Laura Barrett: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyor of: Pure pop for the authentically nerdy.
File next to: The Hidden Cameras, Joanna Newsom, Sheezer, Billie Holliday, The Magnetic Fields, “Weird” Al Yankovic
Playing: WL15 Night 1, Friday Feb. 13 at Sneaky Dee’s

With her kalimba thumb piano and charming stage presence, Laura Barrett was one of the poster children of the short-lived, woefully misunderstood “Torontopia” movement, and her whimsical 2005 sci-fi Christmas song “Robot Ponies” remains one of the anthems of that era. In addition to her writing and composing her own songs, Laura has also been a member of The Hidden Cameras and Henri Fabergé & the Adorables, as well as all-female Weezer cover band Sheezer. Some time has passed since the release of her solo full-length, Victory Garden, in 2008, so Jonny Dovercourt caught up with her via Skype chat in advance of the debut show of her new four-piece band, Lockbox, as part of the Classic Wavelength/Toronto Cover Sets at our 15th anniversary festivities on Feb. 13th.

So, it’s been a while since Wavelength has seen you grace our stages… If memory serves, it may not have been since our 10th anniversary in 2010… Five years ago! It’s not like you haven’t been busy though, playing with Sheezer, the Hidden Cameras, pursuing an OISE degree… and now you’re unveiling a new band, Lockbox, at WL15! Who’s all in Lockbox, and why do you guys rule?

Lockbox is Sarah Buchanan on drums, Jeff DeButte playing bass and singing back-up vocals, Niall Fynes on guitar, and me on Nord [keyboard], singing my heart out. I don’t know about ruling, since we haven’t played a gig together yet, but when we were exiting our rehearsal space the other day, someone on the street asked to borrow a light and none of us had one, because none of us smoke! So… we definitely defy at least one expectation of rock bands. Plus, for a brand-new configuration of players, we’ve been doing a great job communicating with each other about grooves and sounds. It’s been a lot of fun to get together with these friends and play!

Healthy nerds 🙂

So for the gig on the 13th, you’ll be playing the songs of Owen Pallett. What inspired you to choose his material to cover?

Oh, that’s a no-brainer. Owen’s music is a pure delight to experience, and in covering it I get insight into the workings of his brilliant mind. It’s also a nice challenge to reframe these songs as disco-infused dance rock, especially the ones with unconventional time signatures.

Plus, he covered me once, at the Great Hall, so I guess I’m returning the favour?

Owen has four albums now, including his Final Fantasy releases, each of which is decidedly different from one another. Did you have a strategy for narrowing it down to just three songs?

No special strategy, just a gradual winnowing-down of choices. I listened to the albums in chronological order one day (a great experience in itself), picked eight or nine of my favourites, and let the band choose from there. Luckily, we all seem to have similar preferences when it comes to Owen’s work, which is probably another reason we gel so well as a band.

Do you guys have plans to play original material together as well?

I hope so — it’ll depend on schedules, division of songwriting labour, and so forth. This Wavelength gig is a good way to get our feet wet and see what we’re up for, but moving forward, I’d love to rejig some of my existing material for a louder arrangement, as well as write more LB tunes with a band in mind.

So in terms of your own material, I hear you’ve been doing some writing for the Canadian Film Centre? Want to tell us a bit about that?

Yes, it’s been a whirlwind ever since September, when I and five others were accepted into the Slaight Family Music Residency. We’re essentially interning as film and TV composers, creating scores and songs for short films and teasers. Writing for picture is a new level of music-making for me: a real brain teaser sometimes, in terms of joining the written word and the visual world, but so satisfying when it all comes together.

Congrats, that sounds like an amazing opportunity! Any great shows or films you have scored that you can share details on?

As part of a CFC exercise, I wrote a song for the short film Not Your Girl (written by Joel Thomas Hynes, directed by Reza Dahya), about a preteen whose father refuses to accept his child’s gender identity. It was an honour to be part of this project, and I highly recommend checking out the film. I’ve also scored a couple of teasers for features in development, and I’m moving on to more projects this month.

