Emily Barker

Solo artist Emily Barker is loved for her winning way with a melody but her TV drama themes have seen her bag both BAFTA and Ivor Novello awards. We quiz the songstress on how she started writing for the screen…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 11 Oct 2013
  • min read
Wallander and Shadowlines are two hit dramas united by the music of folk singer songwriter Emily Barker.

Both TV shows were loved by audiences and critics alike but the music also left a lasting impression. Such an impact that Emily collected BAFTA and Ivor Novello awards for her musical troubles.

These successes are just two in a musical career full of them. Together with her band, The Red Clay Halo, Emily has released three critically lauded albums, played a series of sold-out UK shows and performed with Frank Turner at the London Olympics 2012.

Dear River, produced by Calum Malcolm (The Blue Nile), is her fourth solo album and sees her expanding on her folk rock template with a renewed lyrical focus. Her melodies haven’t lost any of the delicacy of previous releases - they're just balanced with even more lyrical substance around which theirs tunes are beautifully draped.

You can currently catch Emily on tour across the UK while we quizzed her about this latest album and the challenge of working in film...

How did you first get into the TV world?

It happened purely by chance. I released my first three albums on my own label and ended up playing house gigs all over the country to raise money. I contacted my mailing list, and then asked who would be up for us coming to play in their kitchen, garden, wherever.

I met the composer Martin Phipps at one of these gigs. He heard us play Nostalgia, really loved the song and asked me to come to his studio to re-record it. He thought it would really suit the opening and closing credits of Wallander. It ended up being used as incidental music too and became the theme.

Shadowline was a similar situation. Martin was familiar with our music and really wanted a haunting harmony. He’d heard our third album Almanac and the song Pause. So he worked with us again, doing a slight reproduction.

That was the start - those two TV syncs opened up other opportunities for us and I’m continuing to receive offers of work from them. It’s been fantastic and something I’m keen to continue developing.

Did you envision going down this route of writing for the screen?

Well music for film and TV has always been a passion for me. And collaborating with other art forms. I’ve been writing songs for an artist who does photography, illustrations, paintings and film making for many years. I’ve always been into the idea of collaboration and expressing music via these different medium.

What are the challenges you face with writing for screen?

It’s important to suggest a mood with the music. But it’s also important to not ram something down someone’s throat. You don’t want to tell them what to feel or think. So leaving music out can be quite important. This isn’t necessarily the case with your own material.

Writing TV music is all about conveying emotion while being careful with how much music you use. There’s nothing worse than watching a film where the music totally takes over. It needs to be in the background, suggesting a mood but you still want it to stand out so it stays in the minds of the audience. The challenge is finding that middle ground.

Do you work to screen?

So far all I’ve done is write to script. Apart from the work I’ve done in short film. But both times it’s involved having a very clear idea from the director about what they wanted. They’ve contacted me because they know about me and my music. Often you’ll sit down with them and brainstorm about the songs and have a lot of conversations about the direction of the music.

How do you think soundtrack work has informed your other projects?

It’s pushed me to go even more atmospheric with what I do as a songwriter. Really build things up and given me the confidence to be bolder in certain places with songs. It’s certainly had an impact.

Dear River is your latest album - how has your songwriting developed with your own material?

This is my first concept record lyrically. With film you have set parameters – you’re given a script, get to look at characters. Everything is there in front of you. You’ve very limited in a way with the material you can work with and what you can create. It needs to fit in with the story.

But with this record I decided I wanted to write about the concept of ‘home’, so set some parameters for the first time in terms of the story. The simplest way of putting it is as my personal story of home - so starting out in the south-west of Australia, then moving out into the world and to the UK which is a home away from home. It’s my personal story as well as telling the story of other people along the way. It covers themes of exile, immigration and indigenous Australian politics, colonialism. It goes into quite heavy subjects.

Did you find it harder to write because of these parameters?

I was really studious about it and read loads of fiction/non-fiction and talked to lots of people about what home means to them. I met an indigenous Australian and we exchanged our stories of home. There’s so much personal material in there. I used the metaphor of a river to hold everything in place.

You can currently catch Emily on tour across the UK. Visit her website to find out dates and how to get tickets.