In person, it’s hard to mistake Del Barber for anything but a prairie boy. Barber’s got a tall lean frame, a well worn Carhartt jacket and the kind of youthful appearance that comes from a life lived outdoors under the clear skies and fresh air that you find in the middle of the country. He’s quick to smile when you first meet him, and it’s clear that the friendly story telling person you see on stage isn’t a persona. He’s an easy, engaging, thoughtful conversationalist.
That Barber’s newest album, Prairieography, is full of carefully crafted, sparse songs that evoke the place he calls home is by design. It’s been so long since you’ve seen the prairie stars / You’re not sure you can recall them he sings in Big Smoke, one of the album’s standout tracks, and it’s obviously sentiment he’s well aware of. After spending much of 2013 on the road—he played two separate summertime gigs in Vancouver about a month apart—2014 hasn’t been any slower. Barber’s job keeps him away from home a lot, and Prairieography is a kind of love letter to his home.
Prairieography’s genesis began when Barber was spending time fishing in Southern Alberta, on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. It’s an area he loves—"Wherever Ian Tyson sings about, I’ll be”
he jokes—and Tyson’s Cowboyography
album wound up in the CD player in his truck. He describes the songs as being “…so connected to the region.”
That spirit infuses Prairieography throughout, with Barber’s songs “…trying to point to the universal through [his] own Prairie aesthetic.'
His desire to make an album with a more natural “live to tape” sound led Barber back to working with his friend Jean-Paul Laurendeau where they could “...look out on the wheat board building” in downtown Winnipeg. Barber describes Laurendeau as possessing the “…perfect work ethic: super humble, doesn’t ever get credit, people forget to mention him but he puts out great records.” The two worked together on the Juno nominated Love Songs for the Last 20, and I’d be willing to bet that Prarieography will end up on next year’s nomination list. It’s an effective partnership, and one which has produced an album that Barber says he feels “…the production speaks to the songwriting better…” when comparing it to the album released in between, Headwater.
The search for that natural sound took Barber in other directions as well, to his friend Will's farm just south of Winnipeg where an empty grain silo became a critical part of the album’s recording process. After hanging mics in “…just about every type of building we could find…” Barber wound up climbing rows of rebar inside the silo hanging mics at different heights to create a reverb tank. It wasn’t just hanging the mics that was hard though: there were also “…about 50 pigeons that we had to find homes for in the ground.” Not the kind of problem most recoding studios have to deal with (he calls that “…a kind of payment for borrowing the space.”)
The idea for the grain silo was inspired by another of Barber’s favourite albums—Harvest Moon by fellow Winnipegger Neil Young--which has a sonic quality he describes as sounding “unreproduceable.” Though he says he was afraid the silo idea wouldn’t work, it seems to have paid off in spades (though I suppose the pigeons might feel differently): the sound of Prairieography is perfectly matched to its lyrical content, with a beautiful natural sounding reverb to the instrumentation.
Prairieography has a natural, comfortable feeling to it. The songwriting projects the kind of confidence that suggests that Barber may have—on this, his fourth album—at his most natural state as a songwriter. The fourteen songs on the album are straightforward and lack pretense. They tell tales of being homesick, accidental discoveries in hotel rooms and girls whose fathers have shotguns next to the door. This reflects Barber’s belief that in Country music is “…the audience isn’t alienated. It’s not about mystique. It’s about understanding…” It’s a idea that reminds me of some Pete Seeger says in his autobiography--"Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.” Barber’s lyrics embrace simplicity nicely.
When I asked Barber about his current tour he shrugs, says he’s not sure where he is in terms of the middle of the end and that it “…makes no logical geographical sense at all.”
After sharing stages with Samantha Crain in the Pacific Northwest he’s been back in Canada for a while. The upcoming release of Prairieography
in the United States will no doubt see him driving across the country again playing everything from bars to small theatres and probably a few festivals, with plans to end the year in Australia playing the annual Woodford Festival.
With a recent album so rooted in the sense of home, the continual touring schedule raises obvious questions about what it’s like to be away so much. While he admits that being on the road has its downsides—most obviously, being away from family—he actually gets a bit wistful when he starts talking about it. “If you’re on the road long enough,” he starts, “you get free of a lot of stuff…of worrying about ‘Is the show going to go well?’ ‘Is it selling?’ If they don’t come, I still get to play guitar and I get to go on stage and seem my friends.”
“People like to paint life on the road with a grim brush,” he says a minute later before pausing mid-sentence to collect his thoughts. “I dunno,” Barber continues, “It’s pretty luxurious. I’m kind of in god’s pocket in a way. I feel pretty lucky.”
It’s a nice sentiment, and one that’s shared by listeners: if Del Barber is a bit of an accidental singer/songwriter—he says he “…never told [his] mom and day that this is what I’m gonna do.”—he’s a welcome addition to a Winnipeg legacy that includes Neil Young, Randy Bachman and the Weakerthans. Only time will tell if his name takes its place on history’s mantle beside those names along with other legends like John Prine and Townes van Zandt, but Barber’s young and anybody who’s got the sense of self awareness at his age to write material of the sort that’s found on Prarieography has a bright future ahead of him. Lucky for us, we get to tag along for the ride--and maybe stop for a few roadside fishing excursions along the way.