Words by Andrew R. Fetter
Breanna Barbara followed up her incredible debut Mirage Dreams, with an album of psychedelic soul directly from the cosmos. While she retains the bluesy pop swagger of her debut, Nothin But Time adds otherworldly layers and wonderful sounds to the extent that the growth between these two records is truly something special. Something she credits to her influences as well as to producer Andrija Tokic, known for his work with Alabama Shakes and The Ettes. While marrying the sounds of 90s Pop/R&B with influences such as Alice Coltrane and Grace Slick, Barbara tackles grief and mental health at a time when it’s urgently needed (despite much of the album being recorded prior to the pandemic. And yet, it’s a perfect record for the current world we’re in.
Off Shelf: So, I did a little bit of listening to your back catalog and found an album where you recorded everything on your phone, and every song in one take. And not realizing the timeline in it, I thought it was a very COVID-like idea, but you did it like 10 years prior.
Breanna Barbera: You’re right, that’s a deep cut right there! [laughs] It’s funny because I don’t normally talk about that record, because it’s not on Spotify or anything. And there are some songs on there that made it onto Mirage Dreams. But, that was definitely the beginning of my own recording process. The very beginning of iPhones too, I think that was maybe my first iPhone and it has a very convenient voice memo thing. I was living in a warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn and had a bunch of these songs more or less done and decided to just record them. That was also my first time using Bandcamp, so it was all very innocent and I just wanted to put those up. Then I got a show offer at Piano’s and I remember being very excited about that. That was, I think, my first show in New York.
OS: Well, it’s great how both smart phones and Bandcamp have become a way for independent artists to really get their art out to people.
BB: Totally, yeah. And I think, you know, I listen back to that and I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s so bad.” I debated on whether or not I should keep it on there, but decided to because I think if I was just a listener or fan, I would find those very early recordings fascinating. Just to see how it’s evolved. I do have some friends that have listened to the older music and they’ll say those are their favorite because it just captures a very raw, not as produced, energy.
OS: You have a new record that is finally out, Nothin’ But Time. It was recorded mostly, if not all of it before COVID. So it had to sit in limbo for a little while. Now that it’s ready to be out in the world, how do you feel about it?
BB: Yeah, it’s interesting because my first record Mirage Dreams did take a little bit longer than the average record. I don’t know how long the average record takes to come out, but so far I have this theme of having something done and then for whatever reason the universe and circumstances just keep it on the shelf for a while. So for this one it was just exaggerated. I think it was done in late 2019 and obviously the plan was released in 2020. Which you know, didn’t happen, but it’s a mindfuck because on one hand, I am so happy I waited. So many things kind of fell into place. On the other hand, I see these songs so differently now. I was just writing what my influences were and I still listen to some of that music, but I have grown. I’ve started writing such different music already. But the band knows these songs so well and we’re getting a great start because we’re so prepared.
Now I’ve started writing the next one. I’m trying to hunker down and just be grateful for where I am and just experience it. I had an interview yesterday where I spoke about one of the songs on the record and I realized this is the first time I’m talking to someone about this song. People have heard the singles so far, but to experience everyone listening to these other songs on the record, that means a lot to me.
OS: Can you talk about some of those influences on your writing?
BB: I found myself really attracted to artists that were coming from a spiritual place and talking about the essence of life. So a big inspiration, and what kind of kicked off the whole celestial theme of the record, was Andy Bey’s song “Celestial Blues” and Alice Coltrane, her album Journey In Satchidananda. But these artists that were into spiritual realms, that’s definitely something that I was attracted to and was doing for the writing of this record. I’ve always been attracted to Blues, 60s and 70s soul and rock’n’roll but I wanted to capture that celestial aspect. We did that with certain synths on the record, we talked about playing things that sounded like broken clocks and playing around with that idea of time.
And then also just like good old garage 60s and great female vocalists like Judy Henske and Grace Slick, I really like that song “Shockwave” by Index. I think it captures such a fast, intense and exciting energy for songs like “Diamond Light” and “Rise”. Those were definitely the inspiration behind that. Another one was Gloria Taylor’s songs “Love Is A Hurting Thing” and “How Can You Say It”. There’s just these tiny piano parts that like trickle in and we were referencing that, really just anything where the song emotes that feeling that someone was really going through something when they made this.
OS: Oh yeah, Grace Slick especially I can hear. I’ve always thought, and it’s a hill I’m almost willing to die on, that she would be on the Mount Rushmore of psychedelic music if one existed.
BB: Yes, she has to be! I mean, what a unique and cool person. And I was first introduced to her around the time of writing this record. Not Jefferson Airplane but Grace Slick and The Great Society. I feel like those recordings and her voice shines even more sometimes than the Jefferson Airplane stuff. She’s one of my favorite female vocalists of all time.
OS: I thought it was interesting, because you do blend that cosmic sound or celestial as you put it, with a blues and rock sound, but it doesn’t come out sounding like stoner rock, which is what you usually get. Just curious how that kind of came about for you.
