Singer-songwriter Brad Barr tackles some serious issues, such as the hell of addiction, on Sleeping Operator, the recently released sophomore album from the Barr Brothers.
The leader of the Montreal-based quartet notes that he wrote the album’s quiet and wistful closing song, “Please Let Me Let It Go”, for a friend with substance-abuse issues, but now realizes the message is one that large swaths of the population can relate to.
And for that, Barr is grateful. Reached stateside on his cellphone just before American Thanksgiving, the Rhode Island–raised musician notes that he’s not much of a worrier, but likes the idea that he might be doing something positive for the many among us who are.
“That song was written for a friend of mine who is battling an addiction to opiates,” Barr reveals, his six-month-old son gurgling away in the background. “It’s been a struggle, and he’s talked about how, at some point, he realized he had to ask for help. That got me thinking that if it was me that had the problem, I don’t know if I would even know how to ask for help. That song is me trying to understand the notion that sometimes you need to reach out. And after writing it for him, I realized that it applied to all sorts of scenarios, whether it’s addiction or sadness or depression or being hung up on a breakup.”
The adventurous Sleeping Operator doesn’t stop there on the important-issues front. Even though Barr doesn’t consider himself a political writer, “Come in the Water” was inspired by the ongoing problems between Israel and Jordan, while “England” draws (via poet William Butler Yeats) upon historical troubles between the English and the Irish.
The heaviness of such topics is in some ways at odds with what the Barr Brothers have accomplished musically on the record. The quartet—which includes Brad’s brother Andrew on drums, harpist Sarah Page, and bassist Andres Vial—presented itself as something of a straight-ahead modern folk act on its debut full-length, 2011’s warm and earthy The Barr Brothers. On Sleeping Operator the plan was to take a grander, more cinematic approach, with the band getting the skeleton of the songs down with simple live takes and then moving to its own studio, where experimenting would start.
“That’s where the layering and overdubs took place,” Barr says. “A lot of it I don’t even totally even remember doing. We got so immersed in the recording process that it sort of became this prolonged daydream.”
That state would lead to one of the year’s great records, the risk-taking coming early with “Love Ain’t Enough”, an orchestral sleeper that lights up halfway through with distorted salvos of guitar. On the tracks that follow, the Barr Brothers sound just as at ease bobbing in the warm and soulful waters of Muscle Shoals (“Come in the Water”) as they do embracing darkness for the cello-scraped ballad “How the Heroine Dies”. There are moments of contemplative beauty (the soft-focus Americana of “Valhallas”) and moments when the tables are kicked over and the amps cranked till they fry (the dirty gutbucket blues of “Half Crazy”).
The band received lots of help and guidance on Sleeping Operator, which was produced by Ryan Freeland (Aimee Mann, Ray LaMontagne). Musical guests include Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, Polaris Prize winner Patrick Watson, art-pop chanteuse Little Scream, and Malian ngoni specialist Bassekou Kouyaté. Ultimately, though, trusting his bandmates was Barr’s key to making sure that the songs weren’t overwhelmed by all the toys used in the recording process, including marimba, hammered dulcimer, horns, ’40s-vintage Oahu lap-steel, ukulele, pump organ, and more.
“Andrew and I keep each other in check, and Sarah, too,” Barr says. “Sarah was a big voice in this one, as far as speaking up when things got too much. That helped us ask, ‘Does this song really need this part, or can the song live without this? And if it can, how much more important is that breath that we are going to get if something is taken away?’ Andrew and I can definitely go a little berserk—to where we’ll think, ‘Oh, but it’s so much cooler to have a hammered dulcimer pulsing away here.’ We need to remember that it’s also good to have space in the room, to have some feng shui.”
On that note, balance is something that tends to surface repeatedly during a conversation with Barr. As a new father, he’s had to find a way to be a good parent while also making a living, a problem solved for now by treating tours as family getaways. There’s also the issue of loving what he does, but accepting the fact that he’s chosen a career that is anything but a surety.
Not that Barr is necessarily worried about that. He’s more interested in doing his bit for his fellow humans.
“We’re a bit neurotic over here in North America, and have a hard time looking beyond our daily concerns,” the singer muses. “Even being in a band, you spend time going, ‘Okay, have we achieved a certain amount of popularity? Is this starting to look sustainable?’ But then you’re like, ‘Wait a minute—this is all kind of a joke compared to what most of the world is doing to survive.’ Not only are we very lucky over here, but we also have to make sure to be aware of just how fortunate we are. And if you’re able to go beyond that and help out somehow, that’s what really matters.”
The Barr Brothers play the Fox Cabaret on Friday (December 5).