Matthew Barber Talks True Believer, MIDEM and Southern Gothic Gay Musicals

Matthew Barber Talks <i>True Believer</i>, MIDEM and Southern Gothic Gay Musicals
On February 23, Outside Music will release True Believer, the fourth full-length album from much-praised Toronto singer-songwriter Matthew Barber. He premiered some of his new material in the south of France last month, via the Canadian Blast showcase at the MIDEM music industry conference in Cannes.

"I've played in Europe before, but that was technically my French debut," Barber told ExclaimI shortly after his return. "To be honest, I'd never heard of [MIDEM] before. It's completely industry oriented, and not many bands or musicians are there. I wasn't even a delegate at the conference, so I wasn't allowed in. It costs a fortune for a badge. It meant I had a couple of days to just wander around, then do a little schmoozing at night."

Joining Barber on the Canadian Blast bill was an eclectic line-up comprising Jason Bajada, dance artist Danny Fernandes, Jully Black, and Plants and Animals. "There were a lot of people jammed in there, but it was a typical showcase scenario where inevitably it is a chatty crowd. Music industry people getting drunk, but I knew what to expect," says Barber. "There were some good reactions from song placement people in the U.S., and getting them on your side can't hurt."

Besides showing off his new album, Barber took a musical detour in December, via his participation in a theatre project, Haunted Hillbilly. Based on the novel of the same name by Toronto writer Derek McCormack, it was described as "a Southern Gothic Gay Musical." The Montreal Mirror termed it "a Frankensteinian patchwork of anti-Western, gay and Gothic noir themes — the twin dream of Gram Parsons and Hank Williams as they both lay dying."

"We did 14 shows in Montreal in December, at the Segal Centre for the Arts," explains Barber. "We first did a workshop run of it about 18 months ago, of four shows. I won a Montreal Theatre Award [MECCA] for Best Music, and we then built it up a little bigger for the longer two-week run. We really believe in it and would like to take it on the road.

"The songs are inspired by Hank Williams, so it's not like it's Andrew Lloyd Webber. The story is set in '50s era Nashville and the Grand Old Opry, the circus, carnivally, weirdo country music hillbilly idiom."

He notes that the company, Montreal-based Sidemart Theatrical Grocery, "developed the whole piece collaboratively. There might be a stage direction, and I'd lock myself in a separate room, cranking out a song that would hopefully fit the character and advance the plot. It was a great experience. It is rather a dark comedy, so it gave me an opportunity to write humorous lyrics. That's fun to do and not something I've ever really been comfortable in doing on my own records. It was an interesting challenge."

One song from Hillbilly Highway, "Got That Lonesome Feeling on My Mind" made the cut for True Believer, and it has been scoring solid CBC Radio play. "It was a song I didn't think would fit, but my producer really wanted to give a shot," Barber says.

To produce the album, Barber recruited another acclaimed Toronto singer-songwriter, Howie Beck, who also played extensively on True Believer.

"It was basically just the two of us working on it," says Barber. "On [previous album] Ghost Notes, I had my band assembled ahead of time, and we went into the studio for a short period of time, then did the songs mostly live off the floor. We did this one mostly at Howie's place. We weren't worried about being on the clock in a more expensive studio, so the pace of working was a little more relaxed than it has been in the past. I'd go over to Howie's for three or four hours, a few times a week over the course of two months. That allows you to reflect and change things. It was just a different way of making a record. There's no right or wrong way to do it."

On Monday (February 22), Barber will launch True Believer at an industry party at Toronto club the Rivoli. A few Canadian dates have so far been announced in support of the record (which you can see here) and more are expected to be announced shortly.