I’m having tea with Smoke Fairies, the dream-pop duo from West Sussex who have had more help from famous musicians than most people could ever dream of.
Their A-list supporters include Bryan Ferry, Jack White and Richard Hawley, but it has not been all dreamy for the two-piece, Jessica Davies, 31, and Katherine Blamire, 30.
After their last folky album, Blood Speaks, was released in 2012, Davies told Blamire that she didn’t know if Smoke Fairies should continue.
“I thought: ‘Is this as far as we are ever going to get? It is more like an expensive hobby – we still have day jobs,’” says Davies, who met Blamire aged 11 when they were at secondary school in Chichester. “I started to think: ‘Are we deluded – have we been dreaming? Do I have to grow up now?’ We’ve wanted to be musicians since we were very small. It’s all-consuming. It felt like it needed to be reassessed.”
Although the duo had made two critically acclaimed albums in the space of four years and were the first UK act to have a single released on Jack White’s Third Man Records, they felt disillusioned. They were still living together in a shared house in Peckham and working temp jobs around London. Fortunately it didn’t take Davies long to do a U-turn and realise that not making music was not an option. “When we really thought about it, it was not possible to not be writing music because we love doing it,” she says.
She promptly wrote a musical apology to Blamire, “We’ve Seen Birds”, which is now the uplifting opening track on their new self-titled synth-pop album, which came out this week.
“I just wanted to say sorry to her – sorry I scared you like that,” says Davies. “We realised this is our life. It was my way of saying, ‘I’m back on board, let’s go for it’.”
In the video for “We’ve Seen Birds” the duo hand-make a giant bird sculpture out of wood which then takes flight from the top of a hill.
“We wanted something fantastical and magical to represent the joy of the journey. I guess we had come back round to seeing it as something really great that we were doing,” says Blamire.
Smoke Fairies’ first stroke of luck came in 2006 when they met Ed Harcourt in a bar and he helped them to make a demo tape. That then fell into the hands of Bryan Ferry, who asked them to audition at his London studio, before inviting them to support him on his UK tour in 2007. “It was our first-ever tour, having only done open-mic sessions around London,” says Blamire. “We knew Bryan’s guitarist who is a very good producer, Leo Abrahams, who recorded our demos. He passed Bryan our demo when they were sitting at an airport somewhere. Bryan asked us to play a few songs and he walked around making approving noises.”
The following year they released their first folk single, the hauntingly beautiful “Living With Ghosts”. Richard Hawley was so taken with their music that he asked them to support him on his tour of the UK in 2009 and invited them to collaborate on a sea shanty, “Shallow Brown”, on his False Lights From the Land 2010 EP. “He likes to give us a lot of advice when we are with him,” says Blamire. “He prides himself on being a wise soul. I suppose he is a bit of dad figure to us.”
That same year, they tracked down Jack White at a bar and convinced a DJ at the venue to play “Living With Ghosts”, so he had to hear their song. “We went up to him and said, ‘Jack, this is our band. We are a duo,’ recalls Davies. “He said, “A duo? That will never work. But a year later, completely out of the blue, he called us up and asked if we wanted to support his group Dead Weather the next day at HMV Forum. So of course, we said ‘yes’.”
Things only got better for Smoke Fairies when White popped into their dressing room at the gig and asked them if they wanted to record with him at his studio in Nashville. They flew out there for a couple of days and recorded a 7in, “Gastown”, on his Third Man label. White plays a dramatic guitar solo on its B-side “River Song”.
“He said: ‘Oh I’ve changed the ending a little bit. I hope you are OK with this,’” says Blamire. “We listened to it and it was just like an explosion had gone off at the end.” They supported White again on his solo tour last year. “He has championed us,” says Davies.
In 2010, the duo performed at South by South West and supported Laura Marling on a month-long tour of the US. “We were squashed in a tiny van – we would get out to play a little gig and then back in the van for hours.” They released their folk and blues album Through Low Light and Trees a year later. Follow-up Blood Speaks, which was inspired by touring across America, was released in 2012.
“As soon as we started singing together it felt like there was a unique sound,” says Blamire. “I thought, ‘this has to continue because we don’t know where it will take us’. And it has taken us on so many adventures. We are very driven and we have big dreams.”
How did Blamire cope when her bandmate considered dropping out of the band? “It is very hard to hear that somebody is unhappy. If there is any sense of failure, the guilt is amplified because you are dragging someone else along with you. I had not dared to admit my doubts to myself until she voiced them, but the thought of not making music together felt like a void.”
With renewed zest Davies and Blamire set off to a remote studio in Kent last year and recorded their third album, Smoke Fairies, enlisting the support of old touring friends, including the former Sly and the Family Stone and Roxy Music drummer Andy Newmark, to play on certain tracks.
They ditched the ethereal harmonies of their previous records and became two voices. They turned away from folk and blues to dreamy-pop, trying out synthesizers and drum loops. On songs like “Waiting for Something to Begin” and “Hope is Religion” they even sang about the ups and downs of being in a band.
“We wanted to strip the songs back to a raw form, so we took out all of the trademarks of our sound that had happened before, like guitars interweaving and harmonies overlapping, and took it back to the bare bones of the chord structure and built the instrumentation up from there,” says Blamire. “We wanted the songs to be direct because we had been through so much to make the record that we didn’t want to cloud any of the intentions with frilly lyrics. We wanted to be as honest as we could – it is very personal.”
Smoke Fairies are tour the UK from 27 May to 4 June (www.smokefairies.com). The album ‘Smoke Fairies’ is out nowReuse content