Early this year I found the Smoke Fairies Ghosts CD on iTunes and was captured by the emotion and feeling in the experience of their sound. The Smoke Fairies sound is a folk meets the blues sound built with strong lyrics and powerful and emotional music created by Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies. They are about to embark on a tour of North America including 12 dates supporting Rasputina. The pull of their music was so strong I just had to ask the ladies some questions. Here are their answers.
SoT: First, Katherine and Jessica, welcome to the Sea of Tranquillity! Thanks for taking time out before your busy tour schedule to answer some questions.
Smoke Fairies: Thanks.
SoT - So tell us of your start in Sussex, England? If any fans were heading to Sussex, what are the 'don't miss' attractions?
Jessica: I think a must is to climb up Kingley Vale. It is a wonderful nature reserve just outside Chichester that contains some of the oldest living trees in Britain; some of them are thought to be around 2000 years old. They are all large gnarly yew trees and were planted to commemorate a victory over invading Vikings. The bodies of the fallen Vikings are said to have been buried at the root of the trees. Some people say that you can walk around under the yews and voices can be hear voices speaking in an accident Viking language. Other people think druids haunt it, as many Iron Age settlements have been unearthed up there. As little light gets through the yew trees which have all have their roots in the exposed white chalk of the hills it is easy to imagine such myths when walking through the woods. When you get to the top of the hill there are excellent views of the South Coast stretching out to the Solent and the Isle of Wight.
SoT – Both of you have such beautiful voices. How do you decide who sings lead and who backing vocals?
Jessica - Thanks! I think it just happens. It is always pretty obvious whether a song needs a lot of vocals or whether it should be quite minimalist. There have never really been any fights over it.
SoT – I know you studied some of the best folk and blues legends, but how did the Sussex area of the UK help shape your unique sound?
Jessica: There are some great folk songs from Sussex, but you have to be quite studious to track them down and it was never something we were exposed to growing up. If Sussex has had an influence on us it would have definitely been from the landscape, or even dare I say it, a desire to leave and go explore the world outside of Chichester.
SoT – The blending of the blues and folk music is an intricate endeavour. Besides practice, how did you do it so well?
Katherine: I don't think we ever made a conscious decision to do so; it was just a natural development resulting from listening to that sort of music. At the end of the day, our music isn't easy for people to categorise, so I think saying we blend folk and blues just allows people to understand it, but we could just as easily bring in any number of elements.
Jessica: I don't think we really think about it. It is just the kind of songs we were drawn to writing for some reason.
SoT – Your music paints bold strokes and intimate stories. Which is your favourite song to play and which was your favourite to write? Why?
Katherine: It seems to vary but I like the excitement of breaking out a new song.
Jessica: When we play the songs live I never really cast my mind back to when it was written, or even what it was about. The more you play a song the more memories get attached to it. For instance I might think 'this is the song we were playing in Belgium when the amp blew up'.
SoT – I read that Jack White helped introduce you to Nashville, and the rest of the music listening world. Besides Nashville, London, and Sussex, is there a place you would like to write and record music?
Katherine: I'd like to record while travelling somehow. So that different places influence each song reflecting the journey.
SoT – Your music is very visual. For which movie would you say your music fits comfortably as a soundtrack?
Katherine: I'm not sure but I really love the Nick Cave/Warren Ellis soundtracks to the Proposition and the Assassination of Jesse James. The Proposition is pretty dark though, I don't think we have written anything murderous enough for a film like that.
SoT – Sunshine is a powerful opener on "Ghosts". Tell us more about the story that unfolds over the Pacific.
Katherine: I think explaining specific details of song can risk alienating people from whatever meaning they choose for it. A lot of our songs are quite abstract, but I suppose it's ok to say that this song was inspired by that moment when you realise things are falling apart but you are completely lost for words as to how to rebuild it. We were leaving Vancouver and there was some sadness involved in leaving that behind.
SoT – Sunshine also deals with relationships. Have you each found someone that can answer affirmatively to the lyric "show me your love is real?"
Katherine: I think if someone has to ask that all the time, then they are never going to be satisfied with the answer.
Jessica: Have never demanded someone answer that question.
SoT – Now the Green Blade Rises is my favourite song off of Ghosts. Tell me about your feelings for this song as well as the experience of hearing it for the first time on the radio.
Katherine: It's quite a dark and atmospheric old hymn that we both remembered from our childhood. Hymns have such incredible stirring melodies and present the world in such a stark way, it's all lightness and dark with nothing in-between. This one has some interesting imagery about nature, love and death, "love lives again, that with the dead has been".
Jessica: The first time I heard now the green blade rises was in a School Assembly. I have such an eerie tune that it grabbed me immediately and it is a tune that has never really left my memory, so it seemed like a good idea to cover it. I specifically love the line 'love has come again, like wheat that spingeth green'- it is really uplifting.
SoT – Which is each of your favourite songs off "Ghosts"?
Katherine: It's hard to say I feel like different people wrote all those songs, it was a while ago now and so much has happened. I don't really have a favourite.
