Laura Barrett

Laura Barrett
Over the past two years, classically trained pianist Laura Barrett has emerged as one of the most interesting musicians to call Toronto home. While she’s gone on to join bands like the Hidden Cameras and Henri Fabergé and the Adorables on a full-time basis, it really is Barrett’s solo work that makes her such a compelling figure. Her devotion to the kalimba — otherwise known as the "thumb piano,” of African origin — as her primary instrument certainly helps her stick out among other quirky indie rock contemporaries, yet it’s really Barrett’s fascinating and innovative approach to writing songs that bolsters her use of novel sounds.

As her 2005 EP and the new EP Ursula suggest, Barrett is certainly an eager and curious musician and her compositions feature bemusing lyrics and soundtracks. While she presents both with colloquial ease and cheer, Barrett’s work is quite influenced by her formal education in both music and language. Barrett began studying piano when she was about eight years old, and in university she earned a degree in English and linguistics. By both building upon orthodox theories and being cognizant enough to reject their rigidity, Barrett has come into her own as a cleverly inquisitive songwriter.

"Linguistics offers up a lot of technical information about sound and, if you have all that in your head when you’re trying to write a phrase, it might stop you from trying something interesting,” she explains. "At the same time, you can always explicitly break rules and know that you’re breaking them.” It may have been the rebel in Barrett that first sought out the kalimba, though, in some respects, her initial interactions with the ancient African device read like a comedy of errors. In January of 2005, Barrett was trolling eBay looking for midi controllers for some instrumental electronic music she was writing. Instead, she ended up bidding on a kalimba, and much to her delight, she won. "Somehow I must have changed some search terms or something and thumb pianos and kalimbas came up; I bought one on a whim basically,” she laughs.

While it is now generally relegated to an option in any rinky-dink keyboard’s sound bank, an authentic kalimba is essentially a box with a metal bridge that suspends a series of metal tines, which are struck to create different notes. Traditionally, the kalimba is played with thumbs and fingers, though Barrett herself uses her thumbnails. As she strikes each tine, the box vibrates and, through trial and error, she’s discovered that larger boxes generate a richer sound. "I tried to find out whether anybody had put any kind of sheet music or transcriptions of thumb piano music online but that’s pretty difficult because it’s all transmitted person to person, through an oral tradition,” Barrett explains. "So I had to come up with my own way of doing things.”

After fiddling for a few months, Barrett saw a thread on the Toronto-centric message board, stillepost.ca, about a "Weird Al” Yankovic tribute concert taking place. She dutifully prepared a cover of "Smells like Nirvana” on kalimba, and was surprised by the warm reception she received. The event spurred a monthly theme night at a now-defunct Toronto bar called the Bagel, and Barrett was eager to participate again. "The next one was robots and I wrote ‘Robot Ponies,’” she says, referring to one of her most endearing cult hits. "I couldn’t think of an appropriate cover that made sense on the kalimba but I still wanted to play it and it just went from there.”

Barrett has since purchased four more kalimbas to ease her experimentation with different tunings and has augmented her sound with midi compatible bass pedals. She’s quick to point out, however, that these additions have little to do with the inherent limitations of the kalimba. "There are a lot of ideas in my head from certain cognitive science or linguistics courses that I’ve taken about combinatorial explosion and how it doesn’t matter how few options you have because you can use them in an infinite number of ways,” she explains. "So really, the size of the kalimba is a minor limit to the amount of creation that’s possible using it. It’s like a language; there’s a limited number of words but with a few rules about how to talk and communicate with other people, you can make new sentences that have never existed.”

"Part of the attraction of the kalimba, or any instrument that’s not the piano, is that I’m not already stuck in the patterns and routines of what my classical music instruction has taught me about what music sounds like or what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ So, playing the kalimba has been a very exploratory journey for me. It’s hard to do something for a while and not get caught in the patterns but I’m trying.”