Album Review: Emily Barker – ‘The Toerag Sessions’

In Album Review, ESC Daily’s music expert Jill Guthrie talks you through released albums by Australian artists or other Eurovision related musicians. In today’s episode she will tell you the pros and cons of ‘The Toerag Sessions’ by Emily Barker, a very talented Australian musician.

Australian singer-songwriter Emily Barker has been known under several monikers since she first began her career about a decade ago, but perhaps the most successful was her involvement with The Red Clay Halo, originating in the United Kingdom. The interesting thing about Emily’s music is the contextual connection it shares with English folk music and, later in her career, Americana, widening the breadth of her talent and appeal.

Barker travelled to Britain in 2002, basing herself in Cambridge in pursuit of her first musical endeavor. Several years later, The Red Clay Halo was formed and their success shone through with their debut album, Despite The Snow (2008), recorded in a 16th century barn in Norfolk. The connection with the English countryside is evident and resonating throughout the group’s work, establishing their prominence in bridging a polished Australian talent with deeply rooted English influence.

Now basing herself in Stroud (UK), Barker still keeps to her roots in the rural Bridgetown of Western Australia, adding yet another characteristic to her music. As result, her stage presence is a more casual, quiet performance with her soft timbre and country hues, evoking further connections with the serene setting of the English countryside.

Her personal success has been established in the recognition of several music awards and the use of her music in television series, such as the popular 2008 BBC remake of Wallander, staring Kenneth Branagh – her track Nostalgia is used as the theme song.

Music Review
Though, despite all of her success with The Red Clay Halo, Barker just this year released a solo album, titled The Toerag Sessions, on which she has taken a selection of song from years past and recorded them live acoustically at London’s Toerag Studios with Grammy-winning producer Liam Watson.

The sessions begin with a song that really exemplifies the singer-songwriter side of Emily’s repertoire. ‘Little Deaths’ has a slight folk cadence and is isolated by only acoustic guitar sequences, rendering it a quiet track that provokes contemplation. The music picks up more textures in the following track ‘Nostalgia’, which is perhaps the most famous from her days with The Red Clay Halo. It is certainly one of the most poetic and touches lightly on a beautiful melody. Barker’s range, both vocally and emotionally, is again showcased through her singer-songwriter talent.

Tracks such as ‘Sideline’ and ‘Disappear’ focus more on her country influences, breaking out the harmonica and Western-tinged guitar patterns, picking up tempo and playing with vocal features in the latter. Her music is said to be “a blend of roots influences from country to English folk via 60s pop”, specifically. The pop reference can perhaps be heard in the slow, brooding ‘Letters’, the track completing the A-side of the album.

The B-side continues with more upbeat compositions in ‘All Love Knows’ and ‘Blackbird’. Both play with her folky-base, by use of harmonica, but keep a distinct and clear songwriter cadence. ‘All Love Knows’ particularly stands out, mid-album. On the other hand, ‘Lord I Want An Exit’ and ‘This Is How It’s Meant To Be’ explore the slower, weighty melodies, but with more musical accompaniment than the those in the first half of the collection.

And for posterity, she has thrown in a new song titled ‘Anywhere Away’, which stands out as well, alongside ‘All Love Knows’ and the earlier ‘Nostalgia’. Written last year to be the theme of a forthcoming British film, the song has already captured some attention. Simple and sweet in melody, and more wholesome and rounded in sound, it gives a good sample of her talents in the midst of an acoustic arrangement.

For fans of Emily Barker herself, The Toerag Sessions is a lovely collection. The first half of the album is less musical, in the way that the acoustics are so stripped as to just leave Emily’s voice and her guitar in most of the tracks, while the second half of the album is more musically round and satisfying. The aim of this album was specifically to record fan-favorite songs which Emily sings on tour, as she sings them on tour – solo and acoustic. So for those who have witnessed the intimate setting live, and requested these recordings afterwards, the album perfectly blends her Australian roots with the panorama of English, and American, folk influences.