It’s bang on seven in the evening, and Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire are at their South London gaff, doing a little further prep work for a 10-date homeland tour.
Jessica: “We’re signing a huge pile of records … what looks like every single record we’re putting out. There’s stacks and stacks of them.”
There seem to be lots of impressive formats of the eagerly-awaited new Smoke Fairies album, Darkness Brings the Wonders Home, including a special edition, deluxe CD with lyric book in a hardback-bound, plus gold foil embossed sleeve, coloured vinyl, and so on.
Jessica: “Yeah, it’s a bit confusing.”
Katherine: “I think the most-rare copies are going to be the ones that are unsigned. If you get one of those you’ll be really lucky.”
It’s the girls’ first album in four years, released on January 31st, recorded over four weeks in Seattle, Washington State, just over a year ago with producer Phil Ek, who started out assisting Jack Endino (Nirvana, Soundgarden), and is more recently known for work with The Black Angels, Fleet Foxes, and The Shins.
And Smoke Fairies’ latest subject matter? Ah, that’ll be ‘drawing inspiration from mysteries both real and imagined: sea monsters, flocks of crows taking flight in extravagant formation, and strange creatures dwelling in the mud’ near their new abode.
The girls are based in Borough, near the market close to the Thames and London Bridge, but last time we spoke – I reminded them – four and half years or so ago, they were wandering around a churchyard with their band in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire looking for Sylvia Plath’s grave.
Katherine: “Ah, that was me you were talking to. I remember that very clearly. It was a very nice day and I was chatting about what we were doing … probably one of the weirder days on that tour.”
I seem to recall you played the Hebden Bridge Trades Club the night before.
Katherine: “Yeah, that place is really special, although we’re not going there on this part of the tour. We’re playing Manchester though.”
Indeed they are. After opening the tour in Margate, the girls are heading for the North West, playing the Soup Kitchen in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, not so far in the scheme of things from the last place I saw them, supporting Public Service Broadcasting at the Ritz in May 2015.
Jessica: “Ah yeah, that was a good show.”
Katherine: “That was probably the last tour we played with a full band. This time though we’re switching things up a bit. We’re one person down, a four-piece now, and because it’s been such a long time since our last record it almost felt like starting from scratch again, scrubbing everything out almost, thinking about what we really wanted to do from the beginning point.”
It’s been a long time since your last LP, Wild Winter was released. Any particular reason?
Jessica: “I guess there’s loads, finding what kind of songs we wanted to write. We’re always writing, but it was about taking the time to find out what we really want to do and finding the right sound, going back to being a two-piece, then finding the right opportunity to release stuff and make sure we write with the right people.
“In the end we ended up going out to Seattle, and that took a long time to sort out. Contracts and things take a lot longer to sort out than people think. So there was a bit of artistic stuff and a bit of boring admin that meant five years kind of slipped by.”
Did you decide on Seattle chiefly because of Phil Ek?
Jessica: “Yeah, primarily.”
Jessica: “Did you say that, Kath?”
Katherine: “I guess we might have been listening to them in the back (of the van) or something!”
Note here that I thought Katherine said ‘bath’ at the time, but that was later picked up on by Jessica. Bet Fleet Foxes sound good in the bath, mind. Anyway, carry on.
Jessica: “Fleet Foxes are definitely a reason why we sought Phil out though, thinking, ‘If he knows how to record harmonies …’ He’d also worked on this album by The Black Angels (the Texas psych-rock outfit’s fifth studio album, 2017’s Death Song), which we’re really big fans of.
“This album is also way more kind of riff-driven and we wanted someone who record guitar riffs really clear, and having heard that last Black Angels album, we thought we should try and work with Phil.”
You do seem to be channeling your inner guitar heroes on new numbers like ‘Elevator’.
Jessica: “Yeah. I think that’s always been there, and we’ve always been fairly riff-driven, but I guess it might just have got a bit swamped with the backing and other band members on our last album. It took us a while to decide that it should just be about us and the guitars and the close harmonies.
Katherine: “In many ways the guitar playing’s got simpler. We’d often have different sections and lots of details, and now I think we’ve broken them down to their barest details, and more essential. I guess in a sense it’s a simpler sound, and sometimes those more simple sounds can sound bigger.”
I guess that’s your more bluesy roots coming through. And while when you started you were perceived as being more folky, the blues were always kind of in there.
Jessica: “Yeah, there’s always been a kind of darkness and heaviness to our music, and it’s really good to explore that and I think we have on this record.”
Katherine: “Because there was so long between the records, we had quite a lot of time – while things were being sorted out – to decide which songs represented what we wanted to sound like. And there are songs that didn’t make it on there that had a different sound. It was about finding a family of songs that perfectly fitted together.”
Ah, so there could be another little family there waiting to see the light of day, another album likely to appear pretty soon after this one?
