Del Barber is a Canadian singer-songwriter who resides in the small town of Inglis, Manitoba. Del has been nominated for three Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy) and has been nominated eight times (5 wins) for Western Canadian Music Awards. He is preparing to release his eighth studio album, Almanac, in early spring. We talked a little about the upcoming album, his songwriting and what he would be doing if he wasn’t a musician.
Americana Highways: Your new album is called Almanac. Why did you choose that title?
Del Barber: I think a lot about how we interpret where we are, what direction we’re going to go in, who we listen to, everything from politically to socially. My writing is governed by this idea that you have to know where you’re from in order to go somewhere in a way that makes sense or that actually charts a good direction. I just think that almanacs in general are ways to do that. Like the Farmer’s Almanac, it’s a way to guide people into specific seasons or years and have something to expect without relying on the idea that it has to be fact.
AH: I have a copy of Farmer’s Almanac as well.
DB: Yeah, I love it. But I also look at it with an assumed criticism. I don’t expect too much out of it. And because of that, I find more value in it. And I think artists and songwriters are perfectly suited to be making those types of prescriptions or describing the world in a way that can help you get somewhere without having to know for sure what’s going to happen. Anytime somebody wants a prophet to tell them when the world’s going to end. It just seems like you have to sort of be a zealot in order to want that or trust that type of person. And we don’t want our artists to be like that. But more and more I feel like it’s increasingly difficult to make statements about the world without either A, preaching to a choir, or B, being hypercritical and thinking you know the answer to these big questions. I don’t think that that’s a fair thing to expect anyone to do.
AH: Speaking of songwriters, I’ve always been a fan of Canadian songwriters. Bruce Cockburn, Gordon Lightfoot and one of my favorites is Kathleen Edwards. What do you think it is about Canada that you guys have such great songwriters up there? You’ve got great storytellers.
DB: I’m just so blessed with this great tradition of people that are really trying to say something. It is about more than just their own experience and I don’t know why that happens in Canada. Cockburn and Lightfoot are great examples.
I’m also a huge Kathleen Edwards fan, my wife and I listen to her pretty damn close to daily. I love her as an example of a great modern Canadian writer because she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Her feelings about matters aren’t the most important thing or the thing that she’s writing about exclusively, and there’s just a lack of ego.
I feel the same way with Lightfoot and Cockburn. I feel like they were just trying to get at something, like the songs were more important than their lives or their profiles or anything like that. They approach their craft with a serious sense of humility and of virtue, and that’s what I want to do, too. Those are the types of people that I look up to, and their approach and the aesthetic behind who they are and how they pick up the pen, I do think there’s something Canadian about that. It gets scary trying to talk about Canadian identity, because people get upset about it right away. But I do think that a great place to start looking for it is the songwriters.
AH: I think you are in their league. I think you’re an incredible songwriter. I listen to your stuff. You tell great stories, which is what I’m a huge fan of. Anybody that can write and sing great stories.
DB: Thanks, man.
AH: On your new album I know I have two favorite songs. What’s your favorite song on the new album Almanac?
DB: All right, well, I got two.
These are personally songs I’m most proud of, and because I like character driven songs so much, “Jared” is probably my favorite song on the record, and then my second favorite is a song called “Even God Almighty.”
AH: Can I just say those are my two favorites, in that same order?
DB: That’s perfect. And the most interesting thing is that those are songs that nobody on my team or in the industry thought could ever be singles, so they didn’t even pay attention to them. But in terms of songwriting fans, those are the ones people keep pointing at. I’m so happy to hear that, because those are the ones for me that do it. I feel like I’ve accomplished my job on those two songs better than a lot of the other ones.
AH: Another one of my favorite songs of yours is “The Waitress.” I love that song.
So, speaking of songs and songwriting, tell me a little bit about your creative process. How do you go about writing a song?
DB: Well, generally what happens is I’m touring all the time and I put myself in situations where I meet strange people, and then I use them as a jumping off point. I maybe ask a few community questions of strangers, and then I don’t have their whole story, but it’s enough to make me dream about who they might be. So, then they sort of become composite characters. I start melding together different people I meet and to try and develop these characters to say something about the world in a bigger way.
