Meeting at school at the age of 11, Smoke Fairies was born out of Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies’ years of travel, songwriting, and friendship. Years on, the British duo’s unique approach to blues and folk has earned them support from Richard Hawley, Jack White, and Laura Marling who interviews them here. Their latest album, Blood Speaks, was released in 2012.
Laura Marling is an award-winning British folk artist. She exploded onto the popular radar in 2008 when her debut album Alas, I Cannot Swim was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. She has since released two follow-up albums and a fourth record is expected in 2013.
LAURA MARLING—When I first heard about you guys I assumed from your name that you might be in the gentle English folk vein of things; I was to be proven very wrong. What culmination of things do you think led to your distinctive “sound”? I know that the two of you have known each other since you were very young. Do you think coming into music and learning your instruments at the same time and in close proximity lead you to have similar tastes or do they differ?
JESSICA DAVIES—I like bossa nova; Kaf hates it.
KATHERINE BLAMIRE—The bossa nova dispute has been going on for many years. Mostly though, I think our tastes are quite similar. We seem to enjoy the same sort of melodies and get drawn to the same artists. I think when you grow up with someone you are quite heavily influenced by their tastes and we always seemed to have the same ways of thinking. Maybe at first I found escapism in music and then when I met Jessica there was a feeling that we could actually escape. We both had quite romantic notions about being a band that toured.
JD—If I am ever feeling down about music I just imagine what our 13-year-old selves would think of us now. We would be amazed. I think our sound evolved from spending so much time bouncing ideas and riffs off each other with very little technical instruction. It means we never follow proper time signatures. It can be a nightmare when trying to teach people our songs. They’re all over the place.
LM—Both of your voices are unique, instantly recognizable, and haunting, yet you are both so soft spoken in person. When you write do you find yourselves creating a character to sing from?
KB—I suppose there is a sense of release in singing, you are able to step out of what you are or what people perceive you to be and be someone different. I feel like a lot of the characters in our songs are different versions of ourselves. Songs allow you to say things that you might not express on a daily basis. Maybe they make you seem more extreme. I’ve always liked the line in an Alessi’s Ark song: “Some things are better sung than said.”
JD—Most of the songs we write are inspired by our own lives, and get written from a need to make some sense of what we have experienced. There’s a bit of embellishment and when I sing I am a more extreme version of myself, or perhaps the person I would like to be sometimes.
LM—We toured together a few years ago around America in a van for five weeks with no days off having never met really, and neither of you complained once. I, however, find that aspect of touring both exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. Your live show is one of the best I’ve ever seen, in terms of representing the strength of your songs and musical ability. Do you foresee a lot of touring in the future and do you enjoy it? Do you find it a battle to combat the repetitiveness of it?
JD—That tour we did was pretty intense. I remember one really hard day where we were driving in the van for something like 12 hours to get to a show and I think I did complain once, when we had to drive by a Wendy’s. It really felt like we had achieved something at the end. I love the travel aspect of going on tour, especially in such a vast country as the States, where you can feel so isolated and far away from home. Hopefully touring is something we are going to get to continue to do for a long time. At the very start of tours though, I do find the thought of performing in front of people a terrifying idea and it takes a really long time to relax into it. Just before we are about to go on stage I usually would just rather curl up and go to sleep. It takes a lot of focus to go on stage with confidence but doing something that terrifies you every day for a month is, like you say, exhilarating.
KB—I always feel very lucky to be on tour. It feels like that’s when the songs gain more energy and life. Sometimes I think I would prefer to record an album at the end of a tour, because our confidence improves as we go. Also, when we’re out touring I always feel like part of a history of so many people who have tried to make a living that way. The grind and repetitiveness of that experience maybe adds to that feeling; perhaps it’s not supposed to be easy. The tour we did together was quite intense, but we were really grateful to be having the experience. Some of the drives were really epic and scenic. I do remember going a bit mad on a couple of journeys, that’s why I always sat at the back. I still managed to hit you with my shoe at one point, I’m still sorry about that.
