Sprites on a skite
From Chichester to New Orleans to Vancouver, Smoke Fairies’ travels have moulded the duo’s sound, but it’s all part of folk music’s restless tradition, Jessica Davies tells Jim Carroll
IF WE’RE HONEST, Chichester does not readily come to mind when talk turns to places to go in search of great folk music. The west Sussex city may be known for its theatre festival, cathedral and remnants of a Roman past (it’s also where Antony from Antony & The Johnsons was born), but people don’t go there to get stocked up on folk music.
It’s where Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire come from, though, so perhaps their experiences as Smoke Fairies will act as a spur for other would-be folk acts from that patch of England. In terms of blazing a trail, the duo’s debut album, Through Low Lights and Trees, is a good start. A collection of dreamy, spooky, melancholic blues, ethereal folk tunes and torch songs tinged with Americana blurs, it’s a strong, confident, assured opening hour.
But it’s one that has been a long time coming, as Davies explains. The duo first met in school and came to the music-making game when they were into much different sounds to the other kids around them.
“I was brought up on a lot of records from the 1970s like Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Grateful Dead and America when most kids our age were into grunge or metal,” says Davies. “The blues and folk stuff just seemed more real and grounded to us.”
Neither came from particularly musical families – “we both had piano lessons, but that was as far as it got” – and there was no local scene to inspire them – “I knew of one or two bands at most” – so they really were left to their own devices.
“At the start, obviously, it was a little different to what it is now,” notes Davies. “It was definitely folk-based, very simple guitar and harmonies. We’ve got better since, of course.”
As both were serious about pursuing music as a career, they had no problem leaving Chichester behind in the rearview mirror. “We had to move away to get gigs and attention. We moved to London and then we went to New Orleans and Vancouver, but it was only when we got back to London that we started to look at things in a really serious way.
“We went to New Orleans because of the reputation it has and its history when it comes to music. We played a lot of gigs as a duo and we got a band together and played regularly in Tipitina’s. It was always really interesting because you meet so many different musicians, and audiences were really intrigued by us because we were English and playing this type of bluesy music.”
Gig by gig, a distinct sound began to emerge. “I think the sound was definitely getting there by the time we were in Vancouver. It was getting darker and more folky. We also met a lot of characters and got into a few strange situations when we were travelling around, all of which has provided us with quite a lot of inspiration for songs.
“The lyrics are an outlet for all the emotion you end up experiencing,” says Davies. “A lot of that comes from real life and living in a city like London. There’s a lot of claustrophobia in our songs and that comes from feeling a little trapped in London and being under pressure. It’s a hard place to live when you’re used to somewhere smaller.”
One very strong, consistent theme throughout their work is that of nostalgia for other times and places. “A lot of the songs are about the experience of travelling around and leaving places behind,” says Davies, “and others are about frustration and being stuck somewhere. I think a lot of them have an air of nostalgia to them because of the heartache that comes from looking back and longing.
“I don’t think we set out with any particular intention when we write songs, but when we want to convey a certain mood with the story we are telling, we would naturally gravitate towards a certain sound that captures that mood.”
Along the way, the duo were championed by Bryan Ferry (who took them on tour in 2007) and, more recently, Jack White, who released a Smoke Fairies single on his Third Man label.
“We’ve always been a fan of Jack and his music,” explains Davies. “We heard he was in a bar next to where we were playing a gig so we brought one of our records along and played it to him. A year later, he got in touch with us and we went out to Nashville to record in his studio. Jack is very passionate about vintage recording equipment so it was really great to get to record with tape instead of computers for once.”
What’s particularly interesting about Smoke Fairies is how their music reflects the journey they’ve made from Chichester. You can hear traces of the American South in there to reflect those good times in New Orleans, but there’s also a plaintive melancholy which ties them to the English folk tradition.
“The music we play has had such a convoluted history,” says Davies. “We live in a time when every kind of music is available at the touch of a button, so it’s unrealistic to assume everyone is going to fit neatly into little boxes that relate to where they have grown up. Folk and blues is all about development and how new generations take it in a new and different direction.
“If you really love a certain kind of music, I think you feel the need to go out and find it. In our case, we felt the need to also play it.”
Meanwhile, the influence of their native place lives on every time they take to a stage. “We grew up in a very rural area in Chichester with lots of very quiet winding roads,” explains Davies. “Sometimes when you’re driving around late at night, the mist collects and it looks like a ghostly, smoky figure or fairy. It’s often quite scary driving down those roads alone at night, so that’s where the name comes from.”