This year, YMR salutes those Australian music artists from different genres that have paved the way for new artists. Pushing against the grind, and continually making wonderful and sinuous music, that might be forgotten by recent generations, but deserves to be unearthed and heard! YMR speaks with Australian singer-songwriter Rebecca Barnard.
She has played with people like Paul Kelly, Tim Rogers, Renee Geyer, Stephen Cummings and even Guy Pearce, but how many people really know Rebecca Barnard? A musician and a singer-songwriter, that has been in the music business for over three decades. A singer that has made two albums with her band Rebecca’s Empire, and three extraordinary solo albums. Barnard has received limited exposure for her solo albums and has previously cited ageism in the music industry as a factor for this lack of exposure “It is an ageist industry especially if you’re a woman. I’m doing the best stuff I’ve ever done now but you just do it because it feels good and that’s what you do.”
I meet Rebecca Barnard on a sunny morning in suburban Yarraville at her home. When I get to the door, I am greeted with numerous bells on the porch, but am confused about which bell to ring, or even where to knock. Finally, I decide to ring a well-worn bell, and Rebecca greets me at her front door. All smiles and exclaiming that the bell I just rang was a remnant from her childhood home. Her house is warm – rugs, books, records, wooden floors, and an open kitchen. She nonchalantly says that the studio is outside – the studio she mentions is “Yikesville” – which has been the recording venue for an impressive ensemble of Australian musicians, from You Am I, Stephen Cummings, The Audreys, Chrissie Amphlett, The Meanies, and of course Paul Kelly – who according to Barnard, “pissed on that lemon tree outside”!
She makes me a coffee, and even though I am slightly nervous, and speaking a lot faster than usual, her pleasant demeanour calms me down.
The aura of Rebecca Barnard is warm, generous and funny in person. And I dare I say it, maternal. This same aura is projected on stage, where the old adage “what you see, is what you get” rings true. However, when you delve into her music, sometimes things can get darker, and belie her positive persona. Her music seemingly reflects her life, her family, her relationships, including loss, sex and sometimes the dark side of passion and love. The strength of Barnard’s songwriting is its deceptive simplicity. Repetitive refrains. Verses repeated. But scratch beneath the surface, and the songs, which can be expansive, poetic and deeply personal, take you into her world.
When playing live, Barnard leads her band, playing her acoustic guitar, encouraging her players and singing with her once described “honey drenched vocals” . She is a performer that engages with her audience with her warm personality. Between songs, she will tell funny anecdotes, make a quip, or do a funny imitation – one of my favourites is one of Lucinda Williams forgetting her lyrics. I actually saw this in real life in 2008 when Lucinda was touring her “Little Honey” album – she forgot the lyrics of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to The Top” – she started with “Riding on a byway”. Stops. “Riding on a turnpike”. Stops. “Riding on a penny farthing”. I am taking poetic license with this, but it took about five attempts!
Rebecca recollects the story about how she toured nationally with Rockwiz, Rebecca says:
I HAD WHOOPING COUGH!!
I had whooping cough!
How did you sing with whooping cough?
It was bloody hard! I had to have full on prednisolone. It was the Rockwiz tour, so we went all around Australia. And, I was, I was really unwell. But… there was no way I wasn’t going to do it!
Rebecca’s appearances on Rockwiz are memorable – particularly singing the Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks song “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” with Tim Rogers. Cheekily as the song ends, Rogers simulates blowing cocaine up Barnard’s backside – the urban myth being that Stevie Nicks would get a shot of cocaine up her arsehole before going on stage! A seminal moment of Australian television!
We commence our discussion talking about ageism in music, and about Rebecca’s love for Joni Mitchell. In recent years, Barnard has toured performing shows of Dylan and Mitchell songs. She has collaborated recently with singer Monique Di Mattina and has toured nationally with the show “The Dao of Dylan” – doing interpretations of Dylan songs; she has also teamed up with Peter Farnan (the founder of the band Boom Crash Opera) in covering Joni Mitchell songs.
