The Barr Brothers (The Interview)

If you believe the notion that a song, or album, for that matter, is supposed to make you a believer during its first twenty or so seconds, then The Barr Brothers have struck gold in 2011. Their self-titled debut album is stunning from the start, leading with a song that should be on many “Best of” end-of-year lists, “Beggar in the Morning.” Here, have a listen.

What we know about Andrew and Brad Barr is that they’re already accomplished musicians, having spent a decade or so playing in a trio called The Slip. Could it be, though, that Andrew and Brad are just now hitting their songwriting and recording peak? When I listen to the song above or “Give the Devil Back His Heart,” I have to think it’s not just possible, but it’s true. Yes, The Barr Brothers have found a home.

We recently caught up with Andrew and Brad Barr over email to discuss the new album and all things Barr Brothers. Enjoy.

1. Take me through the recording sessions for your debut album. What inspired you? There are so many different sounds on this album — what were the major challenges of getting the sound you wanted?
I used to love building shoebox dioramas when I was a kid. That feeling of creating your own little world is liberating and awesome, it was a similar feeling building our humble little studio in Montreal. Brad and I wanted to explore recording music without the usual limitations of being in a rented studio.

This record crept up on us. We hadn’t set out to make a record at all, we really set out to build a studio and a place to play music together. I had just fallen for a girl from Montreal and moved up there.  Brad followed suit and before long Brad had a really great batch of new songs written, inspired in part by the move to a new city and all that that can stir up. With Sarah Page on harp and Miles Perkin on upright bass, the group was formed for some small shows around town and as we acquired recording equipment, we started testing it out. We wanted to explore engineering, and capturing these songs was a perfect opportunity. We were set up in an old leaky boiler room where we laid down wooden floors, four walls, and a ceiling. We did some minor acoustical work to it, and we were working mostly with a few ribbon microphones and just 7 inputs. Some of the bed tracks graciously let us poke and prod them, add, subtract and reassemble them for two years before we considered them finished. Some songs were recorded the day we learned them. I don’t know how long we might have worked on this if our friends The Low Anthem hadn’t taken us on tour in the Spring of 2010 , when we pressed 1000 copies of the record.

In terms of sounds and challenges, I could write a novel about that. Because we were teaching ourselves about recording on the fly, technically, it was full of challenges and limitations and the computer almost got thrown out the window more than once, although there was no window, so we continued. The biggest challenge was trying to keep the integrity of the song intact while having fun with all of the possibilities. In a way, having no time limit allowed us to make a simpler record.  We wanted to keep the songs well-chiseled and without a lot of distraction, while at the same time having fun, giving them all their own tiny environments to live in. We didn’t care about leaving little artifacts in there, bench squeaks and breathing, we really tried to capture the process as honestly as possible. The harp was difficult at first; we had to learn how to bring out the full range of the instrument and to keep it natural. We also owe a lot to bassist Miles Perkin, for really dialing his upright bass sound in so well, playing gorgeously, and in some cases, writing the definitive vocal harmonies for “Cloud” and “Held My Head.” I’m sure a seasoned engineer could find a million faults in our record from an audiophile perspective, but I do know that the process felt as healthy and rewarding as any recording that I’ve been a part of.

2. “Give the Devil Back His Heart” and “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying” are two songs that present a shift from gentle folk to elements of rock and blues. Can you talk about those songs and what they mean to the album as a whole?

We never set out to be folk band, a chamber band, a rock band…..we play the songs that inspire us, and that was the case with these two songs. And, as mentioned above, the album wasn’t being made with any one direction in mind, as we were just recording the songs we were writing and playing. They’re a fulfilling part of our set and of the album. They’re release points, where the restraint of the softer songs becomes part of the build, and part of the post-glow. “Give the Devil Back His Heart” is inspired by a lot of the Malian music that was a part of our lives in Providence and Boston for years. There was a healthy West African scene of musicians who moved there over the years, and whom we were fortunate to befriend. Our father is a dentist, and when we were young, he helped many of these guys with their teeth, and they, in turn, took us under their wing and showed us this cool music. Its always been a huge source of inspiration for us. “Lord I Just Can’t Keep from Crying” is a song by Blind Willie Johnson. Its relevance to, and impact on, modern music is undeniable.

3. Tell us a little bit about Sarah Page, who plays harp in the Barr Brothers. How did you find her?

I (Brad) met Sarah when I moved into my first apartment in Montreal. She was my next door neighbor, and before I actually met her, I would hear her harp playing come through my bedroom wall (her practice room was on the other side). I would lay in bed, sometimes for hours, and listen to her play beautiful melodies, enjoying little baroque fantasies about my imaginary charmed life with butlers and butterflies and Beethoven. Eventually, we met, became friends, and started learning my songs together, as many of them would not have come to fruition without her input. She is classically trained, but has such a wide breadth and capacity to absorb many different styles and traditions. She has played in the Montreal symphony orchestra, but has no problem bashing on a metal trash kit when the time comes. She is also a killer guitarist, and studies the Kora (traditional West African gourd harp) whose rhythms, techniques, and melodies she applies with innovation and grace to her own instrument, the grand pedal harp.

4. What’s the Montreal music scene like these days? I’m curious.

From where we stand, the scene in Montreal is full of friends who are constantly making cool new music that inspires us all. Plants and Animals, Patrick Watson Group, Little Scream, Land of Talk, Miracle Fortress, Besnard Lakes, Elephant Stone, Esmerine, Mike O’Brien, Katie Moore, Joe Grass… goes on and on. And whether you’re playing gigs with each other on the road, or at a backyard barbecue, you’re just stoked that these are your peers, your friends, and your allies. The bigger bands, like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade and Thee Silver Mount Zion…also wonderful people and wonderful and inspiring bands. We just don’t know them too well. All in all, it feels healthy there, at least for a couple guys from New England.

5. Finally, if you could co-write and record a song with any musician, who would it be and why?

This is pretty personal, and I would imagine that each person in the band would have a different answer. For me, it would have to be Jack Nicholson, Werner Herzog, or Wes Anderson. Would just love to hang out with those guys, and I bet they have some pretty good stories that you could put into a song.

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