Interview: Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies on Smoke Fairies’s Upcoming Tour

Smoke Fairies conjure up a beguiling blend of folk and blues, rich with pastoral harmonies and swampy gutter guitars.

Interview: Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies on Smoke Fairies’s Upcoming Tour
Photo: Maria Mochnacz

Smoke Fairies conjure up a beguiling blend of folk and blues, rich with pastoral harmonies and swampy gutter guitars that make their songs all the more unusual and alluring. The West Sussex-bred, London-based duo—made up of Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies—recorded their debut, Through Low Light and Trees in a 10-day jaunt last year with PJ Harvey collaborator Head. It’s an album full of wistful moods and spectral images, a tapestry threaded and dyed with the ache of the human heart and the theme of “always on the road, looking back.” Potent stuff, to be sure. And maybe even daunting subject matter for conversation. Or perhaps not…

Blamire and Davies’s ethereal stage personas only go so far before slipping into a charming deadpan shtick reminiscent of Flight of the Conchords. At least that’s how I found them, when—following a string of Northeast shows last month—we sat down to discuss the importance of imagination, not compromising, their upcoming U.S. tour, and, quite literally, getting mud in their hair.

My introduction to you was two years back with the Frozen Heart EP. At the time, I had been traveling around quite extensively, and then I found myself settling in New York, so the first thing that struck me about the music was the transient nature of the songs, and on an even deeper level the way weather, seasons, and landscapes play into it. And not in a metaphorical sense, but in a very literal sense. What’s your writing process like?

Katherine Blamire: A lot of the way we do work is to kind of come up with the beginnings of ideas separately, and then bring them together to kind of complete the song. And a lot of those ideas are very much influenced by things as simple as the weather and the environment because they do impact on us a lot and our thoughts.

Jessica Davies: They can affect your mood so much.

Blamire: I mean, just look at the weather today [warm, overcast, chance of rain]. It’s kind of crushing down on everybody.

Davies: And also, traveling can affect your mood, and what city you’re in. You can be different people in different cities.

Blamire: Over the course of our lives we’ve lived in three different cities, and in each one we kind of had a different life. A lot of our songs have been about reconciling. You know, losing that identity when you move away, and what you kind of become afterwards.

Was there an identity that you tried to cultivate or shape when you were living in New Orleans for school?

Davies: I don’t think you try and cultivate an identity. It’s just, I guess, the freedom of being away from home, meeting loads of new people, even like the temperature down there can make you more bold, and more confident.

Blamire: And there’s also kind of a laidback element to everything down there.

And then the move to Vancouver, under a completely different set of circumstances I would expect…

Blamire: I think that was a more random choice because we had caught the travel bug. We still needed to experience more. We had gone back to England after New Orleans and we spent a year just not really feeling happy. I think we saw Vancouver in a travel brochure, and it just looked cool with the mountains. So we just decided to up and move. A lot of people were saying, “Why are you doing that?” And we didn’t really know. In the end, it was a great life experience that gave us a lot more material, and then we came back to London, and we realized that we needed to put down our roots a bit in order to take music more seriously.

Do you feel like you weren’t taking music seriously up to that point?

Davies: We were taking it very seriously, but to make other people take it seriously, to just build up a fanbase, you need to stay in one place, I think—to a certain degree.

Blamire: And the great thing about being a musician is that when you’re touring and doing this sort of thing, the part of you that’s still transient is in someway satisfied, so it makes settling down a bit easier. It’s not like having a normal job, you know.

The year was ushered in with your first headlining tour in the U.K. Has that now caused a shift from what I assume was doing other things besides music in order to support yourselves to now doing music more full time?

Davies: It’s not complete, but I think it was those headline shows that kind of put our career up a notch, and our confidence up a notch.

Blamire: There’s something about going out onto a stage and knowing that it’s your stage, as in people are there to see you, and you’re the headliner and they’re excited, to make you feel like more of a performer, and therefore perform better.

Last night, after your show, I was talking to a friend and she said, “You should ask them about the image of women in the industry.” I would think there are barriers or attitudes that do come up, particularly because you all seem very much of yourselves, clearly not compromising.

Davies: I think every musician has to spend some amount of time thinking of the image that they want to present on stage. When we go on stage, we do put on makeup and maybe we have stage clothes that we would not normally wear, that are slightly more fancy. So I think it’s just the fancier version of ourselves, and it’s not compromising like some people are made to do in the music industry.

Blamire: It’s pretty important to us that we don’t get distracted by the idea that our image is gonna sell something in a way that’s compromising.

Davies: Even just wearing super fashionable clothes or whatever, it’s hard to keep up with that ‘cause that’s just not our talent being super fashionable. But I think there might be that pressure as a woman.

You’ve both been very involved with the design and artwork of your releases. Last year when you were touring the States with Laura Marling, I picked up the Ghosts compilation. Jessica, you were pointing out to me that you had drawn this part of the cover, Kaf had done this part…

Davies: Up until the release of Through Low Light and Trees we had been designing our own record sleeves, and I don’t know whether they were…well, looking back on them now, they seem a bit weird. We just did these drawings, and they were very simplistic.

