By: David DeRocco Any writer will tell you how cathartic the process of expressing thoughts on paper can be. When a writer is also a musician, there’s always the potential to combine such emotional purging with the recording of some very powerful and personal music. Case in point: Big Romance, the new album and tour from singer/songwriter – and former Hamilton resident – Matthew Barber.
Recorded in Toronto at Revolution Sound as well as Greg Keelor’s farmhouse studio in eastern Ontario, Big Romance is a tapestry of ten songs tightly woven with a common thread of emotional exploration that’s perfectly suited to Barber’s unique musical hybrid of folk, rock, soul and country. Don’t buy the album expecting to find a collection of syrupy love songs however; while the lyrics do explore themes of love, loss and emotional heartache, Big Romance is not “romantic” in the literal sense according to Barber.
“I wasn’t trying to work the songs into an over-arching concept of romance,” explains Barber, a lyricist who has never been shy to play the romantic card during his previous seven studio recordings. “For me the title is a bit more indirect than that. Romance is a really complicated word. In this day and age romance often means something simple like the emotions found in a Hallmark card. To me romance means sweeping tales, full of tragic elements, love, valour, violence – stormy waves crashing along a rugged coastline evokes romantic images. I hope the songs fit in to that kind of definition of romance.”
With Big Romance Barber mines the kind of emotional depths only a songwriter in mid-life would feel comfortable and credible exploring. On one hand, there’s the poetic nostalgia of the title track, a lovingly scripted travelogue of his European honeymoon Barber wrote for his wife. On the other hand, there’s the tragedy and personal loss reflected in two of the album’s most powerful tracks: “Magic Greg,” an ode to a recently departed friend of Barber’s, and the song “On The 505”, which chronicles the July, 2013 shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on the 505 streetcar line running along Dundas Street just steps from Barber’s house in Toronto. “How can so much joy be tied up with so much regret,” wonders Barber in another of the album’s highlights, the tender ballad “Hold Me.” It’s a poignant question that perfectly sums up the contradictions inherent in the songs on Big Romance. Given all his exploration of the subject, has Barber managed to learn anything new about love?
“I certainly wouldn’t say I’m an expert on love,” laughs Barber. “I would say love is one of those things individuals need to figure out for themselves what it means to them. It’s impossible to teach. It’s one of those things that when you’re in it, when you’re feeling it, the switch goes on.”
The album comes a little more than year after Barber hit the switch to start the process of writing new songs, although he admits he’s not always as disciplined a songwriter as you would think someone with eight albums to his credit would be.
“I would say for some artists, (songwriting) is more of a defined thing. They say ’this month or the next two months, all I’m going to do is write.’ I’ve never been that structured. There’s no real defined starting point. I’m not always inspired, but I try to keep it a fluid thing. I’m always wishing I was writing.”
By the time he was ready to start the recording session for Big Romance Barber had “probably 16 or 17 demos together.” His next step was driving to Minneapolis, where he met with the album’s eventual producer, Gary Louris – a like-minded guitarist, singer and songwriter who just happens to be a founding member of one of Barber’s favourite bands, The Jayhawks. Together the pair whittled the demos down to a more manageable 12. Barber entered the studio on his birthday, January 10th, with the intent of having the album done for spring release.
The album could have easily been called Big Bro-mance considering the number of Barber’s musical colleagues involved in both the studio sessions and the current tour. Drummer Dean Stone reunited with former Apostle of Hustle band-mate and long-time Barber bassist Julian Brown to form the rhythm section during the recording; it’s the first time the two have backed up Barber on record since his 2003 debut Means and Ends. The Hamilton connection includes two people Barber met while living in the city and studying philosophy at McMaster: Jesse O’Brien, who lends his exquisite piano talents to several tracks, and Dragonette drummer Joel Stouffer, both who will be on stage with Barber when the tour rolls into Molson Canadian Studio June 4th.
“I’ve got a great band with me on this tour,” says Barber. “There’s a lot of Hamilton content. Jesse’s playing on this tour and will be at the Hamilton show. I’ve been playing with him on and off for 10 years now, he’s got a beautiful touch. Joel’s on drums. I met bass player Julian Brown when we both lived in Hamilton. I’m really excited about it.”
Barber has maintained his love of live performance since rediscovering his love of guitar at age 15. With early influences like Dylan, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin fueling his passion, Barber quickly realized the power words can have when set to music.
“When I first picked up the guitar, I just kind of wanted to be a part of the history of people who picked up guitars and wrote a song. When I first got bitten by the bug, I realized it was a way you could express yourself, set words to a tune that could actually have an impact on people. I didn’t care if only 10 people heard my music. I just wanted to contribute.”
The first song Barber learned to play in its entirely on guitar was the CCR classic “Bad Moon Rising.” His first contribution to the art of song writing, not surprisingly, never made it to the ears of its intended audience.
“The first song I wrote was a sort of high school crush on a girl song, about a girl on my school bus. It was called “All I Know Is Your Name.” I didn’t ever perform it live.”
Barber has come a long way since that first attempt at song writing; with eight albums to his credit he’s become a survivor in an industry that increasingly abandons developing young artists before they hit their creative stride. At this stage in his career, however, Barber has a better appreciation for the “big romance” he has shared with the music industry.
“I’m feeling seasoned in this business. I think that can be both good and bad. There are definitely people in the industry that know my name. I have had time to build up a modest but passionate fan base. Being in the game – the music business game – at the level I’m at, I know there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. I love the freedom, being my own boss, doing what I want. It’s a luxury.”