I’m pleased to announce that this installment of Songwriter’s Showcase features The Barr Brothers. You may recall that I featured one of their songs, “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Cryin’” as Song o’ the Day a little while back.
In case you’re unfamiliar with this up-and-coming phenomenon, here’s a little backround on Brad and Andrew Barr. Yes, they’re really brothers.
Brad and Andrew Barr discovered rock n’ roll in 1983. They taught themselves how to play, at first on cardboard boxes and home-strung imitation guitars, then on actual, zebra-striped electric guitars and drums. “Wipe Out” and “Johnny B. Goode” were among the first songs absorbed into the repertoire. With the same energy they used to attack each other with boxing gloves, they attacked the popular hits of the day and old blues songs they found in their father’s record collection. A healthy diet of classic and esoteric rock paved the way to the discoveries that lay ahead.
Skip ahead to 2004. The brothers had spent most of the previous decade criss-crossing North America, playing music with their spirited, improv-based rock trio, The Slip. That Spring, the band was playing a small club in Montreal, QC when a fire broke out in the venue. They grabbed a few guitars/drums and rushed out onto the rainy street with the rest of the concert goers. As the club’s mezzanine was swallowed by flames, Andrew offered his coat to one of the waitresses from the bar. One year later, Brad and Andrew Barr were living in Montreal. That waitress is now one of their managers.
In his first apartment in the new city, Brad shared an adjoining wall with Sarah Page, a classically trained harpist from Montreal with a propensity for the experimental. As tender and visceral as she is virtuosic, her melodies would seep through the cracks of the wall and into the music Brad was writing. From this nebulous relationship, a friendship developed and the brothers, with Sarah, began recording and performing around Montreal. Soon, their friend and multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial was brought in to lend his wide array of expertise to the outfit, playing keyboards, bass, vibes, percussion, and singing. They called themselves The Barr Brothers. With Brad’s songs setting the context for the agile imaginations of the other musicians, a unique sound was born, one reliant on interwoven string arrangements, wide open spaces, and a multitude of musical traditions.
Here’s a little glimpse into the songwriting force behind the Barr Brothers’ fierce and emotive tunes.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What was the first original song you started performing?
Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers: It was a song called “Airplane Man.” I wrote it when I was about 13. It sounded like AC/DC’s “Gonna Be A Rock n Roll Singer.” We (my brother and I) performed it at a few birthday parties of the 8 and 9 year olds in the neighborhood, who thought we were pretty cool with our drums and electric guitars. It was our encore, preceded by songs like “Wipeout” and “Johnny B. Goode”. It had one good lyric…..”Burning up the sky with my wings on fire, I’m an Airplane Man!”
We also re-write the lyrics to “House of the Rising Sun” when we were younger, around 9 or 10, to tell the story of our dog, Duffy, a Scottish terrier…
"House of the Rising Duff" (sung to the melody of House of the Rising Sun)
There is a dog on Williams Street
They call him the rising Duff
And he likes to pee on Mommy’s carpets
And he chews his lift hind foot
He wags his tail at folks a lot
But he barks at the seltzer man
He walks three inches off the ground
But he does the best he can
Well Duffy was a friend of mine
We shared them Kibbles n’ Bits
And then we hit that dusty road
And walked until he shits
Our dad may have helped us with that last verse…
Songbirds & Seagulls: Please describe your songwriting process. Does the melody come first? The lyrics? Do they arrive at the same time? How and when do you decide to combine the two?
Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers: There are many exceptions, but in general, my process could be described as something like this: Get the mind out of the way. Sometimes this just happens, while I’m cooking or watching a movie. Sometimes its deliberate, like trying to catch myself when I’m just waking up or just putting myself to bed. Keep the guitar nearby, always close. Pick it up, strum, put it down, stir the pasta, pick it back up, strum…with any luck, something starts to emerge. If it catches me, I stay with it….sit down and start checking things out. I usually need one decent lyric/melody to arrive early on for me to keep going with an idea…something I can get behind, start building the rest of the lyrics. This is usually where I spend the most time on a song, trying to understand what its about, what words it wants to hold, what kind of rhymes and structure. For some songs this comes quickly, others have taken literally years. Usually, with almost every song, there comes a problem area, something that needs to be worked through, in terms or chord change, melodic shape. That’s normal. Once I start to get the thing into view, have a couple verses and maybe an arrangement idea, I’ll try recording it, or show the band.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Does your songwriting improve over time, in a linear fashion, or are some songs just randomly better than others because of your inspiration or some other factor?
Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers: I think it improved linearly up until a point. I tend to look at the period around 2005, when Andrew and I moved up to Montreal and lots of things in my life changed, as when things took a leap forward, maybe on account of feeling more connected to the lyrics, and more disconnected with my surroundings. Now I think its fair to say that some are better than others by their own virtue. But of course, a song’s virtue and integrity is entirely a matter of opinion. I get excited by new songs, try and not bother wondering how good or bad they are until they’ve been seen through, recorded, played live, etc. I figure if I’m willing to keep working on them, there must be something good in there.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What are the triggers that inspire you to write songs?
Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers: I don’t know… I think it may be some urge to commune with the mysterious and unseen. I assume it starts with this basic urge, probably the same way a gardener wants to see something grow, like working together with the unknown to nurture something that one is proud of. My favorite songs that I’ve written all have this element, like it wasn’t all my doing. Some songs have parts or lyrics that I don’t even remember writing, they were just suddenly there. A gardener can’t take full credit for growing a plant, nor can a songwriter with a song.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Do you ever get that sense about a song that “this is a good one?” Have you published every song you’ve ever written, and, if not, how do you decide which ones are keepers? If one isn’t a keeper, do you ever revise it over time or do you just scrap it?
Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers: For a long time, and for the most part still, my way of weeding through songs was/is “If I still remember that idea a month or two later, it must be worth working on…” Because melodies and ideas drift in and out daily. If something sticks, and is memorable, that was always my litmus test. These days, thanks to the voice memo feature on my phone, I’ll record as many ideas as I can. Then, later, I listen through and hope to find something that expresses something to me at the moment, that contains some lyricism, something I think I can work with. Today it may be this idea, tomorrow, that one. So I try to keep them all near by, listening, seeing which one inspires something.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?
Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers: At the top of my list is Nathan Moore, a songwriter from Virginia, a close friend of mine, and one of my biggest influences. He is a true folk singer. We’ve collaborated a lot over the years, and he never ceases to amaze me with his subtleness, his honesty, and his commitment to the trade. He’s also a very accomplished magician. After him, its the usual suspects plus some others: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Page, Tom Waits, Ray Davies, Sharon Van Etten, Paul Simon, Thom Yorke, Steven Malkmus, John Lennon, Fred McDowell, Ben Miller, Keith Richards, Townes Van Zandt, Elizabeth Powell, John Fogerty, Jim James, Pete Townshend, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Conor Oberst, Van Morrison, Jeff Tweedy….and so on. Leaving many off due to the late hour.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What advice would you give to beginner songwriters? Do you have any tips that you’ve found helpful over time? I know there isn’t a formula for writing a great song, but surely you could impart some knowledge to folks who are just getting started.
Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers: Find your singing voice first. Even if its weird. Things start to fall into place after that. In the beginning, I wrote a lot of songs that were out of my range, didn’t hit the sweet spot, made it hard to sing, and therefore hard to write. I guess that was a necessary part of my development. Work through these things. A singer is imparting more than the lyrics and the melody. He or she is communicating with sound.
Another thing is to show up, every day, at the proverbial writing table. If writing songs is something that moves you deeply, something you have to do, then just giving time to it every day will reveal things to you. I remember reading someone say, if you’re having trouble writing a good song, write a terrible song! Just write! And of course, don’t hold yourself in anybody else’s judgement. Most innovators were ignored at first or thought to be too out there. If the record industry doesn’t like your songs, consider that a good thing, that you’re just way ahead of them. Tomorrow’s genius was yesterday’s failure.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Did you have any mentors in your early career? If so, who were they and how did they help you?
Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers: Having my brother as a partner has always been one of the most important facets of my, and our, development. He’s candid and honest with me, has no boundaries, saves his comments until I’ve seen something through, is the most helpful person in my life as far as growth and communication and working on music. Definitely a mentor. My friend Nathan Moore, as well, who I mentioned above. Definitely a mentor. Aside from them, I think of every person, sound, city, relationship, interaction, natural place, etc., as a mentor. Life, music, nature, humanity….these are the greatest teachers.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Have you been writing any songs recently? If so, do you have plans to record again soon?
Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers: I’m always writing musical ideas — chords and melodies. The hard part is sitting down and writing lyrics. It really takes sitting myself down and working for a bit, feeling ridiculous and stupid like I have nothing to say, and then….a little gem appears, and I realize I have done this before, I can do this, and I will, because I think this song could be good, or maybe great. So I have been scribbling as much as possible lately, and we do hope to record a second Barr Brothers album before the end of the year. Its hard because we’ve been traveling so much. But tomorrow, I have a day off in London. Its supposed to rain, and I’m going to sit with a handful of new songs and see what happens.