You may know Sophie Barker as one of the vocalists on Zero 7’s Simple Things, that luscious, sweeping vocal at the forefront of the album’s breakaway hit ‘In The Waiting Line’. You may also know her for her work with Groove Armada, The Egg, Grooverider, Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins) and Muki, or maybe for her previous solo album Earthbound. She also worked on The Rainbow Collections, a series of children’s music. It’s been a packed 10 years, that’s for sure - but with the release of new album Seagull comes the chance to get to know the real Sophie.
Sophie Barker’s new solo album Seagull reintroduces her with a more plaintive sound than before. And she talks about the new album - released on indie label Ho Hum Records - with an incredible excitement: “It’s like serendipity calling and coming together through the most natural of sources.”
Some of the songs on Seagull first surfaced in 2006, so it’s been a long old ride. Sophie’s ideas came together on her reflections - of how the world was changing, and how she was trying to situate herself within it. “Seagulls were coming into the city, and I kept imagining their view. Everything was upside down.” It’s the idea of a city being overly busy during the daytime, and its creativity only coming alive at night - and about trying to connect, be it emotionally or romantically. Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull - a fable centred on an experimental seagull with a thirst for knowledge - was also an influence.
It’s that same desire to break away, a quest, that took this album so long to surface; it took that long to block out the distractions in order to find the light. During 2007 and 2008, Sophie had tried working with a variety of people - different producers, different live bands - but it just wasn’t working: “There was a point when I wasn’t sure whether this album was even going to come to fruition.” That frustration finally lifted when she met Alex Pilkington and Mark Tucker, who co-run Ho Hum Records and also produced the record.
“It brought a great sense of relief and synchronicity - I’d found the producers and band I’ve dreamt of for years. ” The band is made up of life-long friends, “a newly-formed collective of amazing people enjoying music and playing with their own feeling” - including Sam Johnson and Laurence Clack of Lucky Elephant. Her faith persisted way beyond her patience, and she is simply thrilled that everything has finally come together.
“The magic I’m feeling now is similar to what I felt at the beginning of Zero 7,” Sophie adds. She’s had love, lost love, felt disjointed from the city in which she was born and even helped set up The Rainbow Collections Children’s Foundation, a charitable foundation set up to help raise money to rebuild a school in Kenya. She spent time in Africa with children who would walk 1.5 miles to school for the sense of community it brought, rather than the chance of access to running water and food. It gave her a new sense of perspective, one that’s easy to spot on Seagull - the album’s themes return to Sophie’s fascination with the imagination; dispelling the negatives, and focusing on what you have got rather than what you haven’t.
“We need to give, and love - and do it over and over again,” Sophie asserts. “And with my music, it just comes straight through, with no room for contrivances.” Sophie Barker’s songs follow a minimal process, entirely stripped back of artifice - as soon as she came up with a lyric or melody, she headed straight for the studio, and entire songs followed.
The music on the new album is as sincere as she’s ever been, with ideas flowing through from their embryonic stage to the current. The addition of light, deft touches added by Ho Hum in the studio add a certain brevity - spot the Motown-esque licks, the Joni Mitchell leanings and the occasional trip-hop beats. The open and honest way in which the sparse verses build up to a heart-wrenching chorus on ‘Say Goodbye’ show Sophie’s emotions running clear: “I believe in the idea of connecting with many people, and having many soulmates. It’s about loving to your fullest, and then constantly having to let go; you just have to reconcile.” Elsewhere, the jaunty ‘Bluebell’ - bursting with vivid, summery imagery - sees the mood moving swiftly forth from the goodbyes elsewhere.
As Sophie’s live shows gained popularity towards the end of 2011, the profile began to rise with performances on BBC Breakfast, R4’s Woman’s Hour, Loose Women and 5Live as well as radio plays on 6Music and R2 especially.
During the autumn UK tour, which included a sold-out Jazz Café show, Sophie began performing the popular Cure track ‘A Forest’ which went down so well live that a version was soon captured in the studio and released towards the back end of 2011.
Beginning 2012, ‘Seagull’ is flying internationally with Wagram involved on the continent, whilst Sophie and Ho Hum consider a remix album, which has already input from the likes of Mad Professor, Custom Blue and DBridge. Watch out for this and much, much more.