[What follows is an approximate interview that took place yesterday evening before The Smoke Fairies (Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire) played their second pub set of the evening, during the ‘aftergig’ Richard Hawley had organised as a delicious add-on to his Devil’s Arse event (see my December 8 posting). I say ‘approximate interview’ because the background noise on my dictaphone was so loud and distorting that I have simply had to guess at what was being said in some cases, although I hope I have stayed faithful to the spirit of the conversation.
I had just listened to them play to a packed Castle pub in Castleton. They used guitars and amps but no mics, trying to reach a difficult crowd. Most of the audience had been at the Hawley Devil’s Arse gig earlier, but not everyone was intent on listening to the Fairies’ delicate, fierce sound and there was quite a bit of chatter clouding over the purity of their music. I tried my teacher death stare on as many of the miscreants as I could, but most were too drunk to pay much heed to any subtleties of body language. So I closed my eyes and tried to tune in. Actually, it wasn’t difficult. Without a rhythm section, the guitarvoice vortex they create opens a door at the base of your spine if you let it–just close your eyes and surrender.
The Smoke Fairies talk about creating an atmosphere in their songs, as you will see when you read the interview. It’s no idle boast: the Fairies could create an atmosphere of delight even in a howling blizzard, so unerring is their inner focus and poise. I would like to see them in a setting where they can really let the poise release into the whole deep song thing; another time, I know I will. But for the moment, I’ll settle for the ‘still-point-of-the-turning-world’ experiences I had in The Castle and The Bull’s Head. Last night’s gig and interview were about getting a glimpse of sublimity. These two ooze talent, sensitivity and intelligence and as yet I, they and the rest of the world have only seen less than a tenth of what they can do. Nine tenths is still under the surface, dangerously good and glistening.]
NICHOLA DEANE: I want to start off with the songrwriting process. Can you describe a little bit about how this happens? Is there a general pattern or is it different every time?
JESSICA DAVIES: It’s kind of that one of us will write the songs and then we’ll show the other one. We’ll try it on our guitars and that will take the song into different directions. We’ll add a chorus or something. We’ll start songs by ourselves and blend them later.
ND: I don’t know if you can describe what happens when a song starts? How does that thing happen? Do you get a visual image, a snatch of melody or a rhythm?
KATHERINE BLAMIRE: It’s probably just an atmosphere. Our words are quite visual, though, based on a visual image, sometimes an idea that’s been kicking around for a long time.
JD: Then I’ll pick up a guitar and play and something will happen…
ND: …And an image and a melody will meld together. Listening to ‘Living with Ghosts’ and ‘Troubles’ I got the sense that travel’s a really important part of your songs’ imagery. Is that a preoccupation for both of you or just one person’s?
KB: Travel is a preoccupation for both of us really. We spend quite a lot of our time travelling around, yes, but it’s also other travel songs that have had an effect on us.
ND: What kind of travel songs?
KB: Blues songs, really.
ND: I wondered too whether you could describe what it feels like when you play your guitars. I’m interested in how that feels, speaking as a non-guitarist, to stand up there on stage, especially as women guitarists.
KB: We really enjoy the idea that people don’t expect us to come out with this kind of guitar playing, because it’s not normal for women to stand there and come up with these riffs. I enjoy defying people’s expectations. I think that in general its sad that there aren’t more women out there doing this.
ND: Is that because it’s usually seen as a masculine instrument?
KB: It’s actually a much more delicate instrument than people think and can be played really sensitively and I think that’s something that women can explore more.
ND: Do you ever really have that kind of moment on the guitar when you’re really aggressive, when you really rip into something?
JD: We’re trying to be more like that…we’re not wanting to be confined to any one particular way of doing things. So to expand and be more aggressive would be great but we really enjoy that our music is dynamic and it’s about knowing when to bring that in and when to pitch that out.
ND: How long have you been together as a band?
JD: Twelve years or so.
ND: How long have you felt professional about it? Did you notice yourself developing and changing?
