Emily Barker is something of an enigma. The Australian born singer-songwriter has, since forming alt-folk outfit The Low Country back in 2002, racked up several remarkable musical milestones. She has enjoyed a critical kudos which has dutifully persisted from her earliest output through two outings with current foil the Red Clay Halo. She has toured with luminaries such as Jose Gonzalez. She also has an uncanny knack of picking up awards, with the handful of Aussie songwriting gongs she netted in 2006 now vying for pride of place in the trophy cabinet with the BAFTA and Royal Television Awards she won last year for providing the theme to hit BBC series Wallander (a reworking of her 2008 track ‘Nostalgia’). And yet, she returns this month as a virtual unknown outside a network of zealous folk-enthusiasts, and with a third Red Clay Halo album, Almanac – her first in 3 years – funded largely with donations thanks to an arrangement with the Pledge Music initiative.
It’s a shame, as although nothing revelatory comes to pass during 41 wistful, undulating minutes of Almanac, it could surely satisfy a wider audience than it will inevitably reach. Barker’s breathy fragility provides the soothing focal point of an album which ploughs a wide furrow through folk’s global offshoots, from Americana (‘Openings’) to Celtic (‘Billowing Sea’) – each mastered with consummate ease. Meanwhile, female backing trio The Red Clay Halo decorate Barker’s simple figures with flutes, accordions and flugel horns, adding a refreshing finesse.
Singles ‘Little Deaths’ and the breathless ‘Calendar’ offer the hook-rush one might expect, but remain consistent with the album’s overwhelming air of reflection. Neither implies pretension to align with the torpid nu-folk of last year’s flurry of straw-hatted chart denizens, and both remain beautiful in avoiding this conceit. This isn’t surprising; even without her own recollection of a childhood spent singing “4-part harmonies to old traditional tunes and church songs” while her mother “played her nylon string guitar”, one can sense that Barker’s songs are a product of passion, not artifice.
That said, her lyrics can, at times, float too close to the edges of figurative reality – “I’m a featherless bird in a sky so absurd” from ‘Pause’, is particularly unfathomable – and while these meandering stanzas work in casual tandem with the pensive foundations on which her songs are built, her impact is most powerful when she reigns in her poetic tendencies. Her finest words, lines like “don’t know why I held onto something that’s been broken for so long” from lovelorn lament ‘Billowing Sea’, crystallize a sadness which lurks beneath the serenity. In time, a willingness to lay bare her deepest emotions in plainer language may help turn her enviable talents into more tangible success. “Pass a pen to write the future now” she purrs on ‘Openings’ – no time like the present.