Interview: Clara Barker talks music, Fine Art & The Breslins

(Photography by another old friend, also an amazingly talented Castle Rushen High School veteran Mr Orry Maddrell.)

Clara Barker is one of my oldest friends. Seriously, I’ve known her since we were both (Oh Jesus) 13? 14? Whatever age society arbitrarily decides the best possible thing to do is throw you into the shark infested waters of Secondary School and see what seven years of adolescence, education, hormones and stress will do both to and for you. I came out the other side equipped with the mighty wordforge that is even now spewing forth the syllables that you’re reading. She came out the other side on a parallel track, working the music end of things with the same bone dry wit and endless perception that she’s had as long as I’ve known her.

Only now it’s set to MUSIC.

I interviewed Clara about her new album, which is available right flipping now. The interview, laced with the sort of cheery profanity island kids are taught at the same time as adding (Seriously I swear I have a GCSE in it somewhere), is below.


(Cover art by the fantastically talented Juan Moore. Seriously, the amount of kickass creativity packed onto The Rock, as some of us call the Isle of Man,  never ceases to amaze me)

Me:When did you decide you wanted to be musical? Note I’m implying creative people have a choice and aren’t hijacked by our muses and dragged kicking and screaming down the road towards where we need to be?

Clara:
I always wanted to be a singer / songwriter and knew that I was somewhere inside but I took too many criticisms to heart and thought I was just dreaming.  For the record, I am far more sensitive than my general noisiness and Jack Daniel’s will lead people to believe!  I’ve always been a writer and I’d say I was one way before I’d say I’m a singer or a musician.  My Dad tried to teach me guitar when I was small and I couldn’t do it because my hands were too small for his guitar and it hurt my fingers.   I confused my singing-stage fright for inability for so long and it compounded in on itself.   I always loved to sing but got told – and told a lot because I couldn’t ‘belt it out’ – that I wasn’t a singer.  Maybe I’m still not.  I’m just not afraid anymore and my voice doesn’t shake so much these days is all.  In hindsight, with more encouragement I’d have found my path sooner… but then would I have grown into the person who wrote the songs I did?  I have to believe I wouldn’t.  And hey – I’m here now.  Fashionably late and ready for the party! 

Me: Who influenced your style? Who continues to? 
Clara: I find it very difficult to answer questions on my influences.  I dissect everything I read / hear and what I read / hear with this question is, *Sarah Millican voice* – “Who did you copy your music off then, pet?”  *patronising knee tap*  Y’know? 
 
Here’s how it works with me.  I go into the studio and play the songs to Phil (Reynolds, my producer) and we record them.  Then we talk about what we think they’ll end up becoming once they’ve grown into themselves.  We have never had a disagreement between us at this stage of the process.  We know what we’re doing, we know our jobs and we’re both very sensitive to the fledgling songs and their ambitions.  Case in point – I had this idea that Love (Fill My Heart) would have a folky Mumford & Sons feel to it and so that’s what we shot for.  Every single person we’ve played it to has said that it sounds very ‘Paul Simon / Simon & Garfunkel’.  I know, right?  Who am I to argue with that?  We’re big ole hippies in the stew-dyoh, me and my Captain.
 
Me: Is ‘Difficult Second Album Syndrome’ a thing? Or just an excuse boybands made up to cover up the sudden, horrifying onset of puberty?

Clara: *giggles* Do you know what?  I have absolutely no idea.  Everyone’s path is different and mine led me here.  There are a few songs on FAATB that were written before Indigo was even begun and in my experience, the songs come out when they’re ready.  In this case, the ‘difficult’ thing about making this album was getting both me and Phil healthy, motivated, in the studio and with our A Game™ at the same time.  We both agree that there must have been reasons for the four year gap between albums and that we had lessons to learn in that time which we were supposed to bring to the table for this one.  Despite the occasional wobble, I’m immensely proud of this album and I forgive us all for taking our time now that I’ve heard it all finished and stuff.

 

Me: What have you done differently this time around?

Clara: Quite apart from being 4 years older and wiser, I guess the big thing is the zero tolerance for bullshit and bollocks that we (as a team) have acquired.  That may sound shocking compared with all the hippy dippy stuff I was saying before, but there are some serious business brains at work in that studio and we’re not messing a-fucking-bout 😉  We had a lot of smoke blown up our arses during the making of Indigo and got stalled and burnt a few times by it in the end.  This time there were two rules – nobody is involved in the album unless they are keener than mustard, no stalling AND the Benign Dictatorship – as named by Phil.  The rules are thus – he has as many ideas as he likes but it’s my call at the end of the day and I am the one who signs off on everything.  Neither of us bring our ego into the studio and we’re free to try stuff and fuck up as much as we need to.  The album has my real name on the front of though and I’ve got to be happy with it because we are always going to be inextricably linked.  I’m happy, before you ask.  Hella happy:)

Me: What’s really worked?