Katherine: “There’s definitely another family that was left behind!”
Jessica: “Ah, that sounds so sad!”
Early reviews I’ve seen of the new record tend to use those trigger words for more recent Smoke Fairies releases, like ‘dark’ and ‘stark’. In fact, Jessica said in their press release, reflecting on the LP title, “Times of darkness are when people are often the most imaginative. It helps you to see all the wonders of the world you hadn’t noticed before – the things you’ve been blind to because you’ve been on autopilot for so long.”
Looking back at my review of their set with Public Service Broadcasting at the Ritz, I alluded to the fact that the girls, while clearly beguiling and rather exquisite with their on-stage blend and chemistry, were a little ballsier than many might have expected. And that wasn’t meant to be patronising.
Jessica: “That’s good. I think we are.”
Katherine: (laughs) “We do always get a little frustrated, getting pigeon-holed from the start as some sort of folk act. And to us, there was only a short period where we were a folk act.”
Jessica: “And we were never really folk in the traditional sense anyway.”
Katherine: “It wasn’t folk in the way that would allow the folk scene to think of us a folk artist. We were always intertwining with other styles, and always had quite a driven sound.”
Jessica: “Because of the name, I guess, and the fact that we are two women, journalists always tend to use words like ethereal and spell-binding …”
I best cross those words out now. Yep, carry on …
Jessica: “They’d expect us to put on some kind of dreamy live show, when in fact we really like playing guitars and cranking them up.”
Absolutely. Stomping down your space boots on the stage as you go?
Katherine: “Even when we’re writing songs, the riff is the starting point. It’s really essential to what we’re doing.”
But in terms of lazy pigeon-holing, there were always shades of so much more – from electronica to a bit of pop, trip-hop, you name it …
Jessica: “Yeah, and I guess that’s why, maybe, people are a bit confused by it.”
Katherine: “I think with this album it was a case of, ‘How do we present who we are now in the clearest and most easy to understand way. We can veer off into lots of different directions, but chose to go down quite a specific path with this record, to make sure people understand who we were.”
Incidentally, I reckon you should record, at least as B-sides or extra tracks on albums, some of the autotuned ditties you’ve featured on your entertaining podcast, detailing life on the road with Smoke Fairies.
Katherine: “Ha! Well, the one about farts I think has potential.”
Personally, I liked the ‘We’ve Seen Birds’ prototype too.
Jessica: “I guess when people think about us writing songs they think of toiling away with a quill pen into a leather-bound book. But sometimes you can just get a lot of fun and inspiration from joking around.”
Katherine: “The podcast has been such an enjoyable experience. It was a chance to not take us too seriously. You can really get quite intensed out by music. It’s hard and it’s tough, and you get a lot of knockbacks. Sometimes you just find the lightness really helps.”
And anyone who’s been on the road as a fully-functioning band or is just interested in a fly on the panel van interior sense about that whole dynamic of touring shenanigans will warm to all that.
Katherine: “Yeah, you get into this weird kind of touring pattern, with silly in-jokes, losing all sense of decorum. Me and Jess spend a lot of time together, and sometimes when we’re hanging out I think if people knew how ridiculously stupid our conversations were, they’d be quite surprised. Because our music delves into that darkness and bleakness, but …”
I suppose we more likely expect to see you trudging through woodland in the dead of night with mud on your palms.
Jessica: “I mean, we do a lot of the time, as well.”
There’s a cracking story on your latest podcast about you being stopped by a policeman somewhere in America, asked to provide various details to ensure your bonafide driving credentials. I won’t spoil it here, but recommend readers check it out.
Jessica: “I think if we were American, we’d have been carted off and tasered, or something. Maybe we were saved by our British accents. A horrible thought, but we were in a privileged position, I think.”
Katherine: “That was a day that just got worse and worse, and more out of control.”
Jessica: “And you never are (in control) when you’re on tour.”
Katherine: “But I’m looking forward to going back out there again, having more ridiculous stories to tell.”
And we should get a few stories from this forthcoming domestic jaunt, which starts … erm, Elsewhere, I believe.
Jessica: “Yeah, Exactly. That’s down in Margate.”
Katherine: “We should be filming a video down there too, for the next track coming out, ‘Elevator’. We basically play ridiculous versions of ourselves on stage … and going up and down in an elevator as well.”
That’s called a lift where I come from. But I let that go. Too much Aerosmith in their diet, maybe.
And isn’t it in Margate where they’ve reenergised the theme park, with a retro fairground feel?
Jessica: “Yeah, Dreamland, that’s really good.”
That’s the one, with creative input from the design company set up by past WriteWyattUK interviewee Wayne Hemingway, I seem to recall. And you thread your way right through to a sold-out show in Portsmouth for your tour finale, visiting the Square Tower. Is that as close as you get these days to a show in your old hometown, Chichester?