I always think about songwriting. When I’m really good, it becomes like a parable. I really think parables are a great way to think about songs. And when songs are great, all my favorite John Prine songs are small, meek lessons about people and about the world and how to treat your neighbor and all that stuff. But they’re not done prescriptively, they’re done through character. And for the most part when I meet somebody and immediately empathize with them, or even the opposite, when I have no concept of how to understand their life, it makes me want to try to write about them, figure them out.
And I think that it’s also completely if you want to put it negatively, it’s patronizing. That word is usually used negatively now, but I think I am patronizing them and hopefully I’m doing a good job of it. But that is sort of what becomes my goal is to try and get to the spirit of who that person is and what they have to say about the world.
On one hand, it’s me trying to empathize with them for better or worse, and then it’s also like trying to see them as something that teaches me about the world and hopefully that might teach others about the world in some way. It’s not about teaching, it’s just about feeling like something from a character.
AH: You mentioned John Prine. Who are some of your other big influences when you are songwriting?
DB: Yeah, more than anything, Prine is the saint in my pantheon of the gods of songwriting. John Prine is the king of character and balancing the comedy, tragedy and all that stuff.
But I’m also trying to listen to new songwriters, and I really do like, all of the classic great songwriters, from the darker Tom Waite stuff to the country songwriters. I’m a huge Ian Tyson fan, for instance, another great Canadian songwriter. And stuff that’s really, distinctly about specific geographic locations. I really get off on that stuff. But a writer I’ve been listening to, like, non-stop lately is this woman called Margo Cilker. She’s just great. And these just unpretentious songs that I wouldn’t call them plain, but they’re just so perfectly well written and has a very great sort of meekness to it. She’s not trying to say something impressive everywhere. She’s not trying to prove how smart she is. It’s just so clear that it’s not about her. And I’m just in love with her records right now.
AH: I know your dad was a big influence on you and your music and kind of got you started. Tell me a little bit about that. Did he do any recording?
DB: He tried. When it came to performing and delivering, that just wasn’t his bag.
But I think as a songwriter, I think he was sort of an unsung hero. I’m still making my way through about 60 of his songs and trying to make sense of them and how to figure out if there’s a way for them to see the light of day.
He had a pretty dark and morose way of writing. A lot of people die in his songs. We made a pretty good pair because I side with hope just a little too quickly, probably most of the time. His resistance to that gave us this really great ability to work together. When we got both of those things in a song, it made me pretty happy. He has a couple of co-writes on this record for the most part.
He would come up with an idea, he would shoot it to me, and I would say, I hate this, or, this is really good, and then I would write a chorus for it, and then we would write the rest. So, a lot of these songs are his ideas. And then if I had an idea that I couldn’t bring home, I would send it to him, and he would tell me whether or not it was worth pursuing, even if he couldn’t add to it at all.
He was my sounding board. I knew if I was onto something that I thought was good and I needed confirmation, he would give it to me, and it would be instant and it would be over the moon excitement for the idea of the thing, even if it was just bones.
He and I wrote the same way. It was about coming up with the idea of the song first. It wasn’t about finding a melody or thinking of a character. It was like, what am I trying to say about the world? And then those questions you keep asking yourself, and then you run into a character and then, okay, I got it now. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it was always, idea first. Instead of a guitar lick or a phrase, I didn’t ever come up with something clever and then write around it. It was always about trying to write a song about grief, or the bigger topic would be the thing that I wanted to get at. And that was the way he wrote too.
I learned to write from him that way.
AH: Have you thought about recording an album of his songs?
DB: Yeah, for sure. it’s got to happen. Honestly, I don’t know if I’m ready yet. I think I’ll probably start working on it, but it’s still surprisingly tender for me. I don’t want to be over it, but Idon’t want to be tender about it forever.
He would expect me to be a little bit harder by now, hopefully I can start working on that, and I think it will probably help me out.
AH: Right now, if you could collaborate with anybody, who would you most like to collaborate with?
DB: I got a couple I’d love to collaborate with. Margo Cilker, who I was telling you about. I would love to try and write something with Hayes Carll.
I don’t know if it’s even possible, but I’ve just spent such a tiny bit amount of time around James McMurtry to know that he’s not always the easiest guy to approach, but I would love to write with him. I would love to learn from that guy. He’s one of the contemporary writers that I’m most obsessed with. I would love to write with Kathleen Edwards, too. There are so many people that could I go on.
