Artist Spotlight: Breanna Barbara – Our Culture
Born in Edina, Minnesota and raised in Bradenton, Florida, Breanna Barbara began writing and performing songs after falling in love with genres like old country and Delta blues as a teenager. Following the death of her father, she moved to Vermont, living in seclusion from friends and family before settling in New York City with the plan to pursue music as a career. After releasing a few tracks on Bandcamp, she eventually sent her demos to Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff), sparking a creative partnership that led to Barbara’s stunning debut album, Mirage Dreams, as well as her sophomore LP, Nothin’ But Time, which is out today.
Barbara does take her time when it comes to putting out new music – it’s been six years since the release of Mirage Dreams, and some of the material on the new album dates back to 2017. (It was that year that Tricky enlisted her to be his main touring vocalist, a collaboration that continued through last year’s Lonely Guest LP.) Once again recorded at Nashville’s Bomb Shelter studio, Nothin’ But Time is an enchanting and spirited record that maintains the emotional intensity of her debut while expanding her musical palette, leaning on psychedelic and harder rock stylings to complement its wide-ranging subject matter. Whether she’s grappling with inner demons, digging into spiritual questions, or taking stock of the world around her, Barbara keeps her perspective grounded in reality, and for all the weight that it holds, uses her piercing voice to cut through it.
We caught up with Breanna Barbara for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her songwriting journey, the spiritual and political threads on Nothin’ But Time, death, and more.
I read that you were drawn to old country and Delta blues while you were traveling around as a teenager. How is this time in your life and your love of music tied in your memory?
It was such a coming-of-age experience. I think music can take you back to a certain time and place, and I’m a very nostalgic person, so it not only brings me back to this moment in my life when I was discovering who I was and what I liked, but also those emotions that I was going through, which were really intense. It was all around the time I lost my father, and I really see it as an anchor of coming back to myself. I look back at that time in my life and I’m like, “Wow, that was really magical.” I was travelling, I was experiencing a world that we’ll never know, again; living on my own for the first time, too, falling in love for the first time. It’s like when you look back at different versions of yourself – that definitely is such a sacred, beautiful version of myself that began something really big for me. Music is my life and my career, and my friends, my loves, I’ve all found through this path in life. So I look back at that time and think: that’s the beginning. And when I listen to artists like Jessie Mae Hemphill or Hank Williams, Sr., Bessie Smith, it’s just that anchor of: this is where it all began.
Could you point out a specific moment when that music became a part of your life? And why do you think it persisted in such a way?
The first thing that popped up in my mind when you’re asking this was the first time that I heard Jessie Mae Hemphill’s voice. My parents were very young when they had me, and they weren’t really into the arts. They were listening to whatever it was on the radio, so not even Beatles or anything. But the first time I heard – I was 18 probably, I was living in St. Augustine, and I randomly was neighbours with, Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys – his uncle. As a young Florida girl, I did listen to the Black Keys, the earlier records, and that’s what made me discover Fat Possum. It was kind of a gateway drug to the real people who began Delta blues, and so I found Junior Kimbrough through that label. I wound up becoming friends with Jim Keane, and we were hanging out at his house and he had a playlist on that either Dan had sent to him or he had. And it was these gigantic speakers playing Jessie Mae Hemphill’s ‘Go Back to Your Used to Be’, and I remember just being so struck by their voice – I didn’t know if it was a little boy or an older woman, I was just like, “Whoa.”
I think the roots of being so drawn to the blues, or Delta blues, is that there is an immense pain that I personally feel and can hear through just the chords and the melodies. I like the repetitiveness of it. For me, I’ve always been a really emotionally intense person and I have a big inner world going on. For any Zodiac people out there, water all across the board. I have a big emotional inner life, but especially in my younger age, I didn’t know how to express that. So I think connecting to that emotional sound, something like the blues – even someone like Bessie Smith, her voice, it bends in ways where it’s almost visual to me, where I can see different levels of pain through different notes, if that makes sense. And I think it was just also so foreign to me, because up until then I had been listening to ‘90s R&B and hip-hop and whatever was on the radio. But this was different. This was very refreshing and very impactful. That’s as best as I could describe it – it just hit me in the gut, and I was hooked from then on out.
