When I started thinking about interviewing songwriters, and who I would absolutely love to speak with, Brad Barr was the first person that came to mind. Not only is Brad one of the finest songwriters of his generation, but he is also one of the finest guitar players, singers, and live performers. He effortlessly bridges the space between frontman luminary and humble working artist. Fluid, void of pretension and filler, experiencing The Barr Brothers live is simply: Performance art. Brad’s gift and expression through his medium is important, powerful, and honest.
While still in high school his brother Andrew and he started the avant-rock trio The Slip and gained a very supportive regional following in Northeast and even a substantial national fanbase. When Andrew and Brad shifted gears to The Barr Brothers in 2010, it was here where they began to combine potent elements of stellar musicianship and experimental creativity with a more simplified folk backbone. In this expression, they created a stunning hybrid of sound.
Not to my surprise, The Barr Brothers will often spend years working on a record, perfecting, honing, crafting, and more importantly ruminating in the space and world of each song. With the absence of rushing an expression to maturity, when you hear a record by The Barr Brothers, you’re truly hearing a modern masterpiece.
Glide was lucky enough to catch up with Brad Barr and talk about the depth of his process, keeping family close, trusting your instincts, listening to frogs, what’s in his tape deck and a whole lot more.
Are you up in Montreal?
I am. Yep. Been here 15 years.
Yeah, I didn’t expect it. My brother (Andrew Barr) had been seeing a girl up here who he’s now married to. I was living in Boston trying to figure out my next movie and I said fuck it – I packed everything I could into my Honda Civic and drove up here. Fifteen years later I have a son and a wife and bought a house with Andrew. Enjoying it up here.
So you have the two families in the house together?
Yeah. It’s a stacked duplex. We’re on the top floor and Andrew is on the bottom floor. I’m really glad we bought at the time we did. I think we got the last affordable house in Montreal. When Coronavirus hit, having the two families under one roof was great for the childcare.
To have family around right now is clutch. I’ve been missing my family for sure.
For sure. I miss seeing my folks. I would have been down to the states at least a couple times in the past nine months. But yeah, having my brother and his family right under us is great. Andrew and I have a studio five minutes from the house and we manage to get in here pretty much every day.
Is that where you record your albums?
The first record we primarily did in our studio and in my kitchen. That was in 2007. For the last two records and EPS, we’ve gone into a more professional studio with a good engineer. We’ll get the beds of the tracks then bring it to our studio and mess with it for a year or so. (both laugh)
Is taking your time on the records part of the process that you really dig?
Well… yes and no. I do love working with a piece of music. The last two records were pretty sonically ambitious and also kind of unfocused as far as their directives. For that reason, we end up working on them for longer than usual. My writing and our playing styles are just kind of all over the place. That’s why it has taken longer to put these records together. I wouldn’t say I necessarily aspire to make records this way and we’ve been talking about ways to simplify the process on the next record so it is more of a get in and get out experience. Andrew and I, neither of us want to obsess over the next record the way we’ve obsessed over the last ones. We’re trying to give ourselves some limitations so we don’t have as much to consider. If we can, we’ll get the integrity of the songs and its intention to a refined and simple concept so when we record it there’s not a lot of question marks.
You guys produce these incredible tones, where I’ll be listening and thinking “what is that?” Even in the live setting, you’re able to recreate all these wild tones.
Anything in particular come to mind?
I’m thinking about “Love Ain’t Enough.” The sonic quality, the way it hits. Sonically it fills so much space while simultaneously creating this whole world for the listener to occupy. And when you’re playing live you sing those “oh oh oh oh oh oh oh’s” – its nuts.
Yeah, we worked that part out. It’s just two tones with two people singing. They each sing a half-beat off each other. I actually learned that at a Dirty Projectors show. It was a combination of that and when we were New Orleans staying at a Marriott downtown, there was a little pond in the middle of the courtyard and frogs were doing the same thing. One tone each. I think I saw the Dirty Projectors that same day – I was thinking, “what the hell.” Felt like I was being steered in the direction of singing fast tones ⅛ notes off each other. That’s a fun one.
So cool. I’m really interested in your songwriting process. Is there a “normal” way you tend to start writing a song?
Having the ability to look back, I think ten years ago I would have said no; there’s no system, no pattern, no formula or technique. I could be making spaghetti and the right idea or lyric would hit me. I would say that most of the time it’s a very quick thing – grab the instrument, pick it up, without searching too hard something pops out. If a lyric hits at the same time and connects with the instrument, if that happens right away, then I’ve got something to work with. That’s how most of the songs start – in that quick moment. Then I can sit on that song for years. In fact, I just sent Nathan (Moore) a tune that I started writing almost three years ago in Greece. A woman’s name and a melody came out and just stayed with me over the years. I never forgot it.
