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Smoke Fairies - Interview

  by Sarah Maybank

published: 22 / 8 / 2008

Smoke Fairies - Interview


Blues folk duo the Smoke Fairies have attracted the interest of among others Bryan Ferry who they recently toured with. Sarah Maybank speaks to Jessica Davies and Kaf Blamire about their group and new single, 'Living with Ghosts'

A sun-drenched Friday evening and Pennyblackmusic is deep in conversation with blues folk femme fatales the Smoke Fairies. Edging past the cheery post-work drinkers soaking up the rays outside, Jessica Davies and Kaf Blamire have sought the oak-panelled gloom of a quiet,shadowy pub just off the tourist drag opposite Hyde Park. Interesting choice, this vampire’s nest setting. A deliberate ploy to underpin the noir-ish seductiveness of their songs perhaps? Nah, it’s all about the alcohol poisoning. The pair are buckling under the weight of one, two - or possibly more - too many. (“It was Kaf’s birthday yesterday and we went out last night. I just about made it into work. She didn’t.”). Sustained sunshine could mean a Superman/Kryptonite situation, so the daylight-free ‘Whispering Room’ is just fine, thank you. Smoke Fairies are the Missisippi meets St Paul’s Cathedral choir: angelic two-part harmonies in an unholy alliance with stark, brooding guitars. Two London-based exiles from the verdant Chichester countryside, they’re all about the anguish of Delta blues channeled via the rustic sounds of Jessica’s mum’s record collection (Joni Mitchell, Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and guilded like moonlight on a still lake with their silken, medieval-babe voices. It’s a grimoire of musical witchery that could soon have them intimately acquainted with stockbroker belt property acquisition, and umming and aahing over Louis Vuitton guitar cases. Really – hip taste-makers love them (they were described as "magical" at Jarvis Cocker’s 2007 Meltdown) and the establishment is just as impressed (they were a huge hit when cherry-picked to tour with Bryan Ferry). Important publications with sneery, hard-to-please reviewers are describing their rippling acoustica as "spectral" and "haunting" and virtually frogmarching readers to their gigs, too. As for playing the Albert Hall, the crowning glory of most band’s careers? Been there, done that. Spotting the pair waiting at the bar, PB feels like sloping off home, unnoticed. As if it’s not enough to be talented and acclaimed, in real-life, they’re leggy, clear-skinned and with turn-every-bloke’s-head-in-the-room looks. Gah. Then Kaf tells The Dog Story. “Jessica and I went to live in Vancouver for a year and I got a great job, walking dogs. Every morning, I’d have to take out eight of them at a time. There was this one that refused to move; it would just sit there and I’d have to drag it along. And I lost a Great Dane once; it just ran off. I found it sitting on top of a car; it had got freaked out by some traffic and jumped up there because it was scared. Actually, I had quite a few incidents where they escaped...” English roses? More like Eddie Izzard in a floral dress. Funny. Dry. A bit surreal. Phew. As they wearily clink ice around barely-sipped drinks you soon realise that what’s truly surreal for Kaf and Jessica is life as the next big thing. It’s not as bizarre as it was for Kurt Cobain, still sleeping in his car as ‘Nevermind’ went nuclear, waiting for the royalty checks to roll in. But it has its moments: A lot of the time they’re nine-to-five rat-racers, working as London office temps and hauling themselves around every toilet, shed and dive bar on the up-and-coming circuit. Not an easy job when you have to double up as your own roadie. (“We turn up in the office with amps, guitars, trollies,” says Kaf. “You arrive on the first day of a new job with a stack of amps: ‘...Really, I can explain...’”) Then the fame fairy godmother waves her magic wand and Jarvis comes calling, or ex-Roxy Music megastars suddenly sit up and take notice. “The Albert Hall show was part of the Bryan Ferry tour and it was scary. You think, ‘What are we doing here?’. There were parents in the audience, people you’re trying to impress. Then we just went for it. It’s nice to say to your parents, ‘I’ll get you tickets for the Albert Hall,’ rather than, ‘I’ll get you tickets for some dive I’m playing.” “The trouble is, though, you get used to certain things,” ponders Jessica, check-listing the downsides to celebrity patronage. “The food... There was this amazing chef; three dinner choices every night. We really made the most of that. The sound quality was great too. Then you go back to playing in small bars... there’ll be some kind of background buzzing noise and you think, ‘Here we go; back to reality.” Before they were the (very nearly) big, huge deal they are now, Smoke Fairies were two school girls who could sing a bit (as in, a lot) and couldn’t stand the sight of each other. They met on the first day of senior school, and hackles were raised straight away. Kaf thought Jessica was “posh” while Jessica was conviced “Kaf’s brain hadn’t developed properly. She kept talking about hedgehogs all the time.” “I don’t know how we became friends,” she adds. “Probably through a common goal of trying to annoy each other.” Then they both joined the school choir and soprano Kaf