Are you scared of losing your audience? You have indicated in the past that it was hard to fill “bums on seats” with your own material. You are currently doing concerts covering Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell songs. Are you doing this because you feel, or scared of, losing an audience?
No, I’m doing that because I love singing, and I love an audience, I love Joni Mitchell, she is just part of my cellular make up. You know, not every single Joni album. But…
What’s your favourite Joni album?
Probably Court and Spark, because that had the biggest impact on me, or Hejira. Those two, I heard them both, when I was at that really impressionable age, where I was this sponge! You know? I put on the headphones, and put them on Dad’s turntable and just be…wooooo!!… for all sorts of reasons – you know in Hejira in the song “Coyote” she actually says, “staring a hole in his scrambled eggs”, and I would hear lyrics like that and go… who would ever get away it ….actually (using) scrambled eggs as a lyric in a song! So, it just opened me up to the artistic expression – you can do what you like!
I think that Joni as she got older became disillusioned and unfortunately a bit bitter. She called Bob Dylan a plagiarist, and even when she won awards she felt as if they were token (e.g. the 1994 Grammy Award for her album Turbulent Indigo). And in some other cases, she felt she didn’t get the kudos she deserved.
Yeah, yeah, I think she is probably a narcissist. You know, and I can’t believe it when she says that she hasn’t got the kudos she deserves – because I think she has. I think she is a bit unhinged. I think she is a narcissist, you know. She is extraordinary – to give up a child, you know that…that to me…I think wow! She can’t help it. She’s an artist, and that’s it! And it’s a very male energy, I think, to be totally consumed with your “self”. But also, I think as you get older, and younger women are coming up, and you have paved the way, you do become bit of a grumpy old woman. Because you are being left behind. I mean I am lucky, I have more work than I can cope with at the moment, you know it’s great, but you do still feel that…that…you know, you are ignored by society generally as you get older. You don’t get wolf whistled when you walk past – which you hated anyway – but you know when you, when you reach an age, when little kids call you “Lady” – that’s when you know!!
It’s like when I someone offers you a seat on a train!
It hasn’t gone that far yet! Only maybe when I was pregnant.
There is anecdote that Mitchell criticised fellow Canadian singer Alanis Morrissette in a music article from the magazine Details, and that when Morrissette read it, she cried. Yes, Joni can be grumpy, but a legend nonetheless.
This makes me think of Madonna, that has recently called “ageism as the new sexism” – if you go through comments on her Instagram account, she is always given a hard time about her age. It is constant. I feel that you shouldn’t be defined by your age, if you want to wear a small dress, and still exude a sense of sexuality, you shouldn’t be dictated by age. What do you think?
Yes, absolutely! You see that’s the thing. It’s like the older you get, the realer it is, your sexuality. You are not doing it not to impress anybody. If you want to express it, it’s really coming from a place from within you. Not so, like, people try to crack onto you – you become…you grow up and you become and be who you really are. And that can make you a bit grumpy. Cause there is a lot to be grumpy about! You know, how you said, Madonna, people say she is old and all that stuff, and they do say it about Mick Jagger and Keith Richards too, but not as nastily – but the point is, if you are a musician, you are a musician.
That’s it! That’s what you are! And just getting old, doesn’t…doesn’t dampen that instinctive thing, that you are. You are a musician.
Our conversation then turns into contemporary issues, such as auto-tune and my observation that young kids probably are oblivious to it, and probably think it is natural for people to sing in that way, Rebecca says:
And they try and sort of emulate it now. I do watch “The Voice”. It’s a real guilty pleasure! The blind auditions, I love watching. To see what people are going to turn around for.
Would you be a judge on “The Voice” if they asked you?
Bloody oath! I would! I would! But they would never ask me, because, well for…you know millions of reasons – I don’t have the profile, and they get paid a fortune too.
And they send overseas artists here, like Boy George. I am sure he does it, because he gets paid a fortune.
