The latest Haiku Salut album is based around found sounds the group have gathered from across the globe over the last five years – often in very strange and spooky places. Is your spine ready for some tingling?

Under the sultry swelter of an unusually intense July heatwave, Darley Abbey Park is a blaze of neon blooms, lush greenery and insect buzz. In a typical summer, this riverside idyll on the northern edge of Derby city centre hosts music festivals, rowing regattas and firework displays. But for the last 18 months, public gatherings here have inevitably been more limited.

Today, however, Haiku Salut have brought along their own miniature music machines for our alfresco picnic. Two-year-old Frankie is all chatty mischief as he pinballs around the park before trying to cram my digital recorder into his mouth. Mabel, 18 months old, gurgles and giggles with a permanent look of bewilderment on her face. And six-month-old Rosa just coos serenely. 

Three Delias from Derbyshire, Haiku Salut have been making exquisite, richly layered, gently experimental electroacoustic instrumentals together for the past decade. Even before their children arrived, they were always a family affair. Married couple Sophie and Gemma Barkerwood are mothers to Mabel, while Louise Croft is blessed with both Frankie and Rosa.

With all three children born during the making of their latest album, ‘The Hill, The Light, The Ghost’, the Haikus have been on a steep learning curve, slotting rehearsals and studio sessions around sleeps and nappy changes, as well as part-time jobs outside of the band. Even after Louise took parental leave in 2019, the other two carried on touring as a duo while Gemma herself was heavily pregnant.

“Gemma was technically full-term when we played the Leicester gig,” Sophie grins. “We were joking about what would happen if her waters broke onstage. We even had a code word…”

When the pandemic shut down most of the music industry last year, Haiku Salut were better prepared than most. Their new album was nearing completion as Sophie and Gemma went into pre-planned domestic seclusion at home in the rolling hills of the Derbyshire Dales. 

“We had Mabel a few months before the pandemic struck, so we already expected our lives to get quite small,” Gemma explains. 

“The record was coming together before Mabel arrived,” Sophie adds. “We just finalised a few things, realised a few ideas.” 

On some level, ‘The Hill, The Light, The Ghost’ is Haiku Salut’s fourth baby – a lovingly crafted distillation of personal memories, emotionally resonant echoes, sparkles and shimmers and electro-squelch noises. Its gestation began five years ago, when the trio first took an old Tascam field recorder with them on their travels, using it to collect found sounds, ambient textures and phantom echoes. Sophie describes this exploratory creative process as seeking out “ghosts in the fabric of things”, which brings to mind ectoplasm and slime guns. 

When there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call? Haiku Salut, obviously.

“It started when we went to Japan,” Gemma explains. “I don’t know if you’ve been, but everything there makes a noise. We kept saying, ‘How are we going to remember all this?’, so we began making lots of recordings. Even the washing machine had its own little song and it was something I didn’t want to forget.”

Richard McGuire’s acclaimed graphic novel ‘Here’ – composed entirely of multiple views of a single room across thousands of years – was a key inspiration for the album. 

“It’s partly an exploration of time,” Sophie nods. “How we experience it, how we can capture something, how we can conserve it in some way. You can preserve something in a recording, but the experience has gone, so it’s kind of a paradox. We wanted to bring these memories into a new lens, to rescue them from just kicking about on an old Tascam field recorder.”

One sampling location that proved almost literally ghostly was a semi-derelict flat above an abandoned urology clinic in central Germany. The door was open, so Sophie and Gemma walked right in. There was a ruined piano inside and they wanted to sample it. But the clinic interior was more horror movie than ghost story.

“Someone had written ‘I have AIDS’ in blood on the wall,” Gemma says with a shudder. “I was pregnant, so that’s when I freaked out. We don’t really know what happened to the people who had lived and worked there, although there are lots of different rumours on the internet. All their belongings and equipment were still there, payslips left on the side…”

Returning to the UK, the Haikus used the vast library of recordings they had amassed to collate textured sound collages. Sophie describes the process as harnessing “constellations” of ideas that gradually coalesced into the finished pieces on ‘The Hill, The Light, The Ghost’. 

“A lot of the tracks have memories from different times,” she says. “For ‘We Need These Beams’, we used the sound of crickets from a visit to Lake Biwa in Japan and recordings of my dad sifting through some wood. The two complement each other, even though they’re years and years apart and from different spaces. Together they create this wonderful atmosphere, which we then added instrumentation to.”

One track on the new album, ‘All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace’, takes its title from the 1967 Richard Brautigan poem. It grew out of a piece of metal machine music Haiku Salut were commissioned to compose in 2018 for the self-playing instruments of a robot orchestra at the Life Science Centre in Newcastle.

“The robots were more functional, rather than algorithms or AI,” Sophie explains. “We were writing the music and they were doing our bidding.” 

Another track, ‘Trespass’, came about when Jarvis Cocker invited Haiku Salut to participate in Be Kinder, a National Trust-backed art trail through the Peak District co-curated by artist Jeremy Deller to commemorate the famous mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932. The band spent their day composing a work-in-progress piece in a chapel in the picturesque Edale Valley. They didn’t meet Jarvis until later, when he manned the wheels of steel at the afterparty buffet.

“His car broke down when he was on his way back from London, so he didn’t get to see us in the chapel,” Louise recalls. “But we were invited to the party afterwards, which was in a working men’s club around the back of a cement factory. There were people clocking on and clocking off for work. We were like, ‘Are we in the right place?’. Then we saw Jarvis making an announcement onstage about somebody leaving their lights on in the car park. Ha!”

