Last Wednesday, I got the opportunity to see singer-songwriter Matthew Barber perform live at Union Hall in Brooklyn. First, let’s start off with the venue. It’s intimate, low-lit and serves a great selection of microbrews (try the Coffee Stout!) at reasonable prices. They also have two full service, though non-regulation bocce ball courts in the center of their Edgar Allan Poe-esque parlor. Downstairs, a nice bar lets you know that you don’t have to trek up those stairs and navigate through a sea of hipsters again for a while.
The small space was packed with rabblers waiting for Matthew to take the stage. Ever the performer, he showed up a cool twenty minutes late. Matthew began the set with “Easily Bruised,” which set the tone for a mellow affair. Between songs, he apologized profusely for “getting incredibly lost in Brooklyn” and keeping the show from going on time. All grievances aside, the audience was captured by his agile ability with both guitar and harmonica on “Settle my Accounts with You,” his most “pop” oriented song on the new album. Talking to Matthew earlier in the day in an exclusive phone interview with S.A.G., this song is “about the idea of putting your past behind you, settling your accounts, getting square, getting even…moving on with a fresh start and a new hope…”
Trading in the piano for harmonica seemed incredibly suitable for the intimate venue, and he did it without a hitch. The show went on to highlight some of the new tracks on “Ghost Notes,” which was recently released in the U.S. in April 2009. Of the album, he told S.A.G. that
“It was a conscious decision to tone down the rock a little bit and make an album that people are gonna want to listen to over and over again…I wanted to write songs that could be appreciated in any decade. I’m partial to music from the sixties and seventies—classic singer song-writers. I wanted to do something in that tradition.”
I was reminded of that fact when Mr. Barber started playing “Sleep Please Come to Me” later in the set. Very few musicians have the ability to hold an audience captive for their allotted time slot. He does. Perhaps that’s because he is trying to bring us back to a day in age when people took time to take a record out of its sleeve, place it gently on the turntable and actually listen for a while.
In the interview, Mr. Barber also waxed poetic about getting into the industry that starving artists around the world want so badly (yet secretly) to be in. For him, a successful career in the music industry wasn’t the main priority. He started writing music as a teenager, but never thought of a career in music. After going to college, then grad-school, he moved to Toronto and started playing music around town.
“I played around town for a while, ended up getting hooked up with a manager…it kinda went from there. Once you start getting into the world of the music industry, it helps to have somebody representing you. I’ve never been great at self-promotion, and it’s kinda nice to have someone do that job for you so you can focus on the music. I’ve been pretty lucky having people that I trust taking care of that. Having said that though, if you have to get something done, you sometimes have to do it yourself.”
We also spoke about the post-radiohead music industry. Has it affected him?“The whole industry has been up in the air for the past few years, but it’s pointless to gripe about it because it’s impossible to go against the wave. Artists need to embrace it because the old model of the industry is crumbling and that’s probably a good thing. I don’t even have a contract with my label, so I can’t speak to that.” The coolest thing about the new model for music distribution for him is how wide his audience has become.
“[Because of the internet,] people from all over the world can access your music now. I get emails from people in Asia, Bulgaria—places where before they would never be able to hear my music. Even though they might not even actually be buying it, it’s cool that they can at least hear it. Before, you would have to be on a major label to do something like that.”
Though not a man of self-promotion, he still kept it real at the end of his set. “I do in fact have cds to sell you in the back.”
Great show, hope he comes back soon.
Thanks to Matthew and Chris for doing this interview.