Barbara Helen- ‘Just do what I do and do it well’
By Ben Butterworth
I’m in a very fortunate position to say I’ve enjoyed talking to everyone I have ever interviewed at EXNE and have been able to take away something from that interview, be it a new interest or a hilarious story. I also like to think I’m funny and try to take the mick out of a few bands, all in good humour. If it’s not in good humour, at least I’m safe and cosy, far away from any peeved readers. But I had a bit of a surprise this month, considering I’m not overly keen on acoustic artists. I fail to take the mick out of Barbara Helen, so much is my respect for her music. It makes me feel calm, collected, and all together more thoughtful. I’m 17- that shouldn’t be possible! Despite my praise, she has remained humble and down to earth, no airs of an ego whatsoever. I perceive that as true North Eastern authenticity that you can’t find anywhere else in this world. It’s grand. A singer song writer of the best calibre, her most recent album ‘An Unfamiliar Place’ has achieved universal praise from every interviewer. I’ve had my share of surprises at EXNE, but I needed to take a slightly different approach for Barbara. I hope it shows.
BB: Barbara, thank you for joining me! It comes as no surprise that you’re a very experienced song writer and performer, so it would really interest me to know where that all began. I imagine it would be a learning process and not one defining moment, but can you think of one time that spurred you on into music?
BH: I have always loved singing; as a teenager, discovering the music I was drawn to would be like a treasure hunt. I remember the thrill of my emotions connecting with the music. Sounds like something out of the history books now, but vinyl LP records were precious and saved for and played over and over on dodgy record players. Friends shared their music collections and I was introduced to music by The Moody Blues and Melanie Safka, and Joni Mitchell all of which touched something deep within me. I identified with the emotions, loved the harmonies.
I was given an acoustic guitar when I was 15; the strings were probably an inch from the fret board and I taught myself, finding chord patterns from song books and playing Joni and Melanie songs. I also began to write my own songs, pouring my heart out. A wonderful 12 string guitar became mine at 18. I found a niche with like-minded people and embraced the Hippy ethos. Local folk clubs were the platform to play floor spots and me and a group of friends started our own music night, (one of the friends was Les Cameron), at a local pub which went down really well and aired my songs and built my confidence in performing.
BB: A full English inch away from the frets? That’s slack! But it’s also dedication, which becomes so overt with my next point: You’re a nurse on the neo-natal ward of James Cook University Hospital. As a frequenter of the hospital, it can be beyond hectic, probably more so in such a critical job as yours. Has this limited your ability to perform? Or perhaps motivated you to keep going?
BH: There have been times in my life when I couldn’t put my guitar down and times when I couldn’t pick it up. Music has literally saved me and helped me to understand and express my own inner struggles over the years. I suppose being able to express my emotions through song writing has been a safety valve. My song writing and singing is a part of me, even if at times I haven’t had the spare time or energy to perform my music, experiences and observations still ferment into songs. I am working part time now, so I am able to get out and play to an audience more. I love my work. I feel privileged to be in such a specialized career. Certainly puts everything into perspective.
BB: It sounds like you just keep progressing, be it fast or slow; and that moving forwards ensures longevity. I’ve been watching a couple of your performances on-line, and you rise far above the usual chord bashing mantra of most acoustic musicians. I think your guitar is just lovely! Do you take special care when writing your guitar parts?
BH: I don’t read music; I have tried to learn, but just glaze over. Most of the conventional chords I play are at the bottom of the fret board, so when I discovered open tunings it was a delight to discover I could create such a depth of melody with minimal chord shapes and get to use the dusty end of the guitar fret board too. I experiment with different tunings and chord shapes and these inspire a melody.
BB: Ah, I’m a classical guitarist- we have a habit of over analysing ourselves and then lording it over the instruments. Anyway, I think it has a life of its own and is very effective. I think that runs as a constant across many of your songs, and I really love it. Do you have a formula to your song writing, or is each one a different case? I find the majority of people slot into those two broad and vague categories.
BH: I have never “tried” to write a song. I pick up my guitar and play, see what comes out as a sketch, then develop this into the structure of a song for others to hear. There are many songs I have written that feel too personal to share.
I have been compared to Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Sandy Denny and Mary Black, (which I take as a huge compliment) perhaps because I have a wide vocal range. I hope that ultimately within these frames of reference I sound like Barbara Helen.
I use open tunings on my guitar, some that are unique to me as I develop my melodies.
I can honestly say music is a part of me that I need in order to survive. My inspiration for songs is mainly from personal experience, or identifying with an experience being played out in the lives of others. Also from my take on the world around me and events that are in my field of vision.
In 2010 I released my debut solo CD “An Unfamiliar Place”. The songs are a personal account of a distinct period of my life that could only be perceived from a distance. Like a picture puzzle of dots, once you discover the image within, all becomes clear. To quote a review of my album: “… absolutely charming, often profoundly moving – and in the end distinctly inspirational – record of a universal journey.” (David Kidman)
I have had some lovely feedback from those who have seen me perform my songs and have my CD. Many people can identify with the songs. I have written a collection of new songs that are destined for a new CD that I plan to record soon. In the meantime I can be heard playing these songs at a live performance.
BB: Again, I’m seeing that organic sense of progression, and that’s so genuine. A lot of love and effort goes into your craft, it cannot be denied. However, you’ve been known to play with Les Cameron, guitar and mandolin aficionado. Does that bring an extra dynamic to your performance, or is it simply more fun to jam with others beside you?