Clara: Me., Phil, drinking booze, not drinking booze, saying ‘fuck it! and ‘bollocks’

 

Me: What part of the process have you wanted to stake out for the fire ants and watch slowly suffocate via a webcam, CSI style?

Clara: Mixing.  I fucking hate mixing.  It’s horrible and nobody thinks I’m there for it, which is a bit of a bastard.  I’m there to the end with my songs, for the record.  I don’t just sing them and fuck off.  People ask me, ‘how’s the album’ and I say ‘grrrrr, mixing it now’ and they say, ‘how exciting!’ and that’s when I think I might actually go mental.  YOU mix an album.  YOU sit there and listen to your songs being systematically deconstructed and edited and messed with and talk about your baby creations in terms of levels (bass up, harmonies down, drop that cymbal), you make production notes on the bus to work each morning (lose the stylophone, less reverb, harmonies up, sharpen ending) and see how YOU feel about being a ‘creative’ then.  It’s horrible.  It’s lucky that I had Jaffa Cakes and a snuggly blanket with me, really.
 
Me: Seth’s song is lovely, and about something a little unusual. Tell us stuff about that
Clara: I know, he’s gorgeous – right?  He’s a bit of an anomaly in that he’s about a character in a film and some of the lyrics were written when I first started out writing and are about my ex-husband who never ended up getting a song of his own because we split up before I started doing this properly.  It went like this – I was watching City of Angels and was (rather typically) booing my eyes out by the time he (Nicolas Cage’s character, Seth) fell from grace and my friend had told me about this new tuning on the guitar called DADGAD and out he came. 
Me: What sort of things spark your creativity? Note I’m not using ‘where do you get your idea from?’ because then I’d have to bludgeon myself to death.
Clara: Nobody ever taught me how to write a song so I don’t know how to explain it very well.  What sparks me?  Whiskey, feelings, filthy minded boys, bass guitarists, love and despair. 
Clara: I’m getting asked this question a lot and I’m only ever going to be sorry that my answer isn’t more interesting.  They’re my friends.  Juan ‘Fine Art’ Moore and Steve and Sue Breslin (a brother / sister tag team of awesomeness) were meeting me for drinks one night and I wrote ‘Fine Art & The Breslins’ in my diary.  I knew as soon as I saw it written down that I was having it.  Nobody called Juan ‘Fine Art’ before I came along.  He’s the one who did the artwork for not only this album but my live EP, Hard Work & Whiskey.  I know – he’s good, right?  *cough – Oscar nomination – cough*  True story.
 
Me: Tell us about the mysterious special bonus tracks?
Clara: Whaddaya wanna know?  I’ll talk you through them…. Take what you want!
1.     My cover of Blink 182’s, ‘I Miss You’.  I’ve always loved this song and I’ve been gigging with it in this format for years.  It has been getting great feedback so far and I hope that the Blink fans like what I’ve done with it.  For my heart, the lyrics are an absolute joy to sing.
2.     Writer’s Block (The Serenity Mix).  This all started out over a dispute with the bass line of Writer’s Block on Indigo.  Phil said he’d written a melancholy blinder, I said it was gash and didn’t fit with the song and so production rode and I won.  When we made a limited edition EP for a crowd funding campaign, I offered him the chance to make a ‘directors cut’ of the song with his original bassline and whatever else he wanted to do with it.  He said he wanted to call it the Serenity mix on account of him being a big damn hero! We’re BIIIIIIG fans of Joss Whedon in the Small Bear Records House, and we went from there.  There are Whedon-baiting quotes all over the show and we even pull a Crazy Ivan™ at the end.  What more could you want?
3.     Juan’s Tune.  Jesus, that guy….. *swoons*  Juan was about to make his final project for his master’s degree in 3D Computer Animation and he called me up and asked me to make him a piece of music.  He was making a metamorphosis of a Red Riding Hood character to a wolf and the whole piece was about ‘that’ time of the month.  He asked me to make him an acoustic version of the Bodyform theme.  So I did.  It’s good though, right?  We love it anyway 
 

4.       Gypo Buggane of Ballagroove Records in the Isle of Man is a friend of mine and had said years ago that if I ever fancied an alternative mix of one of my songs then he’d love to take part.  Of course I did, the guy is hella talented and sees things from a completely different angle from me and I was dying to give him something of mine to have at.  I had no input at all and I love listening to what he’s done with Seth – a complete rework of the whole melody and structure using nothing but the stem files.

 

Thanks, Clara that’s one of the most fun interviews I’ve ever done. Fine Art & The Breslins is available now and is well worth your time, money and internet connection. Go buy it.

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