If you’re headed to Napa’s Uptown Theatre this Saturday to see Mary Chapin Carpenter, you’re in for an extra treat. The 2018 UK Americana Artist of the Year, Emily Barker, will open the show. An Australian-born singer/songwriter, Barker will do a solo acoustic set and then join Carpenter, harmonizing and playing percussion.
On the phone from a tour stop in Bloomington, Indiana last week, Barker talked about her childhood on the other side of the world – in rural Bridgetown, three hours from Perth near the southwestern tip of Australia. “We didn’t have a television growing up,” she said. “We lived on a farm and couldn’t get a television signal where we were, so our entertainment was listening to my dad’s record collection.
“It was ’60s and ’70s singer/songwriters and bands — Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, a lot of blues as well, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and BB King. And various rock bands, The Who and stuff like that, the popular music of the ’60s and ’70s. There was always a record on, after school and in the evenings. We’d stand around the stereo and read the liner notes and sing along to the lyrics.”
“My mom had this old guitar that she used to play a little bit, and we had the Alan Lomax folk song book,” Barker said. “She taught all of us, all four kids, how to harmonize. I was quite immersed in music, I guess, from an early age.
“When I was a teenager, my little town, which had about 2,000 people in it, started having this international blues festival. Suddenly there’d be 20,000 people in town on the second weekend in November. They brought artists over from the U.S., and national Australian artists as well, playing blues and soul music. As a teenager, it was the most exciting weekend of the year.”
“In high school, we all started playing music. When I was 14, I plucked up the courage to audition for my year band as the singer. I sang Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, and I got the part. I started singing at the blues festival with the school band, and it just grew from there.”
Barker said that when she first heard Aretha Franklin sing, “It changed my life completely. Her voice just completely blew my mind. From a vocal point of view, she was my idol from a really early age.”
“I also found myself loving Neil Young, whose acoustic records like ‘Harvest’ and ‘Comes a Time’ were a big influence on my songwriting when I later started to do that. And Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and Carole King’s ‘Tapestry,’ I would say from a writing point of view, they had a really big influence on me. From a singing point of view, it was Aretha Franklin and Bettye LaVette and countless other incredible African-American women’s voices.”
At age 22, Barker made a break for it, leaving Australia for the UK. “It actually had nothing to do with music,” she said. “I just wanted to start traveling. There’s this cultural tradition as a young Aussie that you head over to the UK with a two-year working visa and work in bars as a waitress, and then you save up money to go traveling and backpacking all through Europe and elsewhere.”
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“I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time. I absolutely loved music. I was supposed to be studying architecture at university but I just didn’t feel like it yet. I took off traveling for about two and a half years, and just kept on writing songs as I was doing it.”
“I lived in Brazil for six months, traveled all through Canada, and visited the States briefly, just in New York and San Francisco. I traveled all through Europe, backpacking and working. I just wanted to get some experience because I’d had such a sheltered life growing up on a farm in this really rural area of southwest Australia.”
Ultimately settling in the UK, Barker has been recording and performing for a decade, splitting her time between being a solo artist and playing in collaborations, particularly in an all-female trio, The Red Clay Halo. In all, she has recorded 11 albums. The most recent is “Sweet Kind of Blue” in 2017.
Barker’s public emergence had been sparked by a chance meeting at a house concert in 2008 while she was raising money for the promotion of her second album, “Despite the Snow.”
“I met a composer named Martin Phipps afterward, and he bought a CD,” she said. “He rang me a couple of days later and said that he was working on a television series for BBC starring Kenneth Branagh. It was based on books about this detective named Wallander. To be honest, it was all gobbledygook to me. At the time, I didn’t even know who Kenneth Branagh was.
“Martin said that he’d really fallen in love with this song, ‘Nostalgia,’ and wanted me to come down to his studio to do a new recording of it that was more fitting for pitching the series. So we did that and the director loved it immediately. It ended up being used as the theme to ‘Wallander.’ And we suddenly had loads of people coming to our shows.”
Phipps later would pluck another Barker song, ‘Pause,’ from her album ‘Almanac,’ as the theme for another TV series, ‘The Shadow Line.’ This led to still more TV and movie adaptations for Barker’s compositions.
“But it really started with ‘Wallander,’” Barker said. “Having ‘Nostalgia’ used as the its theme was really significant. Looking back, everything changed after that.”
Saturday, June 30, 8 p.m. (opening for Mary Chapin Carpenter). $40-$80. Uptown Theatre Napa, 1350 Third St., Napa. 707-259-0123. UptownTheatreNapa.com.