The Barr Brothers explore new album ‘Sleeping Operator’ track by track

October 9, 2014

photo by Vanessa Heins

In the tradition of distilled blues, from The Band to Neil Young, some of the finest Americana is born from melancholy Canadian-based artists.

Like the brothers Butler before them, Andrew and Brad Barr found their hearts in Montreal. After relocating from Rhode Island, their guitar strumming was introduced to the plucking of harp strings by their classically trained neighbour, Sarah Page. Joined by multi-instrumentalist Andrés Vial, they became the Barr Brothers.

Their self-titled debut earned the quartet JUNO and Polaris Prize nominations and stages alongside acts like Emmylou Harris, The National, and Spiritualized. Approaching their sophomore record, they brought close to 40 tracks, 30 of which were completely produced and whittled down to a final 13 meditative jams that gut the Mississippi Delta with an instinctive tribal hand. With instrumentation expansion that includes horns, pedal steel, marimba, ngoni, and a hammered dulcimer—as well as friends including Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry and Patrick Watson’s band in play—the detuned Sleeping Operator is a more cohesive companion to their debut effort, 2011’s The Barr Brothers.

Here, Brad Barr explores Sleeping Operator track-by-track, sharing his personal anecdotes behind the soundtrack for seasonal change.

1. “Static Orphans”

“It wasn’t the intended opener. We had a version of ‘Who’s Going to Shoot Your Pretty Little Feet’ by Woody Guthrie that we were doing at some point, I think for a live show. And we came up with this way of working that into ‘Love Ain’t Enough’ as this transitional moment, so we just made this. We ditched the Guthrie tune and we took it from the end of where that would’ve been. It’s just an instrumental, really cool piece of music that came out of the blue. Sarah gets writing credit on this one, she really came up with this cool way to passage. I sent [the track] to my friend Nathan Moore, who is one of my close friends and trusted allies, and I asked him to give it a name and he sent me back two words, ‘Static Orphans.'”

2. “Love Ain’t Enough”

“[This is] maybe one of the last songs that I wrote for our band The Slip, around 2007 or 2008. We just liked this way of opening the record, the way it clears the air with the instrumental song and the way it gives away into [‘Love Ain’t Enough’]. It felt like anyone that was expecting us to put out a folk record will have to rethink that idea…. It was kind of a misnomer because [the song’s called] ‘Love Ain’t Enough’ and the chorus says ‘love is enough.’ It’s the idea of, ‘Forget that I ever said that love ain’t enough, because I changed my mind.'”

3. “Wolves”

“I remember sitting and talking with a friend, playing the guitar and a little riff came out. I just kind of subtly banked it to myself. It’s cool and it’s got that highway feel to it—open-road, western plains kind of moving steady, and it seems to sort of navigate ideas of intimacy in a modern industrial landscape. It’s a tricky one to lyrically place—actually, they all are for me—but I do my best to analyze it. Your guess is as good as mine in a lot of ways. Ideally, I’d like to say that this song is about that and this song is about that, but they end up being pretty open-ended. I guess I’m sort of naturally ambiguous. It feels like someone who is almost ready to accept some degree of intimacy, but is still one step away from that.”

4. “Even the Darkness Has Arms”

“We’ve been playing that one… I think we played it at the last record’s launch, actually. I think it was written around 2011, I remember I was in British Columbia and my girlfriend at the time was from there, and she had set up a little house concert for me to play. I had that tune kind of sitting there with maybe two lyrics or something and I was doing this little house concert, scribbled the rest down really quickly about a half hour before the show started, because I wanted to perform that one that night. I was in Nelson and sitting on the back porch of this place, looking over that lake, and scratched them out incredibly fast.”

5. “Come in the Water”

“In 1997, there was a place called the Island of Peace, which is a little strip of land on the bank of the Jordan River, right on the border of Israel and Jordan. It was this designated place, a peaceful place where there would be no fighting; Israelis and Jordanians could hang out together, no worry or fear. One day, all of these Israeli girls, 13 and 14 year old girls, were there, and a Jordanian soldier open fired on them. I don’t know if he just lost his mind. He killed seven of these girls and that was something I had read about when it happened. I was in the hospital and had a collapsed lung, and I read this in the paper and just started bawling. I actually wrote it without exactly saying that these were the events that happened, but [it’s] more like, if you were there and what the girls might have been saying and thinking.

[It’s] a song for Israel—’the day that you were born, legions lay down their arms.’ Also, when Israel was created, it was really this moment of compassion and delusion and national interest, but also compassion for the Jewish people that had suffered so much. It’s just an incredibly hard subject to talk about. I don’t ever really consider myself a topical or political songwriter, but this was one thing that I had carried around for a while. There have certainly been better attempts to address this idea in song—the idea of Zionism—but I was satisfied in the end. For an attempt at writing a song about the occupation of a land, I did alright.”

6. “Little Lover”

“This one was also written in British Columbia on the same trip. I was at Caravan Farm Theatre, which is a British Columbian institution, inland near Armstrong. It’s a community of thespians who put on these shows all summer. There’s probably 40 or 50 people living together on this land and putting on plays.