Blamire: Sometimes they were just drawings that we had been doodling at work, having boring jobs. Just weird robots or bits of plants or something, and then we just put them all together. It kind of represented the chaotic nature of what I think we were doing, I mean we were just trying to make a break for it, so…

So then you do get to the album, and bring in photographer Maria Mochnacz…

Blamire: And that was absolutely brilliant! I mean for us, it was like…[gestures “Wow”].

Davies: We had looked at a lot of her work and she seemed to just capture a moment. We had also been looking at a lot of albums from the [previous] year, particularly from female artists, and a lot of it was very digitalized and very…

Blamire: …theatrical.

Davies: And just very precise and just very smooth. So we thought, let’s shoot on film, go out into the woods, get covered in leaves, and just…

Blamire: She kept saying stuff to us like, “Do you guys mind putting mud in your hair?” And we’d be like, “Noooo.” And then we ended up floating around in a lake.

Davies: The pictures she took are kind of blurry, but it doesn’t matter. As soon as we saw the picture that’s the album cover, we were like, “Yeah, that’s a really good representation of the album.” You can’t see our faces. A lot of the pictures she took, and a lot of the pictures on the album, you can’t actually make out any of our features. We kind of just wanted to remain mysterious.

You and your longtime backing band, violist Neil Walsh, and bassist Kristoffer Harris travelled out to Saw Mill Studios in Cornwall to record the album with producer Head. How was it having this new person, albeit an old hand in the industry, come in?

Davies: He [fit] into everything really well. He was more of a kind of…how to describe it…

Blamire: He was a guide to our process. He kept it on track.

Davies: The timekeeper.

Blamire: He just took the stress out of it, because, you know, we didn’t have much time. Everything was kind of pressurized, but we never felt any of that. He just kept it all on track, and that was invaluable to us because we needed to be free to create. We had a pretty strong idea of what we wanted everything to sound like, and he’d throw in his ideas, but he also mainly let us explore ours, which is what we wanted; it was our chance to finally put our print on something properly. So we were really happy with that.

I had heard some of the album’s songs live last year, before it was released in the U.K. or the States, and then I heard the album and could hear the songs had certainly developed from when you recorded them.

Davies: And now we’ve been touring with it for a whole year.

Blamire: I think if we had to record the album now it would have a much heavier sound. It would be more…

Davies: Bold.

Blamire: Yeah, I think we’d be bolder with it. And there were things that we thought we were being bold with at the time, but now we think…you can always see how you could have elaborated, or made it more impactful in someway, and that’s why we’re excited about the next album, because we’re taking on those lessons, and we want to follow through with them.

I’ve read mostly about your musical influences (Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Grateful Dead, America), but there’s something—not only in the lyrics, but in the textual qualities of the guitars and the harmonies—that feels like there has to be other influences in poetry or literature. How does that stuff come into play?

Davies: Of the storytelling element, of the lyrical element of the songs, those things are very important. When you find a really good novel to read, and you can really respect the way the author has chosen to use the words. And it works the same way when you find a really crap novel, and you’re like, “This is a really bad use of all these words!” That can kind of help you with formulating a song. And our having a knowledge of history, especially if one has a knowledge of the history of where you’re actually living—that can really ignite your imagination.

Blamire: A lot of our lyrics are quite concerned with looking back on the past in someway, looking back on how people change, and how they connect emotionally with their environment. And that’s kind of a historical perspective on life in a way, something I guess we’ve kind of picked up on. So yes, it’s about imagination really at the end of the day. I mean how do you make the things you’re feeling interesting to other people? Everyone feels them, and some people go through their day, and they go to work and they never feel the need to write them down. They never feel the need to create something with what they felt that day, which is fine obviously, but you know, I feel like when you’re in the position of being privileged enough to let your feelings out, then you should do it. You should consider the lyrics very carefully, because how do you make that interesting to someone else without sounding selfish.

When I’ve spoken to other songwriters, some say that they exaggerate. I don’t think exaggeration is the right word for what you’re both doing. As you say, it’s about imagination. That you’re crafting a story, taking the emotional truth or core…

Davies: …and putting it into something slightly different. A different scenery or something like that.

Blamire: And sometimes it can be an exaggeration, but at the end of the day, I do feel that the things people feel on a day-to-day basis are usually quite extreme. But usually no one can really talk about it all the time because you have to fit into what’s happening, so it’s quite nice to get the chance to let that out.

So, having said that, do you find that it may take two or three years of digesting a particular time or moment before you can write a song about it?

Blamire: Definitely, because there’s only so much that you can take in when things are actually happening. And you don’t really know how it’s going to affect you anyway. I think that’s definitely true, but I think that’s how most people deal with anything. I mean you take a while to process what’s happened to you.

And now coming back over to the states in August, opening for Rasputina, that’s more of a time for, “Let’s jump in and do this thing.”

Davies: That’s more of an adventure isn’t it? I think it’s gonna be a test of endurance, and of map reading, and just…

Blamire: [laughing] And of our sanity.

Davies: It’s gonna be a challenge, isn’t it? It’s the ultimate working-as-a-team thing, and that can wear you down [laughs], and I guess the scenery, and whether that’s going to inspire lots of songs. I’m sure it will.

Blamire: I’m just worried about driving. The rest of it will be fine as long as we can get there.

Ben Umstead

Ben Umstead is a filmmaker and senior programmer at the Slamdance Film Festival, where they participate in building the fest's First Time Narrative Features Competiton and the Breakouts section.

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