How did that connection translate to you wanting to be a singer and express that inner world?
I mean, that is the root of me as a musician. I’ve come to learn a lot about how my friends, different musicians all work and operate, and it’s so beautiful how there’s so many different kinds. And for me, it 1,000% started as a tool to process my own mental health. I was always drawn to music, but I didn’t know that I wanted to pursue it or anything. I had a guitar and self-taught, just through tabs – I was 16, I think that’s the first time I ever even played guitar. And then when I really started writing songs was, again, around that time period, around 18, living in St. Augustine, just playing two simple chords and singing out my feelings. And I think that there was this moment that clicked of like: you lose time, you lose space, and you can lose yourself in it. I think that that is one of the greatest gifts you could have in this lifetime. Especially now, when social media and these things are vying for every single free second of your mind. And usually, all my songs are stream of consciousness, so I’ll just start playing something on the guitar and then whatever comes out is – I don’t even know that I was feeling that way, or maybe I did but finally I have words for it. And then I’ll magically feel a little bit better afterwards.
The start of my depression, too, was completely triggered by that loss of my dad, and I don’t know where I would be without having the ability to sing and strum on guitar. That’s how the first album was born, is just that whole combination of feelings and desperation to just understand what I was going through and then just get it out. If there is a loss, if there is a breakage or something really traumatic that happens in your life, I think the greatest thing that you could do is turn it into something else. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something you share with the world. But looking back on it, I’m like, Wow, that really saved me. Because again, I struggled with depression, and I look back at my younger self and I’m really proud of her for returning that into something positive that brought a lot of light into my life and a lot of great friendships. I learned so much throughout it all.
Even though there’s been a gap between albums, you worked with the same producer on Nothin’ But Time, you knew the band, you went into the same studio. When you have that kind of familiar constant, it makes you realize even more how things have changed. So when you started recording, how did you feel like you’d grown since the last record?
That’s exactly where my thought processes were when I was deciding where to record the next one and with who. Because obviously, I did have some people just giving advice like, “Oh, maybe you should try something different.” And I was curious to maybe take that risk, but at the same time, when I went to the studio on that first record, I had never walked into a recording studio before. I didn’t even understand what session musicians were. I got so incredibly lucky with Andrija [Tokic] becoming like a homie, you know, he’s a friend, and same with all the people that he brought on board. It was such a magical experience, but at the same time, I feel like I almost blacked out during it because I didn’t even know what the recording process was like. So now I was like, I want to go back, I want to have some of the same team, some new team, now that I know so much more about the recording process and singing and songwriting, and I just want to see if I can have a stronger voice in a place that I am comfortable. It’s not every day you’re going to be comfortable with a producer and different musicians. So after speaking with Andrija a little bit and going back and forth on influences and ideas, I was like: This is how I want to do the second one, and I think that it’s going to be a beautiful follow-up because I knew I wanted to go in different arenas and different sounds. But I thought it’d be really cool to have that root of that team and that place.
The album is very electrifying as a whole, but I think it’s in one of the quieter moments, in ‘Old Soul’, where you make one of the most powerful declarations: “I choose to leave this place called hell.” Can you talk about where that decision came from ?
The first record was a lot about myself and heartbreak. That’s my main go-to when I write music, but with this record, I was trying to write about other things that were happening in the world. But ‘Old Soul’ is definitely another one of those personal songs. I was in a relationship at the time where I felt that person didn’t really see me. And growing up, a lot of people would call me an old soul, and that’s obviously a phrase a lot of people know. And I was playing around with this idea of – I wasn’t playing around, really, I was in a really bad place when I wrote that song – but mainly, to express myself not being seen, and finally realizing that I’m the one that has to pull myself out of this. Like, “I can’t really be a victim here, I’m the one that’s choosing to stay. And I can also be the one to choose to leave.”
I think that when you’re dating in your 20s, I know a lot of me and my friends, we’ve had a couple relationships, and I look back at these relationships and I have so much more compassion for them – for both parties involved. Because when you’re in your 20s, you really are figuring out who you are and what you want in love and partnership. Without knowing yourself too well, there’s not a lot you can demand for yourself and have boundaries for yourself. That was definitely a relationship where I didn’t know those boundaries yet, and neither did that other person, I don’t think. And we were hurting each other in midst of that.