Yeah! Yeah! I like him. He’s honest. He’s a bit bitchy! But he’s honest. Delta is annoying! But you know, she’s annoying, but she’s incredible, an incredible singer – she’s just got no taste.
I could imagine Rebecca Barnard being the most inquisitive and caring coach on this show. Barnard is a part-time music teacher at Northern College of The Arts and Technology (NCAT) in Melbourne. She helps students to develop skills in songwriting, recording, rehearsal techniques, performance, stagecraft, vocal techniques and more – her experience as musician and working with many Australian artists should qualify her to be a coach on this show – but yes, I am sure she is right – in this celebrity driven world, a real local musician would be overlooked.
These days people are called songwriters, but when you look at the song credits, there can be sometime 20 people credited to a song that is three minutes long! This can include Kylie Minogue or even Taylor Swift. I assume that with a large number of songwriters on a track that the songs almost become impersonal.
Mmh….they are entertainers. I was thinking about that yesterday. Vika and Linda – you know they are great and have that beautiful blending vocal sibling thing going on – but they got it easy. People just want to write songs for them. And these people, can go out and do Days on the Green, etc. They are so much….kind of accessible and more like a commodity. Where if you write your own songs, you are…you know…already …miles behind, because number one you are 57, and probably getting better. I don’t know where this is leading me…but, yeah, right, talking about people that have songs written for them, or co-write whatever….I just think that it’s a lot easier.
Were you born in Melbourne?
And were you living in Mooroolbark?
Was it like a country town back then?
It was. Have you heard of a gardener called Edna Walling? She is a famous, funny old…well, we lived in an estate, she built this estate in Mooroolbark, it was an Edna Walling estate that was a replica of where she was born in Devon. So, lots of drystone walls, and beautiful…it was an acre…we lived there, and Mum was an incredible gardener, it was, it was extraordinary, like really the most beautiful place you could imagine, and you know, Mum and Dad bought it for 5000 pounds or something in 1961. So, it wasn’t like…if you look at Mooroolbark now, it wasn’t anything like it is now.
It’s all part of suburbia now?
Yeah. Though, Bickley Vale Road, which is the Edna Walling thing, it’s still the same. And a lot of music came out of Mooroolbark! It’s really interesting, a lot of creative people lived in Mooroolbark at the time – Jocelyn Moorhouse (the film director of Muriel’s Wedding) she lived up the road, John and Barney McAll, The Moir Sisters – oh yes, we had everyone there! Shelly Scown who I worked with, she is more of a jazz singer and she used to sing with Paul Grabowsky, yeah, and we were in this thing called PRICS (Performers Releasing Information about Clean Syringes, with Paulie Stewart and Dave Bridie).
Generation X’ers will know Rebecca Barnard as the frontwoman of the band Rebecca’s Empire. Rebecca formed this with her then multi-instrumentalist and producer husband, Shane O’Mara. The band gained moderate success starting from 1994 and culminated in the release of their debut album Way of All Things in 1996. The earnings from this album enabled O’Mara and Barnard to build Yikesville in their backyard. At one stage in the 90’s, Rebecca’s presence was almost omnipresent – from a regular radio segment on Triple J (where I vividly remember Helen Razer saying that she fancied Rebecca Barnard – a sure sign of success!), TV shows, music festivals, and a relentless touring schedule – the band seemed destined for stardom. The band featured in the Triple J Top 100 for three years running, and most importantly, they had an audience.
I asked Rebecca if there was a conscious strategy at the time in building momentum for the band:
No there wasn’t, that’s the whole thing – you will find that most people say this – your first album, that’s the best time of your life, because there are no expectations. You know, you’ve got this freedom, you can just make the album that you want to make, and put it out there, but we did have a record company…
You play the album now, and it has aged really well, compared to some other albums of the 90’s.
Yeah. That was recorded, in kind of, those two rooms. That studio (Yikesville) didn’t exist then…that’s what enabled us to buy, build that studio. The money we made from that album.
