Local Current Blog

Barbara Jean reflects on creative life on the North Shore and in the Twin Cities

Barbara Jean performs with Southwire this Saturday at the Dakota (Publicity photo)

The relationship between nature, rural life, and Americana music runs so deep that it can feel cliché at times; everyone’s heard about Bon Iver’s cabin and seen the hundreds of publicity photos banjo-toting artists sulking stoically on train tracks. Especially now, with the surge in neo-folk that some publicists have branded the “Lumin-era” thanks to those “Hey Ho” spouting arena troubadours the Lumineers, having an affinity for old-timey instruments and standing around the woods waiting for inspiration to strike can seem awfully trite.

But here in Minnesota, we have a rich history of not only embracing roots music, but producing legions of talented artists who actually did grow up in small towns, buy string instruments from second-hand stores, and come across their first melodies while cross-country skiing through a snowy pasture or paddling down a river in a canoe. While the aesthetic of Americana and the word “authenticity” have become especially popular in the indie-crossover world, many Minnesotan artists have been too busy living that life to think much about what it all means.

Even as the tides of the so-called Luminera rise and fall (and it will, eventually, fall), there is something timeless and enduring about the roots music being made in our state, from Mason Jennings to the Pines to Chastity Brown to one of our biggest success stories in recent years, Trampled by Turtles.

And the genre continues to add new players here in Minnesota. This Saturday, two emerging artists who have embraced Americana from two completely different angles, Southwire and Barbara Jean, will perform a double-header at the Dakota Jazz Club, and the show is a must-see event for fans of “authentic” roots music, whatever that means now. To find out more about this new wave of old-world artists, I asked Barbara Jean to tell me more about her life on the North Shore and how her creativity is fostered by collaboration, quietness, and the great outdoors.

Local Current: Tell me about your backstory. Where did you grow up?

Barbara Jean: I divided time between here and Superior. I went to school down here in Plymouth, Wayzata schools, until high school, and then I went to the Perpich center. Alexei [Casselle of Kill the Vultures and Roma di Luna] and I were in the same class, actually; there was lots of music folks. I started playing when I was small. Everybody in my family plays, my mom and my brother and my aunt and my grandma, so I was kind of begging to play the violin when I was pretty small. They tried to placate me with a shoebox with rubber bands, like ‘Here’s your violin!,’ and it didn’t really work. So when I was three, they got me an actual violin, which was seriously so tiny, I still have it. There was a bumper sticker on the case, and the bumper sticker looks unusually large because it’s just such a tiny little thing.

I played classically for many years playing violin, and then switched to viola when I was 10 or 11, looking for a richer, deeper sound. At Arts High I started to experiment more with different genres of music, and just winging it more; less note-reading and etudes and more pop songs. And then sometime in my early 20s my brother had graduated from college and he had his first “real job,” and as a surprise on my birthday he brought me to a music store and bought me a banjo. So that’s how that started. I never had a lesson on that instrument; I just do it in my own way.

So you play violin, viola, and banjo—all three of those seem like hard-to-control string instruments.

‘Hard to control’ is a super good phrase. I was just pulling my hair out the other night, I had a show and I could not get my banjo in tune to save my life. But I like their sounds. Viola is definitely my favorite. And I guess banjo’s fun because it’s just something different. Everybody plays guitar, so it’s cool to actually not really be able to guitar and do something different in that way.

So after studying classically for so long, was it a relief to pick up the banjo and just fiddle around with it?

Yeah, it was. Even when I played classically, I enjoyed it most when I played what I wanted to play. My teachers, I used to drive them crazy because I wouldn’t practice what they told me to practice. I think what I like most about music is that I really like to be able to connect with other people and have fun with it, and to collaborate and create something. And I think that—not that that doesn’t happen in classical music, because it does—but I think definitely improvising and doing more outside-the-box stuff makes that happen.

When did you start performing as Barbara Jean? 

Pretty recently. I’ve been in bands ever since Arts High, but doing just my own thing since this last record came out. So maybe a year or two?

