One Big Ethereal Voice
by Steve Horowitz
Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire—the Smoke Fairies—know how to capture a mood in their songs.
Remember when you were a kid, and you and your friends would drive your parents crazy by loudly singing along to whatever pop hit was playing on the car stereo? You swore that you would stick together and become rock and roll stars because you just knew how good your voices sounded in concert. Then you grew up and pursued other interests.
That’s the basic story of England’s Smoke Fairies, except the female duo did follow their youthful inspiration and became a successful band. While they may not be big stars yet, they have accomplished much. Their debut album, Through Low Light and Trees, has garnered rave reviews. Jack White, of the White Stripes, has produced their first single. And they have played across the globe, including venues as prestigious as London’s Royal Albert Hall, in front of adoring audiences.
The Smoke Fairies, Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, will perform unaccompanied at the Blue Moose Tap House in Iowa City on August 12, opening for the cello-driven trio Rasputina. While the Smoke Fairies have played in the United States before, most notably at the 2010 South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, where critics heralded them as the next big thing, the band has never been to Iowa.
The two women met as 11-year-old secondary school students in Sussex. They bonded during science class when the duo realized they both would rather set fire to things with the Bunsen burner than do the assigned lab experiments. They got together during summer vacation and were riding in the backseat of the car when something magical happened.
“We were on the way to the swimming pool when ‘Horse with No Name’ by America started playing in the tape player. We tried singing along to the different harmonies,” Davies said. “As soon as we started singing, we began formulating elaborate plans of being in a band when we left school and touring the world. I guess a lot of kids have those dreams. We were just stubborn and wouldn’t drop it.”
“After that we just didn’t stop trying to harmonize on any song we could. Soon after that we picked up guitars, started learning to play, and would go out on the street busking with Sheryl Crow covers,” Davies said. The switch from vocalizing as two voices that blended together into just sounding like one big voice started early in their careers. This is one of the hallmarks of the Smoke Fairies’ sound.
Blamire described the Smoke Fairies’ style like this: “Our music is like a late-night drive through unfamiliar roads. The two of us are like rejected choir members who enjoy distortion, harmonies, and weaving guitar lines—that sort of thing.” Ironically, the Smoke Fairies did sing together in their high school choir.
And speaking of late-night drives through unfamiliar roads, “We grew up in quite a rural area where there are narrow, hedge-lined roads,” Davies said. “Soon after we had passed our driving tests, we were driving with our friends at night and the mist had collected in the valley and was swirling around on the road ahead. Kaf [Blamire] said, ‘The smoke fairies are out tonight.’ After that, Smoke Fairies just seemed fitting. There were many names we went through. None of them were very good. We once formed a band to enter a battle-of-the-bands competition and called ourselves Elves in a Pie. That didn’t really stick.”
Elves in a Pie does seem a really bad band name, while the appellation Smoke Fairies captures the ethereal nature of the duo’s music. The group mixes country blues and traditional folk with current musical styles in an atmospheric manner. “I always liked movie soundtracks,” Blamire said, “. . . the way the music in the background works with the particular scene or landscape to conjure an emotional response from the audience. Sometimes you get choked up watching a movie, and I think it’s mostly about the music. I always think that it would be great in real life if, in our most difficult moments, some sympathetic music automatically started playing in the background.”
But make no mistake, although the Smoke Fairies know how to capture a mood, they do not make ambient sounds. The duo creates beautiful catchy songs reminiscent of Sandy Denny’s work with Fairport Convention with a more modern sheen. And when the band rocks out, one can hear resemblances to that of the Grace Slick era of Jefferson Airplane.
The group’s songwriting skills convey a keen intelligence and sense of wit, whether they are singing about faded love (“Can you love me like you loved someone you loved so long ago”) or suburban sprawl (“Used to run through the fields to put pennies on the track / Now it’s just big houses with pools out back”). Their lyrics are as necessary as the music to their songs. Davies cites country legend Dolly Parton as an inspiration in that regard, because Parton’s songwriting has always been as important as her singing.
Davies said she was looking forward to Iowa City because of its reputation for literary excellence. She admitted having a deep affection for authors who have had Iowa City connections. “When I am not on tour I really enjoy reading. Unfortunately it is not something I have worked out how to do on tour. There never seems to be the right time for it. I enjoy authors like Annie Proulx; she has a way of describing moments perfectly, usually by making mention of the landscape and weather, which I think can often be overlooked in the way it affects people. I have also been revisiting Flannery O’Connor. All her characters always seem to be the ultimate loners and outsiders.”
Although Davies and Blamire grew up in rural England instead of the Midwestern United States, they expect to feel right at home here. While they do not expect to find smoke fairies in the cornfields, they do hope to see some inspiring rural landscapes in the Hawkeye state.
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