LM—When I first saw you play I thought it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Do you feel like the coolest thing I’ve ever seen?
JD—That’s a pretty big compliment, but no, it’s rare to feel cool.
KB—I’m pretty sure I’m not cool.
LM—It seems to me like there is a vast difference in the way British and American musicians feel about what they do. Brits don’t tend to, or are more reluctant to, consider themselves artists, and seem sometimes to be embarrassed of success, whereas, and I may be wrong, America seems to breed more of a pride in the idea of being “an artist” or a shameless creative. I think there are values in both mentalities that I enjoy. How do you both consider yourselves? Artists? Musicians? Two gals with a fun hobby?
JD—I find it really awkward when someone asks what I do. I dislike trying to explain it so much that sometimes I don’t even mention the music part of my life at the risk of sounding completely boring. I think it must be an English thing. Recently, I have been reassessing how much music defines me. I am trying to just see it as a really great hobby. Having it as the most major force and goal in life just seems to invite feelings of under achievement and tends to take away the pleasure of it. I think perhaps with the industry the way it is now we are a part of a generation of artists who have to do it as a hobby along with other things.
KB—I don’t really feel like an “artist”, it just feels like such a huge statement. To me it’s better if it’s something someone says about you rather than you say about yourself. I feel ambitious but to define yourself as an artist feels quite presumptuous. I do think there is something very good to be said for self confidence and self definition, and it’s true a lot of American artists seem to have that in spadefuls, but I find the word “artist” puts a weird label on a creative process that is quite mysterious to me. I can’t really think of it as a hobby as it feels much more like an uncontrollable obsession that I can’t really live without, but at the same time it’s not a job. So it’s hard to say what it is. I just feel like two people tied together by a weird choice we made once without really realizing.
LM—You guys weren’t using picks last time I saw you play in London with a full band, even though you both play electric and with a lot of melodic lines. I really like the effect of this, it’s not a sound you’d expect to hear from the set up you guys have. How did you come to play like this?
JD—I guess when we started the finger picking stuff it felt weird to use a pick. I could never really keep hold of them anyway so it was a revelation to find we didn’t actually need them. I am strumming a lot more that I used to, but back when we started we tried to come up with guitar lines that intertwined so you couldn’t tell who was playing what.
KB—The things I wanted to play just didn’t seem to be possible with a pick. It just got in the way.
LM—What excites you about music and it’s place in the world? If, of course, it does at all.
JD—When you really connect with an album it becomes embedded into your life. You can play an old favorite and it can take you right back to a time or a place or feeling; it provokes a sort of gut reaction. You can turn to music for reassurance, to lift your mood, or sometimes to indulge in your sadness. It’s really exciting that through music you can create something that can affect someone in that way.
KB—When people you meet say they have connected emotionally to a song or album of ours, it feels like everything is worth it because it’s a sign that our music does have a place in someone’s world.
LM—Are you working towards another record?
JD—We have started demoing songs. There are so many plans and ideas it’s hard to find the time to actually realize them at the moment.
KB—We like to record ideas at home, piecing together ideas and figuring our arrangements. Hopefully we’ll be able to release something new soon.
LM—Have your recent travels around the world had any effect on you creatively?
KB—Quite a few songs of ours have come out of the traveling experience. Feeling disconnected from your home is good for getting your creativity flowing.
JD—I’m never able to write when I am away from home. Journeying around though, I come up with lots of ideas and I am always keen to get back to collate all of them. Being away from home takes the pressure off writing songs and does seem to give me a surge of creativity when I get home and everything is fresh.
LM—Have either of you fallen in any water fountains recently?
KB—The water fountain tour incident was quite memorable. I am quite accident prone; I got injured going down a slide at the end of my road the other day. It was New Year’s Eve and I thought it would be a nice start to 2013 but it had been raining and I shot down it a lot faster than I thought. I flew off the end and past the safety mat into the mud. It was horrendous.
JD—The slide incident was a bit of an accident. No one could predict going down it would be like skeleton racing. Kaf is fairly cheeky though. I am sure she’s never “fallen” into a fountain in a hotel reception by accident.