Jessica: I don't think I could ever have a favourite
SoT – How would you describe the concept of Through Low Light and Trees?
Katherine: I think the album has an autumnal feel in sound and subject. Time passing, things sleeping and coming to life again. Regrets, memories and confusion reflected on a changing landscape.
Jessica: We didn't begin recording it with a concept in mind, but in hindsight it developed into a very wintry sounding album.
SoT – Some of your videos look like they were a lot of fun to make, especially Hotel Room. Tell us about that experience?
Katherine: A lot of our videos and photo shoots involve being very cold. Floating around in ponds or standing in the woods in the middle of winter.
Jessica: We had a small budget for that video. It was the first and probably last time we have had a budget and we decided we wanted to spend it on some kind of trained animal. Ralph the Harris Hawk was brought in. We had to put our face up close to his which could have been dangerous as his trainer said although he has never gone for someone's eye, there is always a first.
It was filmed at The Coal Exchange in Cardiff. It is a really extraordinary building. The half that we were in was mostly unoccupied except for pigeons. Walking down the corridors I looked through into rooms to see that the entire floor was missing and the room below was visible. One of the last scenes of the day involved me crawling down one of these corridors through pigeon droppings and dust in complete darkness hoping that the floor wasn't going to cave in.
SoT – Which is each of your favourite songs off TLL&T?
Katherine: I don't have a favourite but I like the way all of the songs seem to belong to each other.
Jessica: Again, I don't think I have one
SoT – Have you purchased the Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues yet? What do you think? Which is each of your favourite songs?
Jessica: No, I haven't heard it yet
SoT – When are you coming to America again?
Jessica: In June!
SoT – Do your plans for 2011 include touring or recording, or both?
Katherine: There is a lot of touring planned for this summer but we will hopefully also have some time to record. We've been trying out ideas for demos at home and hopefully at some point we'll go into the studio.
Jessica: We are starting a UK tour next week, then we have a US summer tour and then recording for the next album will begin hopefully.
SoT – Which artist would you most like to perform or write with in the future?
Jessica: I guess we don't really have a plan of people who we would like to work with. There are numerous bands that would be great.
SoT – Have you had any Spinal Tap moments yet?
Katherine: I think our whole lives are kind of like Spinal Tap. As we are called Smoke Fairies, people seem to think that means there should be lots of dry ice on the stage at all times, one time there was so much dry ice that I realised part way through the first song I was facing the back wall instead of the audience. I just couldn't see them. The thing that I thought was the microphone was some other stand.
Jessica: The best one occurred in Berlin when a camera crew followed us around for the afternoon for some fly on the wall footage. To make the footage a little more interesting than the both of us looking at bits of cheese in the backstage rider we decided to take the crew down to the stage. Unfortunately we didn't know where the stage was and led them into a stairwell. The door slammed behind us all, and at the bottom of the stairs was another locked door. So they filmed us banging on the door screaming for help for 5 minutes. That was a German Culture show.
Another time we were at the BBC doing a radio show. The other guest was Ray Davies from the Kinks who we were eager to meet. After the show was recorded everyone was going to the pub for a drink so we quickly got in an elevator to follow them. Unfortunately the elevator broke and by the time we got out everyone except Carol Thatcher had left the pub.
SoT – Tell us one of your favourite jokes. One from each of you please.
Katherine: I'm not really a joke person but I will try. There once was a centipede that had a friend who kept wanting to go to the cinema and the centipede would never go with him even though they were friends. Maybe the other guy was another insect like a wood louse or something like that. But I don't know why they would be going to the cinema, see that's what I just don't understand about jokes they never make sense. If a wood louse and a centipede went to the cinema they would probably get sat on or squashed in a door, and they wouldn't be able to buy tickets, so should they be going at all? Maybe the guy that was the friend was not a wood louse but an actual person, who just wanted to take the centipede in their pocket or something. But then the whole joke wouldn't work because the whole thing rests on the idea that the centipede takes too long to put on his shoes and if he got carried there in a pocket then he wouldn't need any shoes. Centipedes don't even wear shoes. The only animals to ever wear shoes are monkeys being kept as pets and horses and they wouldn't even be allowed in a cinema. But anyway, if the centipede was friends with a person, the said person would be a mad person who thinks centipedes can understand movies, so they would have a worrying lack of connection to reality and would probably be delusional in other ways too, probably the kind of person that talks to themselves at the cinema, is it really fair to make a joke about someone like that?
Jessica: Question - How many guitarists does it take to change a light-bulb?Answer - Twenty. One to change the bulb and nineteen to say "Not bad, but I could've done better." You could apply that joke to music reviewers too.
Katherine: I am not very good at telling jokes; normally I get confused in the first line and give away the punch line. So I looked on the internet and found some brilliant jokes but they were all too obscene, so here is one that apparently a scientist with too much time on his hands has deemed the funniest joke ever in some scientific test. I'm not sure if he's right. You can judge for yourself.
Hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing; his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his mobile phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator, in a calm voice, says: "Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, and then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: "Okay, now what?"