When songwriters get together magic can occur… or disaster. When the right properties are in the air, however, then something very special can happen. Those who have already delighted to case/lang/veirs in 2016, or are fans of the original eighties Americana trio of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, should take a trip to Applewood Road next month, when three singers come to town to whisper their secrets into your ear. By Alan O’Hare.

Emily Barker is one of those artists. You know the type – half the people who meet her haven’t got a clue who she is, while the other half can’t believe it’s her. Such is the life of a best-kept secret and a performer whose cult following offers the time and space for development and growth.

Barker’s last album (‘The Toerag Sesions’) was cut with the legendary producer Liam Watson and brought some of the best reviews of her career. It delivered on the promise of her most well-known performance – the theme tune to the BBC’s ‘Wallander’ – and brought a bigger spotlight to her music. A serial collaborator, the softly-spoken Australian has released lots of music during the last decade and won fans and fame all around the world for her songs and singing with The Red Clay Halo and Vena Portae – favourites of the grown-up music magazines and Americana blogs. Sure, her solo work is powerful, but it’s when surrounded by music and other voices that this distinctly modern talent shines: “It’s always such a pleasure to sing harmonies,” she reveals. “I’ve been doing it since I was a child with my three siblings and my mum.”

This year, Barker (pictured left above) has been doing it as part of Applewood Road, a trio of songwriters who met in an East Nashville cafe and in early 2016 released a record of some of the best close harmony singing you’ll hear anywhere. With a minimum of fuss, they have quietly gone about spreading the word of their songs and captured attentions at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival: “Cambridge sells out in a matter of minutes and to be invited to play there is a real honour and carries a prestige,” says Barker. “It’s supported by the BBC and Sky Arts, so the reach goes far beyond your show. It’s a music lover’s festival, so it means that if the crowd enjoy you, they’re going to become real fans and continue to follow your journey.”

Applewood Road’s journey has been a special one and arrives in Liverpool, as part of a UK tour, in November. Expect strong songs, stronger singing and the stillness of the sea… with all that lies beneath. We caught up with Emily on her way back from Nashville’s recent Americana Music Festival and Conference…

You met your collaborators and wrote a song, ‘Applewood Road’, immediately. What was so special?
It was special because it was completely unplanned and took us all by surprise! The writing of that first song was so fluid and so easy. We loved the whole experience, but thought that would be it… just a moment captured on a trip to Nashville, like coming home with a wonderful one-off souvenir you found at a car boot sale to remember your time by. But we started showing people – our managers and friends – and everyone responded so wonderfully and said ‘you have to make an album’.

The reactions were a catalyst, then?
It was partly the response we had that made us decide to do more – but also the fact that we were all really proud of our song.

It’s a great song… and all about the singing.
It certainly is for us! There’s something in the way that our voices came together that resonated instantly, in the way that creates what is often known as a ‘fourth voice’. We had no idea it was going to go like that – it was a spontaneous getting together that resulted in us writing and then recording ‘Applewood Road’ – but once we had that as a blueprint, the whole project just fell together. We decided to produce it ourselves and made a rule that there would be no more than three instruments (other than our voices) playing at a time. We wanted to see how stripped back we could be and how much we could expose the three-part harmonies.

You recorded direct to tape and with one mic… what do you win and lose in doing that?
I think the beauty in the recording is that you can hear how on edge we are, how much we’re concentrating, how new the songs are to us and how that gives them an intensity despite the gentle nature of the music. The three of us had only met once, briefly in Nashville for a matter of hours, before we got together to record that first song. Then, we spent four days listening down to the songs we’d written individually (or with other collaborators), choosing which ones to record and arranging them, before heading into the studio to record the album.

Whatever you did, it worked!
I think it was the right choice to record the way we did… in my mind, it’s the only way to really capture the moment – which is what recording is to me. It’s a snapshot, like a photograph. If we recorded digitally, by tracking up each separate part, then I think the magic would have been lost. It might be more accurate, but that doesn’t interest me, nor any of us, especially for in this project. I’d rather have flaws and energy, than perfection and no character…

You’ve done a lot of solo touring, are you looking forward to being back with a band?
To stand on a stage and sing harmonies every night is a joy. It’ll be great to do a full headline show and have time for all the songs on the album – plus potentially a new one or two!

What’s next… you’ve been recording in Memphis?
I’m making my new album at Sam Phillips Recording Service and I can safely say it’s been one of the highlights of my life! It was so much fun and I hope that that will come across in the recording… I spent four days with an all-star band recording the songs, again, direct to tape and live. The guys had worked with the likes of Al Green, Ike and Tina Turner, Neil Young, Mavis Staples, Cat Power and Greg Allman.

Wow. Impressive CV’s!
On the first day, driving myself to the studio, I was a bag of nerves, thinking ‘how am I going to do this’! But they were all incredibly welcoming and loved the songs… phew! In Memphis, it’s all about ‘the groove’, so our process was I wold play a song on guitar or piano and show them the chords, then we’d jam until we found ‘the groove’. The record has got a real soul vibe to it and I get transported to a very happy place whenever I think about that my time in Memphis.

Back to Liverpool and this gig, tell us more about your companions down Applewood Road…
Amber Rubarth and Amy Speace are two incredibly talented singer/songwriters. Amy has a background in theatre and I always enjoy watching her perform – not only for the beauty of her songs, but also for her hilarious banter… she’s a real entertainer and storyteller! Amber has a background in wood sculpting and, interestingly, I think this comes across in her songs, she really crafts them so delicately and carefully and they contain beautiful details within them. She’s a wonderful arranger, too, whether it be for vocals or strings. I have a lot of respect for both as them as artists and people.

An Evening with Applewood Road
Arts Club, Seel Street, Liverpool
Wednesday November 16, 8pm

Get tickets

Pic courtesy Gearbox Records