As a singer, songwriter and piano player, Patricia Barber reflects, "Music chooses her musicians. You know at an early age if you have a talent for music. If you do, it’s such an incredible gift it would be impossible for any reason to turn away from it."
It is obvious to the viewer that Patricia Barber was built to make beautiful music just by watching her perform with her band live in the video clips that she furnishes on her Website. Seeing her play live with her band, Neal Alger, Michael Arnopol, and Eric Montzka is like witnessing poetry in motion. She lives and breaths the music, and her band, she credits, "My band collectively and individually is fabulous. They understand what I’m trying to do musically with each song, yet, they find a way to assert their individual voices and those voices are formidable. They are all individually stars, as well as being a part of my aesthetic."
She asserts about live performances, "There are no distractions of daily life to keep you from giving your best at 8pm every night. Everything is geared for that nightly performance. The music can’t help but be razor sharp, but of course, you miss your family, your coffee pot and the traveling itself is difficult and fatiguing. It’s a bit like being in boot camp - you can’t drink too much or go without sleep because if you start to falter, you won’t have time to recover and the performances will suffer or you’ll get sick."
For her latest album, The Cole Porter Mix, she and her band began touring before the record was even released put on store shelves, which she tells, "That schedule was a mistake. The record was supposed to come out in June, but was pushed back by France, and so we had part of a tour already scheduled and had to fulfill those commitments."
Patricia Barber’s attachment to her home and family in Chicago, Illinois influenced her decision to stay nearby during the recording of The Cole Porter Mix. "We recorded this in Chicago at CRC. I have used them often. I like going home to my own bed at night. It’s easier to stay centered and healthy. CRC has a board and big enough rooms to accommodate my needs and those of my long-time genius award winning engineer, Jim Anderson."
Assisting Barber with the recording, she reveals are, "My two assistant producers, Grazyna Auguscik and recording engineer Jim Anderson. I always have my band well prepared for a recording session, so I don’t waste time and money. Grazyna and Jim are fabulous and manage to keep my standards high for me when I am tired or can’t judge anymore. It’s mostly very relaxed and fun in my recording sessions, but there is also no wasting of time."
She explains that the impetus for her new record, The Cole Porter Mix was to pay homage to a musician whose compositions have been meaningful to her since she was a child. "Cole Porter has been one of my songwriting idols for as long as I can remember. The fact that he wrote both the music and the lyrics inspires me, and I like the wit, intelligence and topical references in his songs. You get the idea of what’s going on emotionally but he never uses a blunt instrument."
She recalls about her childhood, "When most of my peers were interested in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, I was listening to Judy Garland and Sarah Vaughan so I was enamored with all the great songs and the great songwriters. I still am, Henry Mancini, and Rodgers & Hart are also huge favorites of mine. Cole Porter stood out for me as I started to study his music. The extent of his singular genius, constantly creating new song forms as he perfected the standard ones, using different chord progressions to get into and out of the bridge, adding interludes, all that lyric poetry in its precision astounded me."
She relates that her own songwriting is based on her studies of works from classic composers. "I have studied Cole Porter and other songwriters for years. I study their songs in great detail and have many notebooks of harmonic progressions, lyric techniques, syllable counts, etc. on my reference shelves. Cole Porter is simply one of the best, most interesting and most prolific of the songwriters, so I studied his songs the most and still refer to them often when I have a musical, compositional conundrum that I need to address. By the time I came to this album, I simply had to put together the arrangements because Cole Porter had already taught me much about songwriting."
When it came to remaking Cole Porter’s music for her latest release, she examines how she approached the project. "Music is very much a science and a craft mixed with inspiration and an innate talent. Songwriting is work and takes time and attention to detail. Cole Porter worked at songwriting everyday from 11am-4pm. I do something like that." She says, for example, that the song, "‘If I Were Blue’ took me a year to write. Some songs come more quickly than others. No two songs are born of the same method, and nothing comes easily."
She discerns that "because songs are written mostly in song forms, traditional or new, I don’t usually have a problem knowing when they’re finished. I do, however, take them into the Green Mill and try them on the audience. If I get a laugh too early, I know to delay the punch-line, etc. I can tell a lot by trying the songs on an audience in a club, and I often take the music back and rework it." She offers, "‘Orpheus’ is a song I wrote for Mythologies about a present day Orpheus living a very thin life after the death of his wife, Eurydice. My Orpheus is now a gardener. After I sang that song, a man came up to me and said, ‘How do I get the song about the potted plant?’ and I knew that even this unusual song was working the way I needed it to."
Barber’s songwriting has grown stronger over the course of two decades making albums through the 1990’s and 2000’s. She may have started as a sapling but has become a flowering cherry blossom in time. She admits that "The first original song I wrote as an adult was ‘What a Shame’ from the record, Cafe Blue."
She cites that her father put her on the path to making music. "My father was a musician. He taught me the piano when I was 6. I always wanted to be a musician. I practiced without being told to. It is in my blood."
When she isn’t working on her own music, Patricia Barber can be found assisting others to find their own musical paths. She expresses, "Since teaching on a Fellowship at University of California in Berkeley, I love teaching. I was thrown into the fire there and had to learn to teach students at all kinds of different levels where I had been used to teaching at conservatories. Teaching is musical problem solving and it forces me to look more deeply into the structures of music, and I find that process beneficial. We fit in master classes any time that makes sense. I try to carve out time off from touring and of course then I’m more available for teaching. I am looking for the perfect academic position now. Something I have waited a long time to do. I hope to stay close to home so am looking mostly in the Midwest."
She is happy to report that since providing a link on her Website to offer her teaching services, she has been amazed by the responses from music students online. "I have the most interesting teaching studio now that I’ve opened myself up to the public via the Internet. Students fly in from New York, Switzerland and Australia and they drive into town from points around the Midwest. I LOVE having direct access to people and students now, and wish I had allowed myself to do that sooner. The most interesting situations and gigs come out of my website and I do meet other artists, writers, and filmmakers."
Barber is the first jazz musician to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003, which she used the funds from to record her previous album, Mythologies. Her song structures in the album’s compositions spoke volumes about her attraction to classic music composers and acclaimed poets such as Lord Alfred Tennyson, whom she applied the rhyme schemes of on her song, "Morpheus" from Mythologies. And sometimes, she claims, to have made music based on her instincts and less on structure like "Whiteworld" from Mythologies.
She applied these open thought processes to the songs that she recorded for her new album, The Cole Porter Mix. She went into the recording for this album knowing in advance how the songs would be structured and sound, but that does not mean that the tunes do not have Patricia Barber’s own stylistic tweaks. The music sounds like Cole Porter, but the way it would have sounded if Patricia Barber had been in the band, and sometimes, it feels like she had really been there.