BH: Les and I first played music together in 1975. We lived near each other in Lincolnshire and were great friends. For my 19th birthday I made my first proper studio recording, an EP of three of my songs and Les played some lead guitar on the tracks. We collaborated musically at the time mainly for fun, but did perform some of my songs as a duo. When I moved to the North East we lost touch for 20 years or so and met up again in 2001, we got straight back to playing music together again. This time we became more than friends and got married in 2009. He moved to Saltburn.
I love having Les accompany me with my performance and he features on my CD, “An Unfamiliar Place”. He knows instinctively what to play and is a gifted musician. We form half of the band, “Jewel Street” (www.jewelstreet.co.uk) along with Nick Noble and Phil McFarlane. I love singing harmonies with Nick Noble.
BB: I wasn’t kidding when I said it was all genuine- that’s perhaps one of the loveliest stories I’ve heard in music. Les is far more than a ‘jamming buddy’ then. Now I must talk about the Richer Sounds competition back in 2009, in which you won the first ever ‘Step up to the mic’ musicians contest. You’ve probably talked about it many times before, but what more can you tell us? Would you do it again?
BH: It was the first Step up To the Mic’. I was thrilled to be picked as a participant from many entries. I was the first performer of the night, which was good as I didn’t have time to stew! It was a truly professional set up. Felt great to have a stage manager to shepherd me about and a brilliant sound man too.
To quote a review of my performance: “Barbara sent goose -bumps through the audience”. That for me is a great compliment and gives me a wonderful buzz, to be able to emotionally move someone with my voice and song.
I wouldn’t enter this contest again; it was enough to walk away as the winner against some talented competition.
BB: That’s very noble of you. Besides, to have given people goose-bumps is a real achievement, in that every musician wants that from their performance. Whilst it wasn’t goose-bumps, I certainly felt different, happier; when I listened to your album ‘An Un-familiar Place’. I don’t want to say I was placated, because I felt very thoughtful listening to it; yet I was overcome with this amazing calmness. I hear I’m not the first to feel that way. In short, it was a nice surprise for me- what’s more surprising is there hasn’t been an album since! Do you have any plans to record again?
BH: I recorded “An Unfamiliar Place” over a one year period, mainly as that was financially viable, as you know going into the studio isn’t cheap. I thoroughly enjoyed the process as the songs developed with the creative input from John.P.Taylor, who owns Mirage Studio. We worked well together and I was impressed with his skills as a musician and sound engineer.
I have the material for a new album and plan to have a more “unplugged” and acoustic style with this one. Also I will utilize the skills of my fellow musicians in Jewel Street, seen as we are playing some of my new material and they have contributed to the arrangements. Will be on with it very soon!
BB: Whilst there hasn’t been talk of an album, I have been watching your sound cloud, and there are regular updates there. Whilst it did mean I had to keep checking so this interview remained current and up to date, I discovered a lot of new stuff I was very pleased with. If you have anything new in mind, feel free to plug it here!
BH: The songs on “An Unfamiliar Place” were very much songs of love and loss and awakenings. New songs I have written some will know them from live performance or demos on sound cloud, have a social comment.
“Way of the World”, This song was inspired by reading the plight of Chief Raoni of the Kayapo and the fight to defend his peoples home against the building of the Belo Monte dam in Brazil. Something I learnt of from a Facebook campaign. The recording will be included on a compilation album for the festival celebration for Woody Guthrie’s Centenary as part of Above the Parapet Un-Conventions.
A favourite song of mine on my Cd is:” When You Look At Me.” It was written at a time when I craved to feel cherished in a relationship. I saw a lovely black and white photograph taken by Henry Diltz in 1969 which captured the image of Graham Nash looking at Joni Mitchell.
He had such love in his eyes. She was his princess.
I realised I had been searching for this……..the song comes from a deep place.
“I only wanted to see,
The look in your eyes that says,
I’m everything you ever wanted a woman to be,
When you look at me”
BB: That’s a beautiful sentiment. It would seem every song fits with this theme, and it’s put together ever so nicely. Now, whilst I perceive you as very fulfilled, if there is anything you could change about your music or career now to improve it, what would it be? I’m finding it hard to imagine myself.
BH: I would love to have a publishing deal; it’d be wonderful for other artists to perform my songs. Some local artists have performed my songs and I am humbled.
I intend to continue my musical journey, no destination planned, no expectations or particular aspirations, just do what I do, do it well, explore and evolve and draw those who relate to my music to me.
BB: If anybody with a musical position of authority is reading, take note of this- someone with unpublished material who has people covering her. There is so much to tap into there. I’m afraid we’ve come to the end of the interview Barbara, so time for some final words: For anyone who does not Barbara Helen, how would you summarise your music into one sentence?
BH: A singer songwriter and accomplished guitarist who puts her heart and soul into her songs and performance.
BB: Barbara, it’s been an absolute privilege. Many, many thanks.
Well, what more can I say? There wasn’t even a hint of something I could poke fun at; it’s all up there in tier 1. That’s not to say I don’t have respect for anyone else I’ve interviewed, because I really do; but this was something of a change for me. As mentioned, you can find Barbara Helen on sound cloud and my space, though EXNE’s James Poppleton has made a new super duper website with all of Barbara’s stuff on- well worth the visit. For me, I’m going to sit back and listen to more of Bara’s tracks, to have a little thinking time, a little me time. Yes ladies and gentleman, I’m going to an unfamiliar place.