INTERVIEW WITH JOEL BARRETT, PUBLISHED Sept 8 2016 IN EAGLE TRIBUNE & SALEM NEWS
1. You're on an airplane and strike up a conversation with your seat mate, How you do you describe what you do, what your music is all about?
A. After smilingly dodging the question of “What band are you in?” I usually use my standard line of “I play unpopular music; un-pop for short.” Joyce and I are modern troubadours, which for some reason is hard for some people to understand, presumably because it doesn’t scale up in size that well. Troubadours who get famous tend to dance around and tour with bands a lot, which to my mind dilutes the art form. It’s hard for average people to realize how many highly skilled troubadours are operating under the radar of show business. There are not a lot of basketball players better than NBA stars plying their trade quietly in out of the way places. Essentially all the musicians that really interest me, and that I would go out of my way to see, are little-known, and play for small audiences, and drive their own cars and tune their own guitars.
2. How did you two meet and fall in love?
A. Joyce came to one of my concerts around 1990, and we started bumping into each other at open mikes around that time in Portsmouth. We both had other people in our lives, and it took about 10 years for us to get it together and become a couple. I’m a very lucky man to have her in my life.
3. The way to success these days is to do many things, have many 'pokers in the fire' - you seemed to recognize that decades before others with the music (performances and CD), penning books, and developing and championing the partial capo. Did that occur organically or was a conscious decision. What's your take on spreading your seed in a wide, wide field?
A. I’ve never been that interested in just playing the styles & genre game— music becomes theater pretty quickly when you just adopt costumes, mannerisms and musical ideas developed by others. I’ve never been interested in theater, and I’m lousy at it, though I both respect its power and resent how much it has intruded into music. I don’t think either Joyce or I has ever been comfortable sticking to that a stylistic kind of musical structure, though it is easier to market. She’s played in bluegrass, celtic, rock, folk, country, jazz, and pretty much every kind of band imaginable, I guess because she is good and the violin is so versatile and valuable. I have always been interested in more than one style of guitar, and in playing other stringed instruments. As versatile as the guitar is, there are a lot of songs I can’t seem to get going unless I play them on a mandolin of some kind, or my autoharp. I’m also into the idea of playing intense instrumental music as well as being very deeply involved in lyrics, songwriting, arranging and harmony singing. And now that people don’t buy recorded music much anymore, Im getting newly interested in guitar education, so I have made a lot of books to try to turn my knowledge into food for my kids. I’ve discovered some exciting new things in the guitar and am spending a sizable chunk of my energies trying to show the world what I have found. Parenting shuffles one’s priorities around a lot too.
4. What artists were early influences on you?
A. I was surrounded by the folk boom and pop music in the 60’s, much of which has turned out to be some of the greatest music ever made. I also began digging as a teenager into what they call “roots” music now, and by the time I was 21 or so I was pretty familiar with most of the important artists in the evolution of folk, bluegrass, country, blues, old-time and most of all, American acoustic guitar music. I used to go to libraries and read every book I could on bluegrass, blues, etc., and I’ve always been a student of American music. I’ve never modeled myself after anyone. Leo Kottke & Doc Watson were early prominent influences on my guitar, and I was a fan of Eric Andersen, Dylan, Jesse Winchester, Gordon Lightfoot & Paul Simon when I started out. I’ve also always been a huge fan of John Fogerty and Chuck Berry. Nowadays I’m intrigued with guys like Michael Jerome Browne and Mike Dowling.
5. When did you know that music was the career for you?
A. By age 18 I had no time for anything else. I went from playing at parties to street music then to bar gigs. I never had a job in my life except as a lifeguard when I was 17. I played music all day every day as a teenager, and there was no time for anything else. I quit school at age 20 and that was it for non-music.
6. What was your first paid gig?
A. Do you count street music? I basically still play street music, since the American people still put money in my guitar case by buying tickets to come see me play. A bar in DC paid me some money around 1975, but I think I had some gigs at parties and playing with bands before that. I played Dobro with Buzz Busby at a bluegrass gig for $15 in about 1974 or 75. I was horribly unprepared for gigs back then, since I did not know that you were supposed to know a certain group of “standards” and I just knew what I liked or wrote and wasn’t trying to outfit myself with the skills and tools to survive in the bar-gig world. Luckily I knew enough songs by well-known people that I survived. I never could sound like any well-known artists, and probably survived by sheer chutzpah, energy and attitude and by playing slide guitar, which for some reason keeps a lot of people from hating you who otherwise might.