I think that was a really strong moment because in that relationship, I never thought to myself, I’m choosing to stay in this or I’m choosing to leave this place that like feels like hell right now. But in that moment when I was writing, when that came out, that is a perfect sentence of what was going on. I didn’t have to stay in that relationship for as long as I did; I knew it was bad for both of us. And maybe that is a really beautiful sentiment, you saying that it’s one of the most powerful parts of the record, because that was me growing in a big way in that moment, I think. And understanding that you have the power – if you don’t like something, you can leave. You don’t have to stay.
That compassion, was it something you felt as you were writing the song, or did that come in hindsight?
I think in hindsight, yeah. I’m always trying to spot my blind spots as I get older. It’s interesting, it kind of says in the chorus, “Do you even know what’s going on in this old soul?” Like, “Do you have any idea what’s happening in here?” And I chose to be with a partner that I didn’t really feel seen yet, but again, I didn’t understand that concept. I’m also a very empathetic person, so time goes on and then I’m like, this other person, did I even know what was going on in his old soul? [laughs] So I maybe do have more compassion for both parties involved. But during that process of writing that, it was very self-involved. The songs can really get like that for me, because it’s an examination in my own psyche, and that’s my time to process and understand what’s going on with me.
Along with that line about leaving hell, there are references to sinning and the devil that almost form a religious throughline on the album. How did that become a recurring theme while you were writing?
It was definitely not conscious, and that’s the thing that happens when I sit down to write; I don’t know what it will be, but I will usually find some common themes and similar words. I think it’s two parts. One is that I was definitely diving into more spiritual realms when I was first writing this music. I was really struck by Andy Bey’s ‘Celestial Blues’ [from the 1973 album Experience and Judgment] and Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda; more musicians that were contacting higher realms, if you like. I knew I was really attracted to that, and I do consider myself a spiritual person. I think with the devil thing, and with that song [‘The Devil’] in general, that is back-to-back with ‘Old Soul’ – it’s the same relationship. I did see this darkness that was trying to pull this person in.
I think back to when I was a little girl, and I have this grandma who’s pretty kooky, but pretty spiritual person. She had told me the story when we were younger about Archangel Michael, and I had this crazy dream or nightmare, which she likes to think is a visitation. I just remember the most gigantic wings, and I was really, really scared. I say all this because I have this attraction to whatever God or whatever spiritual realm that there is on this planet that we really don’t have an explanation for, and I think that’s just a muse of mine that I was really getting into, especially with the type of music I was listening to and being with someone at the time where, like, I sometimes would reference the devil.
I’m not religious at all, actually, but I definitely consider myself a spiritual person. I think after my dad died, too, I love to think about it. I always wonder if angels are real, or if, you know, he’s around. It might be my way to cope. But I just rewatched Wings of Desire – I think that’s a beautiful way to view it, when talking about angels.
I know it’s hard to put into words, but how exactly do you view it?
I’m a little bit of everything. I feel like I’m attracted to Buddhism, and I also believe that as humans, we are not able to truly conceptualize what why we’re here or what happens when we die. There’s so many new studies about quantum physics where it’s like, energy is never created or destroyed, so I know that when people pass on, we are still connected in some way. And same with how we are all connected right now, as living bodies. So I do think angels exist, but it’s all inside of us all the time. Even though my dad is no longer on this planet, I am connected to him and I can feel his presence. Not all the time, but sometimes I do, and I think that those are the moments where you can kind of be like, “Huh, what a mysterious…” And we just have to be okay with the questions and know that we’ll not have the answers. And maybe we’ll never have the answers, but what a crazy, mysterious thing that we’re all inside of and alive.
To tie this back to something you alluded to before, that spiritual thread is juxtaposed with the political language you explicitly use on songs like ‘Me Too’ and ‘Weight of the World’. How does that aspect of the album intersect with the personal and spiritual nature of your songwriting?
