I’m sitting at a table in an Italian Restaurant. Around the table are seated the Emily Portman Trio. They’re talking to me but I can’t hear anything they’re saying. In the corner of the room there’s a lady playing the organ and singing Phil Collins’ ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ very loudly. The waiter comes over and grins at me…he’s saying something but I can’t make out what it is. Then Sam Sweeney walks in, sits down and orders bruschetta…
Now admittedly this may sound like some strange, surreal folk journalist’s dream. However it’s actually a fairly precise description of how my interview with Emily Portman began.
I’d arranged to meet Emily ahead of her performance at The Musician in Leicester, part of her latest tour to launch the new album ‘Coracle’. Having already established herself amongst the top flight of UK folk with highly acclaimed albums and a Radio 2 Folk Award, Emily was once again back out on the road along with her ‘Emily Portman Trio’ accomplices Rachel Newton and Lucy Farrell to promote Coracle…described by FRUK’s Helen Gregory in her recent review as “a dazzling display of writing and musicianship”.
Back to the restaurant and recognising that the lovely (but very loud) organist was probably going to jeopardise my attempts at a Pulitzer winning interview, Emily graciously decided to order a pizza to take out. Leaving Rachel, Lucy and Sam to enjoy the music, Emily and I escaped outside for a chat…me asking my normal dumb questions while Emily munched on her pizza. Keen to find out how one goes about creating something as impressive as Coracle, I was to discover that aside from Emily’s obvious talents as a writer and performer, collaboration played a big part in the album…
However first things first…I wanted to know how the tour was going. “It’s going very well actually” was Emily’s summary, “We started off with Will Scrimshaw, my partner, on drums for the Palm House gig and since then we’ve been going out as a trio. We’ve basically brought a load of effect pedals, loops and stuff, because we were trying to work out how we were going to recreate what is a lot more of an ambitious sound. So we’ve got a couple of pedals…Rachel’s brought her electric harp along…and it seems to be working well. We recorded the title track ‘Coracle’ in this octagonal church near Sam Sweeney’s house. It was with a big string group and it was amazing. I would love to recreate that live one day and in the meantime I was a bit fearful that it wouldn’t have an impact in the same way. But actually when it’s stripped down to Rachel and Lucy on viola and violin and me on concertina, it’s just different…it’s got a different intensity to it. We’ll see what it turns into. It’s fun to do because it’s still all new to us so it’s kind of exciting and a bit scary, but in a good way!”
Emily clearly however has bigger ambitions to recreate the ‘Coracle sound’ in a live setting. “I think what the dream is” she explains “is to get the dreaded funding applications together and actually do it as a bigger show with drums, with a good sound engineer…Andy Bell who produced the album…plus Sam Sweeney, Matt Boulter who did the Steel guitar and Toby Kearney who was the drummer, all of whom were on the album. We could do it as we did it on the album then and it would be really exciting. As it is it’s still working, just in a more stripped back way.”
For this tour the trio are opening with a medley of songs from the previous albums before moving onto the new material from Coracle. “It’s bizarre but we’re still really enjoying singing the old stuff as well as the excitement of the new stuff.” Emily reflects, “We were just saying that this is still really fun actually, there’s something really lovely about the difference between the stuff that you’re absolutely solid on and the stuff we’ve been doing for years like Stick, Stock”.
She goes on to pick out some tracks from Coracle that particularly appear to be working well live. “I’m really enjoying ‘A Grief’ actually which is one of the more stripped backs songs with just harp and me singing and Lucy kind of knocking on the fiddle. It’s just fun to sing. People seem to like ‘Brink of June’, they make comments about that one, and ‘Coracle’ is one that people are still mentioning, that it’s making them cry and stuff. Which is basically my aim! Well not exactly ‘aim’, but it’s nice to know that it’s touching people…”
It’s only been five years since the release of Emily’s debut album ‘The Glamoury’ which earned her R2 Folk Award nominations, glowing reviews and a ton of airplay. Since then The Emily Portman Trio has become one of the ‘must see’ acts on the UK circuit, and early reviews of Coracle suggest things will only get bigger still. I wondered to what extent Emily recognised the latest recording as a reflection of her ongoing development as an artist.
