Barbara Jean on the North Shore, her love of the banjo, and moving to the Cities

Barbara Jean on the North Shore, her love of the banjo, and moving to the Cities
Photo by Melissa Koch

Minneapolis and St. Paul have seen a substantial migration of Northern Minnesota musicians to the Cities. Packed with a radiant story and haunting voice, Grand Marais performer Barbara Jean's new album The Great Escape leans heavily on the bluegrass side and perfectly balances the heartbreak in Jean's voice with the resonance of her band. Neither intrudes on the other, but rather are married perfectly.

Gimme Noise spoke with the singer about her favorite instruments and how much her musical career has grown in the past year before her album release at Icehouse on Friday evening.

Band Members: David Huckfelt (guitar), Andy Dee (Peddle Steel, Weissenborn, slide), Jeremy Hanson (drums), James Buckley (bass), Barbara Jean (fiddle, banjo, viola)

Gimme Noise: You received a grant to produce your album. How did you come to working with Arrowhead Regional Arts Council? What is their specialty?

Barbara Jean: The Arrowhead Regional Arts Council is an important organization of Northeastern MN artists. It provides funding for both individual artists and non-profit arts organizations in the Arrowhead region of the state. It's funded by the state legislature, the McKnight Foundation, and the MN Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. I applied for a career development grant through ARAC to help produce the album and received it.

How long have you been writing music?

I've been writing music all my life. I grew up in a very musical family and started making up songs as a child, but I didn't really get serious about songwriting until more recently. In 2011 I entered one of my songs in the Big Top Chautauqua's (Bayfield, WI) songwriting contest and ended up winning first place. I made some great connections at The Big Top--that's where I met Tom Fabjance (the engineer on my record). In addition to making connections, winning first place made me want to put more effort into writing and getting my music out there.

Where did you learn your love for the violin?

Everyone in my family plays at least one instrument -- from my grandma, to my mom, to my aunt, to my big brother. With all the music around me, I got the itch to play when I was just a toddler. My parents tell me I began begging to play the violin when I was just two and a half. My folks got me my first fiddle when I was three. It's about the size of a bumper sticker and I still have it.

From then on I was hooked. When I was about ten, I fell in love with the deep rich tone of the viola and picked that up. That's really my favorite instrument -- it's the one I've spent the most time with and devoted the most study to. I played classically as a violist for many years but started to branch out more into other genres when I began attending the Perpich Center for Arts Education. There I played viola in all kinds of bands and ensembles -- everything from folk to blues. In college my brother bought me a banjo; he'd been trying to get me to play guitar for years, but I never took to it. He knew how much I loved to sing and write and wanted me to have an instrument that was a little more tailored to that kind of songwriting than the viola. I loved the banjo as soon as I started playing it, and it was a little bit hard to learn for me at first because it's a totally different kind of coordination than fiddle or viola. I taught myself to play and as a result I don't really have a clear style, but it works fine for my purposes.

Why did you feel now was the time to release an album?

It all emerged very organically. It feels like there's been a natural build in my life that lead to this moment. I've been writing and playing a lot the last several years and that is absolutely a big part of what lead to it happening right now. The connections I made through winning the Big Top Song contest and the encouragement I had from my community up in Grand Marais all helped in getting me to where I needed to be to make the album a reality. Another big thing for me was finally coming around to the idea that this is really what I want to be doing with my life. Once I realized that, I didn't really have any choice but to make an album and try and carve out a life for myself as a songwriter and musician.

Your music has a lot of melodic and narrative qualities to it. Do you come up with the melodies or the lyrics first?

I generally come up with the melody first in my head. Sometimes there's a lyric associated with it right away but not necessarily.

Any favorite tracks off the new album?

"Flesh and Bones" is probably the song I'm most excited about. I like the darkness of it and the way I felt when I wrote it. It was one of those songs that just poured out. It felt urgent, and songs don't always feel that way. They can be really labor intensive and sometimes finishing a song is something you really have to work hard to do. But with "Flesh and Bones," it pretty much just came. I was absolutely overcome by that song when I wrote it, and that's probably a big part of why I like it so much.

Duluth seems to be a breeding ground for new musicians. Why do you think this is? Have there always been a lot of musicians up north, and they are just now coming to light?

I think there's always been a lot of music in the North Country. Where I've been living in Grand Marais, things have really taken off on a local level the last several years. The Cook County Visitors Bureau made a decision to invest in the local music scene by using tourism tax dollars to help pay musicians to play at resorts, restaurants and pubs along the North Shore. Because of that kind of support musicians, myself included, really have had a lot of opportunity to get out and play. Also, Grand Marais and the small communities around it are all very artistic. I think the beauty of the landscape inspires a lot of creativity and support for artistic endeavors in general.

Do you draw inspiration from the North Shore when writing?

The landscape on the North Shore is dramatic. It's beautiful, yes, but it's also harsh and very edgy. It certainly gets under your skin and into your consciousness. It absolutely has informed my music, and has generally changed my way of being. It's hard to describe the effect that living in Grand Marais has on a person...I feel like I'm just now starting to understand it. Having moved very recently back to Minneapolis, I'm realizing just how much living in that environment changed me. That lake, those trees, the rocks, the loneliness of being in a place so remote and hard -- it just becomes a part of you. All the open space, all the wild, when you live in that context it sort of infects you, and I'm sure it comes out in my songs -- though not always literally. Sometimes it's there in the way the song feels or sounds, but sometimes it's there in the lyrics too.

Are there any artists that you would like to collaborate with, locally or nationally?

I am always open to collaboration. What I love most about music is making it with other people. I just moved from my home in Grand Marais down to Minneapolis and a big part of why I chose to leave the North Shore was to have more opportunity to make music with other people. This is my first solo album, and it's funny in a way because I have never wanted to be a solo artist and find it somewhat ironic that its what I've become. My favorite instrument, the viola, is a harmony instrument and I enjoy harmony more than melody! I love how much music can grow when you add just one line of harmony or a counter melody. So, I'd love to collaborate more with folks -- that's why I'm here.

What can we expect at the CD release show?

Well, I think it's going to be a really fun show. Caitlin Robertson is opening up and she's playing with Benson Ramsey of The Pines. Caitlin's songs are beautiful as is her voice. For my set, I'm lucky to be backed up by a stellar group of musicians including David Huckfelt on guitar and James Buckley on bass (both of The Pines), Andy Dee on pedal steel and other side instruments (of Molly and the Heymakers and Big Top Chautauqua's Blue Canvass Orchestra), and Jeremy Hanson on drums (of Tapes 'n Tapes). So, it should be a fun night with great musicians and lots of celebrating. Icehouse is a fantastic venue. It sounds great and has great ambiance, food and drinks.

Barbara Jean will be release The Great Escape at Icehouse with Caitlin Robertson on Friday, November 16, 2012.
21+, $8, 10 pm

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