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Everything Evolves: The Barr Brothers On Fusing Past And Present With 'Queens of the Breakers'

Thursday, 25 January 2018 Written by Milly McMahon

Photo: Pedro Ruiz

“Music is a very humbling experience. Humility is the key to a greater sense of humanity, leading to better compatibility, sympathy, compassion and communication with people. When you strengthen your musical voice, the ability to listen to other musicians and feel compassion grows. That is just a theory. But I absolutely subscribe to it.”

Brad Barr comes over as deeply reflective; a soothing and intuitive soul. One third of Montreal band the Barr Brothers, alongside his sibling, Andrew, and harpist Sarah Pagé, he has been playing music in various guises for decades. 

Having recently opened for the War on Drugs as part of their European tour, and with a short run of UK shows to come, the buzz around their understated folk remains surprisingly low key given their anthemically harmonious sound.

The Barr Brothers are known for the wild sense of country and anarchy that characterises their music. Flitting between gut-wrenching loss and knee slapping, beer-chugging spirit, their music is frequently intoxicating.

Their fourth album, 'Queens of the Breakers', was released last autumn and took its name from a Vanderbilt mansion situated along Rhode Island’s rocky coastline, illustrating a nostalgic time from the brothers’ youth while framing it with their adult lives as musicians and fathers. We caught up with Brad to find out what has changed and what remains the same in their world.

Sorry to have woken you up!

I’m great, I’ve had a coffee and a smoke. My three-year-old son had a cough late last night, everyone in his day-care has a cold right now, and it kept us awake. I should have been up an hour ago.

Has he heard the new album?

He knows it by name, but he’s into it. He gravitates to some words. I will say: “I have to put some gasoline in the car.” And he will say: “Like the song?” I wonder what it is that makes him pick up on certain words. He’s on the opening song of the album. The first voice you hear is him hanging out with me. I would pop the headphones on him. I wouldn’t explain I was recording.

How has the experience of becoming fathers at the same time shaped the relationship between yourself and your brother?

It just reinforced patterns and traits that we have. Those vices and virtues of working together is that those things can go unnoticed, so there’s no more deepening of that relationship. It’s already as deep as it could get, really. What I feel is true, is that with each triumph or failure there is new light.

When both of us have changed, thanks to the gift of becoming a father, we are naturally more highly tuned to certain instincts. Everything evolves. With this record we just felt like we wanted to bring the music together. We were locked in our studio, just he and I for months and months, and we are proud that we finished this together. 

You wrote this music to help your son answer some forthcoming introspective questions about himself. Did you achieve what you set out to?

The song that that I was mostly referring to was the opening song, Defibrillation. I was feeling a bit captive. I’d had a difficult time for most of 2016 writing the lyrics for the record. Then, somewhere towards the end of that year, a lot came out in a short period of time. When we came up with Defibrillation, we felt strongly about putting it out. That was my inroad to figuring out what to write about. I don’t know if I succeeded. If my son was listening to that song, I think he would be more confused about who I was than have light shed on it. Maybe the music can speak for itself. 

That song’s beat began with a heart monitor in hospital after your mum had a fall. How is she doing?

She is OK. It all started when were hanging out late on Christmas Day a year ago and drinking Jamesons. My mum is 72, she got up to go to bed and we heard this tumble and she had fallen and banged her head on the bathtub. We took her to the emergency room. It was really minor, but anytime your mum has blood running down her face is a horrible vision. She got stitched up no problem, it was totally benign, no scar now. But at 3am on Christmas night, with the strip lights beaming down on the blood, the heart monitor machines in the hospital were just beeping at each other. My brother claimed he just mathematically broke down the sound of the machines. His drummer’s mind reconstructed the rhythm.

I think he was just emotionally open to what was going on, he was vulnerable and a little bit scared. I find that one of the coolest things about that song is that it was a very intimate experience he was having. You are hearing someone’s heartbeat, two strangers’ hearts beating, a very intimate part of the person. That beat is also attached to a machine. That’s the part of the story I love the most: the detached attachment he was having with those machines. The way a stranger’s heart monitor somewhere on the wing that he couldn’t even see was syncing with my mother’s. They couldn’t even see that person, but their hearts were having a conversation. Mum’s fine now.

You’ve said before that you rely on the subconscious for songwriting. How do you engage with that day-to-day?

I wish it was day to day. Some songs take me months or even years to write and I guess that’s because my approach has been sporadic. I’ve heard the stories about Leonard Cohen waking up at five in the morning, making a cup of coffee and over the next four hours smoking a packet of cigarettes and just writing no matter what the mood. I am not like that.

I pick a time and hope for feeling to rise, and hope that that inspires me with the imagination to come up with something. But I guess I do hope to remove my subconscious feeling from the process, because mostly every time I’ve tried to commence something it takes my cerebral part of myself to invent a theme or a lyric. It needs to come out of the blue, and then I can try and work it out. I do sit down every day and bring myself to get down to work until either I get bored with it or something arrives.

Is that a meditative process, or is your mind already quiet? Do you need to go to a place where you feel calm?

It’s probably both states of mind. I might be a little hesitant to call it a meditative process, but then compared to everything that goes on in our day-to-day lives, what I achieve creatively probably is meditative. I’m generally not an anxious person. At certain times I have been, but lately I'm at peace, which can be debilitating for songwriters.

I have a friend who exists in chaos in his personal life and that allows him to feel able to write music. I can appreciate that, but he puts himself through hell in the name of trying to keep his ideas on the table, to struggle through creativity. For me it’s some combination of letting music steer you, plugging into the atmosphere of the studio, seeing what happens and having fun. Lyric-writing is tricky. I am at the mercy of what is coming to my antenna at that point.  

Are psychedelics or psychotropics still integral to your music and creativity?

More of an important part of shaping who I have become. I wouldn’t say they are an important part of my creative process now, but they were at one time of my life. I am very grateful to have had those psychedelic experiences with LSD or mushrooms. I don’t recommend anyone just going out and taking psychedelics, but I had a very solid group of friends, the ones referenced in ‘Queens of the Breakers’, who I really trust and felt safe with.

Because of the trust among us, those experiences were completely revelatory and never bad. I do look to those experiences as things that opened my eyes to both truths and misconceptions. That propelled me towards wanting to live a creative life in which we could make our own roads. Today I feel liberated from the social pressures I was exposed to in high school. There are too many social pressures altogether.

The Barr Brothers Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri January 26 2018 - MANCHESTER Gorilla
Sat January 27 2018 - LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
Tue January 30 2018 - LONDON Rough Trade East
Thu February 01 2018 - LONDON Union Chapel

Click here to compare & buy The Barr Brothers Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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