SHE has been featured by Q Magazine and tipped as one of Glamour’s…
ones to watch. Not only that, mind: BBC Radio 2 and ‘6 Music have played her music. BBC Introducing has fallen for Emma Ballantine’s talents as well – as has a large swathe of the U.K. Ballnatine has toured Germany and played festivals like Glastonbury and Sidmouth Folk Week. The Salisbury-born, London-based songwriter has released her new record, Somebody’s Story. As its title implies, it brings together insight and tales from other contributors. I ask her about the people she has met and the origins of Somebody’s Story’s tracks. Ballantine goes into depth about the recording process and why she decided to take this unique approach to music.
I was eager to discover more about the track, Through Your Eyes – concerning a fourteen-year-old, James and his experience with autism. Ballantine discusses the artists and albums that have defined her as a musician/songwriter; what she wants the listener to get from Somebody’s Story and whether she is (already) working on more music. If you want to know more about Somebody’s Story, I advise you check out its official website (http://somebodysstory.com/)
Hi, Emma. How are you? How has your week been?
Very well, thanks – it’s all been an exciting week with the new record launching!
For those new to you and your work, can you introduce yourself, please?
I am a singer-songwriter originally from Salisbury and now based in London. I write Folk-influenced Pop – recently with a shift to a more Electronic sound.
Your E.P., Somebody’s Story, brings together tales from people all over the world. What was it that made you want to record an E.P. with other people’s stories at its heart?
My music has always told stories, but for this record, I wanted to shine a light on other people’s experiences.
I loved the idea of taking people’s words and creating something that, hopefully, means as much to them as it does to me.
Through Your Eyes is out and the fourth track from the E.P. It is the story of fourteen-year-old James – submitted by his mother, Nancy. James has autism. How did James’ mother discover you and what is it about that song/story that made you want to write it down and record it to tape?
Nancy and I first connected after I posted about the project on social media. She sent me stories about James spanning his whole life but her story about driving along the highway together in Baltimore really moved me. It is about a moment when she realises that he may be better at living in the moment and appreciating the everyday beauty of the world than she is.
I completely related to that desire to be more present and to see ordinary things without the novelty having worn off – which is what I tried to capture in Through Your Eyes.
I believe the song features samples of James’ own music. Have you two met and do you know what he thought of the song?
Strange as it sounds to say it, James and I have still never met! However, I know through Nancy that he is really proud of the collaboration and enjoys telling people about how his story and music inspired the song.
He’s a prolific musician and has perfect pitch so he’s constantly coming up with new ideas and sounds. I highly recommend a listen to his material on SoundCloud!
World Autism Day has just passed (2nd April). Do you hope the song addresses autism in a way that makes it less ‘taboo’ for other people? Do you hope people will talk about it and realise it is not something to be afraid of?
I realised after I began this project how much of what I thought I knew about autism turned out to be heavily influenced by stereotypes and generalisations in films and the media.
Reading James’ stories gave me a completely fresh perspective. I hope the song challenges the idea that any two people – with or without autism – see the world in exactly the same way.
Brixton-based Moseley produced the E.P. What was it like working with the multi-talented producer? Any particular recording highlights or moments that lodge in the mind?
I really enjoyed working with Luke. He came up with great suggestions and encouraged me to get out of my comfort-zone in terms of the sound we were going for. Also, his studio is just a stop away from my home in Stockwell – which meant we could take a very fluid approach to recording – taking extra time when needed and keeping things very relaxed.
Previous singles from Somebody’s Story include an epic trip to Kenya compelled by love at first sight (Astronaut); a chance encounter at a Chicago dive bar (Harmonise) and a harrowing court case (Secret Tunnel). Whose stories were these and what was it like hearing about the varied and compelling experiences?
The stories came from such different places and even periods of time. Astronaut was inspired by a couple called Jack and Vicki, who met in the 1950s. They connected so instantly that when Jack was posted to Kenya: he sent a ticket for Vicki to come and join him and she accepted. She went out to marry him! It occurred to me that flying 7000 miles to live in rural East Africa back then must have felt a little like travelling to the Moon (would to us now) – hence the title!
Lisa’s and Brian’s stories (Secret Tunnel and Harmonise) dealt with some much heavier topics. One is about a teenager’s escape from domestic abuse and the other is about a friend who passes away. However, with both songs, I tried to find a way to tell the story in a positive, uplifting way. I wanted listeners to come away feeling hopeful in spite of the serious subject matter.
What is the one takeaway you hope people will get from Somebody’s Story?
All of the songs are really about the power of human connection: whether it’s reaching out to someone for help, falling in love; overcoming loneliness or understanding how someone else sees the world.
In writing the songs, I had to forge a connection to someone else’s experience and I hope listeners will feel similarly connected to stories I’ve told (when they hear the song).
You have played some of the country’s best venues and been played by BBC Radio 2 and ‘6 Music. What has been your fondest memory from your extensive and impressive career?
It has to be the moment, last Friday, when the E.P. went to number one on the iTunes Singer-Songwriter Chart! I could hardly believe it when the song nudged into first place and I was overwhelmed by the support people gave me. It was all the more special because James was credited as a co-writer on the final track – so he can say his first official release went to number one!
Can we expect any new music or tour dates this year at all?
Certainly! I won’t give too much away but I will be continuing writing songs about other people’s stories. I’d love to hear from people if they have one to tell (please tell people they can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org).
It doesn’t have to be deep or moving. It could be a light-hearted story or something unusual or memorable that happened. Sometimes, the smallest things can inspire an entire song! I will (also) soon be announcing a string of summer dates at festivals.
If you had to narrow down the artists that have inspired you most; which would they be?
When I was about nine, I was given a mixtape of three amazing artists: Suzanne Vega, Tori Amos and Alanis Morrisette. You can probably hear that all three of them have influenced my sound over the years and I still love listening to them.
Suzanne Vega, in particular, is so original and her storytelling is second-to-none – seeing her live in London a few years ago, having loved her work for so long, was an amazing moment.
In the same vein; what are the three most important albums in your collection?
There are some albums where you can remember exactly where you were when you first heard them: Florence + the Machine’s Lungs is one of them. I hadn’t heard anything like it, and I loved the raw, tribal energy that ran through the tracks.
I also remember hearing Agnes Obel’s Riverside in a T.V. soundtrack and hounding it until I knew what it was! Her music has a bewitching quality that I love.
Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was also a really important album for me (and not just because of the title!). Justin Vernon’s haunting, indecipherable lyrics are a reminder that it’s much more important to make people feel something than to understand it.
Are there any new artists you’d recommend we check out?
For sheer uniqueness, you have to hear Cosmo Sheldrake! His sample-filled loops and beats are unlike anything ever heard and it’s amazing to hear someone make music with that kind of freedom. It reminds me a little bit of James’ music and the way he works.
Another artist I recommend checking out is Alex Vargas – I love his sound and he’s just released a new record.
Who are the artists we should be keeping our eyes on this year?
Laura Marling has taken a really bold new direction with her new record Semper Femina. I’m looking forward to hearing more from her this year.
I’m also excited about alt-J’s forthcoming release this summer: I think they are one of the most unique and interesting bands out there.
Finally, and for being a good sport, you can select any song you like and I’ll play it here (not one of yours as I’ll do that).
I’d love to hear No Matter by Frances – it’s such a feel-good, upbeat track and I love the fact that she’s getting more radio-play and recognition this year.
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