“It definitely feels like progression for me in terms of the way that we made the album this time with Andy producing it. As a trio, we’ve really been together a while now…me, Lucy and Rachel. We’re all just really proud of it, it’s a real group effort. To have such brilliant guest musicians on the album as well is just amazing. So I hope it’s a development. What I’m hoping is that the writing gradually gets better as I go along. I think I’ve always been inspired by folk tales and by ballads and mythology and I’m hoping that it gets a little subtler as it goes on. It’s definitely the most personal album that I’ve made and I’m hoping it’s happening less self-consciously as I continue writing and weaving in the strands of the folklore influences.
“The album did evolve during recording…I wrote them, then me, Lucy and Rachel played them together…and then Andy came along for a rehearsal one afternoon and listened to them all and was like ‘Ok I can hear this for this track and let’s try recording this like this’, so he got on board with it and started bringing ideas. That was a great way of working because it added an extra dimension. Then the guest musicians came along…so it evolved in a really fun and exciting way this time.”
The challenge for any artist in receipt of such critical acclaim for their early work is trying to sustain it through subsequent album releases…a situation that inevitably creates some self-pressure.
“I think because I’d had my daughter and I wasn’t writing” reflects Emily, “I was doing tours but having absolutely no time to write. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I think it was because I was really missing writing most of all. I probably needn’t have put so much pressure on myself, as soon as I got into it and got a bit of childcare and managed to start writing again, I was so relieved to be doing it again that it became…not always an easy process…but an exciting one. I always put far too much pressure on myself but I’m trying to get a bit better at that!”
We moved onto the question that, speaking as a non-musician with no clue about how the creative process works, I really wanted to ask Emily Portman. How do you go about creating something like Coracle?
“I’ve often found myself starting with the lyrics” she explains, “I really love the writing process. I also started with themes…I was thinking a lot about motherhood, my new baby and these themes kind of starting creeping in. I started looking at stories to do with birth and motherhood, also about the other end of the spectrum…about death. I actually went down to Cecil Sharp and did a bit of research and found books on bird lore and stuff like that. What really got me writing was going to a writing group in Liverpool…I realised that I wasn’t doing it, I was feeling pretty miserable not writing…and so that really helped.
“Eleanor Rees is a poet in Liverpool, through the writing group I got to know her and we’ve ended up collaborating. Some of the writing process for these songs were afternoons that I spent with Eleanor and we would just sit down at the kitchen table, or one of the libraries…I would bring a ballad, we would talk about the ballad and then write alongside each other. At the end we’d talk about it, share what we’ve done and it would spark off conversations. That’s how ‘Borrowed and Blue’ and ‘Eye of Tree’ were written. Then ‘Darkening Bell’ was written after going on a day trip with Eleanor and the artist Desdemona Mccannon. We started going on trips to sacred sites around North Wales, went wild swimming in holy wells, for a bit of fun but also for a bit of inspiration. That’s how ‘Darkening Bell’ was written…after our experience discovering this cave, Gop Cave in North Wales. We went down and made some recordings of the cave. We scared ourselves really silly and ran out again! So it’s been quite an unusual process in some ways…”
She continues, “I found that sometimes the tunes would just be there in my head as I was making it up and other times…I had to go on lots of walks down by the river Mersey. I’d say ‘right by the time I’ve come back it’s going to have come’ and I’d be taking a recorder…sometimes just recording on my phone until it felt right…and then listening to it and thinking ‘No’! So the process would begin again. Actually with ‘Hollow Feather’ I tried thinking of a tune for ages. I’d been recording and then re-recording. I had the lyrics…I was singing and singing it and nothing was right. I was actually on my way to a funeral and the tune just came in the car, so I had to get to the lay-by and record it into my phone. I was like ‘Thank God!’ And I had the song by the end of the day.”
