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Shire Folk Album of 2019

Josienne Clarke album


Emily Mae Winters:
Symbols of a High Romance

Self-confessed ‘poetry geek’, Emily Mae Winters’ 2017 debut album, Siren Serenade, garnered critical acclaim and whilst broadly encompassing folk and country, also brought traditional song, Americana and even sea shanties into a vibrant and cohesive whole. With musical roots that have taken her from the Midlands to the rugged coastline of rural Ireland, she is now based in Cambridge. Her second album, High Romance, is due for release later this year.

Interview by Nicholas John (NJ)


Emily Mae Winters

EMW: I was born in Birmingham and when I was about eleven, my Dad (who is Irish) got a job in West Cork, so the family relocated to the south of Ireland. From an urban neighbourhood to very, very rural! And little Clonakilty hasn’t changed that much since then! I loved growing up there but, when I reached eighteen, I decided to move to London to pursue my dream of doing music and drama.

NJ: Do you think if you’d stayed in Birmingham, you’d have ended up doing what you do now?

EMW: No, to be honest, I don’t. When I moved to Ireland, I felt that I didn’t really fit in and it took me a while to appreciate the beauty of the countryside and the landscape. The music scene there is quite insular and there weren’t many opportunities for young people. For example, drama wasn’t even a school subject when I was there.

NJ: You’ve done a lot of theatre work haven’t you?

EMW: Yes, and I really wanted to train and go to drama school, so we set up an after-school group and I got involved in local drama groups, but when the opportunities aren’t there you have to create them yourself. So I think that made me more hungry to take those opportunities as and when I could.

NJ: Did you learn to play the guitar when you were in Ireland?

EMW: Yes, but I was at a school where the girls play hockey and the boys play rugby! I was into poetry and reading and spent a lot of time in the library. And I loved singing in my bedroom! I decided to learn guitar to start putting my poems to music and then I started to play the local harvest festival and so on, and it grew from there.

NJ: You describe yourself as a ‘poetry geek’…

EWM: Sadly, once you’re afflicted with that sense of romance, it never leaves you! (laughs)

NJ: Why did you end up travelling down the songwriting route, rather than poetry or theatre? Why did you pick music?

EMW: It’s a good question because I think I’ve changed a lot between those three different creative outlets in my 27 years. I didn’t actually set out to work in music; my goal was acting and theatre because I really liked the escape you have when you play different characters. But as I’ve got older, I stand by my songs and I know who I am and I’m happy to go out and sing them for people. I would never stand up and read out my poetry. I’ve got books and books of poems that I’ve written and I love going to poetry events and I love curating poetry events but I don’t have the confidence to read my own poems aloud. I think poetry is so personal – not that songs aren’t!

NJ: There’s an intensity to poetry maybe, that music doesn’t necessarily always give. I guess you can hide behind a good chorus!

EMW: There’s something to latch onto with music, in the melody and the rhythm, even if people don’t always listen fully to the lyrics. Poetry doesn’t have that: it’s stark and your thoughts and emotions are projected fully onto your audience and they can’t just sit back and enjoy the beat or the rhythm or the melody. And in the folk scene, everyone loves a good singalong chorus! But I love poetry, I don’t care how awkward it gets!

NJ: Your music has been described as ‘crossing the gentle seas between folk and country’. Did you make a deliberate choice to straddle those two genres?

EMW: Yes, very much so. Siren Serenade was my first album and I wanted it to be a wide spectrum of everything that I love, which broadly encapsulates folk, country, Americana, Irish traditional music and even bits of soul. That’s what I listened to growing up and those influences are there. I feel very lucky to have been accepted by the folk scene, even though I don’t see myself as purely a folk artist.

NJ: Can you tell me about the title track and what inspired you to write it?

EMW: I wanted the song to have a chorus of female voices. I’d had a break-up and I found myself at a lake in Hungary, called Lake Balaton, and it’s one of the most depressing places you can ever go after a break-up! I was there, reading about the Sirens and Odysseus and I think they kind of get a bad rap for dragging all the sailors to their deaths! I decided to tell their side of the story – a bit of historical rewriting!

NJ: So it’s a feminist anthem – along with ‘The Ghost of the Pirate Queen’…

EMW: That song is definitely a feminist anthem! Grace O’Malley was an absolute legend, what a formidable woman! It’s absolutely a true story.

NJ: We need to talk about the new album, High Romance, which will be out soon…

EMW: It’s all original songs and I’m trying to create a cohesive sound for this particular album. I may not stay here, but for now, I’m focusing a little more and trying to do a little less of the chopping and changing than I did with Siren Serenade. It’s perhaps leaning towards elements of Americana, but there’s rock in there and definitely more folky things too. The songs loosely encompass the broader elements of romance and what that means to different people and has done over the ages. As a poetry geek, I read a lot of John Keats and he wrote a poem called ‘When I Have Fears’ and it has two lines that read: ‘When I behold, upon the night’s starred face, huge cloudy symbols of a high romance. And think that I may never live to trace, their shadows with the magic hand of chance.’ It’s saying that you have to hold on to the good things in life and when things become overwhelming you have to still hang on to the good. That was his idea of romance, although he obviously wrote a lot of love poems as well. Over the ages, people have thought of romance as idealism, escape, searching for utopia, romantic ideals. There are a couple of love songs on the album but there is also a song about a woman who has a desk-job but who really wants to be a circus performer and there’s songs about the movement of people, the environment, technology – how we try to communicate romantically in this modern age.

NJ: What are your thoughts on social media and how it has invaded and taken over our lives?

EMW: I’m really old-fashioned and I really wish I didn’t have to exist on a diet of social media, but it’s absolutely essential for an artist these days. You have to let people know when you’re playing, your new music and people want to know what you’re doing. That said, it’s meant there is a real lack of communication between people and a sense that we’re all having to portray ourselves as being consistently successful all the time. It’s a difficult balancing act to get right.

Nicholas John