Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies met at school in Sussex, UK during the late 1990s. They spent 2002 in New Orleans, LA, where they absorbed American blues music. When they returned to England they discovered British folk music at the Sidmouth Folk Week Festival while working as car park attendants. They later settled in Vancouver, Canada, for a year before returning to London, UK in 2006 to start performing.
Smoke Fairies’ outstanding new album, the eponymously titled Smoke Fairies, shows the band in top form, combining their classic approach whilst exploring new forms of musical expression – but it is an album that they nearly didn’t make.
There was a moment after the release of Smoke Fairies' last album (Blood Speaks, 2012) when Jessica Davies turned to musical partner Katherine Blamire and told her she was no longer sure whether Smoke Fairies should continue.
For Smoke Fairies the suggestion of not playing music together would potentially impact more than just their band – theirs was a friendship forged by music, by a shared ambition that had carried them from their schooldays and on to songwriting and performing together.
“We started considering what would we do if we didn’t do music,” recalls Davies, “and it was just a massive void.” Deciding that giving up on the band was “not an option,” Davies wrote a musical apology to Blamire that would become the stunning opening track of their new eponymously titled album, Smoke Fairies. “I just wanted to say sorry to her – sorry I scared you like that.”
In the six years since Smoke Fairies first entered a recording studio, they have made two critically acclaimed albums, supported on tours with Bryan Ferry, Richard Hawley and Laura Marling, and had a single released on Jack White’s Third Man Records; but for all the perceived glamour of a musical career, they were still sharing a house in Peckham and waiting for something to happen while they worked temp jobs around London.
But with the question now raised, Smoke Fairies were able to really take stock and reassess what the band truly meant to them. “We realised that this is our life,” says Davies. “And we just have to see it as this wonderful thing, every gig we get to play and every record we get to make – we’re just incredibly grateful for that.”
More than this, it allowed them to think about the type of album they wanted to make. They had earned a reputation for impressive live performances, for harmonies and intricate guitar playing, but what they now craved was something simpler and more direct. Blamire talks of secretly listening to pop music on the bus, trying to figure out “why it was popular, why it was good.” Davies tells how her own personal yardstick had become “anything with a drumbeat that made me dance around the kitchen.”
Smoke Fairies yearned for movement and forward momentum. They wanted to make an album that wasn’t simply recorded live, but rather presented songs that were pored over, puzzled-out, polished and produced. “We wanted to feel that we had dissected everything back to its basic bones,” avers Davies, “and then for every song to kind of shimmer.”
In 2013 Blamire and Davies took themselves to a remote recording studio in Kent with producer Kristofer Harris. “It was on a very old industrial estate,” says Davies. “It was a really eccentric area – it used to be a council office, now there’s a bubble car garage, a tattoo parlour and a granite workshop. It just physically felt so distant from anything to do with the music industry.”
It was there that they set about crafting their latest album, Smoke Fairies, calling on their bandmates and old touring friends such as drummer Andy Newmark (Sly and the Family Stone, Roxy Music, John Lennon) to help out. “It felt very warm,” says Davies. “These people really came together to encourage us, as if we had retreated into a world of only ourselves and the people who mattered.”
The distance and sense of introspection also allowed for a shift in their songwriting techniques. “We used to do a lot of harmonies,” says Blamire. “But this album gave us the opportunity to actually be two voices, rather than two voices as one entity; two people talking to each other as distinct characters. They’re the messages that we send to each other.”
Their lyrical style, too, has changed: “We scrapped lyrics right from the start if they were too flowery,” asserts Davies. “Unless the lyric really got to the point and said something, it got cut.” Blamire agrees: “As songwriters, I feel we’re really starting to sum things up properly, to nail them down. For me, it was a testament to how long we’ve been together that we could just say to each other ‘that’s shit.’ There really was no ego on this record.”
The result is a remarkable set of songs, notable not only for their strength and robustness, but also a sense of experimentation. The sheer liberation Blamire and Davies felt at using synths for the first time is evident in tracks such as the irresistible “Your Own Silent Movie” and the beautifully compelling “Drinks and Dancing”. Davies and Blamire’s sublime voices still stand to the fore, and tracks like “Want It Forever” are lined with a deliciously bluesy skuzzy-ness. This may not be the sort of album you ever expected Smoke Fairies to make, but it is an extraordinary record – bracing, sensual and defiant – and one that promises an exciting musical future.
Blamire and Davies see the track “Hope Is Religion” as the song that best sums up their experiences of the past few years and their continued devotion to making music. “It’s one that we wrote together,” affirms Davies. “It’s about writing songs with someone, putting those ideas out into the open and sharing them with somebody; but it’s also about how with music you’re always hoping for more – that this will happen or that will happen. For us it felt as if music had become our religion, we believed in it without any evidence that we’d actually be able to make any money or be successful. I guess that sums up the situation we were in; but we realised we had no other option but to keep on believing.”
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