That’s another characteristic of what makes me pursue a song – if I can hang on to it. A lot of my songs are that way, I get a little idea and I don’t forget it. “Love Ain’t Enough” is kind of like that. It didn’t have the chorus but The Slip used to play that song back in the day. I would say they take a long time to mature. Most of my songs arrive in an instant and hang around for a year or two years, sometimes five years. Then I’ll tend to write the rest of the song in a day. Somehow it was that song’s moment; it’s been hanging around long enough and I can scratch it out.
Does Andrew (bandmate, brother, drummer) write songs?
He does. Not as often as I do. I’m kind of tasked with writing the tunes but he’s written some great songs. I don’t think any of them have ended up on a record yet. Andrew knows my songwriting well enough to know when I’ve got something. He’s a great editor. He knows when a part isn’t working or I half-assed a certain thing. He’s got a great vision for giving things a twist and how to produce them in a way that’s surprising and unique.
He’s the true drummer. Like the catcher of music.
The unsung hero.
They can see everything in front of them. I think drummers tend to be very “wide scope” people. That’s cool to have someone that you trust who can say “you’re half-assing this.”
Yeah, or they can say, “it’s good.” On “Song That I Heard,” I tried for a year or two to change that lyric because I thought it was so corny. I did not like that refrain. Andrew had watched a Paul Simon documentary about Graceland. There was a story Paul told that was really similar. He kept having the lyric, “I’m going to Graceland,” and thinking what does this have to do with Elvis? He tried to change it and eventually surrendered to it. Andrew encouraged me to do the same with “Song That I Heard.”
Some of your songs are more lyrically straight but I find that most of them leave a lot up to interpretation in the lyrics. When you’re writing a song do you intentionally keep it lyrically open to interpretation and not so direct? Does that resonate?
Oh yeah. I know exactly what you’re talking about. Listening to Nathan’s (Nathan Moore) songwriting for example, he has a way of being really direct. It’s colorful and poetic and has amazing turns of phrase and humor and humanity and you know what he’s singing about. I’ve wondered why I have such a hard time being direct. I think it’s just my instinct. The lyrics that I choose and the lyrics that I chuck, the way I intuitively see the words working with a song, is not something I do on purpose. I just let the instinct guide me. The way the words fit with my mouth too, and how it blends with what my hands are doing is important, too. It’s hard to pinpoint. The phonetic aspect of it guides a lot of what comes out.
That makes a lot of sense. Especially with the music you’re making. Do you write poetry on the side?
Mostly with a guitar and the song in mind but I’ve been trying lately to write more, just to get some content out onto a page.
When did you start writing songs?
I think the first song I ever wrote was on piano when I was 7 or 8. I think it was basically just “Stairway to Heaven” on the piano. When I was about 13 or 14, I was all about AC/DC and the Grateful Dead. I had written a couple of songs we used to play live when our band was called Airplane Man. It was basically a rip off of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer” by AC/DC and a song called “Starbird” that was a rip off of “Wharf Rat” by The Dead. That’s how you do it. Clifford Brown said, “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”
Around 16 or 17, I started writing things that were a little more ambitious. We were lucky in high school that we had a music room that was solely our room. That was the very first incarnation of The Slip. Amps were set up all the time and we would go in there and play every night. For three years we played every night. I’d say that was where I learned the fundamentals of playing in a band. I didn’t really learn how to enjoy my voice until I was in my early 30’s. I don’t think I had any real concept of what my voice was supposed to do or how to deliver a song until I was quite a bit older. I just identified as a guitar player who sang these songs because I wrote them.
Do you remember there being a moment where you found access to that “true” voice?
It was The Slip’s last record Eisenhower. I started to be aware of how shitty I’d been singing for so many years and where my range was and how to give more character to a song. There was a song on that record called “If One of Us Should Fall” and another called “Life in Disguise.” Those two were the first time I found myself happy with my singing. With The Barr Brothers I guess we started that off and I was just more confident. I was writing on the acoustic guitar, which I hadn’t done with The Slip.
When did you write “Beggar in the Morning”?
That was one of the first tunes I wrote when I got to Montreal, so around 2005 or 2006. That was kind of the first calling card song for us; the first song we really hoisted up the flagpole. It had the right balance of chord motion, melodic arch, sentiment, obscurity, doom, kind of light, and dark. Had the right balance of all that stuff… and a chorus too. Which is a rare achievement for me.
What’s in your tape deck?
I’ve been really enjoying the first few White Stripes records. Love his (Jack White) guitar playing and the freedom he has with his voice. I didn’t really check them out when they were getting started, I was just unaware, listening to mostly old jazz. There’s an Arthur Russell track I’ve been loving called “Nobody Wants a Lonely Heart.” Van Morrison’s “Saint Dominic’s Preview” – Side B of that record, I listen to that one a lot. Fred McDowell’s record with the Hunter Chapel singers. Fred McDowell on guitar with four or five voices. It’s Delta Blues with these gospel singers and it’s got everything I need.