You can blame it on the romance coursing through my veins, but it would seem as though many of the greatest works of art are those that nearly didn’t happen. Both are true for London duo Smoke Fairies’ eponymously-titled fourth album, which is due out May 20th on Full Time Hobby. Following their last release (2012’s Blood Speaks) Jessica Davies momentarily decided that she had lost interest in the band… before realizing that her relationship and connection with musical partner Katherine Blamire was too significant to move on from and whose output was too profound to ignore. And thus we have their self-titled album, which actually sees a somewhat new Smoke Fairies. While the band’s last half-dozen years have been spent earning a reputation as a potently authentic “folk” or “Americana” outfit, with connections to people like Laura Marling and Jack White, their new album is of a different realm. While it still boasts their chillingly lovely harmonies and plucking abilities, they took a much more postmodern take to the recording process, utilizing production tools more than ever before and letting themselves explore an interest in pop and electronic music and things such as synthesizers (Yet, while retaining every bit of their sonic sincerity.) I recently got a chance to chat with both Katherine and Jessica about the new found band and how it came to be… which sounds a bit like the narrative of a Jim Jarmusch film… not that they were a million miles from that to begin with…
Izzy Cihak: You’ve been making music together for quite a few years now and you’ve accomplished quite the handful of cool things. What have been the highlights of Smoke Fairies’ career so far?
Katherine Blamire: I think we’ve been very lucky; there have been lots of highlights. Making records and putting them out into the world still feels like a massive privilege and we still get a buzz from holding the finished artifact in our hands, seeing it being sold and getting a reaction. Starting from our very first 7”, “Living with Ghosts,” the other initial self-released singles, the Third Man release, then going on to make our own albums. It’s what we always hoped for.
Jessica Davies: At the moment I would have to say our new album is a highlight. It was such a puzzle and yet so fun to make. It feels like a massive achievement. I love the travel aspect, too. In 2011 we did several tours of the US. One of them we hired a van and drove ourselves across the country. We were driving through deserts, mountains, and across the prairies and the whole time we were just thinking, “The music has allowed us to do this.” When we tour we are always on the lookout for birds of prey, gliding above the road. Our opening track, “We’ve Seen Birds,” refers to that feeling when you spot a bird and have a moment of gratitude for everything we get to experience because we make music.
Izzy: You’re about to release your self-titled fourth LP, which I understand almost never happened and that the band could have dissolved. What was it that inspired the band to continue on?
Katherine: There was a period of intense doubt where we tried to push music and songwriting away, but in the end music crept back to find us. In the end it’s what we’ve always relied on to pull us out of sad times, and so by default we started to feel the creative urge. It felt amazing to have a creative spurt after a period of feeling very empty; it felt like starting afresh again. We forgot about all the pressures that were crushing down, and just re-connected with that rewarding feeling of creating something unique together. We turned inwards and made the record for ourselves.
Jessica: I’m not sure we were inspired to continue, rather, it was a realization that we were unable to live without music. It’s what brings us joy, even if at times it seems like a completely crazy, illogical thing to be trying to do. I thought long and hard about what I would want to do if I didn’t focus on music. The thing I came up with was to set up an insect food business, which quickly spiraled out of control. After all my crickets escaped and set up colonies around the house I thought, “Maybe I should just stick with music.” At night there was a chorus of chirping. We couldn’t record demos without hearing them in the background. If you listen closely, you can hear them in “Eclipse Them All.”
Izzy: How do you feel the album compares to previous releases?
Katherine: Everything about how we approached this album was different. Before we recorded each song we stripped it right down to its base chords and made sure each song was arranged in a way that left the melody as bare as possible. We didn’t want anything to feel crowded, and if that meant stripping out the harmonies or guitars, then we did. There was a ruthless frame of mind involved at all stages of the process. It was quite liberating to take out some elements that had perhaps defined us in the past.
Jessica: Lots of songs were written on a keyboard, which changed the way we wrote songs. With a lot of the songs we were both more involved from the start. Together we came up with a lot of little riffs that we ended up molding songs around. Having done a few albums now I think we both feel more relaxed about the recording process. If one of us spent the morning recording a guitar track and then it was decided it wasn’t the best thing for the song, it wasn’t an issue. In our past records there was a strong feeling that both of us should be represented equally vocally and on guitar but that went out the window with this. We just put down ideas and explored what sounded best.
Izzy: What would you say were its most significant influences and inspirations?
Jessica: Crickets. And also all the personal stuff we were going through, I guess.
Izzy: Personally, do you have a particular favorite track, whether a song which you’re most proud of, or that you just feel best represents the direction your sound may be heading? I think I’m most partial to “Shadow Inversions.”
Katherine: “Shadow Inversions” has been pretty fun to play live. The groove is dark and the vocals are kind of otherworldly. I’d struggle to pick a favorite though; they all have their own character. It’s exciting finally being able to play them all.
Jessica: I really love all of them. When I am in the middle of recording songs I go through phases of preferring one over another but with these songs I feel we worked and worked on them until we loved everything about them.
Izzy: You just played a show with Timber Timbre and Lucius, whom I both find to be brilliant. How was that? Any thoughts on their sounds?
Katherine: It was great to be on the same bill as Timber Timbre. They’re really making a lot of waves with their new release. I hadn’t heard of Lucius before, but I thought they were fantastic. Playing in Paris is always exciting because there’s a whole new audience there to try to win over.
Izzy: You have a handful of upcoming UK dates. What can fans expect of the live show, this time around?
Katherine: I know bands always say this, but we do feel more confident than ever, especially with these new songs. They just feel like bolder statements, with more immediate melodies. I think fans can expect to see us enjoying ourselves.
Jessica: There is going to be some exceptional tambourine playing.
Izzy: And what do you have planned for the rest of 2014? Any chance of a US tour?
Katherine: We would desperately like to come back to the States. We hope to make it back this year.