What some people don’t know, is by the time Rebecca Empire’s had their debut, Barnard was already an experienced singer for more than a decade. She was playing gigs with different bands and appearing on two high profile and high rating TV shows in their respective “in-house” bands. Namely The Big Gig on the ABC, and The Steve Vizard Show on Channel 7.
I found this book (“Who’s Who of Australian Rock” – Complied by Chris Spencer & Zbig Nowara) in a secondhand shop in Northcote, with a list of all your bands.
Shit, I gotta get my glasses! Interesting!
And this is all prior to the formation of Rebecca’s Empire.
There has been so much! Daktari, Escalators, Way Back Five – oh my God! Daktari was one of my first bands formed with my dear friend Sue Anderson who is a well-known artist (painter). We wrote fun, silly, Tom Tom Club-esque songs with jungle themes. We made our own costumes and played at “The Underground” a lot. The girls from The Chantoozies used to come and see us all the time, and then decided they wanted a band too! We had a drum machine, bass, two guitars, saxophone and Sue and I singing. Really fun, but it went pear shaped when I joined The Escalators. They were so pissed off with me!
Were these other bands pop or jazz bands?
Escalators was a SKA , sort of funky reggae thing; Way Back Five was an all-star band with Kate Ceberano, James Reyne…..and me – I don’t know how I got in there – but I was in there!
Was that post I’m Talking for Kate Ceberano, I assume?
Ah yeah, like literally six months possibly (which would have been 1985), it was just a fun, sort of band. Phil Ceberano was in it. Michael Hutchence got up and played with us one night, Steve Kearney who was in Los Trio Ringbarkus, he was on drums, ah, oh gosh!
Was it a Melbourne based band?
Yeah, yeah! Yes, we played at the Palace and stuff.
Reading the list of bands.
The Tree – it was actually The Trees – that was a good band, that was an original band. Sacred Heart of Sweet Temptation? God, what’s that?
Sounds like a religious thing!
Sounds like a gospel thing. Cause the gospel thing was The Peaceful Anticipation Social and Pleasure Club. Triple Peaks that was fun, ‘cause we were all obsessed with Twin Peaks!
Was that pop or jazz?
That was, yeah, covers, funk sort of covers.
At that stage were you a front vocalist for any of these bands?
No. Oh yeah, Romance Without Finance was a jazz band and I was the singer in that. The Trees I was the singer. The Escalators I was the singer….Paul Grabowsky, that’s when we did the….The Vizard Show, we were Shelley (Scown) and I, and Nichaud Fitzgibbon were the backing singers on The Vizard Show. We were working five nights a week on The Vizard Show, no, four nights a week! One night a week on The Big Gig.
How did you get these gigs?
Heady times! That was with The Swinging Sidewalks on The Big Gig (which included Barnard, Shelley Scown and Kerri Simpson). And…the Vizard thing was Paul Grabowsky – he just hand-picked us.
And I assume these were paying gigs at the time?
SHIT YEAH! We were making so much money! Like, I look back on it now, and doing the TV gigs and then other gigs…I don’t know how we did it all! I honestly don’t know how we did it!!
Were there any albums that fell out of these bands that you were involved?
No, isn’t that terrible? No, not really. All Stephen’s – but that’s him. And the Harem Scarem thing, I was just a backing vocalist. No, The Trees did lots of demos, but we never released an album.
Did you enjoy those day jobs – well, night jobs – with Vizard and The Big Gig?
Yes…they were fun! They were fun! We were young, and you know, you go into make-up, and you wear costumes, you go into wardrobe, and they would dress you up. It was fun!
Have you gone through YouTube, and see if you could find any footage of those times?
Yeah, there is a few things. There’s one, there’s one…someone send me one a couple of weeks ago actually – with us with the Doug Anthony All Stars on The Big Gig. The Vizard thing, is not that easy to find. But…they must be somewhere….!