My girlfriend at the time grew up there. Her father was the head director of it, so we went out together, lived there for a month. I ended up doing everything from building horse-hitching posts to digging some ditches and tearing up weeds, a little painting, and a little bit of musical accompaniment while I was there. It’s kind of a community, so when someone asks to watch their baby for a minute, there’s no question of trust. I just sat there as this little kid was squirming and I started playing this song out of the blue and it kept the kid calm, at least the melody. The kid stayed calm the whole time I was singing the tune, and the song reminded me of our friend Katie Moore. She actually ends up singing on that track with us.”

7. “How the Heroine Dies”

“[This was] very much written with the harp in mind. ‘Little Lover,’ ‘How the Heroine Dies,’ ‘Valhallas,’ ‘Half Crazy,’ ‘England,’ ‘The Bear at the Window,’ and if you go back and check them out, there’s something harp-ish about them.

This one might be my favourite song as far as songwriting goes. It’s sort of an anomaly for this record, it was done in a completely different session about six months before, when we were in Iceland, before the Montreal sessions. We were doing the Iceland Airwaves festival… and we called up an engineer over there, Valgeir Sigurðsson, who Pat Watson worked with. This guy had co-produced with Bjork on a bunch of her records, and Sigur Ros, and a bunch of Icelandic bands. We just took a shot and called him. We knew that he had this studio and he was available. We were starting to have the ideas and songs for this record coming into focus, what we might want to do. I think it was kind of an idea of, maybe Valgeir is the man to make the record. You can really hear a lot of that chill and spook of that landscape in that one.”

8. “Valhallas”

“Where everything lightens up a bit, it’s a little more off the cuff. It comes from that same gang of Caravan British Columbia folks, in fact the chorus is borrowed from one of their melodies. They have a lot of songs that are written for the Farm Theatre that never see the light of day outside of that community, but all of them know those songs, they’ve been passed down since the ’70s. I felt since I bonded with them out there, it was a nod rather than a compete steal.”

9. “Half Crazy”

“Something that we have been jamming out for a while now, sound-checking for years. Just a cool riff. Nathan gave me the first verse—’we’re all half crazy, half clear as a bell, half believe, half going to hell’—and then I just filled in the rest: “We’re all half Rama, half Bonnie and Clyde, half devoted, half buried alive / Shine on the one you love.” I just kind of ran with the rest of it. That one is kind of cool because it is a DNA-style blues riff, an archetypal riff. We took that basic structure and explored how much we could stretch it and bring that sort of West African loping feel to it.”

10. “Bring Me Your Love”

“Similar loping drum beat. Those two back to back was on purpose, to keep it connected. I like the story in this one, it might be one of the most clear stories. ‘Bring me this. Bring me that. If you bring me all these treasures and you also bring you love. Let’s burn the treasures, all I need is your love.’ It was written at 4:00 a.m. at my kitchen table.”

11. “England”

“That’s a poem from William Butler Yeats that I adapted to the guitar, kind of haphazardly without looking to do that. Sometimes I’ll just open Yeats and his poems have a lot of rhythm and song structure to them. So I’ll just open them up, if I get stuck or something. He’s probably the guy I’ve plagiarized the most. In this case, I just started singing these words and I did it as a demo [with] people around me—my brother, Sarah. I think I put it on a MySpace page from 2007, it got a lot of response. Aside from the harp now, it’s pretty well intact. Sarah is the one that broke it down for me what it’s all about. It’s a poem called Easter, 1916 and it’s about the Irish uprising and the treaty between the Irish and the English. They weren’t sure if the English were going to keep their word, so the Irish decided to rise up against the English and the English in turn murdered. At the time, when I started singing it, you sometimes need a guide to get through what he’s talking about. I think about it romantically and politically. But mostly, I’m just trying to sing it in tune.”

12. “The Bear at the Window”

“That’s really the lullaby, and the guy singing it is really a sad clown type character, but it’s got this light-heartedness to it. The bear at the window could be whatever your bear is. I think of the Three Amigos Steve Martin’s final speech: ;We all have an El Guapo in our lives. Maybe for you, shyness is your El Guapo.’ That’s what I think of, if I’m trying to describe what’s the bear. He’s your fear. He’s your internal nemesis. Probably [my] general uncertainty and questioning things, feeling like you’re not good enough.”

13. “Please Let Me Let it Go”

“This is a response to all of those feelings in ‘The Bear at the Window’—whatever your issue is, sometimes you’ve got to ask a little help to do it… I was aware that it was not going to be just for me. That’s why it stuck. The guy is observing the bear at the window. He is not the bear. He’s watching this thing approach in his peace and serenity, at the corner of his eye he sees it creeping up and pretty soon it is on his shoulders and he can’t hold it…. It’s definitely going to some other kind of party for help there, whether it is addiction, mental illness, sadness, uncertainty.”

Barr Brothers’ sophomore album Sleeping Operator is now available via Secret City Records.

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