was made to sing with alto Jessica, and a partnership was born. “We started messing around singing other songs in harmony,” recalls Jessica. “I remember doing that song by America, ‘Horse With No Name’, in Kaf’s mum’s car. Then we started bringing our guitars into school and finding places to play; empty classrooms, cupboards. And we started writing songs.” What, your typical cringey teen fare? Songs about boys you fancy and falling out with your best made? Bad poetry set to music, maybe? “Actually, I used to be quite religious, so a lot of our early ones were about God. Our first song was called ‘Lord, Your Love Reaches Out To Me’ and we were convinced it was going to next year’s Christmas number one [laughs]. And that ambition’s never left us. We’re quite determined.” Realising, even in their early, Cliff Richard-ish throes of ambition, that they were on to something, they got a name (“Smoke Fairies comes from the mist hanging over the fields in Chichester; but there’s a film from the 20's that’s got the same name. We should say that’s where we get it from: ‘Actually we’re huge fans of black and white film...’”). And they devised a self-promotion strategy that, if you didn’t know them, would make you wonder if mild psychosis was involved. It started early, at a long-ago local blues festival with an alcohol-fuelled attempt to stuff a demo CD down a local DJ’s trousers, and they’ve stuck with it. “We give CDs to anyone we think will help,” shrugs Kaf. “Mark Lanegan, we gave him a copy of our single. He seemed a bit scared of us, but I think it’s because we were quite excited and high-pitched. We’ve not got the cool calm thing." “We gave one to Jack White too. We saw him backstage at Glastonbury. He’s really tall - massive. We gave a copy of our single to him. He was really polite, and said, ‘Thanks very much’ then I went all high-pitched and ruined it. I couldn’t keep it together.” “Our aim is to actually work with the people we admire though,” adds Jessica. “Ryan Adams, Crosby Stills and Nash... rather than just give them our stuff.” For an outfit so preoccupied with sadness and loss, Smoke Fairies can’t help enjoying themselves (“We like to stretch the boundaries of jolly” Kaf told the audience brightly at the launch gig for their new single ‘Living With Ghosts’, a break-up lament so heavy-hearted it make you want to write hate mail to all your exes in sympathy). They spent a year living in New Orleans, working miserable minimum wage jobs, so they could access its motherlode of musical talent – and enjoyed every minute. “We used to jam with the musicians there,” enthuses Kaf. “There was this cafe we used to go to. Every week there was another musician passing through and we all played together. You’d go there any time and you got to know everybody. We spent most of our time in there and it was a testing ground for all our songs. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, it was like home. After Hurricane Katrina we went on the net and read that the owner had set up his piano out on the street to play to people. He even made 'The New York Times'”. Following that was a musical assault on Vancouver. “Er, that was our party year,” admits Kaf. “As outsiders it was harder to join the musicians as a community, so we lost focus a bit. But we loved it.” “When we came home from New Orleans and Vancouver, it was hard to handle,” says Jessica. “Writing songs is a good way to deal with it. Everyone has a dark side and we express ours through our songs." “People do think it’s funny, though, the way we sound and the fact we don’t smile in photos, and then the way we are in gigs (they’d had a hip West End bar audience in stitches at the single launch a few days ealier, filling dead, broken-guitar-string time with a story about a blind turkey and a one-eyed chicken. Try imagining Bloc Party or Radiohead doing the same.)” Living in the UK for now, they’re back to gigging everywhere they can, cluttering up office space with guitars and amps (“the people we work with are quite supportive actually. Some of them even come to our gigs”). And doing it their way. “Our type of career, we want longevity and that’s slow-developing,” says Kaf.“We release our material ourselves. It’d be nice to be on a label but I don’t know how much we’d like to be told what to do.” What about the future? “More of the same,” according to Jessica. “Playing shows. We’ve done a lot of recording and it’s all ready to go. We’d like to release an EP. It’s just waiting for the right moment.” And with that, the pair drift off out, to the not-so-sunny side of the street, with the right moment, most probably lurking just around the corner. What’ll they be doing when it arrives? Our guess is stuffing a CD into its pocket and legging it off in stitches. The Smoke Fairies’ new single ‘Living With Ghosts’ is out now See www.smokefairies.com

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Smoke Fairies - Interview

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Smoke Fairies - Interview

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Through Low Light and Trees (2011)
Otherworldly and ethereal blend of alternative folk rock and bluesy American on first album from young English duo, the Smoke Fairies, that sounds ancient and modern at the same time

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