The musical duo of Sussex mates (since their girlhood) Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire each share vocals and acoustic guitar duties on their new release, Ghosts. On this splendid disc, the Smoke Fairies bring a refreshing take to the two standard rock music mainstays, blues and folk. Their unique eclectic blend of blues and folk is laced with soulful harmonic shiverings of emotive lyrics. They evoke via icy whispers and melodic trills all the longing and rage derivative of a lost love and the forlorn wanderings of relationships gone astray. Their new CD Ghosts is a collection of songs previously released separately as UK singles, but now, fortunately, made easier to find.
The Smoke Fairies are also seasoned touring musicians that are both at home performing on stage as well as spending time on their studio tan being prolific songwriters. The band is currently touring the United States and Great Britain through August 2010. Visit their MySpace site for a free song download (with several others streaming as well) as a tour itinerary. The duo took time out of their busy tour preparation to give the low-down on their band name, guitar sound, fans, the Internet and their Top Ten album favs.
I was first drawn to you by the name “Smoke Fairies” as it sounded ethereal and transitory. It’s an excellent name for a band, explain how it came about and if it implies a symbolic concern? I am thinking that through your songs, one can glimpse the truth of who you are nakedly; at other moments, you disappear into the smoke, or fairies. The band name works.
J: It came to us one night when we were driving around in the misty roads where we grew up. Sometimes the mist gathers in the winding roads between the hedgerows and creates smoky figures that we called the smoke fairies.
The guitars are splendid, you sort of have a Ry Cooder-vibe at times, and then your simplistic yet affective acoustics are integrally vital to Ghosts overall sound. Is this aural texture intended to fall more in line with the delicate subject matter of your songs?
J: I don’t think we set out with any 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 guitar sound that emphasizes that mood.
Do you find that the songs are best suited on a stage, or do you like the refinement of perfecting them in a studio?
K: Well, both experiences are so different, I think the blend of our voices and guitar parts make an interesting live experience and although we are a duo at the core, we have been expanding our sound with a drummer, bassist and viola player, so that has given us a chance to break out of the acoustic sound a bit more, which has been really fun and given us a chance to add greater dynamics to our sound. A lot of our songs start in one place and build up and meander along to somewhere different and it’s great to be able to bring that out of the studio and onto the stage.
We recently retreated to a studio in southwest England to record an album and the environment was so magical and remote, it was just such an incredible experience to let that atmosphere seep in to the music and let the songs take on some of the character of the place. The studio could only be reached by boat or by walking along a railway line. We got there in the dark and carried our stuff along the tracks, and we knew it was going to be perfect.
Your MySpace site, no doubt, has given you vital exposure you would otherwise be lacking. Back in the day, you’d have to wait and hope that MTV would put your video on some kind of rotation, or that the radio would play it at. Those days are gone. How has the current state of technology helped you get your music out there?
J: The current state of technology has given us the freedom to take whatever direction we want and then have people listening to it, which is a great thing. It means there is a lot more music out there to find that hasn’t been controlled by a company shaping it to make money out of it. Equally there is a lot of rubbish out there.
There are numerous instances of record labels and even musicians yanking their videos off of YouTube, yet you have promo videos and some footage of a store gig among others. I would assume that having that available is great publicity. What is your perspective on this? Do you find it mildly disconcerting that some audience member can catch a stage flub on their cell phone and preserve it for eternity on the Internet?
J: That, i guess is the more annoying side of the internet. Once you are on stage and realize someone has a camera with them it is bit disconcerting. We just try not to look at the footage on Youtube.
Do you find that your fan base is expanding via the Internet?
J: Yes, it would seem it is that way. It is strange the way people stumble across us.
Your songs imply a sense of departure and loss under various guises. “He’s Moving On”, for example, is one, or the loss of youth in “When You Grow Old”. It’s a common bond that people can relate with. How does loss connect to each of you personally?
K: Loss is just a massive part of life for everyone I suppose. I think some of the songs we’ve written were a result of travelling around, which inevitably involves making ties and then breaking them or creating some sort of a home and then leaving it behind. I think everyone knows what it is like to miss something that has gone, whether it’s a place, a person, or just the part of you that has faded somehow. If you think about it without loss, there would be no real value to anything. I think we just find that the gap between the past and the present is an endlessly interesting subject matter.
How important is the ongoing development of Smoke Fairies’ image? I gather it must be frustrating as talented musicians to see other female “musicians” with little to no talent making it to the top, whom are constantly in the media because of their attention-whoring strategies.
K: To me those sort of people exist in a different sort of world and operate with a very different sound to us, so it’s not really something we think about.