Footage on YouTube shows a young Barnard singing and dancing on the high-profile show –Barnard is wearing a balloon dress, tassels, large 80’s earrings and singing a jazz standard. The Big Gig was the ground-breaking comedy/sketch show which was hosted by Wendy Harmer. Barnard has previously said that she is inherently a jazz singer, “I’ve always sung jazz, that’s sort of like my first love, you know, it’s like breathing. It’s sort of effortless”. Her father, Len Barnard OAM, was an international renowned jazz drummer, that toured in the USA, China, Indonesia and throughout Europe. The Len Barnard Jazz Band recorded Australia’s first microgroove LP record (10 inch) in 1950, and he was a member of the band Galapagos Duck. He even appeared on Play School in 1985. Len Bernard died in 2005, after a short illness, with Rebecca by his side. Barnard started playing music at 10, when her father gave her a guitar. Music seems to be in her DNA, as with her son Harry, who is following in his grandfather’s footsteps, is a drummer. During our conversation with Rebecca, Harry is in different room practising his drumming – he is really quite good. They have a strong relationship. Every Barnard album, thus far, has at least one song that is written about him.
In 1986, Barnard ended up being in the Stephen Cummings Band as backing vocalist. She joined the band when she 24 years of age – her voice can be heard on such Cummings albums including “A New Kind of Blue”, “Lovetown” and “Good Humour”.
I asked Barnard when she first started to seriously write her own songs:
I started songwriting in The Trees. So that was ’86, but not , yeah, yeah, that’s when I started. But I wasn’t very good! I was a good singer and an entertainer and everything, but I wasn’t…but I wasn’t bad, I suppose!
Do you ever play those songs now?
I did hear a live tape last year, and I was actually quite surprised. It was actually quite good. It was all a bit frenetic though. A bit fast….and 80’s, do-do-do-do-do, you know…
Was there a lot of synth?
Yes, there was a bit of synth! Yeah, but we always had a real bass player.
So, when did the Stephen Cummings association begin?
That began, ah, Shane started playing with him. And…
Is this the late ‘80’s?
Yeah. What does it say here (looking at the book provided)…’86. Yeah! But I am not sure how Shane got the gig with Stephen. But his first gig was supporting Whitney Houston, with Stephen at Rod Laver…, but not Rod Laver, the swimming joint or something. That was his first gig. He had like four days to learn the songs and support Ms Houston!
It’s sad when you see her last photos in the end. I don’t understand how in her last album, why she was trying to reach those high notes. It’s like at a certain point you don’t try anymore. I think of Kate Bush – she doesn’t try to hit those notes anymore, but realised by changing the key, she is able to deliver power to her voice.
Yes, you change. Yeah.
I then do a bad impersonation of Whitney fumbling the high note on “I Will Always Love You”.
I mean the woman did crack. Leave her alone fans. Her voice can’t be the same!
Yeah, and that is a serious high note! I mean, you know…that’s like hearing Joni doing stuff with the orchestra….
Yes, the Both Sides Now and Travelogue albums?
Yeah, and she does “Both Sides Now”, she changes the melody, and still sounds incredible.
It sounds more poignant, I think.
I know…I love those recordings. The way she does a jazz standard…woo!! I have just started to read a book – is it Barney Hosking? Who wrote it?
The one about Joni?
Yeah, the one about Joni – the one with her – I think it’s Barney – he is the writer of Rolling Stone. He says, you know, all these legends that we grew up with, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni, ah, who else? I am leaving a lot of people out. But you know, the singer-songwriters, probably more male – Joni is the really the only one that has, you know, that is the most musically diverse – she’s really explored so much, so many musical avenues.
Even with Thomas Dolby on Dog Eat Dog!
I love Dog Eat Dog!
I think some of her best songs are on that album. Like “Impossible Dreamer” – they are beautiful songs, but perhaps distracted by the production. “Ethiopia” is also a great song – about gratuitous images of starving children on TV.
God, I forgot about that album! I should resurrect it! Night Ride Home is a beautiful album – I am singing that song tonight.
Oh really? Where are you playing tonight?
