Barrett conjures sci-fi folk

Dystopia never sounded so sweet

Laura Barrett, who also plays with the Hidden Cameras and Henri Fabergé and the Adorables, uses her solo project to stretch folk boundaries.
Laura Barrett, who also plays with the Hidden Cameras and Henri Fabergé and the Adorables, uses her solo project to stretch folk boundaries.
Supplied photo by John Maynard

Interview: Laura Barrett @ The Artel, June 28

The eerie chime of the kalimba, an African thumb piano, combined with lyrics full of futuristic fantasies sets Laura Barrett apart.

Since her first solo appearance at a Weird Al tribute night where she disarmed the crowd with a tender reworking of “Smells Like Nirvana,” Barrett has been busy charming the Toronto music scene with eccentric originals. Barrett has struck the right dissonant chord. Her independent EP “Earth Sciences” sold out and in 2006 she received a nod from the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada when her song “Deception Island Optimists” was nominated for the ECHO, an award for emerging Canadians artists, alongside artists of such Canadian indie rock calibre as Final Fantasy and Wolf Parade.

The University of Toronto linguistics major was raised on Kate Bush and the Cocteau Twins and has since acquired a taste for the Rheostatics and classic Indian film soundtracks. What results is an alchemic experiment in science and music.

Barrett’s lingering voice sings creepy tales over top of a tinkling kalimba, her current instrument of choice. Barrett manipulates the kalimba like it’s a cracked music box gone horribly right. So how did the classically trained pianist pick up such an unconvetional instrument?

“I first started playing the kalimba in 2005 when I won one in an online auction... and though that’s not quite a romantic beginning, I quickly fell pretty hard for the kalimba,” she said.

“It’s small, like me. It has a beautiful bell-like sound and leads my thumbs to new rhythms and melodies that I might not have explored on the piano,” Barrett told the Journal in an e-mail interview.

Because of its odd sound, the traditional instrument compliments the curiosity inherent in Barrett’s futuristic style “We’re living in a world where a lot of our technology is supposed to have some kind of benevolent, ‘genuine’ personality, and I like turning the tables by using a simple wooden instrument to share narratives from the digital world,” Barrett said.

Dualistic themes such as technology versus nature are part of Barrett’s musical and philosophical exploration, as is a healthy dose of irony. Take the song “Robot Ponies”—simultaneously an ode to and a lament about life with machines—set on Christmas Eve in the year 2053 when every little girl awaits a mult-tasking, mechanical pony. “Despite my love of gadgetry, I’m a little nostalgic for the days before e-mail, so it seems fitting to sing about these kinds of things on an instrument that represents a simpler time” she said.

“Mind-body dualism is another major theme in my lyrics and I feel it’s very strongly connected to the interactions we have with technology ... the kalimba is itself a form of portable technology, I like to play with that concept as well.”

Barrett is currently taking her kalimba and spreading her stories on an East Coast tour but will be making a stop in Kingston this week.

Already, Barrett has plenty of experience on the road in her relatively young career. As a fixture in The Hidden Cameras and member of Henri Fabergé and the Adorables, she has seen different ends of the touring spectrum. “Travelling with two different bands gave me two separate windows into touring life—the Adorables went on a mini East Coast tour that involved a cramped van and staying at peoples’ houses, while the Hidden Cameras went across North America in a less-cramped van and trailer, generally staying in hotels. Though the Cameras tour was more luxurious, the pace was much more frantic.

Touring satisfies Barrett’s enthusiasm for exploring Canada but it also gives her the opportunity to hit new stages.

“I like the magic that takes place when an artist externalizes a feeling or melody in a form that other people can understand and sympathize with,” Barrett said.

Since her double-bass player Richard Carnegie moved to Saskatoon, Barrett has added bass pedals and glockenspiel to her live show. These subtle changes are only the beginning—Barrett plans to expand beyond her trademark sci-fi folk tales. “I’d like to be able to write more clearly about emotion. I fear my songs are object-based, and maybe a little too much about cognition,” she said.

“I’m working on a full-length album that will involve more instruments than just the kalimba, and eventually I’d like to re-jig my electronic pieces as arrangements for real musicians … do my bit to bridge the electronic/natural divide.” As the musical director for fellow Hidden Cameras bandmate Maggie Macdonald’s rock opera The Rat King, Barrett will help remount the musical at the New York Fringe Festival this August.

Clearly Barrett has been keeping busy and turning heads.

“It’s strange to have my name or face on posters, or listed in a newspaper. I feel unconventional and yet accessible all at once,” she said.

Cynical yet hopeful, alienating but relatable, Barrett’s music is packed with duality, but it’s all part of her mission.

“If I can infect audiences with playful worry, then I’ve done my job.”

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