The British folk duo the Smoke Fairies talk about their debut album Through Low Light and Trees, and their travels in the US.
The Smoke Fairies
It's a long way from the genteel avenues of Chichester in south England to the hot, humid alleyways and bustling streets of New Orleans. There, in the smoky, funky music capital of the US, two young English girls arrived in 2002, eyes wide, guitars and a clutch of self-penned folk songs in hand, ready to absorb the atmosphere of the "Big Easy", where blues, Cajun, creole and jazz bubbled nightly in a rich stew. For Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies - aka the Smoke Fairies, currently tipped as one of the hottest new bands in London - the experience was nothing short of inspirational. American audiences, used to having their blues served hot and spicy by grizzled old guys with beards, initially looked askance at the two fresh-faced girls cooing English-accented folk tunes. Nevertheless, the city quickly took to the duo, steeping them in the culture of the blues, now an essential component of their sound.
"You just hear New Orleans and instantly think of cool music. We always wanted to go, very badly," says Blamire, on the phone from London, as she and Davies rush around their London flat, preparing to embark on their first headlining tour of the US and Europe. "It always had quite a romantic appeal. We would always talk about how, one day, we were going to drive around America, playing in lots of different places. And in a way that did actually happen - last year, we toured the US, supporting Laura Marling. I remember driving across this vast expanse of Kansas or somewhere in a van and thinking: 'It's actually happening; we are driving across America playing our music.'"
Cruising across the US is just one of the many long-held ambitions the pair have realised in recent years. With the recent release of their gorgeously eccentric and inspired debut album, Through Low Light and Trees, fortune is beckoning the Fairies, who have spent the past few years building up a devoted fanbase and solid reputation for their unique brand of ethereal mediaeval folk rock. Championed by an array of supporters, ranging from Bryan Ferry to Jack White and Richard Hawley (the latter claiming they were simply "the best new band" he'd heard in years) the duo's exquisite, organic music comes as a much-needed antithesis to the ubiquitous, creeping horror of Simon Cowell's totalitarian vision of Depression-era British pop.
Jessica and Katherine first met, aged 11, at school in Chichester. They were both in the choir, although neither was considered sufficiently saintly "to be picked for solos". Instead, the pair spent their teens hanging out, plinking away on guitars and obsessively poring over their parents collections of 1960s and 1970s vinyl. It wasn't long before they themselves decided to have a bash at emulating some of the stratospheric harmonising so characteristic of late 1960s rock. Sublime, sonic loveliness ensued in short order. Katherine remembers those years as hugely important in their subsequent evolution.
"Jessica's mum had all these records - Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, with their insistent riffs - we listened to all those classic bands. Then there was this song that we started singing together that had these beautiful harmonies, which we wanted to achieve ourselves. And as soon as we realised we could do it, it became almost obsessive, we put harmonies on everything."
The pair worked on their music, writing songs at a furious pace, mostly concerned with adolescent romantic desperation to get out and see the world, through the rest of their school years and through college. Then came the usual ragbag of dead-end jobs - including a stint in a burger van ("I was in charge of cutting the onions," remembers Katherine fondly. "It was character-building.") and directing traffic at an open-air carpark during the Sidmouth Folk Festival.
Big things started happening to the little outfit when a tape of their early tunes found its way to Bryan Ferry, as the dapper old roué was planning a tour of the UK. Suitably impressed, he invited the girls along to support him on his 2007 UK tour. This saw a rather nerve-jangling scenario where one of their first live experiences ended up being on the stage of London's Royal Albert Hall. "You could say it was a massive step up from the places we'd been playing around London" says Blamire today, with characteristic understatement. A single, Living With Ghosts, was released the following year and the Fairies were on their way.
Following a few low-key releases, including the wickedly funky low-fi blues ballad Gastown, recorded with Jack White of the White Stripes, the duo began piecing together their debut album. Their sound had evolved and matured, with Delta blues undertones colouring their favourite English folk flavours and vocals ringing out in rich, thrilling harmonies. New songs emerged, with beautifully melancholy lyrics channelling love, loss and transience.
"A lot of our songs are drawn from the experience of travelling around and leaving, or feeling distant and out of place, and the heartache that comes from looking back and longing," says Blamire. Through Low Light and Trees simmers with emotional intensity, whether it's in the keening opener, the hypnotic Summer Fades or the cellos and violas of Devil in My Mind, a Nick Drake-like tale of urban desolation in London. Dragon is reminiscent of classic Kate Bush, a dark English fairy tale, in which the narrator wishes to be eaten by a murderous dragon. "I remember a hymn we used to sing in school," says Blamire, who delivers the grisly tale in a sweetly nuanced solo performance. "It went: 'Though back into storyland giants have fled and the knights are no more and the dragons are dead.' I remember hearing that when I was a kid and feeling so sad. It was a sad, sad song to me. I loved thinking about that time in history, that doesn't really exist. Imagining England in a darker time, what it would be like to live there. Actually, I think it would probably be pretty tragic."
Fittingly, the duo chose to record their album in one of the most remote and mythical spots in England, Sawmills studio, deep in the heart of Cornwall. In this rural idyll, Blamire and Davies spent 10 days putting together their album, under the supervision of "Head", a producer best known for his work with PJ Harvey. The rural locale fuelled the girls' imaginations and added a tangible air of mystery to proceedings.
"We had to leave London," recalls Blamire. "I really feel that the atmosphere of Cornwall seeped into the songs. One of the songs, Strange Moon Rising, we wrote there, while recording. It was all about the dark roads, the sea, the feelings we were having at the time and there was a huge moon that came up opposite us while recording and was quite eerie. It felt perfect. "
The resulting album is a rich musical tapestry, with painterly touches such as the ambient noises of the surrounding countryside recorded and adding texture to the elusive mood. "People call our harmonies slightly mediaeval, strange inversions that aren't normal," says Blamire. "And that's come from the folk element of our influences. A lot of our music has that kind of tension, that unsettling environment.
"We've always liked creating an atmosphere, so you're transported somewhere different. If you put a record on and it takes you somewhere, away from all of this, then we think that's definitely a good thing."
Through Low Light and Trees is available via iTunes and for download at www.smokefairies.com