I am playing at this new club that has opened up in Inkerman Street, which is the old Newmarket Hotel, and it’s called The Hummingbird. And, it is a new room, and we did it a couple of weeks ago, doing a Paul Simon Songbook. You see, I just get asked to do these things! And you know, I am lucky! I actually get asked to do things! So, so, I am not complaining. Well…I try not to! Well, you know, I do, I am lucky in that sense – and it’s with this amazing band, that is predominately Jewish men. Simon Starr on bass – have you heard of him?
Deborah Conway was supposed to be doing it, and she got sick, and she often palms things off to me, that she can’t do – God love her!
You got to stick together!
Yeah, and we are friends, we’re really good friends and she has always looked out for me. She is a woman that is sort of my age and still makes a record every 18 months or something.
Yeah, I think I read somewhere where Deborah was saying she enjoyed one of your solo records.
Yeah, she is good like that. So she pulled out of this Paul Simon thing, and so I did it, which was fantastic cause I got to listen to Paul Simon again. I knew the hits and everything….
Whilst in the Stephen Cummings Band, Barnard and O’Mara begun writing their own music. Barnard credits journalist Jill Singer in providing her with the impetus in playing her own music. Jill Singer was a courageous journalist, known for her thorough cross-examination skills. Singer was the Victorian host for the Channel 7 show “Today Tonight”. She gained publicity in 1997 for collapsing whilst on air, after Channel 7 refused to air a segment on the then Premier Jeff Kennett’s business deals. Singer announced on live TV that the item would not be broadcast because “we have been instructed by senior management not to put the story to air”. Then she collapsed and was ultimately sacked from the show.
I started writing songs and we were still playing with Stephen Cummings and people were always coming up to me, saying “when are you going to do your own thing”, and you know, people were shouting out at gigs and Stephen was getting really pissed off – “Let Rebecca do a song!” – in fact, one of the most outspoken women, who really, sort of made me think “Yeah!” – was Jill Singer. She used to come to gigs because her boyfriend at the time, Jim, made film clips for Stephen. And she used to get a bit loose, and really start shouting out.
Good on Jill Singer!
Yeah. Beautiful, Jill Singer! I can’t believe she is dead. She was fantastic. She was…, I mean, the thought of her on “A Current Affair” (sic) was so ludicrous.
I remember she collapsed on TV, after not being allowed to air that Jeff Kennett piece.
Yeah, and she got sacked, ‘cause she was too honest.
After this period, Rebecca’s Empire was formed. However, after the initial success, the band lost momentum due to various reasons. The first album was recorded whilst Barnard was pregnant and just after the first album was released, Barnard gave birth to her beloved son. It was a “traumatic” pregnancy, as her son Harry suffered a stroke whilst in-utero. The band was dropped by record companies. The band had three record companies within five years, from Polydor, to Universal and then Festival Records. By the time the second Rebecca’s Empire album Welcome dropped in 1999, there was conflict within the band and within her marriage with O’Mara. Despite being a strong sophomore album, Welcome was not as popular as the first, or as warmly received.
Then, obviously you had to nurture a child and become a Mum. Was there pressure from your record company?
Mmmh, there was pressure and there were martial problems, and you know, it was all really hard. Really hard! But you know, I look back on it, and we were really riding the wave, you know, we were having a great time.
Rebecca’s Empire disbanded in 2000. Even though Barnard and O’Mara amicably separated, they still live under the same roof – though Barnard has indicated that this will end once the house and the iconic studio is sold later in the year. I discuss with Barnard, that in moments when I am not motivated to do work, a mate and I, tend to have a few beers and watch videos on YouTube. I indicate that it is difficult to find the videos of the Rebecca’s Empire singles. She replies:
No, because bloody Polygram took them all off!
Is there also a reason why Rebecca’s Empire albums are not on iTunes or Spotify?
We are in the process of doing it right now, with Roger Grierson (a music industry executive), who will hopefully get the videos back on YouTube. I mean you know, you know, it’s nearly twenty years ago….
Yeah, most artists will have them on, without taking them off. I suppose Prince was the one, that was regimental about taking them off. But now he is dead, no one cares what his wishes were!
