Rejects From The Choir: Smoke Fairies Interviewed

Ailbhe Malone talks to Sussex duo Smoke Fairies about how they conjure their ethereal sound

"We were never really embarrassed to write together. We’re embarrassed now, looking back on songs. You know, when you’re really young and you’re writing something and you think you’re really brilliant. Looking back on songs that we had written, and at the time, thinking they were amazing…"

Friends since secondary school, Katherine and Jessica hail from Chichester, West Sussex. They bonded over "a common interest – messing around at school, and several hilarious science lessons", and being, as Katherine notes, the "slightly reject members of the choir, that sat at the back, laughing. We were never the kids that got the solos". Spiritual but haunted, they exist in a space unaffected by the passing of time. Influenced by Americana and the blues, their voices interweave around each other to create a song, a knotted rope of story and sound. They make a conscious effort to make sure that their music can’t be connected to any one period in history. ‘Timeless’ is the wrong phrased to use; a better choice would be ‘out of time’. Current single ‘Sunshine’ could be sung from a Dixieland veranda, or on a Yorkshire Dale, or from a flat in High Barnet. Says Jessica: "Sometimes the guitar can sound quite old, and can take you to another time. It’s got quite a medieval sound to it, and it can transport the listener back, so that they can’t pinpoint what time the song’s set in. Especially if you also use lyrics to tell a story, to create an an uneasy atmosphere as well."

“It gets hard when the time you’re living in is not for us” – ‘Living With Ghosts’

While the girls aim to create "an atmosphere", they find it difficult to explain how this comes about. Jessica begins: "It’s more of a melodic thing, built up by harmonies and guitars combining…," before Katherine adds: "We also try and use blues chords and rhythms. It’s hard to explain, we’re not musical in the sense that we could explain which chords we use." What’s easy to explain though, is what their music is not. Jessica, laughing, states: "I guess the opposite would be a really happy pop song with loads of people dancing around on Top of the Pops. In the 1980s. Pan’s People, basically."

To this extent, the girls try and control how they’re depicted. Photoshop? Soviet-photo-erasing? Not quite. "We’re kind of careful," Katherine stresses. "We’ve got a few photoshoots coming up, and it would be nice to look happy in them, but yeah…when we sit down to write a song, we’re not all happy and smiley, and the subject matters aren’t all lovely. So, it would be wrong for us to project a pop emotion." Jessica, picking up the thread, adds: "We try and create the image that suits the music. Our music is moody, and we don’t want to attach too much of our personality to it. We want people to add in whatever they want. If we had photos of us at parties, and giggling, it wouldn’t have the same effect."

“I’ve come to hate your heart/ For it’s like the rolling sea/ Restless, hungry and cruel to me” – ‘Frozen Hearts’

Sultry and sulky, their music is influenced by both freedom and containment. Both Jessica and Katherine grew up by the sea, and admit that its influence is felt strongly in their lyrics – as Jessica says, "I think there is something about the sea, that just transforms your sense of where you are. When you know it’s just down the road." Katherine agrees: "All my family have little boats, and it’s there a lot in our lyrics. It relates back to the feeling of feeling a little trapped and claustrophobic. The sea connects you to continents. You have more of a sense of space than the rest of the world." They moved to London three years ago – according to Katherine, "This is where we need to be right now. This is where the opportunities are" – but they still feel uneasy in the city. Grey at the best of times, and unwilling to make compromises, London’s a tough nut to crack. Especially without the wide span of the sea to back you up, Jessica claims. "I find that it’s weirder being in London than being in any of those cities," she confesses. "They had a certain sense of space to them. Whereas, you can feel very claustrophobic here, with the grind of the job, and trying to do music. Somehow those pressures felt less intense in those other countries. I think that London is a harder place to live, when you’ve lived somewhere small than anywhere else really. It kind of takes a grip on you."

Things have picked up, though – they play a headlining slot at The Lexington on May 1 – and the girls like London "a bit more now". However, they don’t plan to stay forever. Katherine ends the conversation with a vision in her mind: "I think deep down, we’re the kind of people that need more space. At some point you’ve got to settle down, and give music as a career a proper go, and that’s what we’re doing. But hopefully someday, we’ll get out of this crazy city." Fairies at the bottom of the garden? Hardly. But you can’t deny that there’s magic in the air.

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