“She is an ‘old soul’ musician with a very modern songwriting sensibility,” said John Oates of Hall & Oates after he met Erin Barra, then a student at the Berklee College of Music.
“Old soul” might conjure images of Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner, Motown or Stax. Quite the compliment—although it ironically juxtaposes Barra’s own descriptor of her sound: digital soul.
Seemingly an oxymoron, that contradictory label creates a tension, which is exactly what Barra desired when she was branding herself. “What I do is a direct collision of digital technologies and analog instruments. My music is very soulful, but, at the same time, it’s highly electronic,” says the piano-playing singer; she then lists bands that could wear this label: Little Dragon, James Blake, Subract. Barra’s sound, as heard on the 2011 release Illusions—her second full-length album—is more poppy, though. Maybe that’s what struck a chord with the chart-topping Oates.
Before Barra can expound upon writing songs with Oates nearly five years ago, the phone rings. It’s not a phone call from some music-industry bigwig whom Barra has been diligently trying to connect with, but the table telephone, the one that, 15 minutes ago, she used to order a cup of broccoli soup. Of all the interview spots in her hometown, after being gone for months upon months, Barra chose the Training Table in Sugar House, a campy—“very vanilla”—family restaurant with lots of gold-framed photos of who knows who. “It’s my JAM!” she’d written in an e-mail. It reminds her of home and is the exact opposite of the hustle and bustle of New York City, where she’s cut her chops for the past three years.
Viva la Revolucion
No one would ever call the Training Table—or my chile verde burger—revolutionary, but Barra repeatedly uses that term to describe the direction that electronica—or, more specifically, electronic DIY music creation, by the likes of Glitch Mob or Flying Lotus—is headed. “It’s inspiring to see what a lot of these artists are doing. It’s changing the face of the music industry,” she says.
And she’s at the forefront of change, although her musical process—and professional progress—began out of the necessity to be industrious. Upon graduating as a piano principal from Berklee, she moved to New York City. After some time paying dues at local clubs, it was time to tour nationally, but it was not financially feasible to bring her whole band. So she began tinkering with Ableton Live, a music-software program that lets an artist replicate a full-band experience onstage by triggering sounds via touch-screen controllers.
Barra is currently endorsed by the company. “I represent all of their niche markets. Females are less than 4 percent of users; some would say I’m part of the hip-hop/R&B community; and I do a lot of live sampling and instrumentation,” she says. It is now essential to her live show, although, she says, “I’m still controlling the software, it’s not controlling me ... at least I like to think that.”
“I never thought I’d be going down the whole recording-artist path myself. I always thought I’d be recording content for others ... and I still do,” Barra says. Her degree is in songwriting, and, aside from writing with Oates during her fledgling days, she had quick success upon graduation by writing a cut for country artist Kathy Mattea.
“I love country writing. It’s intelligent and story-intense—some of the best writing is done in Nashville,” she says, adding that it’s not necessarily the music she would have chosen to make from the get-go. Now, when she writes for others, it is mainly R&B and hip-hop; artists come to her on referrals or through her Website, UnsolvedMelodies.com. She writes songs and lyrics, performs critical analysis on existing pieces and does marketing analysis—these services constitute a large portion of her salary.
In the midst of all of that, Barra finds the time to record her own work. In Illusions, she found her voice. “The songs essentially represent my signature sound,” Barra says.
The songs are very synthy, but warm—an illusion of sounding organic, although shy of “old soul.” “I went to the ends of the earth to ensure it would sound that way,” she adds. “Really, it took me two years of trying to find the time and resources to meet a certain sonic standard.”
She says the way she is arranging songs has evolved—and, hopefully, always will—and so has the way in which she performs them on stage; both are to help push herself as an artist. “How many times a year do I have to sing “Good Man” [the first single from Illusions]?” Barra asks, adding that she hopes it will be a lot in 2012, because she is about to launch a campaign for the song. “If I can’t find new ways to express those feelings, then they become monotonous and stale, to some degree. I always have to find something new,” Barra says.
No Illusions to the Soul
Illusions is a conceptual album. “Realistically, it is very autobiographical,” Barra says, adding that it’s about the relationship between two people from the beginning (“Good Man”) to the end (“I’m Out”). “But it’s subtly about how the relationship you have with yourself is the most important.” That notion is overtly summed up in the album closer, “Soul Revolutions 5g Remix.”
Her first album, Soul Revolutions, had a “you can do it, reach for the stars” vibe. That was before she moved to New York. Her time there has moved her, which she says manifests as she writes material for album No. 3: “This time around, it’s all about loneliness and control or lack thereof.” So, she’s decided to move back to Salt Lake City, at least part time; the “business” side of things necessitates that she travel for lengthy periods to New York City and Los Angeles. Overall, it’s been a whirlwind year, including big life compromises—living situations changing, being away from friends and family, among other things—and industry-induced pressures.
“Now, people look at music with their eyes more than ever before, so I’m having to change the way I take care of myself. I am a product, in a lot of ways,” Barra says. “I’m also a human being.” That’s quickly apparent in hearing her prevalent bare-it-all raw emotions on Illusions, despite her saying her brand of soul is a digital one.
Sundance ASCAP Music Cafe
Rich Haines Gallery
751 Main, Park City
Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2 p.m.
Free for festival credential holders