Aussie-raised but Brit-based folk songstress Emily Barker is not talking about some on-the-couch confessional, but of her and hubby Dom Coyote’s Folk In A Box project – where an audience of one gets a most intimate musical performance.
Barker and Coyote bring this startling project to the Spitalfields Music Festival, but it was almost by chance that the pair came up with the notion, Baxter reveals when we catch up with her ahead of Folk In A Box’s upcoming east London performances.
“We were at Standon Calling a few years ago and there was a failed camera obscura room, this little outdoor building that didn’t work,” she tells us. “Me and Dom took it over and started inviting passers-by in for performances, often one by one, and it has grown from there.”
From humble beginnings in which cast-off wood found abandoned in London skips was bolted together to construct a makeshift box (“each time we set it up it was like building a shed, we needed a tool box and power saws”), through a second design (“it had a lot of pros and cons that we learned from”), to its current incarnation designed by architects David Knight and Cristina Monteiro, Folk In A Box has been taking music to the people in this most intimate manner.
Rather than standing squashed together in some sweaty venue, or a mile away from the stage in the middle of a field, Barker and Coyote bring music and performance back to its stripped down and raw campfire roots – one musician, one audience member, one box. The results have been astounding – for both audience and performer.
“It’s overwhelming as the performers are at their most vulnerable and the audience picks up on that,” explains Barker, who moved to these shores from her native Bridgetown, Australia more than a decade ago. “At festivals when people have been drinking their emotions are heightened – quite a lot of people burst into tears!
“Dom often performs the same song and gets really into delivering it in different ways but, depending on how I’m feeling, I sometimes ask the audience what they’d like to hear, a mellow song or a more upbeat number. Once when I did an upbeat number I had a person who stood up and began dancing around the box, bumping into the walls.”
The box has popped up everywhere from street corners and front rooms to music festivals and museums such as Tate Britian and Battersea Arts Centre. It even had a three-month stint at the Venice Biennale exhibition.
The Box, which has a small side door for the audience and a larger rear door for the musician, is on tour, too, its east London pitch being just a pit-stop in Barker and Coyote’s highly ambitious Land’s End to John O’Groats jaunt. And it’s not just the varied audiences who have found this experience to be an emotional journey.
“I find it very refreshing as a performer,” Barker says. “But it can be quite tricky. It is darker [inside the box] now.
It was more daunting when it was lighter as both musician and audience member didn’t know which way to look.” Guest musicians to enter the box have included poet and novelist Simon Armitage and ginger-dreadlocked singer songwriter Newton Faulkner, but while some found the experience revelatory, for others it has been quite the opposite. “Mark [Chadwick] from The Levellers found it a bit too much!” Barker reveals.
These one-to-one shows will work as a very strange warm up tour for Barker who has her new, fourth album Dear River out next month and embarks on an autumn UK tour in support with her band The Red Clay Halo, including her biggest ever headline show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
“It’s quite a contrast,” she laughs. “I played as the support act there a few years ago, in 2007 maybe, so it’s a big milestone for us to be playing a venue that size.”
River is a step forward for Barker, being her most produced record yet as well as her first on respected musos’ label Linn. It also demonstrates a hitherto untapped rockier edge, inspired by the likes of PJ Harvey and her Mercury-winning Let England Shake. “The concept of the lyrics being about war and England was a big influence,” Barker says of River’s genesis. “And I wanted to head a bit more in the direction of the rock element that she does [and move away] from the folky thing we’ve done for a while now.”
Fittingly for someone who has made their home on the other side of the world, 10,000 miles from where they grew up, Dear River is about what constitutes home. “It’s a collection of songs all about the concept of home, where and what that is,” Barker explains. “It’s about my personal story, growing up in Bridgetown, southwest Australia, and travelling around the world, but along the way I tell the story of many others, with subtexts including displacement, exile, indigenous politics and colonialism.”
One of the other stories Barker touches on is the tale of her Dutch grandparents who moved to Australia in 1952. “People are a part of what home is and the stories you inherit from them has an impact on who you are,” she says of her grandparents’ story.
“Growing up I was always very aware that my grandparents were Dutch and as soon as I could I went and explored Holland. [Album track] Letters is about my grandfather’s time during World War II when he was separated from his family and imagines what it must have been like waiting for lettersto find out whether his family or girlfriend, my grandmother to be, were alive or not.”
Barker now calls Stroud in Gloucestershire home. “I realised I wanted to do music for a living and got my first big break over here,” she says of the initial lure of swapping one island for another. “The music scene here is very rich and over the years things start to embroil you,” she adds. “My husband is British.” So where does she call home now?
“Having been away for 11 years I have spent most of my adult life over here – to move back would be quite an uprooting,” she reasons. “But through exploring these themes I have worked out that you can have more than one home – but my truest home is down by the Blackwood River.”
Dear River is out July 8 through Linn.
Folk In A Box, Spitalfields Festival, June 18-21. Free. E1 6EW
Tube | Liverpool Street
Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo play Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
Oct 16. £15. W12 8TT
Tube | Shepherd’s Bush