7. How fulfilling is playing the coffee house scene?
A. I love it and always have. It’s kind of amazing that it has gone on for decades, without either exploding in popularity or withering away. It’s kid of a utopian musical world.
8. If you had to narrow down just one highlight of your musical career, what would that be?
A. Probably when Doc Watson invited Joyce and me to come play at Merlefest, and then he and his wife Rosa Lee came to every one of our 4 or 5 shows for 3 days, and actually sat on the corner of stage and listened to every song we played. Doc took us out to lunch and asked me questions about how I play certain things on some of my albums. Nothing anyone ever says or does will ever mean as much to me as that. He’s always been my all-time hero. That was like getting 6 Grammys and a couple Oscars and Olympic medals.
9. What's in the CD player or on your computer play list now?
A. Have been listening to the Harry Fox Anthology of Folk Music collection. I’m newly intrigued with what was going on in American music before the music business began in the 1920’s. I’m wondering if the music business as it unwinds and devolves might start looking more like it did before there was a music business. Food is heading in that direction, with the massive new emphasis on organic and local. I wish music could go the same way.
10. What musicians or bands excite you and give you hope for the future of live music?
A. I’m a troubadour, which sort of means that I can sit in your kitchen and play music or you that is complete and valuable. I have been dismayed at the fact that when the recording industry began in the 1920’s, there were a lot of solo artists just playing music (think of the bluesmen), and people bought their records. But over the 90 years or so of evolution of the recording and music industries, it’s as if it was outlawed for a major artist to release a recording where they just played the way they would in your kitchen. Sanity has gradually returned after the rampage of Beatles, Zappa and Steely Dan -inspired overdubbing and endless 48-track overproduction of nearly everything. I noticed that the Stones always recorded live, and gradually bands like the Cowboy Junkies and Son Volt and even U2 realized that you lost something vital when you didn’t just perform the music as you recorded it. The closest thing I can find to a hit song anywhere in 90 years of pop charts where the music sounds like a person playing a song was Adele’s “Someone Like You.” She didn’t play the piano, and she cheated and added a harmony overdub on the last chorus, but it’s indicative of a healthy trend. Rap might have been the beginning of the introduction of a powerful individual artist at the center of the music, and it’s possible that I owe Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre some thanks. Of the top 10 grossing artists now only Coldplay is a band, and the troubadours like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Bob Dylan, and even Toby Keith, Elton John, Katy Perry and a lot of new young artists are individuals and not bands, and music is getting more human. I’m so glad to see that personal music energy at the core of modern music at last. I’ve never understood the power of music built on electronica and inhuman computer drumbeats pounding like industrial machinery.
11. Harvey, I've read that you were among the first (if not the first) to start your own record label. How did that happen and what was the reasoning behind that decision? What you have done different?
A. I trained in bluegrass, and even in 1972 or so when I first started going to festivals, artists in that field were selling records directly to their audiences. I guess the folk people weren’t, and when I tried to get a record label interested in my music in 1980 or so and I didn’t succeed, I wasn’t that daunted by the idea of pressing my own. I was sure I could sell a bunch of them to my audience, and I was right. I made a couple LP’s and cassettes in the early 1980’s, and then made my first CD in 1988. It surprised me how well it did for me. The thing I did that might have been pioneering was to refuse to overdub and to insist on actual performances in my recordings. It never made sense to me to piece things together and to try to be the Beatles. My “documentary” style of recording ensured that people who came to see me in concert heard what they did on my recordings, and vice versa.
I think the only thing I would have done differently is to push even harder when I was in the lead. When I made my first CD, radio stations only had a handful of them, and I got a lot of airplay and attention. I was way ahead of the pack of folk people who eventually inundated all music media with their home-made recordings.
12. Are you encouraging Otto and Levi to explore music as a vocation?
A. Of course, but the party as I know it might be over. I sold a lot of CD’s and bought a nice house where I can raise my kids, but it's unclear if musicians can support themselves in a DIY way these days. Music is still valuable to people, but the way it is monetized is changing wildly. Giant artists are pimping cosmetics and even underwear (Blake Shelton) which indicates that you can’t even support yourself playing music at a very high level in the business. My kids are gifted musically, but not yet drawn to it like the moth to the flame that it was for me. The reason they are playing is because I have developed a new way (the Liberty Guitar Method) that allows elementary school kids to play real guitar, but they don’t have all the teen angst yet and hormones that seems to be the fuel of most music we know of. There are not a lot of 2nd-graders singing about their feelings in their concerts, and it is probably too soon for my boys to find their own music as art. And though I wish they could learn to play piano or something while their brains are so elastic, I’m not a fan of the way music is usually taught in our culture, and am anxious for them and their friends to just find their own way musically. Here are some interesting videos I’ve made of them doing their thing. http://libertyguitar.com/videos/
