The Core: The Barr Brothers
Photo by Andrew Guerette
Brad Barr on his new hometown, band and approach to songwriting
Birth of The Barr Brothers
The Slip started playing Montreal around 2000 and, on our third trip in 2004, we played the club Le Swimming. We were playing “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen and, all of a sudden, we smelled smoke. I checked the back of my amplifier, but it was actually a fire in the backstage area. The alarms went off and everyone emptied out onto the street, where my brother [and Slip drummer] Andrew struck up a conversation with a girl who was a waitress there. He gave her his coat or something gentlemanly. A year later, we were on our way back to play Montreal and he decided to try and track her down for a cup of coffee. He called the club where they had met, and she answered the phone. It was her first day back at work after a six-month leave. A year later, they were fully together and we moved up here. She’s now one of our managers—family. [However], I feel like The Barr Brothers really started when Andrew and I met harpist Sarah Page and we started playing my new songs with her. The new dimension of her harp playing really inspired the vision of what this band has become. When multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial joined, he was the perfect missing piece of the puzzle, the glue.
Safety in Numbers
The Barr Brothers [stemmed] from my solo work but it’s really about the journey of the songs themselves. At the time, I made [2008’s solo effort] The Fall Apartment, I’d split up with my longtime girlfriend and I wanted to make her a parting gift of the instrumental guitar songs and styles she liked. I never intended to release that record until Josh Rosenthal of Tompkins Square Records offered to put it out. I was also writing a lot of the songs that would end up on The Barr Brothers’ first record—I had played with The Slip for the better half of my life, so there was something liberating about the idea of solo work. But after writing the songs and performing a lot of them solo, it affirmed for me how much I love playing with other people. I love the way their ideas elevate mine—and it’s just a lot more fun to have a crew. I quickly brought those songs to Andrew and [harpist] Sarah Page—I enjoy seeing them grow with other people’s input. It’s less lonely.
There was a time, up until a few years ago, when it was gray what band I was writing for. At this point, I do write for a particular group. I get so many different kinds of ideas, depending on what instruments I’m using or what project I am thinking about. These days, I’ve mostly been writing for The Barr Brothers but the songs I am writing are much more [geared toward] the whole ensemble [than the songs on the first Barr Brothers album]. It’s been nice to separate these ideas creatively as they start to appear.
It’s never particularly easy for me to write lyrics but it’s become a meaningful process and something I put much more care into these days. I’ve always wanted the listener to interpret my lyrics in their own way; I’ve always tried to keep them open-ended, less narrative and more impressionist. I’m happy about the lyrics that I’ve written in the last four or five years. They just feel more complete—they get to the heart of something. I sometimes enjoy the stabs in the dark from when I was younger, and I still sing those songs with joy, but the stuff from the last few years feels like a more complete experience. The Slip did a few shows [this July] and sometimes the lyrics from one of those old songs hits me in a new way or I find a new way to shape the melody. It’s instantaneous—it comes out of your mouth and suddenly you feel something completely different. When we played “The Weight of Solomon” [from 1997’s From the Gecko ], there was a bit of a younger man’s wisdom being imparted to a guy that’s a little more haggard. That’s what I’m talking about as far as writing in a way where phrases can be reinterpreted down the road, even by the guy who wrote them.
We’ve been talking about [The Slip’s first record since 2006’s Eisenhower ] for a couple of years. I’m glad it’s had a chance to simmer because things have really taken different forms and I’ve become much more confident about certain ideas I wasn’t sure of at the beginning. A lot of my creative urges are satisfied by playing in The Barr Brothers, so The Slip is able to represent another side of our music. [The new Slip album] will probably be kind of groovier than Eisenhower was. The Slip has always been this evolving thing, but I have to imagine that one project influences another, even if it’s by creating a new open space in my life. We’ve been working on it in our own studio at our own pace, so we’ve had the chance to build things up, strip them away and try them several different ways.
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Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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