“Well thanks for that lovely introduction Mike, most people usually say, Charlie Barker – who’s he?”
Those were the words of singer/songwriter Charlie Barker to broadcaster and folk singer Mike Harding as she walked on stage at the semi-final of the Radio 2 Young Folk Award.
Many is the time that people, not in the know, have been expecting a grizzled cowboy with boots and Stetson to walk on stage, only to be greeted by a tiny blonde standing behind a Martin guitar.
Within minutes though, Charlie pulls the audience in with her storytelling and crisp clear vocals. Many of her audiences are astonished that by the age of 21 Charlie could have developed such a confident and conversational style.
In fact Charlie has been performing for a long time. She is a classically trained musician who has been playing cello since the age of seven and guitar since she could hold the instrument.
When most of her contemporaries were miming to Spice Girl tracks, young Charlie was learning to play Nanci Griffith and Janis Ian. We all have our own musical heroes.
Charlie played cello in a number of orchestras in her native South Yorkshire, before being selected, at the age of 15 to appear on the BBC1 TV programme “The Next Big Thing”. She was the only young solo artist to both sing and play live before the studio audience. This led to Charlie fronting a 13-piece soul band as lead vocalist at the National Festival of Music for Youth 2002, held at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Even at this young age Charlie’s tight vocal abilities were singled out for special praise by the festival judges.
“Appearing on TV at such a young age was such a valuable experience, it taught me how to deal with nerves and become more of a performer as opposed to someone who just sings songs. Joining a soul band gave me the opportunity to do something entirely different to what I’d always performed, but it wasn’t long before I wanted to return to doing more acoustic music.”
More recently, Charlie has been promoting folk and acoustic music to young people in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire on the Peak FM stage as well as promoting her new album in between appearances at local music venues and folk clubs.
She recently produced and presented a programme for BBC Radio Sheffield about young people who were interested in folk and acoustic music and also performed live for them and the community radio station, Sheffield Live.
Charlie said: “It’s important for young people to discover new music and listen to artists outside of the mainstream, commercial circuit. I used to go to live gigs from a young age and watching musicians playing so many different styles of music really gave me something to aspire to and work on myself. There are more acoustic acts who are breaking through now like Kate Rusby, Jack Johnson and KT Tunstall who are getting people of all ages excited about live acoustic music again.”
Charlie met Pete Thornton-Smith and Chris Sweeney of RootBeat Records when she took part in the Young Acoustic Roots competition at Wickersley Folk Festival. The meeting resulted in the recording of Charlie’s debut album “Sleeping at the Station”. Chris Thornton – Smith produced the album at Blast PA Systems studio in Wickersley, Rotherham. Many people will be aware of Chris’s outstanding guitar and mandolin playing with the folk band Kerfuffle, and his exceptionally sensitive treatment on the band’s second album K2.
The debut album portrays Charlie’s music with guitar and cello arrangements with additions from Chris and fellow Kerfuffle band member Sam Sweeney.
Many of Charlie’s original tracks draw on experiences from her own life or from other people’s stories as is the case with the title track “Sleeping at the Station”, which is based on the lives of young people Charlie has met. “Poppies” is a biographical tale based on the life Charlie’s Grandfather Tom, who was part of the British Expeditionary Force in World War 2. He was one of the soldiers, who were taken off the beaches of Normandy and went on later to fight in Africa, Italy and France. As a child Charlie remembers spending time with him…
“I used to join my Grandfather when he went poppy selling in Sheffield City Centre, every November. I used to love speaking to the veterans from both the world wars, they had so many interesting and amazing stories to tell.”
This song has great emotional appeal for old soldiers and their families. Some have even said that they see it as a modern anthem for the poppy day appeal, which moved Charlie enormously. Charlie’s guitar and cello interpretation of “I Hope You Dance” a song originally recorded by American singer LeAnn Womack & Sons of the Desert, led to an immediate offer of an appearance at the 2006 Ely Folk Festival and other events.
When Charlie is pressed for her favourite track, you could expect she would choose one of her intimate original songs, but no... Charlie picked “Outbound Plane” by American singer/ songwriter Nanci Griffith because of the uplifting band arrangement Charlie achieved with Chris and Sam.
She did however confess that “The Lighthouse’s Tale”, an interpretation of the Nickel Creek song, was a close contender for favourite. Charlie went to watch the band playing live at the Memorial Hall in Sheffield and was so moved by the song that she vowed there and then to record it herself.
“Naked” is a song by Chesterfield based writer and performer Jay Turner (of duo Mundy-Turner) about his relationship with his lovely wife Cath. It’s a beautiful, tender love song about bearing your soul and loving someone despite their faults.
Talking of relationships, Charlie has made a point of supporting and promoting other young artists that she has known and admired for some time and working with them on projects such as her recent album. In addition to the young people already mentioned, Charlie was keen to work with an up and coming graphic design student, Charlie McFarlane on the album design and photographer Jake Oakley.
When asked why she was so keen to work with young people that she has known for years, the answer was simple and straightforward: “It’s partly a matter of trust. I’ve known Charlie and Jake now for so many years that I have total confidence in their ability to produce exactly what I need. Besides, I enjoy working with people I like.”
With so much going on it may be that in the next year or so, some poor cowboy, called Charlie Barker, is going to walk on a stage somewhere complaining that everyone was expecting a tiny blonde standing behind a Martin guitar.
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