13. How do you balance the careers and the family?
A. It’s very hard. Having your kid wake you up at 5:30 AM when you went to bed at 1 was just the beginning of the problems. We have not had much luck bringing our kids along on the road, or leaving them behind. I’ve greatly neglected my career the last few years, which may be OK and maybe not. My taking a sabbatical from decades of touring to raise a family has coincided with the collapse of the recorded music business and the economy in general. It’s a brave new world now, and the things that used to work aren’t working that well anymore. I’m not sure it makes sense to keep doing things the way I always did them as far as the business of selling recordings or tickets to performances. Joyce and I now have built a concert room in our 1880’s barn and happily performing every week there.
14. Harvey, you are credited as being the first (or among the first) to release an "indie" record, the first record direct-to-digital masters, and to embrace the digital music "revolution." How did these innovations happen?
A. Because I was only interested in documentary recording, I was able to use the first generation of digital recorders very effectively. The multi-track digital stuff was wildly expensive, and indie artists couldn’t afford that technology. Analog was hard also because you had to rent a studio, and tape cost a fortune, so you couldn’t really do 20 takes of a song if you felt like it. That would have cost hundreds of dollars in blank tape alone. But if you were able to record live and direct to 2-track stereo you could make great-sounding recordings easily and anywhere. I made some really interesting recordings at home, in hotels, living rooms, bars— wherever I was- and was able to use battery-powered digital tape recorders no larger than a paperback book. Music is fragile and ephemeral, and when you feel like playing, and tape is cheap, you can record when the moment strikes you. I captured a lot of good moments in my musical life that way, and got a lot of attention at a time when what I was doing was unusual, though it seemed obvious to me. It’s odd, when digital was brand-new, there was no way to edit anything, and you had to do “direct-to-disk” type recordings, with no edits or splices or even tone adjustments. Now that you can go inside the wave forms with any computer and do insane kinds of editing and adjusting, I’ve even managed to my make my old recordings sound another level better to me. I’m quite amazed and pleased by a lot of the recordings I made in my career, and am grateful I was able to make all the decisions about how to play, where to put the mikes, and what performances to release. I’m usually not fond of music made by musicians who are mostly chasing markets.
15. How do you feel about fans posting their videos of your performances on social media? Does this hurt or help your career?
A. It’s inevitable but I have never liked it that much, though it’s possible they are doing me a favor. I’ve always been a fan of the spell that a good audio recording can weave and I’ve never been attracted to making videos of myself playing or having others do it. I guess I need to learn to make interesting videos I can post myself.
16. How has hosting shows at your place in York gone?
A. It’s been very successful. We’re drawing consistent and excellent audiences of both our fans and our neighbors, and performing our concert shows with dignity in a great performing environment, and we’re having a blast doing it and enjoying not traveling and being with our kids. We don’t know how big we want it to get or how often we want to do it, but we are thrilled with the results so far.
17. Joyce, looping opens unlimited doors to your sound. How and why did you embrace this technology? Harvey, do you use this as well?
A. I have never been good at looping or interested in it, so I am the polar opposite. I just play the stuff. But Joyce moves me deeply by what she does, and I don’t have a purist attitude toward what I do. Joyce is a brilliant troubadour, but as a fiddle player she was unable to go the places you can go if you play guitar to support and generate the songs.
18. When I try to turn friends on to your music, what is the one song (from each of you) that will hook them?
A. I never had a hit. People like some of my instrumental pieces like “The Albatross” or “The Scotland Suite”, but they also like my songs like “From Where I Stand” or “Cryin’ Shame” and my versions of trad stuff like Lakes of Pontchartrain or Otto Wood.
19. What are some of your "causes" or charities you are committed to? Hobbies?
A. I enjoy gardening and landscaping and tinkering with our house, and reading books about American music. We are trying to become part of our local church community, and to build musical and personal community here at home.
20. Is it fair to describe you two as the Americana's First Family of Northern New England or Folk Music's First Family of Northern New England?
A. Sure, why not? I guess we don’t have Royal Families in this country, but we never came up with a catchy marketing phrase like those to attract people to our music.