Katherine: “I guess so. I don’t remember playing Portsmouth, but we were always gigging around our hometown when we started out.”
Are you still in touch with any of the big-name acts you toured with in the past (an impressive list that includes Bryan Ferry, Richard Hawley, Laura Marling and The Handsome Family, as well as the afore-mentioned Public Service Broadcasting)?
Jessica: “Well, we were invited to Richard Hawley’s birthday party (last weekend), but we’ve been rehearsing so much with this new album release that we didn’t have time to go along. He’s always been really supportive though, and is so down to earth. We could definitely call him to ask anything about guitar amps or whatever.
“With regard to Bryan Ferry … maybe we’ll send him an album. We haven’t really spoken to him for about 10 years, but I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten us.”
And are there still day-jobs for you two? Last time we spoke you were temping between recording and tour commitments.
Jessica: “Yeah, in fact they’ve kind of got more serious as the years have gone on.”
Katherine: “When we were temping, it just got so depressing, so now we’ve found things that are more meaningful.”
These days Jessica works within architectural circles while Katherine is involved with libraries, ‘so they’re still both in the culture sector, and it’s interesting’, as Jessica put it.
Accordingly though, the pair have to use up contracted holidays for tour, promotional and recording commitments, including their four-week stint in Seattle for the new LP, recorded in November 2018, the girls having then ‘sat on it for a year’, sussing out the best way to self-release, having previously been part of the Full Time Hobby label stable.
Apparently, Jessica and Katherine spent a fair bit of their time out in Seattle in a guitar shop near the studio, experimenting with countless guitars and amps to augment the album’s sonic palette. As Katherine put it, “It was like being in a sweet shop, getting to try all these guitars we’d normally never be able to afford. We ended up making friends with guitars we never thought to use before, like this weird vintage Kay that sounded great but was so hard to play—to the point where there were days when our fingers were bleeding, or we had blisters in places you didn’t even know you could get them.”
There’s already been one live show, Smoke Fairies performing at a special sold-out launch in mid-November at The Social in Little Portland Street, London, presented by Rough Trade, a limited edition 7” picture disc of the first single from the album, ‘Out Of The Woods’ / ‘Disconnect’, selling out on the night.
So what’s the A-side about? The girls say it’s sparked from Smoke Fairies’ study of the overgrown pond behind their house, Katherine revealing, “There’s something magical about all these weird things living out there in the mud. We started to project onto that, like the idea of something unexpected and good coming from the mud of your emotions.”
And their overall take on Darkness Brings The Wonders Home? That it ‘signals a strengthening of the inextricable bond they’ve forged through the years’, the pair finding ‘the courage essential for bringing such an emotionally-trying album to life’.
As Katherine put it, “So many of the songs are about these feelings of disconnection, but the irony is that Jessica and I have each other, and that means so much more than any of the other relationships that come and go. I think what we’re attempting to show is that, in all this chaos that’s so tumultuous and overwhelming, there are always ways to change your perspective.
“Making this album, we conquered so many worries and doubts and felt so much stronger at the end -we went right into the darkness, and somehow brought something incredibly positive out of it.”
The new LP is on my listening pile right now, and I’ve liked what I’ve heard so far. What’s more, I’m hoping to get along to the Soup Kitchen on February 1st, a new venue for me.
Katherine: “It’s quite a good venue. Last time we played there everyone cried.”
Blimey. Is that a good thing?
Jessica: “We had this beer we were selling, called Wild Winter, it was very strong, and I think there was something about the concoction that made everyone quite teary. It was a Christmas album so I suppose people have a lot of emotion attached to that. Some songs touch on family and on religion, and I guess people just got a bit emotional.”
Katherine: “We should have a warning on our music that you shouldn’t drink anything over six per cent …”
Otherwise, I guess you might wake up in some dank and dark woodland, wondering what the hell happened.
Katherine: “Yeah, or you might need a lot of counselling.”
Smoke Fairies’ new LP, Darkness Brings The Wonders Home is available to pre-order via www.smokefairies.com, where you can also snap up tickets for the remaining dates on the accompanying tour yet to sell out.
UK tour dates: 26th Jan – Margate, Elsewhere; 1st Feb – Manchester, Soup Kitchen (sold out); 2nd Feb – Leeds, Oporto; 3rd Feb – Norwich, Arts Centre; 4th Feb – London, Rough Trade East [instore]; 5th Feb – Oxford, Bullingdon; 6th Feb – London, Hoxton Hall (sold out); 7th Feb – Birmingham, Sunflower Lounge; 8th Feb – Bristol, Rough Trade; 9th Feb – Portsmouth, Square Tower (sold out). Meanwhile, Jessica and Katherine’s Smoke Signals podcast can be found here.