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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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.”

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