With its hinterland of eerie ruins, half-forgotten memories and vintage technology, ‘The Hill, The Light, The Ghost’ arguably strays into the esoteric conceptual realm of hauntology. The term, first coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, was later applied more forensically to electronic music by feted cultural theorists like Mark Fisher and is concerned with the spectres of long-lost pasts and cancelled futures.

“We didn’t set out to write a hauntology album, but some people have brought it to our attention,” Sophie nods. “We enjoy processing stuff so it sounds like a broken VHS tape and that sort of thing. I don’t think we necessarily knew that we were into it, but it kind of worked. We are accidentally hauntological!”

The three members of Haiku Salut first met at Derby University around 2008. Gemma and Louise had both been involved in music projects as teenagers (“I was in lots of terrible bands,” Louise laughs). Sophie started dating Gemma through a mutual connection they both seem guarded about recalling. 

“Erm… do we really want to go there?” Sophie says. “I used to be friends with your ex-girlfriend, then she wasn’t your girlfriend anymore, and then you were my girlfriend.”

Haiku Salut formed in 2010, soon after the three had left college, and initially leaned towards a rather more organic sound – accordion, ukulele, glockenspiel and trumpet all feature on their initial EP releases. Yann Tiersen’s wistful, swooning score to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s classic 2001 film ‘Amélie’ was a key influence, although Sophie’s fondness for glitchy Japanese electronica soon became a prominent feature in their sparkly electro-folk tapestries.

By the time Haiku Salut released their debut album ‘Tricolore’ in 2013, Sophie and Gemma were married, amalgamating their surnames into the portmanteau Barkerwood. 

“We looked at doing an anagram,” Sophie recalls. “But the best word you can make out of our names is ‘wardrobe’… I could be Sophie Wardrobe!”

Early in their career, Haiku Salut hit on the inspired notion of alternating more conventional gigs with magical “lamp shows” featuring a stage full of lamps from charity shops, all wired to switch on and off in time with the music. The trio also prompted comments because they didn’t say a word onstage as they swapped instruments, nervous smiles and knowing looks. Louise insists their policy of silence was never a deliberate art statement – it simply grew naturally out of the fact that none of them wanted to take on the role of frontwoman. 

“Talking didn’t really help what we were doing either,” Sophie shrugs. “It didn’t add anything to the experience. In a way, it actually took something away from it, so we stopped.”

When Haiku Salut toured with the rootsy acoustic band Lau in 2013, some audience members reacted to their silence with confusion and hostility. One woman even took them aside and offered them public speaking lessons. 

“It was a folk tour and folk artists tend to talk a lot because they like to explain their songs,” Louise says. “But we’ve never been folk, so that’s not what we do.” 

In response to this bruising experience, the Haikus resolved never to speak onstage again. 

“So then it became an art statement,” Sophie grins. 

Even in 2021, it feels a little bit unusual, perhaps quietly revolutionary, to have an all-female electronic band with a same-sex married couple at its core. But the wry, understated, genial Haiku Salut are hardly flag-waving, queer-punk militants. Indeed, Sophie and Gemma insist they haven’t encountered any overt homophobia during their career, although a constant daily diet of heteronormative assumptions sometimes grates on them. Their shared name, for example, led many early reviewers (this one included) to presume they were sisters, not spouses.

“We should have done a White Stripes,” Sophie laughs. “It is kind of a pain having to come out all the time. I had it in the library the other day. This man said, ‘Oh, you’re not with your sister this week?’. I thought, ‘I don’t want to have to come out to a man in the library!’. He’s a lovely man. He might even read this…” 

The Haikus similarly feel they have only suffered mildly from casual sexism, as opposed to full-blooded misogyny. 

“When Louise’s partner has come on tour with us, people have always assumed he’s in the band,” Gemma says. 

“There have been a few sound engineers we’ve had to put in their place,” Sophie adds. “I suppose we’ve experienced sexism in hidden ways. Because there isn’t a man in the group, people are like, ‘Well, somebody’s got to know what they’re doing!’. I think if we did have a male bandmate, we would have noticed that stuff more.”

All the same, in their own modest way, Haiku Salut are quietly pushing back sexist norms in music. 

“The last tour we did, it was just a load of women at the front,” Gemma grins. “As the guy who does the lamps for us pointed out, you never see that anywhere. So we feel proud to have been able to create a space where women can do that.”

As for how the internal politics of Haiku Salut work, Sophie has clearly assumed the role of bossy band leader. With just a hint of nervous laughter, Gemma and Louise gladly confirm this, but Sophie insists she is more of a compulsive worrier and studio matriarch than an actual tyrant. She certainly seems to be more soft-spoken introvert than attention-seeking diva. In an ideal world, she says, they’d never have to do photo sessions or make videos again. Even playing live makes her anxious, though she admittedly enjoys being on stage more than the tense run-up. 

“I’d just like to sit and write,” she sighs.

As well as releasing ‘The Hill, The Light, The Ghost’, Haiku Salut have multiple projects on the horizon, including a full-length soundtrack for the 1930 German documentary ‘People On Sunday’. This follows on from their highly acclaimed score for Buster Keaton’s 1926 silent classic ‘The General’. 

With the virus restrictions in the UK finally being relaxed, hopefully not to return, these “accidental hauntologists” are also planning their live comeback, taking their ghosts on the road with another lamp show tour in October and November. On balance, admits Sophie, Haiku Salut have survived the global pandemic pretty well. 

“It’s obviously had a massive impact on musicians in general,” she says. “But we came to the conclusion that we’ve still got our health, we’ve not been particularly affected in terms of our families, and we’ve all got our other part-time jobs, so we feel lucky. Yes, we haven’t been able to perform and we’ve lost a bit of money, but we’ve produced something that we’re really proud of. We’re in a good place.”

‘The Hill, The Light, The Ghost’ is out on CD on Secret Name

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