What I like about teasers is that you have to compress a lot of emotions into a short time: another great challenge to face!

That was a sweet, heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting little film. What was the name of the song you contributed for the soundtrack?

The song is called “Just The Same As Always.” It was written specifically for the film, with me playing everything but drums — that’s Dana Snell [The Bicycles, Sheezer].

How do you find balancing writing lyrical music for a film to enhance the mood without distracting from the narrative?

Whoa, what a question! Supporting the narrative while not adding too much of my own voice is THE major challenge facing me, especially when it’s happening during the action of the piece, and not showing up as a coda of sorts in the end credits. In the context of film, I think of lyrics almost as being additional dialogue: a meta-story that the director and writer didn’t originally have in mind. So it’s important to be understated and not broadcast so much of my personality that it becomes the focus. On the other hand, I’ve got to be true to my unique aesthetic, since presumably that’s what got me the job in the first place.

Not to diminish your commitment to serious art at the CFC, but have you ever considered becoming a commercial jingle writer? I ask because I’m obsessed with tiny catchy jingles like “Fabricland… FABRICLAND!” and “Call 1-800-267-2001…. ALARMFORCE!” I actually wanted my band to do a set of hardcore punk covers of all Toronto jingles on the 13th, but sadly one of us will be out of town… One day I will be able to live my dream!

I’ve certainly considered it — talk about the most compressed unit of musical meaning! But an even more appealing offshoot of writing for others’ projects would have to be video game music. There’s actually another Laura Barrett out there who wrote the music for “Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares” — I know this because someone on the Internet mistook me for her once. Maybe I should get in touch. If we teamed up, we’d probably be unstoppable.

Whoa, I just checked out that game and it looks intense! They kind of fucked up the name though, Antares is in Scorpius, not Orion! If you had to pick anyone to battle, at any star system, who and where it would be?

Friend, I come in peace. If I met someone from another star system, I’d have more questions than anything — though I do have a huge problem with that J’naii judge from the ST:TNG episode, “The Outcast.” I would rewrite their laws to enable everyone on the planet to express their rightful gender identity. Legal battle!

“Legal battle: unlocked!”

Okay, I’ll keep you at the top of my list if ever WL needs to assemble a crack defense team. So, for those who might be missing “Classic Laura Barrett” kalimba-pop jams, is there any solo material of yours in the works that might see the light of day?

I must say, I’ve been tending more to the piano side of things recently, so those people might be out of luck, but I do have a whole bunch of unreleased material that I need to put out there in the world. It’s hard for me to say something is done, when I know I could theoretically fiddle with it forever, but it was the same with my master’s research project, and someone gave me this great advice that applies to albums as well: it’s never actually done, you just stop working on it. Luckily, I get to modify my work after the fact in live performances – filmmakers and authors don’t have that ability.

Speaking of live performance, what are your favourite, and least favourite, things about playing live?

Favourite: connecting with an audience, all of us being present in the moment. Least favourite: Last-minute crises of confidence.

I know! I can sometimes understand why people develop bad habits. If you were to bring a book to read while waiting for soundcheck on Feb. 13, what would it be?

I probably will bring this book, since I need to get through a hearty chunk of it for a course I’m taking: The Study of Orchestration, by Samuel Adler.

Just a little 800-page manual, no big deal.

Hey, you’re already lifting gear!

Ha, true! But for leisure reading, so far this year I’ve read Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, and Pedal by Chelsea Rooney – both excellent.

Well thanks for your time, Laura. Can’t wait to hear Lockbox play on the 13th!

I can’t wait to hear all the other bands – it’s going to be such a packed night of fun, and we’re all very excited to play! Thank you so much for having us on the bill, and for this lovely chat.

Photo credit David Leyes