‘People call our harmonies mediaeval, strange inversions that aren’t normal’

Tipped as one of London’s hottest new acts, The Smoke Fairies play Germany this week. Arsalan Mohammad spoke to band member Katherine Blamire about playing live, formative influences, New Orleans and burgers.

'People call our harmonies mediaeval, strange inversions that aren’t normal'
Photo: The Smoke Fairies

It’s a long way from the genteel avenues of Chichester, southern England to the sultry alleyways of New Orleans. In 2002, two young English girls arrived in the legendary city with a clutch of self-penned folk songs, hungry to absorb the musical atmosphere of the “Big Easy,” where blues, Cajun, creole and jazz bubble nightly in a rich stew. For Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, aka The Smoke Fairies, the experience was nothing short of inspirational.

Eight years on the duo are on the cusp of major success. They’ve been feted by Jack White (who produced a couple of early singles), Richard Hawley and Bryan Ferry. And their freshly-released debut album, “Through Low Light And Trees” is garnering praise in the UK and US, their unique blend of gruff blues and dark, angelic folk translating to a hypnotic sound that recalls influences as diverse as PJ Harvey, The Pentangle, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Nick Drake and Kate Bush.

Is it true The Smoke Fairies once worked in a burger van?

That was a horrible experience. As we grew up we had to support ourselves through different means, and at one point we had jobs in a burger van in Chichester. With a queue stretching out to the horizon we had to serve these burned burgers. I was in charge of cutting the onions and they were all over the floor. It was…character building. Yes, we did write a song about it.

You’ve been playing live for around five years now, but this is the first time you’ve toured since the debut album. How has your live show evolved in the interim?

We’ve developed more confidence. We like to strip it down to the two of us, that’s the core of the sound – the harmonies, the guitars – and we don’t want to lose that, but playing with a band adds a certain dynamic flavour, it helps us progress our sound.

The new album is a confluence of styles and forms, from madrigals, folk, and blues to pop. Is this a fair representation of your musical tastes?

When we first started out, Jessica’s parents had a record collection we’d listen to over and over again. We really loved harmonies, like with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Grateful Dead, or Led Zeppelin with their insistent riffs, all those classic bands. We had no formal training, other than singing in the school choir, but as we grew up together, we learned how to blend our voices. I don’t know why, but as soon as we got those harmonies, it didn’t sound like anything else we’d ever heard, really. When we realized we could do it, it became almost obsessive, we put harmonies on everything. Now people call our harmonies slightly mediaeval, strange inversions that aren’t normal, but that’s come from the folk element of the influences.

Folk is obviously a huge influence, there are traces of bands like Fairport Convention and Pentangle…

Pentangle! The main reason I started listening to them was that people kept comparing us to them and I was like, who are Pentangle? We don’t really listen to that much of it, but obviously bands like Fairport Convention we really like, but again, it was only when people started comparing us that we started listening. What people don’t understand is that folk is a collective pool everyone is gleaning off. If you listen to folk, there are certain melodies and progressions that come up over and over again and the challenge is how to make that different.

Certain tracks on the album like ‘Summer Fades,’ ‘Dead In My Mind,’ and ‘Erie Lackawanna’ – are steeped in a lovely, melancholy atmosphere that is unsettling, yet beautiful.

A lot of our music has a kind of tension, an unsettling environment. We’ve always liked creating an atmosphere, so when you put the record on you’re transported somewhere different. All the albums we’ve loved have a certain feel running through, a world they conjure up in your mind.

Counter to this though is your love of the blues – so intense you went and hung out in New Orleans a couple of years back to soak up the atmosphere. What was that like?

You hear New Orleans and think of cool music and we wanted to go very badly. What inspired us most about the city was the atmosphere of the place rather than one type of music, something about the whole feel of the place – that swampy heat people talk about – and we played quite a lot when we were there. That was really inspiring.

Now you’re headlining, the album’s been released and you’re touring the world. Life is pretty good?

Yes! We love being out and experiencing new places all the time. It’s inspiring moving around and that transient lifestyle brings a flavour to your music, a lot of musicians will recognize. All these experiences kind of aid what we do, if that makes sense!

I’m looking forward to doing Europe, we’re going to a whole load of places we haven’t been to before. But we have been to Berlin before, and I’m looking forward to seeing what inspires us. It’s just fascinating city, with such an interesting vibe. It’s very unique, and we’ve always wanted to go back. I just hope we get some time to look around!

The Smoke Fairies play the Comet Club in Berlin on Wednesday, November 24.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.