Marry Waterson and Emily Barker’s songwriting partnership was first forged at a writers’ retreat run by fellow musician Kathryn Williams.
Their fast-developing friendship this year led to A Window To Other Ways, an album of Waterson’s lyrics and Barker’s tunes, that the pair are now touring, with several dates in Waterson’s home county, Yorkshire.
Australia-born Barker says she “didn’t have much of a clue” who was going to be at the retreat before she attended it. “I got asked quite last-minute. Some of the people I knew, like The Magic Numbers, but I hadn’t met Marry before. I was aware of her work and excited to meet her.”
Waterson, however, was more in-the-know. The North Yorkshire singer-songwriter, who is part of the celebrated Waterson-Carthy folk family, explains: “I got a memo from Kathryn with a list of all the people that she was going to put on. She’d been asking me a few times to go to these things, but I was a bit scared, because you have to be quite brave. I felt like I could write a pretty decent song but I was worried about if I could do it in that moment then possibly have to perform it that evening in front of our peers, and then after a few days later we had to do a concert as well. You can’t be faint-hearted.”
They have Williams to thank for pairing them up. “What Kath does is she susses out people’s dynamic as they’re talking to each other over breakfast or lunchtime and sees who gravitates towards each other and then she would do the pairing up of people for the day’s writing,” Barker says. “I think when we first arrived Marry and I sat together and were chatting and Kath put us together on the first day. We just hit it off straight away creatively and I think we wrote out first song in about an hour. We had the entire rest of the day to just practice it.”
“It was ridiculously easy,” agrees Waterson. “Emily was really open and once we’d got some words Emily picked up the banjo and started strumming and I sang those words and then Emily sang her harmonies on top and as Emily said, it was just instant. We thought, ‘ooh, we’re going to have to do a bit more of this’.”
Collectively they wrote three songs in the course of the retreat. “Emily and I wrote a song because we were paired together and then Adem [Ilhan, the folkronica artist] and myself were paired together – Adem produced the album – and we wrote a song and then Adem and Emily were paired and they wrote a song, so it was more of a triangle.”
A plan was hatched to meet up and write again, Barker says. “We didn’t really know where we were heading with it necessarily, but we knew we wrote really well and we wanted to write more. I took a train up to Robin Hood’s Bay where Marry lives and we spent a weekend there. Within a weekend we had another four or five songs because we wrote in a similar way where Marry had some lyrics and I had some music ideas and we partnered our ideas.
“We very quickly had an EP’s worth and initially we were thinking that we might just release an EP but various people around us said, ‘You’ve already got half an album there so why don’t you spend another weekend together and I’m sure you’ll have an album by then’, and that was exactly what happened.”
“I went to Emily’s in Stroud and we did a repeat – I’d show her some words or she’d play me a tune and basically just slotted them into each other,” says Waterson. “We thought it was a great idea to get Adem involved because we’d both written with him. At my house initially we’d written Twister and as Emily played and I sang we recorded it on our phones and I’d meant to send this message to Emily but we’d been on these group emails that Kathryn had set up between all the musicians and I’d accidentally selected the group email and sent this out and it had gone to everybody. Once I’d realised this I said, ‘oh bloody hell, Emily, I hope that wasn’t too rough’ because it was just working it out on the spot, and it had gone to everybody – Romeo Stodart, Adrian Uttley. Anyway pretty quickly Adem sent it back with some wonderful, weird cello on it.”
“We both knew in that moment this would be a wonderful added element to have Adem bring his sounds and quirkiness to the project, so he was an obvious choice for our producer,” says Barker.
As principal tunesmith, Barker, who is best known for her work with the Americana-influenced group The Red Clay Halo, found herself delving into musical areas she had only half explored before. “I had a lot of music ideas, because I’ve also done quite a bit of writing for film and television [including the Kenneth Branagh series Wallander] so I have all these folders on my laptop which are piano and different moods, they’re just things that come to me quite playfully and I file away for another time,” she says.” I had loads of these little vignettes and it seemed like a really good opportunity to partner them with Marry’s lyrics to start diving into them and rediscover some old ideas that perhaps I wouldn’t get the chance to on my own records. I had them kicking about and I loved a lot of them but I hadn’t found the right place. When Marry started sending me some of her lyrics it reminded me of some of them.”
Other melodies picked up on “moods and subjects” within Waterson’s words “and just thinking, ‘what would be appropriate for this?’”
“I always have lots of lyrics squirrelled away,” says Waterson. “When Emily was at my house she’d played me this piano part which was really lovely and we didn’t quite know what we were doing with it. She left it with me and that was It’ll Be Good. I sang some lines into it and sent it back and that was one of the ways we worked as well. It was very easy and exciting and good fun – all the things it should be.”
While this project might not have spurred Waterson into writing about new lyrical topics, she says: “The way I approached them developed organically as I styled them into Emily’s tune and she’d make suggestions for choruses and middle-eights and sections. I think some of it ended up a bit more poppy than normal, the structure, because Emily’s really good at that kind of thing and coming up with really nice [chord] progressions but lyrically I just write whatever I’m feeling or whatever I’m inspired by, things that happen in life or somebody will say something and I think, ‘That’s interesting, I want to write about that’.
“But I did write one on the retreat that was a direct response to being on that retreat, and that was All Is Well, and that was because when I got to the retreat I realised that everybody else felt the same as me, no matter how famous or successful they were, they all had slight reservations about whether it was going to be OK, so I wrote about that. Everybody on the outside seems to look composed and successful and on the inside a lot of us are thinking the same thing, we’re all worried.”
The pair don’t discount the possibility of working together again in future. “Possibly,” says Barker. “We haven’t really talked about it yet. We’re both beginning our next solo albums so that will probably take our focus next but I’m definitely keeping the door open to that possibility.”
“You’re writing a book of poetry as well,” Waterson points out to her musical partner.
“Yes, I am,” Barker remembers. “Very slowly.”
A Window To Other Ways is out now. Marry Waterson and Emily Barker play at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on November 2, Frazer Theatre, Knaresborough on November 3 and The Greystones, Sheffield on November 5.