Singer-songwriter Lee Barber of Austin, TX is more than just a musician - he's also an artist whose paintings are executed with the same professionalism and insight as his songs.
We are pleased to bring you an interview with a man so creative when Audra Schroeder of the Austin Chronicle described his solo album as "poetic and stormy and quite personal," she could have just as easily been talking about his paintings.
Lee Barber and The Broken Cup is a unique band name. What’s the story behind the name Broken Cup?
I have a song about an imaginary watering hole called The Broken Cup. It’s a warm refuge from a cold storm that’s brewing outside. The band was named after the song as a kind of refuge.
Who are your musical influences?
I know that I’m influenced by other artists but I don’t bother about who they are anymore. There is a nameless stew of sound floating around in the ether. Sometimes, when I’m lucky and listening, I’m able to tap into it.
In the early days I studied the troubadours, poets with guitars... Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, etc. It was the early seventies and that music was new and vital.
Since then I’ve fallen for many different kinds of music, from Jimmy Reed and Mississippi John Hurt to Miles Davis and Sun Ra. I love Ray Charles, Wilco, Gustave Mahler, Brazilian music, Cuban music, Middle Eastern... Some of the best music is happening right now, and I think it’s pretty dull to restrict the soundtrack of your life to one type of music. That’s like eating burgers every day when you could be having Thai, Indian, Ethiopian, or some completely new concoction.
How would you describe your performance to someone who has never seen it?
When I go out to a show I want to be transported. That’s part of the bargain. On the surface we’re just people with instruments, but we are trying to put things together in a way that causes you to remember that you are a breathing time-bound being, a stranger in a strange land (sometimes), and that you are not alone. That’s what it’s always been about for me.
What instruments do you play? Were you self-taught or formally trained?
I play guitar and sing, and I’m primarily self-taught. As a child, I remember pretending to play in a band with my neighborhood buds. For instruments we used upturned trash cans, bicycle parts, and broom handles. We mimed songs by Paul Revere and the Raiders, Herman’s Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, etc. My parents bought me a guitar at sixteen but I didn’t take to it. Finally, when I was laid up in bed with mono, 'the kissing disease', I learned my first chords. Sometimes it pays to get sick and skip school. I picked up finger picking patterns from a Leonard Cohen songbook. “Suzanne” was probably the first song I mastered. I still perform it once in a while.
How would you describe your music?
Lately I’ve taken to calling it Zen blues, or existential blues. It’s not blues in any traditional sense.
What types of themes does your music cover? Does any one theme recur more regularly than others?
Longing. Longing for both connection and freedom. I like sad songs. No apologies. I’m interested in characters that have been pushed around by life. I don’t sing about babies and pets. Maybe one day I will. You can’t knock “Old Shep”!
You’re also a visual artist. Do your paintings ever "go with" one of your songs?
No, I don’t have specific paintings that go with specific songs, but I am trying to make images that bear retelling in the same way that songs bear re-singing.
Where do you draw the inspiration for your paintings from?
When I’m working, I set up a forced randomness that allows inspiration to come in. Beginning with an empty panel, I fill it with abstract lines and splotches of gray against white. I study it until an image emerges, much the same way that we find images in clouds and carpets. When I find something, or the hint of something, that has potential I refine it and attempt some kind of implied narrative. This sounds simple, but I spend more time working out what story to tell with painting than I do in making actual paintings. The randomness is necessary for me. It allows the subconscious to work things out.
The creative processes for visual art and music seem to differ drastically. Do you ever feel the experience of creating a painting is similar to that of creating a song?
I don’t understand where a good song comes from and I don’t understand where a good painting comes from. If I said, “I’m going to paint a horse today”, and just started on a fresh white panel, painting a horse, I would end up with something stiff and boring. The same thing would happen if I tried to force a song. I yield to the mystery. I think that’s what keeps me coming back… the fact that I don’t understand what I’m doing!
What’s the secret to balancing your creative careers with other obligations like a day job or family?
I haven’t found out how to do that yet, and probably never will, but the predicament has fueled some of my best work.
Are you from Austin? If not, what brought you here?
It was music that brought me, but not in the usual sense. It was ’92 and I was living in Mississippi when my wife auditioned to play for the Austin Symphony. She won the audition and we pulled up stakes and moved west with our young family. She and I have since split but I choose to stay here.
What keeps you in Austin?
The creative energy. People make things here. They inspire and challenge me to keep working. If you are a musician in Austin you are expected to make up your own music, so there is an audience for what I do. Also, Austin has managed to integrate the great outdoors with city life in a way that really works. That reflects well on the citizens. Their priorities tend to be in the right place.
What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of Austin?
I find Austin to be a young energetic city that is somewhat insulated from many of the problems that people in other places deal with on a day to day basis. I think that statement can serve as both my favorite and least favorite aspect of Austin.
If you had to describe Austin in one word, what would that be?