All I know is that you give music away now, and that’s the way it is, and you know…what are we going to do?
Twenty-two years is a long time, but having these songs available, might introduce a younger audience to those two strong albums. Ways of All Things was a stunning debut, with strong singles such “So Rude” (a song that sounds more poignant in this #metoo world), “Way of All Things”, and the Barnard penned “Empty”. A song with the distinctive lyric: Give me a sign/Give me a feeling/I’m empty/You said take a look at happiness/What the hell is that?
Once Rebecca’s Empire split in 2000, Barnard suffered severe writer’s block:
I just, I just couldn’t sort of do anything. I was still gigging and gigging with other people and stuff…yeah, so there was a bit of a break until 2005, so for about four years, I didn’t do too much. And then my dad died, and then something happened, it gave me the sense that we are all going to die, and…
You become aware of your own mortality?
Yeah, and instead of worrying about everyone else, sort of something hit a bit more – it was a bit cathartic. And then I put out Fortified, and got back on the horse. And that actually did quite well – it was good for me that record. And then I applied for the government grant to do Everlasting, I started that in 2008. I’m slow – its every four or five years –
Do you have to live a bit of life before you make the next album? And to make sure that every album is different?
No. None of that is all that conscious for me – you know – it’s just, it’s just as it rolls – kinda thing – and I don’t…though having said that, now that my Mum died, that’s just totally rocked my world. I mean, I know everyone’s mother dies, people die, it’s that natural state of things. This has been the real deal…nothing compares to this – not even giving birth. It’s…it’s a whole other trip. I have seriously grown up overnight. It happened in July 2017….
Fortified, Barnard’s debut solo album, was released in 2006, with O’Mara co-producing. The album starts with the exuberant “Keep Smiling” – a song full of disquiet and disconnection between either a friend or lover, the past binds them together, but something in the relationship becomes too self-conscious and uneasy to enjoy. Fortified featured various Melbourne musicians such as Lisa Miller (backing vocals), Tim Rogers (backing vocals), Peter Jones (drums), Michael Barker of the John Butler Trio (drums) and Snout’s Ross McLennan (bass). Sonically the album is more akin to Rebecca’s Empire than what she is producing now, Rebecca agrees:
No, it’s true. And a lot of the songs on Fortified were not my songs. Like Ross McClennan wrote a song, Charles Jenkins wrote a song, David Hosking – who is the most underrated songwriter in the world. Here’s Shane…
Shane O’Mara enters the house.
And um, and Everlasting was….
Rebecca’s dog barks as Shane enters.
Yeah, yeah, that was me. I was free, I didn’t have….
Rebecca stops and says “Hi” to Shane. And introduces us to Shane. Shane is wearing compression pants, and admittedly, he is looking a bit fit for a 50 something.
Shane has been to his….
Shane exclaims “Jazz ballet’!
Jazz ballet…it’s not, it’s like kick boxing! It is sort of UFC, kind of…
Not cage fighting?
No, he’s not doing it, but the guy that teaches it, you see it’s a bit of a rock’n’roll thing! Nick Barker, Peter Luscombe, Dan Sultan, they go and train basically. But, it’s hardcore!
Barnard received a VicArts grant to produce Everlasting, where it was recorded at Tony Bennett’s studio in New York. Though she didn’t meet Tony, she met his son. The album was a watershed moment for Barnard, where she was reunited with her childhood buddy and jazz pianist Barney McAll. This was a happy time for Barnard:
Yes, that was really good fun. That was really fun. Because that was with Barney McAll, who I grew up with and you know, our parents were best friends. We are family. We really are family. And you can say…he is not defensive, we were just on the same page all the time. We had such fun! And it’s minimal.