JD: To begin with we weren’t really playing guitar, we were just strumming, and gradually got better, the guitar playing just sort of evolved really…
ND: Was there a moment when you were playing and you thought ‘Oh God! we’re actually doing something here?’
JD: I suppose we just finally worked out that…
KB: We try to weave around each other rather than one person pushing forward. It’s not really about solos or flashy stuff. It’s meant to be about just creating an atmosphere.
ND: And that’s what’s so amazing about the sound, it doesn’t sound separate. There are two separate things going on but they don’t feel separate. The guitars meld together, the voices meld together…I was wondering too if you have any female guitar heroes?
KB: We were thinking about this the other day and…
JD: Yeah we were both really into Sheryl Crow. We haven’t listened to her for a long time, but it was the way she was extremely raw and very strong as well. There weren’t many women who were that raw when we were starting out.
KB: Also someone like Joni Mitchell is a great guitarist. She probably isn’t known for that…
JD: But I like the way that her melodies go in ways you’d never expect.
KB: We try to achieve that same sort of idea that you start a song in one place and you end up completely differently. You’ll be playing one thing and then you’ll switch to something unexpected…
ND: That’s what makes your heart stop really, that ability to switch. But what about male guitar heroes?
KB: Well there are so many of those…Well we were saying the other day about that band America. They really started us off. And a really great slide player called John Anderson. His slide playing is really amazing.
ND: So how did these guys affect your development?
JD: I don’t know. In a way all this has just happened because I think we’ve stayed together for so long and we’ve spent so much time together that the combination of that…
KB: It’s been a gradual process of subconsciously learning from each other.
ND: What’s your first musical memory? Do you remember a moment when you began to be really attracted to music?
KB: I remember being at church as a kid with my parents and it was listening to hymns, epsecially the old ones, which were so stirring and influenced me I suppose without me really knowing.
JD: For me it was television, I suppose. Watching things like Rainbow.
ND: Did they used to sing on Rainbow?
JD: Yeah–Rod, Jane and Freddy.
ND: Oh God, yeah! So they did.
KB: I think that back then children’s TV programmes used to be a lot more musical. Now they seem to be very simple.
ND: TV tends to treat them like they’re just blobs!
KB: Yeah, like they have to just repeat things at them. I feel quite sad that children’s TV has become so dumb and unmusical.
ND: I see this in the kids I teach too, that they don’t sing as much, that their parents’ don’t seem to teach them nursery rhymes in the same way, and that it affects the deep subconscious parts of the brain. One last thing: your lyrics sound poetic, they have a poetic quality. Do you read poetry at all or is the poetic quality just instinctive?
KB: We don’t read a lot of poetry but we are interested in poetry. It’s those songwriters who are very poetic, and song lyrics are like poems and I think influences on our lyrics are drawn from other writers who are more poetic, a bit like Joni Mitchell.
JD: I like the songs where you can think of something familiar and make it seem strange.
ND: One thing I like in the songs that I’ve heard is that they seem like remote landscapes with lots of ice around. I like a bit of ice in a song…
KB: I think it’s just what comes to mind when you feel a bit isolated, that idea of a barren landscape.
ND: Finally, can you tell me a bit about what next year has in store for you?
KB: We’ve got songs we’re going to record, an EP that we hope to release in March, and hopefully it would be nice to get an album out straight after.
ND: Excellent. I look forward to it. Thanks for taking the time to talk.
[With that, The Smoke Fairies went round the corner, set up their guitars and played their second set of the evening to the crowd at The Bull’s Head, their interwoven voices and guitars the very opposite of any rockstar posturing. Second time around, the lyrics fell on my ear even more cleanly, the landscapes blasted and wild, the exile in them even more pronounced. I came away with a rare sense of nothing in their material being forced: not a chord, not a harmony, not a single lyric. They sing in a bubble of pure air, in a remote world, and yet that world is as close and familiar as your heartbeat. They’re from the cold sad place under your ribs, so find them there now. Waste no time].