Someone who has inspired me greatly is Nina Simone, and I find her music very spiritual. She’s always said, as an artist, it’s your job to write about the times that you’re living in, and I really respect other artists that do that. A lot was going on around 2016, 2017, 2018. With Me Too, I think I was just a quiet observer when everything was happening. As a sensitive person, you’re sort of absorbing, absorbing, absorbing, and then something comes out. And I remember reading all the stories online and being really taken aback by the solidarity of the entire movement. I also think when something becomes really popular, and with how serious the subject nature is, there’s something that comes in – I almost feel like sometimes people hear the Me Too movement and they kind of roll their eyes or something. It’s sort of become this word that maybe has lost a little bit of its respect, just from my perception. Obviously, I’m releasing this song a few years after the movement, and I just wanted to bring it back to this empowering, fun, intense, but also with tinges of smirk, almost. You know, I reference Lemonade in there and it’s because I fucking love Beyoncé. I wanted it to be both intense and beautiful and celebrate that moment. For me personally, as a woman, especially in the industry, I do feel like I have to fight 10 times harder than my male counterparts. I didn’t intentionally set out to write a song about Me Too, but it was in my universe, and it came out.
And then with ‘Weight of the World’, it kind of started off as a personal feeling of, I did feel like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. My husband’s from Argentina, and at the time abortion was still illegal there. We were finishing the demos while we were visiting there, and we had happened to come across one of the biggest protests there for women’s rights and abortion. I’m very pro-choice and I did want to make that statement, and also have fun with it. Because if you look at both of the songs, there’s not much of a deeper meaning. It’s very blatant. I wanted to be very clear with what I was saying and make it clear where I stand. I think it was time for me to do that. It’s very important to me that I stand with women’s rights, as obvious as that sounds – but again, we’re living in a time where you kind of do have to have to say where you stand, because it’s getting scary out here.
When you put the title of the album into context, it’s clear that it relates to death. But there’s an ambivalence in the way it can elicit more than one reaction, the idea of having nothing but time. The way it comes across on the title track, it’s almost like you’re taking a casual phrase and you’re giving it this existential weight.
You should write my whole bio, you really get it. [laughs] And I don’t know if I got it when I was writing it, but again, looking back in hindsight, it’s like, “Oh, that’s what that was about.” So, Nothin’ But Time came from a very personal experience. I had met someone where it just wasn’t the right time for us. And they basically said, “Don’t worry, we have time.” I don’t even think they said “nothing but time,” just “we have time,” but it sort of spun me into this idea of what time is. And when I went to the studio and I just letting it all come out, and then more spiritual things were were were coming out, like, “I wean for the wings of the holy night.” I’m like, what does that mean? [laughs]
But I have this constant theme in my life of death. Ever since I lost my dad, I try, as cliche as it sounds – it’s almost like a weird obsessive thing where I am really scared to not have every interaction with the people I’m with. I need them to know how much I love them, how much I care about them. I can’t have like a fight and then leave. I am very, very aware of death and its presence all around. Any day could be your last, so… That’s always been a constant character in my life. I got to thinking more about what it is that we have, and no matter what you’re chasing in this world – whether it’s money or fame or experiences – all that we really… our only currency is time. And the ones that we spend it with. I got that lesson pretty young in life, and if only I could have more time with someone my father or my grandmother, who just passed away last year. I’m so hyper-aware almost to a downfall of that being the only thing that matters in life.
With that being said, you touched on, it’s sort of like this paradox. Because on one side, I want to grab it all and selfishly hold every single moment and not let it go. But on the other side, I realize that because it’s all that we have, we really have a responsibility to live each moment and take risks and let it all just sort of hit the wall – let go of it all. Even just talking about the paradox, it’s so confusing to conceptualize. [laughs] But for me, it’s just two sides of the same coin. You want to hold on to it really tight, but at the same time, you have to let things go and enjoy those seconds passing by as they come. And I really wanted that to be the overall message of the album, to know that there is no need to rush. Whatever your destiny is going to be, I really believe that whatever is meant for you is meant for you. So there’s no need to – and this is a message to myself – to be scared that I’m going to lose another loved one, that I’m not going to have enough time with them. Because as long as you’re making the most of it in that specific minute, that’s all that you can do. That’s all that you have. You have nothing but time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Breanna Barbara’s Nothin’ But Time is out now via Fuzz Club.