Although there’s a definite ‘Emily Portman sound’ that pervades all of her recorded work…Dreamy, Mysterious, Atmospheric, Lush, Ethereal and Spooky are all words that various reviewers have used to describe it…it’s not something Emily consciously thinks about. “I think it’s just what happens when we’ve got this combination of me, Lucy and Rachel…we’ve got our harmonies, we’ve got the harp and the strings and now banjo and concertina. We’ve got shared tastes and things that we want to…not exactly emulate…but we’ve got influences and I think we want it to sound of the moment as well. We don’t just listen to folk music. We’re just doing what we want really and not getting too hung on having to sound a particular way…”
Spending time talking with Emily, Rachel and Lucy and watching them perform on stage, it’s clear how much they enjoy each other’s company. “It’s great being on tour with Lucy and Rachel” smiles Emily, “I love it. We support each other…they support me a lot. We listen to a lot of radio in the car. We’ve been listening to Sufajan Stevens…at this point Emily breaks into a rendition of ‘Should Have Known Better’…and Jeff Buckley on the way down the motorway. And Laura Mvula, we’ve been listening to her quite a lot on the road. It’s great fun playing with Lucy and Rachel and hanging out with them as well.”
Despite the fun of being together, the travelling for the tour was already starting to take its toll…it had taken them hours to get to Leicester from Reading due to a closure on the M1…leaving the trio slightly frazzled. I wondered what it was that motivated Emily be a touring musician?
“Because I love it” she immediately responds, “and because I start getting a bit miserable when I don’t do it. Sometimes I think it would be so much easier not touring…I have to be away from my daughter, all the driving…I’m knackered today! You get calf ache from the clutch, sitting on the M1. But despite all of that…as soon as you get a good gig and you just have a little bit of a spine tingling thing, it’s just great. I’ve been getting pretty overwhelmed by how well it’s received. Somebody will say something really lovely and it makes all the difference and you think ‘ah, people really do like it’. I think it’s easy to underestimate how much difference that makes…having people telling you what a difference it makes to them. So that’s why I do it really. For the love of it….also just because it’s ‘what I do’ now. I’m waiting to be offered another job!”
As we concluded our chat, I asked Emily what was the biggest thing she’d learned so far about being a successful artist?
“Just to keep on doing it. I don’t know if that’s something to learn. I think you’ve got to just not be put off by your own self-doubt and your own fears about how it’s going to be received. There are all the kind of things that can stop you from even writing…just thinking ‘Oh God imaging the terrible reviews, I’m not even going to bother!’ I think if you get stuck at that point, caring too much about how it’s going to be received, then it kind of limits you a lot. So I think if you just keeping going and then you’re reminded why you’re doing it and it’s not for the reviews…it’s because you want to be doing it. Lots of people just stop because it is such an exposing thing…and because it’s hard work. You certainly don’t become a millionaire in my line of work…I’m still waiting for that day! But it’s not why you do it…”
We finished off with the usual ‘what’s next?’ discussion…plus I was keen to know what was happening with The Furrow Collective, the traditional song project featuring Emily, Rachel, Lucy and Alasdair Roberts. “Furrow Collective…we’re going to bring out a 6-track EP in the Autumn…we’ve recorded it” Emily explains, “We go into the recording studio in Glasgow in August and we’re going to record an album then as well. So we’re bringing out an EP in the Autumn and then in the Spring we’ll bring out a new album. So that’s the next thing really for me. Also just this kind of dream of making something of Coracle…making it a bit bigger, I’m really hoping that can happen…that’s why I’m going to be working away in the Summer at that. It’s been really well received so far which is lovely. You never stop working at that kind of thing, you’ve just got to keep on thinking about the next tour!”
Interview by: Rob Bridge
Coracle is out now via Cadiz Music Ltd
Pre-Order it via: http://www.emilyportman.co.uk/shop/coracle
This is part of an ongoing new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter@redwoodphotos