An evening with the Smoke Fairies
An evening with the Smoke Fairies
by Kasia Juno
Two girls in Texan shawls and copper necked guitars take to the stage with a shy solemnity that captivates the gathering. It occurs to me that there are a lot of tall people in the building tonight – then I notice that most of the audience is bearded and born in the 50’s. The small concert hall is packed with mustaches, cowboy boots, and tartan collars. The Neil Young generation. The real deal. For a moment I feel like I could be in a Portland bar in the late 70’s, leaving my mountain commune to raise a toast to women’s lib and enjoy some good home grown folk.
Warm guitar and lush vocal harmonies fill the Roter Salon. Everyone around me is glowing – partly from the heat of the stage lights, and partly from pure pleasure. The Smoke Fairies, made up of the duo Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies and their talented support band, showcase their new album, Blood Speaks, while peppering the set with favourites, like Hotel Room, Summer Fades, and Strange Moon Rising. I find myself swaying with the broad shouldered crowd, our bodies softening to the electric tremolo and heavy bass. The room fills with rising harmonies layered by viola and drums, and Kaf’s effortless slide guitar. At the risk of betraying my hippy background I will say that this really is heart music – you can feel it in your vital organs.
And yet, despite the band’s authentic haircuts, the Smoke Fairies are not just ambassadors of the old folk movement. The duo’s lyrics, themes and the general atmosphere of their songs drive them toward a very current, fresh sound. During the last few years they have seen a lot of success – they’ve played to sold out venues, supported Jack White (who also produced one of their singles on his label Third Man Records), toured with Richard Hawley, and have recently released the critically acclaimed Blood Speaks.
The title track, Blood Speaks, is their final song (before they’re called back for an encore). This is, indisputably, the song of the night. The crowd hushes as Jess picks up a baton and beats on a tribal drum.
Blood is speaking
The Smoke Fairies have spent time in New Orleans and Vancouver, and are accustomed to playing the role of Ausländer. When I meet with them at their record label office, Jess tells me that the two of them met in school and relocated to North America for a few years.
There wasn’t really any point to it, explains Jess. We just saw Vancouver in a travel brochure and we saw the pictures of the purple mountains and the skyscrapers and we thought, well we’re not doing anything in England – let’s just go live there for a year. Both of us like to live without really knowing what going to happen next.
As soon as we get into a routine there’s a feeling of entrapment that takes over, explains Kaf, although she says that she also uses this ‘entrapment’ as a creative resource.
Ultimately, she says, our songs are our ticket out of there.
The girls explain that the feeling of disconnection is central to a lot of their music and songwriting, as is memory and the act of remembering. In a way, their songs mimic memory – they’re panoramic, a portrait of an afternoon, still life at a truck stop, a pause in conversation, an indication of movement and distance. Their songs give us landscapes rather than plots.
Their tunes pay homage to the outskirts of cities, (this is best illustrated in a song called Gas Town), and are composed of half explained narratives, glimpses into the often familiar lives of others. A line from Hotel Room.
I’ve got a reason to treat you like I love you.
There, that distance again – the impermanence created by the simile – the tactful ‘like’, that gap between the real and the imagined.
I just don’t think that for me love is ever very simple, says Kaf, when I ask her about this line. There’s always that feeling like, I think this is what I feel. I think this is what I feel, but is this the most that there is to feel?
She hesitates, shifting the hair out of her eyes.
In a way, does it really matter? That song’s about renewing energy in someone’s life, she says. Maybe it’s just what you need at that time.
Jess and Kaf admit to a fascination with memory and history, and the space created by retelling and reimagining the past. After all, they tell me, we were both history majors.
It comes down to the relationship you have with your own memory, says Jess. I guess we’re both quite – she pauses, smiling – sentimental when it comes to the past. There’s a nice feeling you get from looking back on times.
Before I leave, I ask Jess and Kaf whether or not they believe that nostalgia inhibits happiness. They consider this for a moment.
Richard Hawley said something at our gig in Paris last night, says Jess. ‘Cherish what you have, not what you wish for.’ I like that. It stayed with me. We are our memories. So no, I don’t think nostalgia gets in the way of happiness.
I think it’s important to feel like you’ve lived a life, Kaf agrees. You’ve met these people. You have experienced these scenes. You have these things stored up inside yourself that make you who you are. I think that’s very important to us. The idea that, I suppose, we’ve taken on what our childhood selves wanted to achieve.
by Kasia Juno