Del Barber and I meet in the lobby of The Day’s Inn in downtown Hamilton, Ont. on an early afternoon in mid March. The 31-year-old wears a John Prine toque, jean jacket, faded jeans, and well-worn cowboy boots. That night, the Juno awards Gala took place where Barber’s latest (Prairieography) was nominated for the Best Roots Album of the Year award. He didn’t win, instead Winnipeg’s The Brother’s Landreth took the prize, but that didn’t prevent Barber from enjoying the evening. The songwriter took his mom as his date and I ran into him a couple of times. First, at the bar in the Sheraton Hotel and then at The Casbah in the wee hours where The Brothers Landreth performed to a packed house.
Over 75 minutes, Barber and I chat about songwriting, loneliness, the Prairies, hockey, craft beer, and much more. The time passes fast.
Growing up in the Canadian Prairies, hockey was part of the fabric of Barber’s childhood. These days, he still laces up the blades and gets in a game of shinny during the winter while touring. Music was the other constant that was always there during his formative years. His parents’ record collection was thick with Texas songwriting greats such as Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, along with classic country like Hoyt Axton.
“I was playing in punk and rock bands in high school, but then I gradually retreated back into my parent’s record collection,” Barber says. “My dad has the largest Hoyt Axton collection ever and he was also a big Steve Earle fan.”
Barber is a big fan of No Depression. “I tried to get a magazine subscription about nine years ago, but I couldn’t get it shipped to Canada,” he says. “That was when I was starting to get enthralled with whatever alt-country is – or was – just after high school when I started getting turned on to bands like Wilco and Son Volt.”
After graduating from high school, Barber worked a variety of labor jobs in the summers while going to university, mainly in forestry and farming. “I came home with a bunch of money and said I should record some of these songs I’ve written,” he recalls. “Since high school I always thought I would just be writing songs recreationally … I had no grandiose perspective on making a living playing music or even getting shows. We played shows in high school for friends and it felt like modest, fun stuff to do, just messing around.
“People always want to know how I started and it wasn’t by design,” Barber continues. “I didn’t go to my folks and say, ‘this sounds crazy, but I want to be a songwriter.’ It was something that basically trickled towards me and slowly gained momentum and whatever momentum I have is what I live on now for better or worse. I can definitely say this is my job as I don’t have any other income, but I never made the decision to become a musician.”
Even though it wasn’t by design to become a full-time musician and songwriter, Barber did come at it naturally, thanks to his upbringing.
“I was raised around music fans and especially songwriting fans,” he explains. “My parents are both huge fans of narrative. They demanded my attention when songs like that came on the radio. My favorite [Bob] Dylan quote is something like, ‘it’s taken me a long time to get this young.’ It sounds pompous, and a little bit ego driven, but I think what it really means is it takes a long time to realize how little you really know. When I was just starting out, I wrote a lot about myself; I tried to wax about love and relationships. It’s really hard not to write stuff that ego-driven when you are white and middle-class.”
These days, that’s the last thing Barber wants to write about. He says it will still happen once in a while since fans like those early songs, but now he’s turning back to the likes of John Prine and the records from his parents’ collection as songwriting mentors and influences.
“All those people were writing parables,” Barber explains. “Even when they were using the first person ‘I,’ you could tell it wasn’t necessarily their experience. That’s a pretty freeing place to be when you want to be considered a writer that has teeth … to tell stories and use narrative in a way that you can even make soft political statements. You can point at things in the world that are unjust through a character and still have choruses people can hold onto … that’s the goal for me these days. I don’t know how to do that well enough yet, but that’s what I want.”
A restless wanderer, Barber loves travelling alone. It’s during these solo adventures where he meets the bulk of the characters and hears stories from ordinary folk—from barflies and bartenders to waitresses and waifs— that inspire his songs.
“I’m thoroughly an introvert, but travelling alone makes me crave human contact,” he explains. “If you go out to the all-night diners and talk to the waitresses of the world, they don’t know who you are and they don’t care, so you actually have a conversation – as long as you offer to buy coffee – and give them some explanation of your loneliness. Bartenders are the same, smokers are the same, etc. I especially want to be a part of the tradition of songwriters that writes about working-class people.
“My experience is that people like talking to strangers,” he adds. “I spend a lot of time in small towns and I live in a small town and if you tell something there everyone knows. You tell a stranger, no one knows. You get to use them as a confessional.”
Barber’s latest Prairieography is all about working class confessions and a love letter to his rural roots. The disc was inspired from Ian Tyson’s Coboyography.
“That record is a jumping off point,” he says. “It’s about looking at music that can be geographical; the real governing premise behind it is that you can’t separate people from place. You don’t know who you are until you know where you came from and you don’t know which way to go until you know where you’ve been … all those axioms govern what this record is about.
“That comes from Cowboyography,” he continues. “That record sounds like it comes from somewhere. You listen to it in southern Alberta and it makes a little more sense. I think it doesn’t do you any favors to worry about whether or not records that are placed distinctly are going to work universally because I think they always do if they are good enough. When you hear Springsteen singing about factory floors outside of Jersey, people get that. It’s not like one person’s experience in a factory or someone who works in an office in Toronto, can’t get that universal struggle.”
It’s that universal struggle that Baber witnesses as a travelling musician as he walks the line all the time between classes. “That’s the coolest part of being a songwriter,” he says. “One day you are at the Sheraton or the Ritz and the next your are at the Motel 6. You play a bar one night and a theatre the next. Todd Snider has this line in one of his songs that says, ‘there is a guy at the bar hogging one tooth all to himself.’ I’ve met that guy a lot of times. Then, I’ve also met the guy with the $3,000 suit that buys your record.”
As Barber’s songwriting matures, he is getting less mysterious, vague and enigmatic in his lyrics; his focus these days is to exercise his writing muscles. His words, as witnessed on Prairieography, are still highly poetic, but his goal now is to write songs that everyone can understand.
“How can I be more accessible and write songs that are in that folk and country tradition and people can understand it right from the first listen,” he explains. “Even in a crowded bar, there is character or a story, even a few lines that you can hear over the din that is going to move you in some way.”
When Barber’s not writing songs or chatting with someone to get fodder for his muse, you’ll find him fishing. “I bring a fly rod on tour with me in the fairer months,” he says. “That’s my thing. I will always seek out people and places to fish wherever I am. Last year, I had 15 fishing licenses from various states and provinces and probably spent more than $2,000 on these licenses.”
Fishing is both therapeutic and an inspiration for his creations. “Those are the greatest places for me to interact and take stock with whom I’ve met in the last six months and what stories I need to tell and what pictures stick with me,” he says. “I always think of Tom Waits who says you are just trying to write little movies … think about songs as these little pictures where you are giving people these cut outs of a person’s life.”
Looking to the future, Barber hopes to keep telling peoples stories, but spending less time on the road as he’s starting to get a little seasick from the blur of endless white lines. Like every artists, he does wonder sometimes if one day the muse will leave and he’ll have to think of a back-up plan.
“Maybe I could buy cows?” he concludes. “I’ve got land. How hard can it be? When you are busy, you don’t think about those big picture things, you just do what’s in front of you. My career has been a constant slow trickle. If it keeps trickling it will be great.”
Meet Del Barber
Who: Del Barber
Hometown: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Discography: Where the City Ends (2009), Love Songs For the Last Twenty (2010),
Headwaters (2012) Prairieography (2014).
Main guitars: Late 1980s Gibson J45 and a Gretsch 6120