by Sheldon Birnie
On a biting cold late December evening, Del Barber shuffles into the Yellow Dog Tavern. He’s here, in the historic grain Exchange District of Winnipeg, to talk to Stylus about his new album, Prairieography, an album rooted in the spaces — physical, intellectual, emotional — between urban and rural living.
“I’m trying to tell the stories of these people who are disconnected,” explains Barber over pints of St James Pale Ale. “[Prairieography] is, in part, about the lengths people will go to save their rural lifestyles, and trying to connect that with the urban artist fan or songwriting fan.”
“There’d be no town without the country,” Del Barber sings on “Arianna,” a love song that also maps the interconnectedness of the hinter and heartlands of the Canadian west in just under four lovely minutes. It’s fitting that we’re meeting here in the Exchange, a place quite literally “built on the backs of farmers,” as Del observes at one point in course of our interview.
With a distinctly country-fried flavour, Barber’s latest presents listeners with 14 tight prairie stories that explore similar territory. From the cattle-rancher turned oil sands worker in “Living with a Long Way to Go” to the small town romance of “Peter and Jenny Lee,” the narratives Barber explores are plucked both from his life as a touring musician and that as a prairie boy, born and raised. Exploring each character’s motivations, their situations, ambitions and desires, Barber is able to craft empathetic portraits of prairie people, be they drug-runners, hard living old timers, or displaced country boys chasing dreams in the big smoke. It’s this attention to detail in his songwriting that is winning this son of St Norbert fans across Canada, the US, and beyond.
“The basic premise of the album is that you can’t escape where you’re from,” he explains. “You’re more determined by it than you think.”
This theme is one that Barber has explored before, and one that is common across Canadian literature, from Margaret Atwood to John K Samson, Al Purdy to Ian Tyson. Tyson in particular makes his mark, by way of inspiration, on Prairieography. The title itself is a play on Tyson’s classic western LP Cowboyography, in which the folk legend explored the past, present, and future of cowboying in southern Alberta and Montana.
“I listened to [Cowboyography] when I was a lot younger, with my folks,” recalls Barber. “But about two years ago, I was in southern Alberta, fishing for a couple weeks, and I downloaded it on a whim, thinking I should be listening to Ian Tyson while I was out there. I just felt such a connection to that place and his music. And I realized that that was what I wanted to do with the prairies.”
Tyson’s music has become synonymous with Alberta, from “Four Strong Winds” to Cowboyography and beyond. Another Alberta based artist that Barber found influential on the way he approached songwriting is Corb Lund, who Barber toured with in 2013.
“I’ve been really impressed by Corb,” Barber admits, “more than I thought I would be. The more I’ve studied [his writing], the more important it seems he’s talking about really Canadian stuff, with some really good social commentary in there too.”
The folk approach to crafting narrative songs, with the backing of a tight country band, that both Tyson and Lund have used so successfully was one that Barber focused on making his own with Prairieography. Recorded both in Winnipeg and in St Norbert and using a band of “Manitoba guys” who have played with Barber in the past few years, the new album is a polished album that manages to feel rough around the edges in all the right places.
“It’s not loose, but it’s looser than, more natural than the last record,” says Barber. The result is a record that Barber is excited about, one he feels “sounds more like who I am” than previous efforts. “I feel more sure of myself, more sure of what I want to say and how to say it. “
Still, putting together an album firmly rooted in the prairies was a challenge for Barber, who spends eight months of the year on the road.
“I don’t really know where I’m going, a lot of the time,” Barber admits. “I guess it’s a question, introspectively, how does a person know where their creativity comes from?”
After a pause, a sip of beer, while hockey highlights play out on the TV behind the bar, Barber continues.
“I think the answer, for me, is it’s in the practices, the things I want to do, that i love to do: fishing, farming, hunting, horses, hockey.”
There’s plenty of all those things on Prairieography. “Big Smoke” brings up images of a boyhood spent on the backs of horses juxtaposed with the story of a man lost in the big city. “Tell Me Where To Start” is a beautiful tune about friendship that uses hockey metaphors and imagery — much like Kathleen Edwards’ “Hockey Skates” or Propagandhi’s “Dear Coach’s Corner” — to get at deeper truths about the human experience.
It is in Barber’s ability to strike at the core of those shared human experiences that makes Prairieography such a compelling record, one that both Barber and True North Records hopes will appeal to audiences south of the border, and overseas. With a wide release in Canada and the US planned for mid-February, followed by months of relentless touring beginning in January, Barber has a long road ahead of him, as he shares his Prairieography map with fellow travellers far and wide.
Del Barber releases Prairieography in Winnipeg with two shows, March 20 & 21, at the Park Theatre. Get your tickets from the Park, or from the Winnipeg Folk Fest store before they’re all gone and your tears freeze to your cheeks as the snow falls.