Interview: Jennah Barry
We chat with a dulcet-toned folk singer soon to return with a second album, almost eight years after her debut
The road from Jennah Barry’s 2012 debut, Young Men, to her upcoming sophomore release has been long and sometimes bumpy. Her early momentum was halted in 2015 when she needed emergency vocal surgery, pausing the promising start to her career. Returning in 2018 with the single Roller Disco it was clear that though the two-year hiatus may have silenced her external voice it had only stoked her creativity.
The Nova Scotia-based songwriter’s journey of recovery will soon be complete, as she is finally set to release her second album, Holiday, next month. It’s a record that envelopes the listener like the cosiest blanket, featuring thoughtful lyrics and lush, smooth instrumentation and it is an early highlight of 2020.
We asked Barry some questions about her creative process, the relationship between life and art, and more…
One of the first things that struck us on listening to your music is those beautiful lilting melodies. Are they at the beginning of the songwriting process?
“I tend to write with ‘dummy vowels’ – fake words and vowel sounds over a developing melody – so I know what shapes will sound/feel good with the line. I don’t write songs from poetry because I like lyrics and melody to be married right away.”
How much of Holiday was already recorded before the vocal surgery put things on hold?
“Nothing was recorded, I had a few of the songs but if I’m being honest, I was touring alone a lot and became very depressed. The vocal surgery was my body making the decision to stop because I wasn’t making the choice on my own. I was working all of the time (not just on music, I was baking very early in the morning) and was tired. I knew I wanted to make another record but had lost perspective and wasn’t sure where I was headed.”
In retrospect, do you see the vocal surgery, and the recovery period, as wasted time or something that was inadvertently useful?
“Speaking for myself obviously, the stress and sadness I was feeling had accumulated in my throat. I spoke too low, drank too much, slept too little. This could have shown up anywhere in the body but it landed in my throat and if it hadn’t been for the two years of post-surgery speech pathology I would not have learned how to manage it. My mental state was so tied to the condition of my voice that pathology appointments seemed more like therapy appointments. To make a long story short, I was a scrunched-up ball of knots, I’m so grateful to be free from it and I couldn’t have done it by myself.”
With you and your partner, Colin Nealis, what came first, the music or the relationship?
“Technically the relationship came first, but it wasn’t long before we were in a band together. I think it was only a month or something. We met in college (jazz school) so it was hard to separate the two.”
The whole album’s instrumentation is beautifully arranged, do you take credit for that or was it all Colin’s doing?
“Definitely Colin. I write songs and I usually record rough demos with production ideas but Colin really takes the lead. Especially this time around, Margot (our kid) had just been born and my brain was pretty foggy. I owe a lot to him, there are some moments on this record that I barely remember. One day I’d like to produce something of my own but right now Colin and I have a good thing going.”
Do you think having a child has changed you as an artist?
“Big time. I had a real existential crisis when I became pregnant; it’s so hard to be alive and I didn’t know if I could carry the responsibility of making someone go through it. Now I see everyone through that lens; that no one asked to be here and we’re all trying our best. I want to scoop the whole world up and soften its fangs. Not that I’m going to start writing anything particularly upbeat, but more with the idea that music and art have a real universal purpose and I’m lucky to be able to express myself in some way.
“I’ve also come to realize that I work really well with time constraints. I can get a lot done in 20 minutes or however long the nap is.”
As a multi-instrumentalist, what is your favourite instrument to compose on?
“Definitely the guitar. I’m so glad I learned how to play the guitar. I don’t have a lot of instruments, only one, it’s my mother’s 1969 Guild nylon string and it’s perfect for me.”
How much do you think your music is informed by nostalgia?
“I’m not particularly nostalgic. I like a lot of old music but I don’t think there was a ‘golden age’ by any means. I went to music school and have a broad-ish historical understanding of lots of different genres which informs the instruments I choose to play and record with but I’m more of a modern woman. I reflect on things in my songwriting but I have no desire to go back in time.”
Do you feel that Holiday’s distinctively introverted feel reflects who you are or is it more of a musical persona?
“I’m a private person and an extrovert at the same time. Reflecting on melancholy things may be an introverted thing but it takes a dramatic, self-indulgent extrovert to put them out there, right? I mean to say, I don’t have a musical persona. Sometimes I wish I did so I could feel more protected on stage but so far, it’s just me.”
The song Big Universe alludes to things like horoscopes as a way of knowing what to do. What’s the best advice you’ve ever found in a horoscope?
“’Everything changes.’ I have it written down and stuck to my fridge for some reason. It keeps me hopeful.”
We can’t help but notice that you have the privilege of appearing on two Christmas albums! What is your favourite Yuletide tune?
“I’m relieved you’ve only found two Christmas records that I’ve been on [laughs]. I don’t like to get too intellectual about it, but I love Christmas. The Vince Guaraldi A Charlie Brown Christmas album may be one of my favourite records, in general. I refuse to be embarrassed, it’s good jazz and I love it.”
What artist would you say influenced you the most growing up?
“A friend of mine turned me on to Laura Veirs when I was in college. I suppose that wasn’t so long ago, but her writing and guitar playing has really influenced my own writing. Her then-husband Tucker Martine is such a good producer too, I know Colin and I both were really into that vibe when we first started. Laura recently came out with a card deck that gives random combinations of songwriting starting points that I use when I’m stuck. She’s a cool woman.”
Is there anyone who you’d particularly want to work with in the future?
“I would love to make a record with Tucker Martine or Adrianne Lenker from Big Thief. But that’s just how I feel today.”
What was your favourite album of the 2010s?
“This is very tough to answer. I loved The Weather Station’s All Of It Was Mine from 2011, I think she [Tamara Lindeman] is such an observant songwriter. Her lyrics are so detailed and so broad at the same time. But I also listened to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange more than anything. That record has so much space, the songs seem formless at times and I had never heard lyrics like that before.”
Lastly, what’s your preferred way of listening to music?
“Two ways: headphones when I’m walking down the street, and vinyl when I’m stuck inside in a snowstorm.”
Jennah Barry’s new LP Holiday will be released next month via Forward Music Group and she will be playing shows in the UK this May. For all the dates and info, head to iamjennahbarry.com