J: Well, for a start there are plenty of men who are making it to the top with attention seeking strategies as well. I think anyone who is successful has got there because they have some talent whether it is them or somebody else who has capitalized on it. Pop has always had a place in music and it is appealing to a different kind of people who we are going to appeal to. What’s sad is when people are used and then quickly dropped.
I guess that the choice is that you could be relying simply on the integrity of your great music or that you could fall into what some American music critics call, the “slut factor.” That is, in order to get the media’s attention, you do sort of a ‘bait and switch’ on your fans wearing mini-skirts and bikinis with strong sexual overtones that often dwarf the message of the music. Obviously this isn’t the case here, but I’d like your perspective as attractive and intelligent female artists.
K: Well you have to think a lot about that. There’s definitely more pressures and pitfalls with regards to image for women, that men aren’t as affected by. People are always going to talk about you in a different way, focusing on image more than you would like. But you just have to make a decision to stand up for the integrity of the music in the way you present yourself. It’s not too much of an issue though, we just don’t do or wear things that make us feel uncomfortable. No one can really tell us what to do.
Your vocals are refreshing to hear. There’s not an auto-tune device in sight and the songs have a minimum of overdubs (if any at all). How important is it to Smoke Fairies to keep your music anchored in a more traditional medium that falls in line with traditional folk and blues music?
K: It is important for our recordings to reflect something real and I think it is a more rewarding experience for the listener to know that what you’re hearing reflects an actual moment in time and is not just a product of endless tweaking in the studio. We like the idea of creating an atmosphere or a world that you can step into when you put the record on. Listening to music should be an experience and a journey and I think that’s easier to achieve when you are capturing musicians at their most raw, not hiding behind a veil of over-perfect vocals, or endless edits. It’s important to give everything space to breathe and be what it is. I hope that it creates integrity and a certain authenticity that people will find refreshing. At the end of the day, we are a band that has not had massive backing yet from a label, so there simply isn’t time to faff around for days in the studio over a certain guitar part, we can’t get too precious, which in some ways is a good thing. Hopefully with our last releases you can imagine us all playing in a room and get taken into that moment.
As an aside, I could perceive your music taking a turn in the future, a sort of merging into experimentation, perhaps like Tom Waits. Do you plan on expanding beyond what you’ve done? Is Smoke Fairies still a work-in-progress?
K: It’s really important to us to continue to evolve. I think every interesting band has some sort of core sound. Something that singles them out from everyone else, which I think is important to maintain. There is that indefinable thing that anchors you to your identity as a band, but it’s equally important for us not to be pigeon holed. Our music isn’t something that’s easily defined, and I think that’s going to allow us to experiment more in the future. It kind of has a life of its own so we will let it take darker or lighter twists in direction and bring in more components, layers and sounds that people might not expect.
* * *
TEN ALBUMS THAT MATTER TO THE SMOKE FAIRIES
Bubblegum - Mark Lanegan
J: I could listen to Mark Lanegan’s voice forever. There is a great deal of melancholy throughout the record as it ranges from gentle to heavy and twisted. I got this when I first got to Vancouver and it provided a soundtrack to that year.
Deja Vu - Crosby Stills Nash and Young
K: The first time I heard their harmonies was a complete revelation. I felt like it opened a whole world of possibilities.
Heartbreaker - Ryan Adams
K: I was in a shoe shop in New Orleans when I first heard this. it stopped me in my tracks, I put down the shoes and went straight to the record store to buy it. It just sounds so honest to me and cuts right through you. I’ve listened to it a lot over the years; it’s comforting, like putting on a great pair of your favorite old shoes.
School of Seven Bells - Alpinisms
J: This is an album we have recently discovered. Really interesting textures and vocal layering. We saw them play at SXSW and they really know how to create an atmosphere.
16 Horsepower - Folklore
K: The intensity and power of this music gives you such an uneasy and restless feeling. You just can’t help but be drawn into its darkness.
America - America
J: I scratched up this record listening to it so much when I was younger. One of the first songs we attempted singing together was ‘horse with no name’. I was always intrigued with the guitar parts and they inspired us to branch away from just strumming.
The Proposition - Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
K: I love the space in this record and how it conjures up so many images and emotions. It takes you out to a desolate landscape and makes me think of wind across the plains and dry cracks in the soil.
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea - PJ Harvey
K: The strength of the vocals on this record is what hits you the most. Lyrically it’s sometimes disturbing but beautiful and every song is full of energy. She grabs your attention and shakes you up.
Velvet Underground and Nico - Andy Warhol
K: We’re touring around the U.S at the moment and last night we opened up at a show in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, It made me think about the Velvet Underground and what a great and unique sound they have. I love the looseness in this album and the feeling that the songs were always unraveling and falling apart, but they never quite do.
Carpenters - Greatest Hits
J :The Carpenters were one of my earliest musical obsessions. You can’t beat Karen Carpenter’s voice.