By Jen Zoratti
In just two years, Del Barber released two full-length albums and logged over 300 shows — and the hard-working, hard-touring alt-country troubadour isn’t home for a rest.
No, Barber, 28, is hard at work on this third full-length album, which will come as the hotly anticipated follow-up to 2010’s Juno-nominated, Western Canadian Music Award-winning breakout album Love Songs For The Last Twenty. The as-yet untitled new album, which is slated to come out in April 2012, is something of a departure for the singer/songwriter.
“It’s the ﬁrst record I’ve done with outside infrastructure,” Barber says. “The ﬁrst two records I did in my friend’s basement on a shoestring budget, not paying people enough and not really getting the product I want but just being happy to make a record. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone.”
To do so, Barber enlisted Sam Kassirer, a respected producer most well known for his work with Josh Ritter and The David Wax Museum. Thanks to a loan from Manitoba Film & Music in support of the project, Barber was able to bring Kassirer to Winnipeg to record at the Exchange District’s Empire Studios for 12 days in December.
“It was a lot more fun (not having to act as producer),” Barber says. “I got to show up and play. It was a freeing experience. It was so much more artistic. I felt really spoiled. I’d come to the studio and the mics would already be set up.”
Working with outside ears also proved beneﬁcial when it came to arranging the songs. What was once a fairly solitary process for the singer/songwriter became much more collaborative.
“I wanted to know what it felt like to trust someone else’s judgement — completely,” Barber says. “I let Sam really take the reins and I tried to only weigh in when I thought it was essential. I didn’t want to limit myself to my own preconceived notions of the songs. I wanted someone to hear them with less baggage. I wanted someone to challenge my absolute idea.”
Barber was also challenged by playing with seasoned session musicians whom he’d never met before. “Sam had the connections to allow me to play with these well-rehearsed, well- credited players,” he says. “The drummer has played with REM, Tracy Chapman, and has done work with Springsteen — the experience was a wild ride. I was trying to keep up.”
That said, don’t think working with an outside producer — and outside players — means Barber is planning on abandoning his Prairie roots. “I’d be nothing without my hometown,” he says. “It’d be hard to leave it in the dust — which was never my plan, anyway. I just wanted to broaden my horizons.”
While Barber has “that Woody Guthrie wanderlust,” to quote Winnipeg Folk Festival founder Mitch Podolak, it’s clear from Love Songs For The Last Twenty that a sense of place and hometown are important to him. Love Songs... was an album about life, love and loss, set to a uniquely Winnipeg backdrop (hell, there’s even a song named after a bus route). Beautifully and honestly written with
a shot of world-weary cynicism that belies its creator’s years, Love Songs... was also a career-making record for a promising young singer/songwriter.
“Two kids from St. Norbert make a record and get a Juno nod is a great story to me,” Barber says. “I’d be inspired by that as a kid in high school. I don’t know what (the awards) means, but it’s a compliment. You still have to work as hard as you can.”
When the album was nominated for a 2011 Juno Award in the Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Solo category in February, it was an exciting — but it was also a strange and uncomfortable experience for the ever-humble Barber.
“There’s always so many doubts — you kind of feel like there’s always someone else who deserves it more,” he says. “All my friends work just as hard as I do. I felt like an observer at the Junos. It was a really overwhelming experience.”
Indeed, sitting beside Randy Bachman and Buffy St. Marie at the Junos dinner does tend to make for an overwhelming experience. As does discovering rose petals in the urinals.
“All I could think was, ‘Wow. People who get nominated for Junos — their shit really doesn’t stink,’” Barber says with a laugh. “It was weird. I felt like an alien.”
His experience at the WCMAs a few months later, meanwhile, was a bit more comfortable — but Barber still felt awkward about the recognition he received.
“I felt guilty for winning two,” acknowledges Barber, who took home hardware in the Roots Solo Recording and Independent Album categories. “I don’t anymore, but I did at the time. I don’t know how to feel about it — but I hope it compels us to work harder.”
Like a lot of ambitious young musicians with hefty work ethics, Barber is characteristically hard on himself, looking to push himself further and farther with every album he makes. Still, he recognizes that Love Songs For The Last Twenty has laid the groundwork for a viable career as an independent artist.
“I feel really good about it,” Barber says of the album. “It was two kids trying their
hardest to make a record about something. It’s a symbol of the beginning of really hard work. I played something like 200 shows after it came out. That record allowed me to do that. It felt like the start of something that seems sustainable. It seemed like people liked what I was doing — and if I’m not offering the greater community something they want, I don’t want to be doing it. I want to make something people want — or need — in their lives.”
Hard Work and a Little Help
Del Barber is one of the hardest working independent artists in Manitoba — but he’s had a little help from his friends. Barber has drawn upon various resources Manitoba Music has to offer in order to deﬁne and achieve his goals as a singer/songwriter looking to build a sustainable career.
The ﬁrst step, of course, was learning what an industry association does and how it could beneﬁt him.
“The infrastructure here in Manitoba is so strong — but it’s not easy at ﬁrst to use it,” Barber says. “It’s scary for young artists to jump in. Two years ago, I didn’t know how to write a press release. I didn’t know I needed things like that. Manitoba Music had to kindly disenchant me and point me to the work. Now, there’s no question I’m afraid to ask them. ‘How do I get into this showcase?’ ‘Is there funding?’”
Barber has used both Market Development and Market Access programs to his advantage over the past few years. In conjunction with Market Development — which helps put artists onstage in front of key industry people — he’s played showcases at NXNE, OCFF and CMW.
This past October he played the Manitoba Music in New York roots showcase. (These gigs have led to good things for Barber, including a management deal with Paquin Entertainment and coverage in Penguin Eggs, a tastemaking Canadian roots /folk magazine.)
Market Access, meanwhile, provides the means to get there. Otherwise, “I simply couldn’t afford it,” Barber says.
“Market Access allows me to take a chance on a showcase that I probably wouldn’t pay for myself,” he continues. “Say there’s a Manitoba Music showcase in New York — if I had to pay my way, it wouldn’t be worth the risk ﬁnancially.”
Still, having travel support for a trip to Toronto or New York shouldn’t be regarded as a free vacation. As Barber notes, you’re there to work.
“(Having grants) makes you be more serious about why you’re attending and what you want to achieve,” he says. “It makes me assess where I’m at every time I apply for a grant.”
Besides, it’s up to an artist to make the most of his or her showcase.
“They don’t build bridges necessarily; you need to work for those connections,” Barber says. “You get what you put into it — but I wouldn’t have the experience to put anything in if it weren’t for Market Access.”
The singer/songwriter has also made use of professional development workshops and consultation through Manitoba Music.
“I’ve been to two speciﬁcally,” he says. “When they have a songwriter-in-residence, you usually get the opportunity to meet them.”
Meeting Canrock legend Tom Wilson, in particular, was an experience that made a huge impression — and one that wouldn’t have happened without Manitoba Music.
“He’s an incredible man,” he says. “I got to play him a few songs and now we’re friends here and there. Those introductions are pretty huge.”
Originally published in Manitoba Music's newsletter vol. 20.4