Catching Up With Del Barber

Music Features Del Barber
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The Calgary Folk Music Festival was filled with vast and various Canadian musicians that haven’t quite trickled down to the States yet. Del Barber is one of them.

Now based in his hometown of Winnipeg, Barber spent his early 20s exploring—working in 15 states and eight providences during the time—before falling for open-mic nights, and eventually becoming a Juno-nominated troubadour will a major-label record, the recent Headwaters. He was very well received throughout the Calgary Folk Fest, charismatic on stage as he told his characteristic quippy stories between songs.

Directly after his early show on the last day of the festival, Barber sat down on the edge Bow River, the arctic river that encircles the festival, to talk to us. After having played four shows during the weekend between his solo set, a Main Stage ‘tweener (between to headlining acts) and the workshops he participated in (performances with four artists jamming on stage) with one left to go, Barber seemed tired but remained enthusiastic, ever-grateful toward the festival and attendees.

Paste: How have you been enjoying the festival?
Del Barber: It’s been great. I was super worried, because I didn’t think I was connecting with people at first. What I do doesn’t always translate. It’s pretty simple and lighthearted and overly accessible in some ways. I got paired up with a lot of indie rock bands at first and I was really worried, but things have been going really well. Weather’s been great, people have been great, the festival is really well organized.

Paste: Have you played a lot of festivals?
Barber: The last three summers have been pretty heavy festival-going. Probably about five a summer, so not as crazy as some people. I’ve been getting into some of the bigger Western festivals, and they’re a huge help. The next few years in Calgary I’ll have a really good draw, so it’s a pretty important piece of the whole puzzle.

Paste: Yeah, it’s so great because you always wander into music at festivals you hadn’t heard before. Do you like playing festivals better than playing single shows?
Barber: Festivals are great to get at new people, but your shows are generally short. I do a lot of storytelling, there’s a lot of narrative in the sets, and I don’t always get to get out all of it in 45 minutes. But it’s also nice! You give people a taste. And it’s great for the musician community, because you see each other at festivals. You’re on the road the rest of the time so we don’t get to see each other too much. Festivals are like family time in some ways.

Paste: How have you felt about the workshops? I’ve been hearing a lot of mixed reviews from artists about them. You said that you’ve been paired up with people that might not necessarily have been ideal.
Barber: It’s strange. It just depends on what people want to play, and what they want to accomplish. I don’t mind if they don’t play along, but I always expect people to want to play along. Some of the roots and country guys will always play, and they kind of know where my changes are going to be, along with the alt-country guys. And with the indie stuff, I think a lot of those bands, especially the young ones, have never been in workshops before so its been really new. But it’s been really positive overall. It’s hard to know though, it’s hard to know what’s really happening out there in the crowd. I played a Springsteen song to close a workshop, ‘cause I had to close it. And I’m here solo, right? I didn’t bring anybody in a band with me. I expect people to know that song, the bands on stage, because I think it’s something that everyone would know. And none of them knew it!

Paste: Oh, yeah—It was “Hungry Heart”! I was there.
Barber: Yeah, you should all know “Hungry Heart”! There’s no change, it’s one progression, we should be able to do this. And it was pretty bad. I was like, “Come on guys.” But it’s good to know people’s limits, too, and I didn’t know any of those groups going in. And I guess I have a bit of jealousy: certain people I really wanted to play with I didn’t get to.

Paste: You mentioned at your tweener that your parents were here, and that your father co-wrote one of the songs with you. Is it safe to assume you grew up in a musical household?
Barber: Absolutely. I think for a while the music sort of died out in the house. With two kids, my sister and I, it’s a lot of work. I was super into hockey and fishing and all these things, so there wasn’t a lot of time for it. But as soon as I picked up the guitar when I was 13, 14, my parents realized that their first love hadn’t made a huge mark on me yet, and the music started getting spun again. They have such an amazing record collection. My dad hasn’t ever really been able to write songs until a couple of years ago, and I think I’ve been able to help him with that. He’s got a pretty amazing wealth of experience, a strange upbringing. The writing with him is absolutely strange. It’s like one of the most intimate things you can do with somebody, writing a song together, and then you have to do it with your dad? It’s really weird.

Paste: Do you think it’s changed your relationship?
Barber: I think it totally has. I think we get along a lot better, and we trust each other more easily on every front. And both of my parents are both just absolutely supportive. I borrowed money for my first couple records from them before I had finances and a label. I think I’m lucky. I don’t think I could have become a full-time musician without their ongoing support. Even sometimes when the credit card gets maxed, I gotta make that call. [Laughs] It’s embarrassing but it’s the truth.

Paste: You just signed to Six Shooter, and this is your first album with them. How have things changed since then?
Barber: I don’t know. I think it’s a little too early to tell. The album came out in May, so I signed a few weeks before. I had already recorded the record and I was just looking for the right fit, the right label. The record was supposed to be out in October, but they were like, “We don’t have a record to put out in May. We should put it out now. It’s the right time.” It just all happened really fast. I like Six Shooter. It’s a bunch of strong women who run it, and I really like the way they carry themselves. There’s no bullshit. It’s all really straight, and that’s all I really wanted. I wasn’t really sure if I needed a label, I didn’t know what purpose they served. I had some questioned about the industry that way. But they’ve been really helpful. There’s a lot of positives. I’m really happy with them.

