Emily Barker & Lukas Drinkwater

Room 822

ROOM 822

Fourteen days in one room with no fresh air is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination, but in order to visit my family back here in Australia after almost two years away, my husband Lukas and I decided it was worth the time in quarantine.

We thought a good way to kill the hours would be to set ourselves a goal. Lukas suggested recording an album.

We crammed our suitcases with all the gear we would need and travelled with guitar and folding double bass. Just after we arrived, a friend dropped off mic stands and a keyboard at the hotel; we were set.

We hit the jackpot in the hotel lottery, finding ourselves in a large room at The Westin on Victoria Square in Perth city. Big windows (that don’t open) allowed the morning sun to fill the room and afforded us a view over St. Mary’s Cathedral where we watched people gather for weddings, funerals, christenings and Sunday service; there was a verdant park – a corner of which proved a popular meeting place with Indigenous families; a hospital equipped with helicopter landing pad; and a car park. It’s a view now etched in our minds that we’ll likely never forget.

For a while I’d been thinking of recording some covers of songs written by Australians and Lukas agreed that was a great idea for the album. Choosing which songs to record was tricky – there are so many great songs by Australian artists. For a while I had a playlist of potential tunes to record, but I hadn’t yet played them to Lukas nor thought about how they might fit together as an album. It was a process of simmering down to what songs felt right to present in a sparse way – songs that told a story and carried themselves without a big production. Also songs that felt right to sing. For example, Archie Roach is one of my favourite songwriters, but his songs are so unique to his life as an Indigenous Australian man and I couldn’t find one that would work as a cover.

I found myself gravitating towards songs that meant a lot to me in my late teens growing up in WA – songs I would put on the tape deck of my yellow VW Beetle while driving to the coast with the windows down, singing at the top of my lungs. From that period we chose ‘Black the Sun’ by Alex Lloyd, ‘Mr. Milk’ by You Am I, ‘Tomorrow’ by Silverchair and ‘The Captain’ by Kasey Chambers. I also listened to anything and everything by The Waifs, and for obvious reasons, we chose ‘London Still’. The Church’s ‘Under the Milky Way’ and Deborah Conway’s ‘Will You Miss Me When You’re Sober’ were staples as I was growing up. It was great to share these songs and artists with Lukas, and get his thoughts on them – turns out that he was also a big Silverchair fan as a teenager.

To complete the album we chose some more contemporary songs which we both knew. ‘Boys Will be Boys’ by Stella Donnelly we discovered when visiting a record shop in Fremantle a couple of years ago when we asked the retailer if he could recommend anything new. He was glowing about Stella’s EP ‘Thrush Metal’ which we bought on the spot. We then had the pleasure of sharing a stage with Stella at Billy Bragg’s ‘Songwriters in the Round’ at Glastonbury Festival in 2019. We couldn’t not choose a Nick Cave song – after much discussion we landed on ‘Push the Sky Away’ – nor could we miss Paul Kelly, but rather than delving into his illustrious past, we chose one of his most recent songs, ‘Sleep, Australia, Sleep’, which shows he has lost none of his urgency and relevance as a songwriter.

Fighting through the fog of jet lag, we started recording on day two. We soon discovered some challenges recording in our hotel room: such as the amount of audio reflection from the big windows and mirrors; the constant hum of the refrigerator which despite all the pillows and instrument cases we piled up against it, can still be heard subtly in the recording; we had interruptions from choppers flying past, police and ambulance sirens, someone with a rowing machine in the room above us, and phone calls to our room from hotel reception letting us know our meals in paper bags were outside our door (we had to quickly put on a mask, open the door and grab our meal before it got cold).

Lukas, with bags of studio engineering experience and immense patience, overcame the setbacks and the days ticked by as he captured our performances. By day twelve, we had recorded ten songs by some of Australia’s finest songwriters and Lukas mixed the album over the final two days of a somewhat surreal, but productive stay.

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