Do you have a dedicated band that you play with?

I have people that I usually work with. At this point I can’t always have the band; it really depends on the show, and the venue, and unfortunately the money. But I’ve been working with Jeremy Hanson on drums, James Buckley on bass—although this gig I’ll have Chris Bates, JT’s brother, on bass—Erik Koskinen on guitar, and Dave Huckfeldt, when he’s not on tour with the Pines. Joe Savage on pedal steel, when he’s available. He is magic, so it’s really fun when he’s around and it’s a full band gig. That’s the usual cast of characters. And it ranges; if it’s an opening gig, usually I’ll just do it as a duo with Dave or Erik.

I love that all those jazz guys pick up gigs in pop and folk bands. 

I know! I’m super excited to play with Chris Bates, actually. We’ve talked about it, and just timing wise, I’ve never been able to work it out, but this Saturday will be fun. And working with Jeremy has been a total blast; I’m really excited about what he did on the tracks for the new album. He’s got a really funky feel, it’s very unique and awesome.

What is appealing about playing the Dakota, as a roots act? It seems like they’ve been booking a lot more acts outside the jazz realm recently.

There’s a lot of great rooms in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but there’s a shortage of actual listening rooms, where it’s about the music first and foremost. I feel like the Cedar is like that. But there aren’t a lot of other listening rooms. Usually it’s more of a bar scene, and it’s bar times, and you’re competing with bar noise. Even though there’s great things about a lot of those clubs—like I love the Turf Club, and Icehouse can be just awesome—it’s really noisy. And I think part of the appeal of the Dakota is that it’s about the music, and it’s a listening room. It’s amazing; people really pay attention to the shows there.

You’re sharing the bill with Southwire; were you familiar with them before booking this show?

A little bit, yeah. I’ve been listening to Jerree Small forever. That song “Minnesota,” the first time I heard it I was like, this is so great, her voice is awesome, and her songwriting is really stellar. And having lived in Grand Marais for so many years, working at a small community public station, we tried to play a lot of music that was local and regional and we had a lot of her records up there. And then, too, Crew Jones used to live in Grand Marais, so I had heard of them. I think I probably moved there just after they had departed. So yeah, I’d kind of heard of their separate musical entities in different contexts, and it seemed like we all had the connection to the lake and North Shore ties.

How long did you live in Grand Marais?

Seven years, almost eight. I spent my 20s there. Which is sort of an odd time to move to the middle of nowhere.

And you were working at the radio station?

First I worked at the North House Folk School, and then when that job was done I got a job as the news director of the radio station there. My degree was in radio journalism, so it was kind of a nice, surprising thing to find a job in my field. It was a great station, and it’s a good community, it’s very artistic. There’s a lot of music there, too, so always on the side I did a lot of music, played in different bands and a lot of duos.

It’s such a pretty area, too.

It’s really pretty. I miss it a lot. I think, if I had my way, I would probably still live there. But the downside is that it’s so remote, and in order to do what I’m trying to do now and build a music career, it’s really hard to be up that far. I didn’t even have internet at my house. And then you’re five hours from Minneapolis, and decent weather. So it’s a little too tucked away to try and build something new.

Who are some players who have influenced you to explore this genre of Americana?

Well, when I was in junior high and high school, I definitely listened to Son Volt and the Jayhawks and that alt-country genre that started to really emerge. Especially with Rev 105; I feel like they really played a lot of that kind of music. So I probably started to get into it from there. Also my brother was super into Simon and Garfunkel, so I heard a lot of that around the house. From there, discovering Lucinda William was a huge thing for me; I think she’s a brilliant songwriter, and her sound is incredible.

And not that you can’t do other things with a banjo and a fiddle and a viola, because there’s some great examples—like Brute Heart, Jackie Beckey’s playing is really cool—but those instruments definitely lend themselves to a more roots-based thing. And in this country we have a really great tradition of roots music, and it’s fun to participate in that, and it’s fun to reimagine the genre, and take a new look at it. When I’m writing music, I can’t help but bring my own thing to it. Even playing in that genre, there’s still a lot of room for it to expand and evolve. I could rattle off band names all day of people that I love to listen to and have had an effect, but for whatever reason I’m just definitely drawn to an organic, rootsy sound. Not that I don’t love other kinds of music, because I do—I still occasionally get out old punk records or hip hop, and there’s a lot of great hip hop in the Twin Cities, too.