AH: You mentioned that you tour a lot. Of all the places you have performed, what’s your favorite venue?
DB: Well, I met my wife at a show in the town where I live. The town is called Inglis, Manitoba, and we are famous for grain elevators. If you look up Inglis, Manitoba in Google, that’s what will show up, is pictures of giant grain elevators. It’s a national historic site, and they do shows in there from time to time, and they sound amazing. And it’s just got a small-town community spirit that I love. I love getting to play those types of shows, and there’s just not enough of them out there. Getting to play a concert in a grain elevator silo for me, was up there for best.
AH: Sounds like a cool, interesting place to see a show.
DB: I think we need to use those types of spaces more for music. It makes everybody happier.
AH: What’s the best advice anybody’s ever given you? It doesn’t have to be about songwriting. Whatever, the best advice.
DB: I ask a lot of people for advice. I’m really an annoying person because I generally ask people what they think I should do. Everything from merge design or the simplest things in my career, to the greatest spiritual questions I have. But the best advice I got, the thing that comes to mind. I was playing at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. My first time ever playing there. It was probably 12,13 years ago. It would have been twelve years ago. I’m a big John Hiatt fan, and he was playing. I was doing an in between set between him and, like, Taj Mahal or something crazy. And I got to play three songs for whatever it was, 10,000 people.
And for some reason, I thought it wise to go to John Hiatt and tell him how much I loved his work. And it was like, right before he was going on. I had just got off stage. He was messing with his sound in his ears. And you could see he was stressed. And he just ripped out his ears and gave me five minutes and talked to me.
And all I said was, “I’m a big fan.” He immediately started asking me questions. “What are you doing? Are you doing this now? Are you playing guitar? Are you writing songs?” Yeah, that was like my second year as a full-time musician, and he said, “Man, best decision you ever made in your life, and it’s going to be great, there’s going to be lots of bumps, but you’ll never regret that decision.” And that was advice from someone I didn’t even ask for advice from.
The biggest thing I learned from that was he treated me like he had all the time in the world, even when it was the wrong time to bother somebody. He just shook it off and he had a great amount of grace and charity, and that’s just how I want to treat people everywhere from buying lumber to singing songs. That level of gratefulness and positivity and just giving up your time, I’ll never forget it. And I look up to him so much more because of that.
AH: That’s very cool. You mentioned touring? You have a tour planned now?
DB: Yeah, man, it’s all happening. I’m on the road in April. I’m going to be gone for a month in Canada, and then I got a few US states that are starting to trickle in, working on those. And then summer festival season is going to happen. Then I’ll be probably back in Europe in the fall. It’s pretty full on right now, and I’m pretty excited about it. It’s been too long waiting around, and we’re finally starting to just get these tours lined up months in advance instead of just scraping them together. So, it’s cool.
AH: Hopefully you’ll get a Southern California date in there and I can come check it out.
DB: I haven’t played down there ever. Crazy. It’s one of those strange things. Where are you at?
AH: I’m in a little town called Ramona, which is a little town in the hills just outside San Diego.
DB: Nice. I heard San Diego is great, actually, for a big city. Hopefully I’ll get down there at some point.
AH: I’ll be looking forward to it. If you weren’t doing music, what would you be doing?
DB: I think that would be I’d probably be farming, I guess. I can’t really see any other answer. I’d like to say I’d be a fishing guide, but you can’t do that for long. I did that when I was young, and it’s a grind. Yeah, I dream of doing that again, but I know that it’s a stupid idea. When I’m home, I farm with my in-laws, and I think that if I really wanted to do that, if I was tired of the road and I didn’t have anything to say anymore, I don’t know, I think they would probably just let me walk into a job there. I don’t know. So just that option is real, and it’s really enjoyable work. I’d be farming cows and doing some grain on the side.
AH: Nice. Very cool. All right, well, thanks for your time. I’ve been listening to the new album already, but I can’t wait to actually get the vinyl in my hands and put it on my record player.
DB: I just got test prepping today, so it’s happening.
Thanks very much for speaking with us, Del Barber. Find out more, and check his tour dates here: