“Fragile as humans and made of who we love…”

The first song Emily Barker recorded for her latest record, Fragile as Humans, was its title track. To capture the “hyper-real recording” he desired, producer Luke Potashnick surrounded Barker with microphones at The Wool Hall, an impressive sixteenth century stone building converted into a studio by Tears For Fears in the early ’80s. She accompanied herself on Potashnick’s 1938 Gibson L37 archtop guitar. They recorded six takes, but the first was the best.

Written and recorded as her time living in the UK was coming to a close, Fragile as Humans sees Barker turn her lyrical gaze inwards. The expansive themes of her previous album, A Dark Murmuration of Words (released 2020), are replaced by an empathetic concern for matters more personal, familial, closer to home.

‘Feathered Thing’ was written while she navigated cumulative grief following a miscarriage. “It’s basically about grieving an idea or imagined future,” she clarifies of the song, the central image inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers’. Commencing gently, with oscillating piano and distant drums, the arrangement gradually transforms into an instrumental dervish of vibrant strings and cymbal crashes. Throughout, Barker’s vocals float and hover like a slipstreaming feather.

“I had this idea of putting Emily out front, diving further into what her voice could do and exploring much quieter parts of her voice,” Potashnick explains. “Every single line had to be faultless, otherwise the illusion and the contract between her and the listener would collapse.”

Barker’s introduction to Potashnick had come via their mutual friend, producer and engineer Dom Monks (Big Thief, Nick Cave, Laura Marling). Barker shared some demos she’d been working on and fondly recalls, “Luke noted my harmonic choices and lyrics – two aspects I’d worked particularly hard at – and asked what sort of album I’d like to make.”

Potashnick set about placing each song under the microscope, line by line. “I’d never spent so long working on the songs with a producer before and really trusted Luke with his background in songwriting,” Barker reflects. “The songs were made stronger through him pushing me to dig deeper, to tweak a part, to substantiate a choice.”

Barker worked on editing the songs while touring the States with Mary Chapin Carpenter, performing and refining them on the road. On her return she was ready to begin recording.

The album’s calling card, the filmic single ‘Wild to be Sharing This Moment’, introduced the production ideas: “We wanted to push the dynamics, so it could be intimate in parts and cinematic in others,” Barker reveals, “whilst also exercising restraint; creating tension.”

Ahead of the Fragile as Humans songwriting sessions, Barker wrote the word ‘EXPERIMENT!’ on a postcard and pinned it to a cork board in her writing room alongside family photos, postcards of Aretha Franklin and Red-tailed black cockatoos, and “a strip of paper from my niece wishing me a happy day”. This word, in all caps, served as a reminder for Barker to challenge herself creatively and actively pursue the unknown: “I wanted to favour the odd and less obvious lyric, chord progression, melody.”

The closing track, Acisoma, began as an imagined question to Sir David Attenborough about life and death, but soon metamorphosed into something completely different. “I sat at the piano and moved my fingers around trying not to think about it too much,” she recounts. “Some chords fell into a loose order, I set my voice free to roam and hit record on my iPhone. Listening back to my sketch, it didn’t sound like anything I’d written before – my word [EXPERIMENT!] had infiltrated my process.”

When it came to recording ‘Acisoma’, Potashnick revealed—just before hitting RECORD—that the microphone he’d set up was the one Dom Monks had used on Nick Cave’s vocals at Alexandra Palace. “I loved the sound of Idiot Prayer – using that very same mic lent me an appropriate mood for capturing the song.”

Potashnick’s vision is present throughout the album: the meditative, introverted ‘Loneliness’ was a song Barker had envisioned with full-band production, but Potashnicks’s instinct was to keep it minimal: a felted piano, a dulcimer and a trio of strings to add haunting textures. Barker acknowledges, “Luke got it right…it’s lonelier this way.”

Half of the album’s tracks are solo, Barker accompanying herself either on guitar or piano. These songs were recorded first and then she was joined by the session players – Tim Harries (electric and double bass/piano/string arrangements), Tom Visser (drums) and Richard Causon (keys) – at The Wool Hall, tracking the remaining songs in a matter of days.

Album opener ‘With Small We Start’ showcases the band, the song’s warm acoustic aesthetic drawing the listener into Barker’s discourse on the benefits of concentrating on the simple things in life.

‘Call it a Day’ chronicles Emily’s positive experiences – friendships, music connections – from two-plus decades spent living in the UK.

“Making this record was a beautiful way to wrap up my 21 years of living in the UK before heading home to WA,” she points out.

As a teenager, Barker left Western Australia, with an acoustic guitar and a backpack, first arriving in England in the summer of 2000. She has previously written entire albums about longing for home, but Fragile as Humans was inspired and written in both hemispheres: during a writing residency in Stroud, while people-watching at London’s Kings Cross station and upon returning to WA following the state’s strict, pandemic-related border closures.

The ten songs on Fragile as Humans take us on a deep dive into the human condition, an unflinching self-examination of grief, pain, loneliness and loss, at the same time sparkling with hope, optimism and connection.

“If I could choose one word for people to hold in their minds as they listen to this album,” Barker muses, “that word would be: compassion.”

Fragile as Humans is scheduled for release on 3 May through Everyone Sang / Kartel Music Group.