It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to a song that has literally moved me to serious tears , perhaps not even since those early teenage emo days spent blubbing over the ‘deep’ lyrics to a selection of cheesy rock/pop music. But I had a surprise when, ahead of meeting Sheffield-based singer/songwriter Charlie Barker, I decided to click on to her MySpace page and give some tracks from the first album, ‘Sleeping at the Station’, a listen. Whilst listening to the lyrics of the beautifully simple track ‘Naked’, I was surprised to feel myself welling up and before long, I was reaching for the tissues.
So when I meet up with Charlie on a quiet Wednesday evening in The Washington in Sheffield (quiet except for a small group of girls in the other side of the bar, loudly coppering up to buy one pint between the lot of them), I tell her that she’s got a lot to answer for. By way of explanation, Charlie tells me that ‘Naked’ was written by writer and performer Jay Turner about his relationship with his wife Cath. It’s all about bearing your soul and loving someone despite their faults.
“I never had the same confidence with playing the cello live that I had with singing. I don’t think I will ever conquer that fear.”
“I saw Jay and Cath gigging around on the folk scene and when I heard them perform the song, I just thought ‘now, that’s a song that gets everyone’s attention,’” says Charlie. “It’s a really touching song. I wish somebody would write me a song like that. Maybe one day!”
Charlie’s definitely got an ear for a good tune, since she was born into a musically-talented family. At the age of seven and fed up with the “high pitched and squawky” sound of the recorder, Charlie took up the cello because she wanted to play something a bit more impressive. Around the same time, she picked up the guitar thanks to the influence of her grandfather and fell in love with it immediately. She even took this new passion along to her first public performance in a school talent competition and bagged first place with a rendition of Jane Wiedlin’s Big Rock Candy Mountain, much to the surprise of her peers who mostly chose to mime along to the Spice Girls.
“I was absolutely terrified beforehand but I won and I got to go to a recording studio to have a look around. From then on, I thought ‘I love doing this so I’m gonna keep at it.’” And keep at it she did, as Charlie began gigging at folk nights and club nights from the age of 13 and grew to feel at home on the stage with her guitar – but a live performance with the cello was out of the question.
“I never had the same confidence with playing the cello live that I had with singing. I don’t think I will ever conquer that fear because I know that the cello isn’t ever going to fulfil my musical ambition.
“I still like doing folk stuff with the cello but I’ve always known that guitar, vocals and writing songs was where I was at. I have started playing a bit of folk cello for other people and I have played cello on my albums but I don’t take it out to live gigs, that would be far too terrifying a thought!”
As I chat to Charlie, it becomes crystal clear just how much of an amazingly talented person she is. Although only 24, she has become an established name on the folk scene and in addition to writing and performing her own material, Charlie runs her own folk club that champions fellow musicians. What’s more, she has a keen interest in photography, takes on freelance journalism projects and is a devoted mum to a young son. Charlie manages to successfully fit so much into her life with such graceful ease that it puts most of us to shame.
“I always knew that I wanted to be my own boss. I mix music with freelance writing and photography and I get by. I’ve evolved to be a musician that can do country, covers, originals and mix it around. It’s the same with the photography and journalism. I can dip into little bits and although it’s complicated, I love it and wouldn’t want to change it. You’ve got to have more than one string to your bow.”
Another string that Charlie has recently added to her musical bow is a collaboration with Celtic musician Harriet Bartlett. The pair, who look remarkably alike and have often been mistaken for one another, met in 2006 at the Ely Folk Festival and instantly hit it off. They kept in touch and earlier this year, Harriet approached Charlie with an idea for a collaboration.
“I never imagined somebody as good as Harriet, who has been very much in demand, would want to work with somebody like me but our influences are really similar. We mix things up and it’s working really well. It’s nice to go out in a duo because I find that when you’re solo, there’s a lot of pressure so it’s nice to share that responsibility and have that banter on stage.”
The duo made a high profile debut in February this year, performing to a selection of soap stars at the Aid for Haiti fundraiser in Coventry, and are now taking bookings into 2011. Charlie passionately supports other talented artists and recognises that there are some gems on Sheffield’s music scene.
“For me, the real gems lie beneath the mainstream surface in those unsigned acts who are building up an underground following. Take Ian Britt for example, a local songwriter and performer of the highest quality. I’d be quite happy if the charts were full of people like him, not manufactured pop and indie bands copying the likes of the Arctic Monkeys and Kings of Leon.”
In the spirit of celebrating the music she loves, Charlie’s folk club – The Friday Folk club, which takes place on the last Friday of every month at The Venue in Stocksbridge and will also be taking place on the second Friday of every month from October – is getting ready to host its first festival, the Friday Folk Weekend Festival, at The Venue on September 24 and 25.
All funds raised will go to the Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind, a cause close to Charlie’s heart, and the lineup is set to include Anthony John Clarke, the Downtrodden String Band, Steve Chapman Smith, Tommy R Jones and Pancho Ballard & The Banditos, who have been hailed as Bolton’s answer to country band The Mavericks. As well as overseeing the event, Charlie will also be performing together with Harriet Bartlett.
All this – along with the release of Charlie’s second album ‘Ghosts and Heroes’, due for release in late summer, and a forthcoming photography exhibition that Charlie will be involved in at the Winter Gardens, titled ‘Pictures of Sheffield Old and New’ – goes to prove that there are busy times ahead for this talented lady.
But Charlie simply smiles and adds: “It’s fortunate that I get to do what I love doing, not everybody has that opportunity in life. You can never work a day in your life if you can turn your hobby into a job.”