Do you write your songs on the banjo?

A lot of times I don’t even write on an instrument at all. I just, in my head, come up with a melody, and then from there I have to figure out, how am I going to play this? What are the chords? But occasionally yes, I can think of some songs that I’ve definitely written on the banjo, where the banjo part has come first.

Do the songs come quickly?

Sometimes, and sometimes not. And when it does, it feels like a gift from beyond or something. Because I feel like that’s rare, when it comes super fast and is all clear. More often it’s like a piece comes, a line or maybe a chorus, or the first part of the verse, and to get the rest of the song is a lot of work, and effort, and time thinking about it and playing it over and over again. So it depends.

And it’s actually been harder for me to write since I moved down here. It’s been one year, almost to the day. I think the mental space I have is really different than what I have up there. You just have—the landscape is so vast and expansive, and I think it really becomes a part of your consciousness, in a way that you’re not even aware is happening, but in a way that’s there and is a part of you. All that space and openness and possibility is just a part of who you are and how you operate. Moving down here, I just feel like—and it’s getting a little better now that I’m adjusting—but it’s felt more boxed in. I don’t have the mental space that I used to have.

I feel like the pace of life is just a little slower up there, too. You don’t feel as rushed to go off and always be doing something. 

I think that’s very true. And even what there is to do is very different. I mean, I saved so much money up there because there just wasn’t anything to spend it on. Mostly it’s like, let’s go for a ski! Or a hike, or a paddle. And all of that stuff is free. And all of those activities really lend themselves to creating more mental space. I was just reading some study the other day that said if you literally spend three minutes in nature, it reduces stress by 65 percent. Just three minutes. So I think about my life up there, and it was constant. I was super busy, I was working full-time. But even still, somehow, even being that busy didn’t feel as crazy as it does sometimes down here.

So I guess my overall point is that writing feels harder to me now than it did before. And some of that, too, might be—before, when I was writing songs, I had a full-time other job, and there wasn’t the pressure in the same way as there maybe is now that I’ve left a steady job to try to build a career. So that might be some of it too; now it actually matters in a whole different way.

As an independent artist, is it hard to separate the creative work from the business work? Are they happening in two different sides of your brain?

It’s hard, because once you make a decision to do it, that business side can just eat you alive. Because there’s so much to do. And everything rides on the effort you put in. So I think it’s tough. I think you have to figure out how to make space, and that’s something I’m learning. At the beginning of September I went up to Grand Portage and stayed a friend’s place, he has a gorgeous place right on the lake, and I just went up there specifically to write and work on the new record. There’s no internet and no cell phones, so things like that are really helpful, if you can figure out how to get away. But I need to do that more, because honestly I felt like so much of that time was spent decluttering my mind, and by the end of the week I felt like I was really starting to get somewhere writing, and it was time to go back to the city. For me, it’s figure out escapes, and also being really disciplined. Making a routine and sticking to it. Writing every day, even if it’s just 10 minutes. Trying to nurture that creative side.

I think one thing, too, with songwriting, that’s been cool lately is that I did some collaborating with Erik for a couple songs on this album, and that was really, really fun. Like I said before, the thing I like the most about music is that collaboration. I’m honestly not that interested in playing by myself. So that was fun, to try that. And actually Chastity [Brown] and I wrote a song together this winter for a tour we did. It was so fun. It’s really so different from when you’re just alone, by yourself, trying to bang something out. So that’s pretty fun and exciting, too. I would love to do more collaborative writing with people.

Barbara Jean and Southwire play the Dakota Jazz Club this Saturday, October 26, at the Dakota Jazz Club. Details in the Local Gig List.

See also: Barbara Jean’s In-Studio Session with Radio Heartland