Born in Providence, Andrew and Brad Barr spent a decade in Boston playing in their band, the Slip. Then they went north to Montreal, and entered entirely different musical territory with their current project, the Barr Brothers. They return to the Boston area on the heels of their sophomore record, “Sleeping Operator.”
Speaking by phone shortly after pulling into Columbus, Ohio, for a tour stop, Andrew Barr relates the serendipitous events that brought the Barr Brothers about. “The Slip was playing a show in Montreal, and my eyes were opened to the city in all its quirky antiquities and its excitement,” he says. “At that show there was a waitress working. She caught my eye, and I decided I’d put my life in her hands.” And so he did, moving to Montreal and marrying her.
Brad followed shortly thereafter, to facilitate the two continuing to make music together. Tiring of constant touring, they ended the Slip and turned to solo endeavors. But eventually, Andrew says, the two realized that “there was something that we missed about the connection of playing together.”
Hearing someone practicing harp next door to his apartment, Brad approached the player, Sarah Pagé, suggesting that they try making some music together. He started working out arrangements for guitar and harp, and then enlisted his brother and, subsequently, multi-instrumentalist Andrés Vial.
“We started working on that material, which ended up being our first record,” Andrew recalls. “We were honing those songs and trying to develop a sound over the course of two years, until we got asked by our friends in [Providence band] the Low Anthem to go on the road. We printed up a thousand copies of our first record and named the band ‘the Barr Brothers’.”
The band was a complete changeup from what the Barrs had been doing in the Slip, centered around what Andrew calls the “big resonating chamber” that Page’s harp constitutes. “Having spent 10 years turning our amps up and banging on drums, all of a sudden this instrument imposed limitations in terms of how loud we could get,” he says. “Our ‘zero’ was a lot quieter, and our ‘10’ was about ‘2.’ And that really informed the sound of the band.”
The process of putting together “Sleeping Operator,” which came out last month, was more intentional than that of the first record, but it was still a process of self-discovery. Brad Barr, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, didn’t know which of his songs would be most suited for the band; they ended up recording almost three dozen. But there was, he says, an animating principle: “trying to capture this blurry place where folk music can meet Baroque music, where Delta blues can be given a West African six-eight swing, or keeping things in some kind of in-between stage, which I think happens very naturally and which we don’t have to approach deliberately.”
That in-betweenness is exactly where Brad Barr wants to be. Asked about characterizations of what the Barr Brothers do as folk music, he responds that he’s pretty certain he’s not a folk singer. He suggests that the label sticks because of the acoustic instruments that the band tends to use, while allowing that perhaps folk influences are stronger in the Barr Brothers than any other project he’s been involved in.
“I’m open to whatever anyone wants to call it,” he says. “I have a hard enough time describing it to anybody; I welcome any categorization that anyone has. But at the same time, I also plan on trying to obliterate that categorization.”
Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.