It would be easy, at first glance, to miss the depth feeling of and nuance of social commentary in Emily Barker’s music. The unassuming clarity and truth of her songs is enough to enrapture an audience on its own. And yet, there is another level to her art: a call to go and do – to change – both personally and socially.
Her new album, Dear River, recorded with her accompanying band The Red Clay Halo, is a flowing stream of these personal and social reflections. As with the perpetual moving and shifting of the tides, her songs fluctuate seamlessly from haunting quietude to anthemic folk.
She writes with an intellectual ferocity, fusing themes as varied as politics, history, family, and geography. For her, these are all part of a singular idea: finding a place in the world.
NYMM: When did you start playing music?
EB: Music was always around. My mum plays a little bit of guitar and she used to sit us down and play old folk songs. I have three siblings, and she taught us how to harmonize together. My dad was a huge music fan and had a great record collection. It was a lot of ’60s folk revival music. I started singing when I was around 15. My friends at school dared me to go audition for a band, and not being one to turn down a dare, I said yes. A sang a cheesy Roxette cover and got the job. That’s when I started performing.
NYMM: Can you tell us a little about the new album?
EB: Dear River is a song cycle, really. It’s all about the concept of home, which is a subject that has a lot of interest for me. It’s my personal story of home, but it also looks at the bigger picture of that theme. It covers various aspects of immigration and exile.
Australian politics is a subject I’m really passionate about, particularly colonialism. It is lyrically a concept album. There’s still a real problem with the oppression of Australia’s indigenous people, and Australians are only now starting to learn about it.
There’s a third-world country living within Australia. There are a lot of really sad poverty and health issues. Right now there are only about 200,000 aboriginal people left, and a lot of those people live up in the North, because the settlers couldn’t penetrate that area as much.
It’s hard to find information about it, but when I was at University, briefly, one of the things I studied was indigenous Australian history. It was taught by indigenous people, which was great. Learning about the colonization as it actually happened rather than the myths we’re fed in school about heroic pioneers blew my mind completely.
Film has been amazing for getting the story out. Films like Rabbit Proof Fence, which is about The Stolen Generation. Up until 1967, aboriginal kids were forcibly removed from their parents and sent to missions to be “assimilated” into society. It was a process of eugenics basically, intended to breed out aboriginality. It’s still going on some, which is really scary.
EB: “Letters” is a song that is personal to me. It’s the story of my grandfather. After he died, my mum found a box of letters that he received. He was exiled in Germany for about three years during the war, and during that time he sent letters to his family to let them know that he and his brother were still alive. So it comes from the idea of these letters moving and traveling and connecting people. I got to know my grandfather, after he died, through these documents that he left behind.
Later, in 1952, those grandparents emigrated to the Outback. They were Dutch, and on the boat, on the way over, they decided they were not going to speak any more Dutch or say anything about their past. So part of my interest was to find these stories that even my mum didn’t know about.
NYMM: Does it matter where you’re from?
EB: Yes, I think it does. It’s really interesting traveling to different countries. I’m from a little country town in Western Australia, and after traveling for many years and now settling in the UK, I find myself sometimes saying I’m from Australia and sometimes saying I’m from the UK. It does really shape you in many ways. I’ve lived in the UK for about 12 years now, but I realized while writing this album that I only feel a certain amount British. I will always feel Australian, and there are some things that probably won’t ever change.
Images by Jon Karr
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