Had not Hurricane Sandy come knockin' on our door last week, you might have already read this post. But it remained half baked and not quite ready for prime time when the lights flickered and the power went out. As it turns out, this will probably coincide better with her November 16th CD release party at the Icehouse in Minneapolis. The album is actually already out and available on Amazon, iTunes, her Bandcamp page, her website and Electric Fetus, one of the last of the truly great indie record stores. And while it took and shook me from the very first listen, each spin on the virtual turntable pulls me in just a little more. This is a good one.
Connections. Barbara Jean was introduced to me by David Huckfelt from The Pines. I've been a big fan of theirs from the very first album, long before I realized that fellow founder Benson Ramsey was Bo's son. Bo being the great guitarist and producer, husband of Pieta Brown, musical sidekick to Greg Brown who is husband to Iris DeMent, and a friend of Sandy Dyas...who is a more-than-fine photographer, teacher and internet buddy of mine who occasionally contributed to No Depression point one, the magazine. And to bring it full circle, I think all of us know banjo man extraordinaire Michael Rossetto who worked with me back in the days when we had records to sell and places to sell them to, and who plays with The Pines when he's not doing his day job thing at the Cedar Cultural Center in the Twin Cities.
So that might be more than you needed to know but it's important. I think. Yeah...it's important. To understand Barbara Jean's roots and music within the Americana context of that I-35 corridor that connects the Cities to Iowa and points south. And in her case, it runs north to Highway 61 and along Lake Superior where for the past six or seven years she has been honing her craft, performing solo, sometimes as a duo and occasionally with groups, and writing these songs if not in the coldest place on Earth, certainly one thats pretty close to it.
She went to a high school that focused on the arts in Minneapolis, and was accepted to the University of Gophers, the place every Minnesotan dreams of going mostly for the football and ice hockey revelry. And it's also the home of Dinkytown, where Dylan first escaped to with his guitar. At the U she majored in journalism but also studied the viola, her first instrument, and played in a classical quartet...and became self-taught on the banjo, picked up the fiddle and worked on her vocals. After graduation, Barbara Jean did a Reverse-Dylan: she moved north past Duluth to the small town of Grand Marais, which in Minnesota is sort of the end of the line for the state.
"Very remote and rural, yet also quite an artsy town. I worked at the radio station there, WTIP (wtip.org) a small community based independent public station, as the news and public affairs director. Radio is one of my passions in this world. I love the medium. There's almost nothing on this earth more powerful than the human voice and in radio, that's what it's all about. I probably love radio for a lot of the same reasons I love music. It's about stories, cadence, rhythm, flow, and sound. I also geek out on the technical side of the medium and love editing."
While her college degree and career path was in journalism, at the same time she began to get noticed for the music she was making. It started to break for her in 2011 by winning the songwriting competition at Big Top Chautauqua and then making honorable mention in the 2012 Telluride Troubadour Contest. She earned a slot on the prestigious NPR Mountain Stage radio show, (you can stream her set by clicking on the link) and has shared bills with such notable acts as Trampled By Turtles, The Pines, Low, Jonathan Edwards, Peter Himmelman (Dylan's son-in-law), Meg Hutchinson, Martha Scanlon and others.
"I have never wanted to be a solo artist and find it somewhat ironic that its what I've become. The thing I love most about making music is doing it with other people. Viola is my favorite instrument and the one i've spent the most time studying and playing in life and it's a harmony instrument--I enjoy harmony more than melody! I love how much music can grow when you add just one line of harmony or counter melody. So, i'm not totally sure what direction I'll head. I've recently quit my job and left Grand Marais to live in Minneapolis, and that's partly why. I'm looking for people to play with and there's more opportunity in the city for that. I'll miss the woods, water, and wild of the north very much but for now, it's a move I need to make. Minnesota is my home, and it's likely it's where I'll stay. My people are all here and as long as I can get away every now and then in the winter, I think it suits me well."
So is this album, The Great Escape, appropriately named?
"When I left my job I also made a commitment to myself to pursue music more fully. I've always done it--it's a huge part of my family and something I truly love. I've never really given it my all, I think in large part because I come from a very practical family with pretty strong working class values and I know that it's no sure bet as far as financial security goes. But I tired to play it safe with the day job and it really didn't work in a lot of ways for me. I've discovered I have to at least try to carve out a life on my own terms where I pursue the things I care about and give myself to those pursuits fully. So, I'm taking the plunge and am all in."
The album was produced by Bernie Larsen (El Rayo X, David Lindley) and recorded and engineered by Tom Fabjance (Low, Haley Bonar, Smashing Pumpkins) at the beautiful Sacred Heart Studios during the chilly Duluth winter. Stop...what other kinds of winters does Duluth have? "Bernie spent the winter in Duluth that year and he and Tom were friends and had done some work together. Tom suggested getting Bernie involved, and I'm glad he did, because Bernie is incredible to work with. He's a fantastic musician with a distinct point of view and a great ear. On a personal level, he's a wonderful guy and so easy and fun to work with. I feel really lucky that he took it on. It was definitely up to him to be involved as there really wasn't a budget for the project. I hope to work with Bernie more in the future and I certainly hope I can compensate him better."
Musical sweetening of sound come from the contributions of Larsen playing guitars, bass, drums and adding in backing vocals, Andy Dee is on steel and slide guitar, the previously mentioned David Huckfelt on finger-style guitar, and Boyd Blomberg's fine acoustic guitar work. Somewhere in this post I have attempted to embed a player so you can listen to the album yourself. Pay close attention to the first track "The River" as it's my favorite so far. But the entire album runs deep, and repeated listening makes you feel that Barbara Jean has some very personal stuff she's sharing here, life stories of the heart and from the soul. And "The Great Escape" is one song more than a few of us will relate to. If I had to stamp a stylistic genre on this, it is much more Americana-ish roots music than, let's say, soft country. And it's certainly not what I'd call your basic coffeehouse singer-songwriter stuff (not that there is anything wrong with that...). But what I do hear is that middle of America, north country sound; the kind that runs from deep in Texas over to the Mississippi River, and up through the plains to the flat lands of Iowa and the icy cold snow and winters of Minnesota.
I've got something else to say before I wrap it up here. When I was looking for pictures to put in to this profile, I could see that Barbara Jean liked to dress up a bit, more than you'd expect maybe for a young roots music woman from Minnesota. And so I had to ask her about it. I mean, I'm not so shallow that I only write and think about music. I can cover the fashion beat for No Depression as well.
"I'm a typical girl in a way because I've always loved to dress up--and have always been into fashion. In the north woods most folks are not so into the kind of fashion I like. You stand out a lot as a young women in a small rural town, and even more when you show up to an event in a hot dress and pair of heels. Some of it is a northern Minnesota cultural thing...drawing attention to oneself is generally frowned upon...as is expressing a lot of individuality. It's actually something that really drove me crazy up there. I don't know why living in the north woods means a person should look crusty or wear camping clothes all the time. For me the daily aspects of life weren't all that different from being in the city. I dress up for every show I play and for every event I go to. Why? Because i enjoy doing it!"
As a fairly smart man, I shall let the woman have the final word:
"Lastly, you can rest assured, I certainly do not refer to myself as a gopher."