Canadian singer-songwriter Del Barber’s latest album, Prairieography, is a glorious collection of stories told in music and song, and Del is bringing those stories to Australia. Ahead of his short tour (and may he come back soon), Del kindly answered some questions via email.
Your music honours the lineage of country music – both American and Canadian. Who were the first country music artists you loved?
I grew up listening to Johnny Cash, Ian Tyson, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn, Pasty Cline and Hoyt Axton. I don’t think I realized how much I loved them, and how much they influenced me until my adult life. Throughout my teen years I was obsessed with songwriters from the 60’s like Dylan and Van Ronk, and somehow through them I became introduced to Texas songwriting, which brought me back into country music with a fever.
Your voice sounds like it was made for country music, but did you ever flirt with other genres?
Thanks! I have always fancied myself a country singer; others have designated what I do as folk or as indie – whatever that means! When I was young I played in punk bands. It’s all music and I do love it all, but country just seems to fit me better than everything else.
Unlike a lot of traditional country music, most of your songs are upbeat – does making music make you happy?
I really want to give people a sense of hope in my songs. I’m a pretty positive person overall and I want my songs to reflect that positivity.
You hail from the prairies and, of course, there’s another well-known prairies artist who got her start in country music: kd lang. How much of a country music culture is there in the prairie provinces? And in Canada in general?
The music culture in the Canadian Prairies is rich! Country music especially. Most of the prairies are relatively unpopulated. Cultures of farming and work seem to bring out songwriters and songs that want to tell those stories.
Your music has a real sense of place – almost like you’re standing on a street corner telling stories to passers-by. Are you in a particular kind of mindset when you record, to evoke that sense of place?
I work hard at writing good narrative. It truly is difficult for me to get the story to come out right in the studio. I have to try and imagine people are listening; I have to try and convince them to keep listening. I try and keep the studio lighting dim and I try to take over the studio with things that make me comfortable. I always try and have family around, good food and a team that want to make a good record as much as I do.
There’s always a balance to be struck between being on the road, playing for your audience, and then writing new songs for that audience. Are you able to write on the road or do you need time on your own for that?
I do write while I’m on the road, but I don’t know that I get anything good out. I see writing as a practice. Something I have to try and do it every day regardless of how I feel about it. So yeah, I’m always writing, but my best songs are writing while at home when I have the space to digest and reflect on everything. When things slow down it seems easier to get my ideas on paper.
You work with Bill Western as your steel player, and both of you produced Prairieography – how did that relationship come about?
I’ve been friends with Bill for at least 6 years now. He was the only pedal steel player I had heard of living in Winnipeg, where I used to live, so I sought him out to play some shows with me here and there. Since that first show, I’ve grown to respect him as a person and I’ve fallen in love with his playing. I think he really knows how to serve the song.