Everlasting was a watershed moment in Barnard’s career. All the songs, except “Seasong” (a Robert Wyatt cover) was written by Barnard. It was a true Rebecca Barnard album. She has expressed an amount of freedom in recording the album, and it shows. The album is honest, personal and includes mature pop songs infused with jazz inflictions. Songs about first love, lust, love lost, love renewed, loss and life. An adult album that is emotive and vulnerable – an album where Barnard is honestly opening herself up as a person, but as an accomplished songwriter. The album incorporates Barney McAll on piano, Barnard’s guitar and a great team of seasoned session players. The title track, “Everlasting”, deals with the death of her father. The minimalist approach to the album is its strength, where all the players can be heard, and Barnard’s voice is recorded with clarity, where you can tangibly hear the emotion in her vocal delivery as her vocals glide through the sparse arrangements. Everlasting is an album that deserves a larger audience, and is an exceptional record by an Australian artist, probably her strongest album thus far. Did the album sell shitloads? Probably not. But people willing to give it a listen, will be affected by it.
It took nearly another seven years for Barnard to release her third album, the dream-like Music for Listening and Relaxation – an album where she collaborates with Michael den Elzen (talented multi-instrumentalist and music producer). The album is more multi-layered than the predecessor, and has distinctly greater “produced” feel than the minimalism of Everlasting. Sonically it’s dreamlike – with all the songs written by Barnard with den Elzen. Michael den Elzen was a driving force, playing most of the instruments on the album, including guitars, bass, drums, percussion, cello, double bass, keyboard, banjo, mandolin, and the tzoura. The sounds of the bush abound, from magpies, insects, frogs and running water:
A lot of the songs, are about the fate of the world, nature – like “Golden Hour”, is about nature, “Black Coral”, that’s about aging, young girls, and um, “Crash and Burn”, is inspired by Bob Brown – I heard Bob Brown say “If it goes, it’s gone forever” – and it just stuck in my mind, so you know, it is a bit negative…
The sounds of bush are beautiful. Are you imitating a magpie on this?
No, it’s a real one. Yeah. Yeah , we recorded it on a H2. All the frogs and birds, insects and splashing water.
Melancholia could be a great dance song?
Yeah, well, I love that, we did that yesterday at Wolseley Winery. It’s four chords, and with the kick drum going (she makes the beat noise with her hands) with a hard beat – that’s all you need really!
The album not only focuses on nature, but also seemingly a journey of a relationship, encompassing love and sex – in “Everything We Knew”, Barnard sings: Your hand on my thigh/Our senses multiply/Get it on/Sweet song/Get it on/Sweet sad song. Michael den Elzen was not only a collaborator but was in a long term relationship with Barnard that has since ended. Barnard says:
He (Michael) is a beautiful musician and a beautiful soul. Our relationship was very complicated, and I’m not ready to discuss it in public.
The song “Smoking Gun” – one of my favourites on the album – is a song that reeks of sex, loss of inhibitions, and an overall uncomfortable feel, with the lyric: You’re the only one that can move me/Mess up bed/Confuse me. This album is not as irresistible as Everlasting, but over more listens, the sonic beauty of the album does take hold. Especially when played at night with a few red wines!
Barnard and I then talk about her next album. She says:
We will see what happens. I got no idea what…I have this crazy idea that I might play every instrument on it…I’m just looking at an angle that people would be interested in. You’ve got to have an angle!
Would you be confident to produce yourself?
Yeah! Totally! It’s time!
Rebecca then does a rendition of the Whitlam “It’s Time” Campaign theme!
Secretly, I hope that Barnard continues on her journey, to further write her beautiful lyrics, to further explore her musical journey – her niceness is not cliché, it is something that feels real – as our hour and a half ends and as we stand in her street, she again talks about her mother – and how the world has split apart without her – there is genuine feeling in this woman with her generosity of spirit and openness. There is a feeling of both vulnerability and strength, that makes her endearing. A woman that has been a musician for nearly her whole life, and at 57, continues to strive to get better in her craft, and someone that simply enjoys singing and making music. As I leave, I feel a glow, a feeling of happiness – a feeling that you get when you hear her music.
Rebecca’s new album Music for Listening and Relaxation is out now.