Call it a case of no musical holds Barred. As is readily apparent on their new, third album, Queens of The Breakers, there’s no readily identifiable signature to the sound of Montréal-based trio The Barr Brothers. It’s a freewheeling, eclectic amalgam of many different styles, from rock to folk, blues to world music.
To singer-songwriter and guitarist Brad Barr, principal architect of their sound, “these elements are all getting filtered through my kaleidoscopic lens, and that ties them together. That’s a more abstract thread or centre point than what The Ramones were working with, for example.
“When I was developing as a musician,” says Barr, “I really opened myself up to everything, from straight-ahead bebop, to Hindustani classical music, to punk rock.
“For me, there’s a thread through most of it that many people would call the blues,” he continues. “I rarely use that word, as it implies an African/American South style. For me, it’s a cross-cultural feeling that exists in so many kinds of music, from Japanese to Malian to Moroccan. It’s that pentatonic trance/droning thing, and I feel that’s where my musical heart lives.”
“Everybody needs some kind of centre. I’ve never been a fan of really progressive or complicated music. It has always come back to something reduced, which allows either the improviser or songwriter to expand upon it in the moment.”
Joining Brad in the band are his brother Andrew (on drums) and Sarah Page (on harp), and the group’s music is published by Secret City Publishing. Their 2011 self-titled debut and 2014’s Secret Operator both earned international critical acclaim, with the latter becoming a genuine breakthrough record, notching more than 60 million combined streams.
“You keep singing it in the hope that a lyric arrives and points the way for a song.” – Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers
Brad explains that, going into Queens of the Breakers, “our only real aesthetic target was to make something a little more buoyant than the last two records, something that didn’t feel as weighted down, or over-contemplative.”
A different approach to the songwriting was taken too. “With the earlier records I always came to the band with the songs more or less finished,” says Barr. “Then it was a matter of everyone applying their impulses to those songs.
“Here, we really went at it as a group, just improvising for a month,” he continues. “We found a little studio in a remote Québec cabin and we’d do week-long stretches, improvising around the clock. A lot of the basic sounds and the songs’ DNA came from that, which I then took and tried to shape into songs.
“It was rather the inverse of the other records, in that sense. It proved to be difficult for me, as I was used to starting a song on my own, in a private space. This time it was, ‘Now we have this riff or vibe, and I need to figure out what this is, and how to sing on it.’ It could be a melody that spins as you’re walking around doing your daily things. You keep singing it in the hope that a lyric arrives and points the way for a song.”
As on the earlier albums, the group invited other players and harmony singers to flesh out the sound, but Barr stresses that a lot of the work was done in the group’s studio as a trio.
“We wanted to check what that music sounds like,” he says. “It was also important for Sarah to redefine her space. Since the last record, she had made a huge leap on the harp sonically, mostly based on some technical discoveries on how to amplify the sound. She was interested in seeing what that was capable of within a trio context.”
It’s been 12 years since Brad and Andrew Barr re-located to Montréal from the U.S. Raised in Rhode Island, they were based in Boston with their previous band, The Slip. They’ve since become popular members of the city’s musical community, and have planted strong personal roots.
“I now feel legitimized in saying I’m from Montréal,” says Barr. “I took it one step further by buying a house with my brother here. We both have children with Canadian wives, so it doesn’t look like I’ll be heading home anytime soon!”
He does admit to increased reflection upon his troubled homeland these days. “That feeling has started to take hold,” he says. “It didn’t for a while, as I was just happily swept up in the love I had for Montréal, and the community I was becoming a part of, and the freedom of this city.”
Analyzing the impact of Montréal upon his music, Brad explains, “it comes down to the people we’ve met and the musicians we’ve played with. People like the Patrick Watson and Plants and Animals guys. There are good allies here, people who encourage you, and things that keep you going, and working, and motivated, and feeling good, and that allows you to blossom as an artist.
“The vocabulary and works of Leonard Cohen likely wouldn’t have become such an influence on me if I hadn’t moved to Montréal. That one majesty alone has inspired me a lot.”
Barr also cites his late friend Lhasa de Sela as another inspiration. “When I was writing the second track on the new record, ‘Look Before It Changes,’ it was so clear to me that that was her effect on me.”