Paste: That’s interesting, because your new album has a much fuller sound to it. I was wondering if that was a direct influence of the label, but if the album was already recorded then that couldn’t be. What caused the evolution of it?
Barber: What happened was, I was hell-bent on using Sam Kassir, who lives in Boston and is Josh Ritter’s producer, keyboard player, whatever. I really wanted to work with him. I had a relationship with Oh Boy Records in Nashville and they really thought he’d be a good fit. This was a couple years ago, and I just trusted their gut. We ended up not working together at Oh Boy, but I’m still really good friends with the guy that used to work there, John. And I started listened to Sam’s stuff, and was like, I need a guy who’s going to push me out of my comfort zone, and who has a musical sense that’s not the same as mine. We had tension in the studio, and I think that really helped. It really worked out, and now we’re really good friends. It’s one of those deals where the world gets really small really fast.

Paste: Obviously your songwriting is so narrative-based, how does that work? Do them begin as stories, or do you begin with music? How do they fit in together?
Barber: It’s idea first. If I want to write a song about the death of a small town, be it in the States or Canada, I’ll think: how am I going to do that in a way that’s compelling? I’ll also think of the characters, or I’ll have met a character who speaks to that. It will be about something very big at first, and then it will get narrowed, refined into a character-driven song or a personal reflection or something. But it’s always that that idea will come before music or lyrics even, sort of a grand statement first. My whole idea about songs is that they should be about a specific thing. I always think Tom Waits’ is good when he says, “Every song is like a small movie.” I try and think about it that way. The movies I like usually have bigger questions behind them. I try and figure out what big questions I’m asking at the time, and then try and be in touch with that. I just kind of go from there. It’s not always as easy as that. Sometimes it’s a grind. I edit a lot, and there’s always 30 or 40 tunes on the go and a lot of them are just shit. I see writing as something more that you have to practice, a daily thing you have to engage yourself in or else you’re not going to be good at it. Wading through the garbage is part of it.

Paste: Do you feel you draw more from personal experience, or is it more created narrative?
Barber: It’s got to be slightly personal. I tour mostly alone, and it puts me in a position to meet a lot of people I wouldn’t otherwise meet, because I end up craving human connection. I think I’m mostly intrigued by people’s ideas about where they’re from, and so it is a personal connection to those characters. And I usually end up using those archetypes in songs. So it’s created that way, but it’s personal in the sense that I have to be moved by something first. There has to be something desperate or important to say, even behind the songs that are more comedic. [Gestures to approaching ducks from the river] Oh, this is nice. How do they fit through there? That’s amazing.

Paste: Everything about this city is really so beautiful.
Barber: I really like Calgary a lot.

Paste: I love how community-driven the festival is. So often festivals are seen as a blight on their community than anything else.
Barber: They are, often. The Canadian folk festivals—which aren’t really folk music exclusively anymore, which I think is fantastic—they’re all volunteer based, and they’re all community organizations. And especially the Western festivals, they all meet together on a yearly basis and make sure that they’re all on the same page, all doing things right. Western Canada has this thing they’re trying to accomplish with their folk festivals. They all know when every other one is. There’s not two big folk festivals on the same weekend. It’s pretty fantastic.

Paste: It’s great to see so many kids here, and that there are so many kids-oriented aspects of the festival. It’s bringing music to families, rather than bringing music to 18 to 24-year-olds.
Barber: There is that aspect of it, and the 18 to 24-year-olds still come to the festival. To me that’s the most surprising thing. A lot of times its hard to get at that group of people if you’re a songwriter from Texas or something. And these kids are watching like Sam Baker play, there’s something really special there. Whenever you’re playing a show as an artist and you get to see a cross-section of people, you know things are going well. It feels right. You never want to play to one particular age. It seems like a bit of a crime. It becomes dogmatic. People listen better when there’s people their parents’ age beside them, and their parents realize, “Wow, this might be really important to this younger generation.” Music provides common ground for that and doesn’t alienate teenagers and young adults from their parents. Sometimes it needs to alienate them, but I guess I prefer the opposite.

Paste: Well sometimes it’s purposefully alienating them.
Barber: Yeah, it does. And that can be important. Like punk is really important, and for certain kids especially, they need it. But it is sort of built on alienating a generation.

Paste: Well you obviously have a love of community, it really comes across in your songwriting even. Between having moved around so much and your massive tours, how does that reconcile with the fact that you travel so much?
Barber: It’s tough. I always feel like I’m cheating on my hometown with other towns. I actually feel a bit of guilt about how much I get to know other cities. Like how much I’ve gotten to know Calgary, and most of the other big cities in Canada, and I go through Chicago once or twice a year as well. I have a lot of love for those cities, but I always feel a lot of guilt about having to leave home again. I feel a real sense of marriage to Winnipeg, it’s really important to me. All of my ideas about culture and art and songwriting are from prairie people, so I have a weird sense of cheating on her. I can’t help it, I have to do it to make money, but it’s weird. There’s a bit of a tension there.

Paste: Well earlier in your life you were such a wanderer, living all over the place and working odd jobs. Do you think your huge tours stem from the same impulse to see new things and experience new things?
Barber: It probably is. I feel like I’m a tourist, though. I’m not looking for a new home, or some compelling new place. I’m representing the prairies, that’s how I feel. Slightly different from my early 20s traveling and being obsessed with new places, and wanting to just keep going. Now I travel with a sort of direction home all the time.

Paste: You have a degree in philosophy, which is something a lot of musicians seem to carry. Does that play into your songwriting at all?
Barber: It does. It does. I found a lot of philosophy very alienating and very destructive, and not really into the possibility of diverse communities. But the schooling was really helpful. I had one professor say, “It’s not about getting the answers to questions. It’s about getting better questions.” And that’s an on-going discourse in my songwriting: what’s the best question to ask? I think all of my songs are question-based in some way. I think its there, not exclusively there, but it’s been a big part of it all. Probably more money to be made