along the way, with themes like exile, immigration, indigenous relations and politics, colonialism. The idea of the river connecting them all was a way for me to keep it all together."

Tonally, the record also harks back to Barker's early releases as a member of the Low Country, incorporating elements of Americana and a few echoes of Neil Young alongside the folk sound cultivated on 'Photos. Fires. Fables.', 'Despite The Snow' and 'Almanac'.

"I was listening to PJ Harvey's new record, 'Let England Shake', which I absolutely love, and the Decemberists' 'The King Is Dead'," she said. "Neil Young is a constant source of inspiration to me as well. Before I went solo I was in an Americana band, so it was sort of going back to that as well a little bit, but I also just wanted to make a rockier album."

Aiding Barker's pursuit of a bigger sound was a jump to Linn Records, making 'Dear River' the first of the Red Clay Halo's full-lengths not to have been produced and released DIY-style on her own Everyone Sang label. Behind the desk for the recording sessions was Calum Malcolm, who was tasked with adding further meat to the bones of Barker's evocative storytelling.

While traversing the idea of home, Barker touches on the cost of war on Letters and Aboriginal rights on A Spadeful Of Ground, with both songs boasting the same lush production and forthright, accessible melodies. Her messages ring out loud and clear.

"I really did want my messages to come across well, so I guess maybe subconsciously that happened," she said. "The style of production on the album also means that everything is very clear, everything is conveyed. It's a hifi album.

"Maybe we would have done something like this earlier if we'd have had the budget. Linn Records, they put us in this incredible studio, which otherwise we wouldn't have been able to afford. We really wanted to make a lush sounding album."

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