BB: Yeah, that’s a great question because I tend to talk solely about those influences, but I really was a late bloomer with music. My parents were really young when they had me and they weren’t even listening to The Beatles or any classic rock when I was growing up. It was mainly just mainstream radio, which, in my opinion, is not the greatest, but we’ll forgive them. [laughs] And my big sister, growing up in the 90s, she was always listening to R&B and hip hop and stuff like that. So, I did grow up listening to R&B and pop, and I think that’s just very instilled in me like Boys II Men and Aaliyah.
Then of course, as I got older and grew to really love Sade and going back to more soul and blues with Nina Simone. I know some people have commented on some of the songs saying it’s almost like dream pop which I could identify with as well. So maybe that’s where “Nothing But Time” comes from. But I’m all over the place because I’m taking broad strokes. I think with each song, I wanted to kind of show my taste and I think that that’s why I like “Weaning” too. It sounds a lot different from old soul, but it’s still coming from my world.
OS: Yes, “Weaning” is a song that definitely stops the listener in their tracks with it being at the end of the record. I like it where it is but the whole record has a natural flow and energy to it and that really gives it a nice twist.
BB: I’m glad you noticed that because sequencing the record is a whole art form in itself. I had different band members and the producer each do their own version of it and “Weaning” was just that track that was so powerful, it was too powerful not to put on the record. But it also really does stick out from the rest of the songs. I just really liked the idea of the record starting with side A and it’s like a party, and then side B is sort of winding down, but then you just get this explosion at the end where you’re thinking “what just happened?” And everyone else honestly didn’t know where else to put it. It was definitely a tricky one to place.
OS: You worked with Andrija Tokic, the same producer as Mirage Dreams. What is it about that working relationship that you enjoy and what does it bring to your must that you think is special and unique?
BB: The first time around working with Andrija, it was like a dream come true to even hear back from him. I’m still learning so much and I’m a very late bloomer when it comes to recording and writing music. The first time around was my first time even being in a recording studio and working with a producer and session musicians. And now they’re some of my good friends! So it was such a magical experience, but I felt like I almost blacked out because I didn’t know what was happening at the time.
I knew when the time came to decide what I wanted to do for this next record that I have learned and grown so much that I feel like I might be able to have a stronger voice in the recording process. Andrija is just such a good friend at this point, so we really trust each other and he takes my music and brings it to a whole new level that I never even could picture. I can describe things with the weirdest adjectives. I would ask “Can we do some sparkles here, like some weird trinkets over there?” and he translates it perfectly. We have a very special singular language that we work with. He’s such a talented engineer and producer. It’s definitely going to be hard not to keep working with him because it always turns out really well and we have such a good time. But maybe on the next one I might spread my wings! We’ll see.
OS: With the musicians you’ve used, were there ones that you’ve worked with previously or were there any new relationships formed during that process?
BB: It was sort of a full circle. The group of musicians that Andrija put together on my first record, two of them ended up becoming really good friends of mine. They ended up moving to New York and started playing in my band. So then from there we were writing some stuff together. And then when I contacted Andrija to do Nothin’ But Time, I had my drummer Charlie Garmendia again, and then Ben Trimble who does a little bit of everything with the keys and guitar. Also, Matt Menold was on my first record and this one. He’s my favorite guitarist living or dead. I just love his style and his sound. Then we added some new players just to add spice and color. That’s when I met Derry DeBorja, who plays with Jason Isbell and a couple other bands. He is a crazy talented guy, just makes his own spin. He came and did some stuff. And then Jack Lawrence, who’s been in Raconteurs and Dead Weather played almost all of the bass. Everyone was just a dream to work with. They were all so wonderful and amazing. These musicians, they just listen to one thing once and they got it immediately.
OS: You’ve discussed music helping you process mental health, and that’s a huge topic nowadays. Artists are a lot more open about it, which I think is a good thing. I’m curious how specifically it’s helped you and in what ways you see it helping others?
BB: Yes, I love to talk about this because in a lot of ways, I think if I had a message from my music, that would be my main one. For me it was a lifeline, you know? After my father passed away 12 years ago. I picked up the guitar when nothing else was working. No amount of alcohol or TV could really help me escape. With music I could lose time, I could really fall into a different world. It’s so important, with human beings, that we have access to something, whether it be writing, or strumming the guitar, or singing out loud. I think if you’re able to turn off the screens you can access a part of yourself that is maybe hurting or needs to be seen. It’s similar to going to the gym, you know, you don’t understand why it’s so hard to get there. But then I’ll do the same thing with myself. I’ll torture myself and I won’t pick up that guitar for weeks, but as soon as I do, I finally feel feel better.
But of course for some it’s much easier said than done and it’s always a challenge. I’ve struggled with depression for as long as I can remember and music, thank god, is always there. Because I know when I go see great art or like even just a movie or anything and I identify with that moment I feel less alone. I get into the darkest places you know, and I think if someone can listen to my record and identify with any of the parts in the same way, that is the greatest gift I could ever ask for.