Singing truth to power

Australian-born and UK-based musician Emily Barker speaks her new album, which addresses the climate crisis, exploitation and inequality through soul-tinged Americana

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Musician Emily Barker is no stranger to the climate crisis. As a child she and her family planted trees near her home in Western Australia in barren paddocks that had been cleared for livestock during colonisation and in soil that had been ravaged by early settlers.

Barker’s mother was a member of the local environment society, and Barker was brought up to be aware of the impact of plastics, waste and global warming.

She’s always been committed to living an eco-friendly lifestyle. But last year, inspired by activist Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, Barker decided to educate herself further, having some difficult conversations with herself about whether she was living her life responsibly.

“Like many people I started doing a bit of soul searching and research, but it’s quite a hard one because it’s also quite terrifying at the same time,” says Barker. “The more you know about it the more you realise what a horrific situation we are in and how little time we have to change that.”

Grappling with feelings of grief and guilt over the climate emergency, Barker started writing. By November last year, her need to explore and express issues and emotions connected to the environment had culminated in a new album.

Released last week, A Dark Murmuration of Words contends with a modern era built on racial and gender inequality, poverty and slavery, environmental exploitation and the climate crisis. Barker finds them all connected by the dark shadow of patriarchy, pursuits of power and the suppression of history.

“I felt like I really had to express myself, which I have always done throughout my life,” she says. “If I’m feeling grief or if I need to explore an emotion I will do it through song, and this has been a big one for me to put into words and to understand it more. I often find by doing that it doesn’t at all distance me from the issue, but it gives me more of a sense of peace within it.

“The more I looked into the environment the more I realised how it affects different groups in society. Ultimately I think the album is about this connection we have to each other, to other species and to the earth.”

Now 39, Barker arrived in the UK as a backpacker in 2000, when she began performing at open mic nights while working at pubs and cafés. After a chance performance at a London house concert, her song Nostalgia, released in 2008, became the theme tune for BBC crime series Wallander, allowing Barker to pursue her music career full time.

Her first albums found themselves treading comfortably in folk, blues, and soul territory, with her major musical influences having come from the likes of Carole King, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell and John Lee Hooker. Her last album, Sweet Kind of Blue, led her to win the accolade for UK artist of the year at the 2018 Americana Awards.

Now, with a new album to promote, Barker is adjusting to life as a musician in the midst of a pandemic. Earlier in the summer she performed at Big Issue North’s Big Busk at Home, hosted by Blackpool-born singer-songwriter Karima Francis, alongside Everything Everything, Ren Harvieu and Clint Boon. She has more online events in the pipeline.

“The lead-up to my album release hasn’t been that different apart from that I was going to be doing festivals this summer prior to the album coming out,” she says. “Gigs are always a great way of reaching new people. Normally we’d all head off, me and my band, celebrating the work we all made and enjoying the crowd’s response to it.

“Now we get our validation pretty much only online, which I’ve found has become more meaningful in some ways, but it pales in comparison to looking out at a crowd and seeing people singing some of the songs and applauding, and meeting them afterwards and hearing what the album means to them.”

A Dark Murmuration of Words by Emily Barker is out now 

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