When certain stringed instruments are played a drone note rings out. A consistent tone, it’s creating a base layer for the rest of the strings to climb and fall around - the metaphor for life writes itself. Barrie Lindsay has experienced her own high and low notes falling around hers over the last couple of years.
After releasing her debut under the Barrie moniker - Happy To Be Here - the four-piece band she released it with disbanded just shy of a month later. While this event was by no means a make-or-break for Lindsay - she was always the heart and soul of the project - it was instead moving into following up her debut that Lindsay’s oscillating strings struck up.
“There's something really heart wrenching about this note that's held through while the others move up and down around,” Lindsay smiles. "Because it's this consistent, like home note that you're just waiting to get back to that I think it has this powerful, bittersweet quality to it.”
After meeting her wife - songwriter Gabby Smith - on an early tour, while this high note helped root Lindsay’s life, it was on a closer level that the low end began. With her father being diagnosed with cancer, in 2020 she and Smith headed to Maine where the plan was to remove herself from being an artist and to spend time with her parents.
Heading out that way, Lindsay was unsure what coming back would look like. The plan was to try to live life as a child to a sick parent while also subconsciously nurturing her creative self after finding an initial swing of success with Barrie’s first iteration: “Everyone's encouraging you to keep going, keep going, keep touring, keep releasing music, and I was like, I'm a slower-paced person than this.”
With the pandemic hitting, Lindsay’s time in Maine was extended indefinitely - though she’s back in New York now in her shared apartment with her wife. Currently on Zoom, her apartment is softly lit in the same manner as her voice as she dissects this time away and the creation of her second album, Barbara.
“I had to figure out being better at listening to myself and knowing what I wanted,” she says. “Because a lot of problems that arose in the past with me and music - not just with that iteration of the band - but just like making music in general. I was never actually thinking in a serious way about what I wanted, and what I wanted my career to look like, what I wanted my music to sound like.”
Ready to reintroduce Barrie to the world was a decision that came from “having courage and confidence that I didn't necessarily have in the past.”
"The past couple years have been major life lessons and life milestone years," she tells me. "I got married, I lost my dad. It's a lot of those adult lessons where you start to learn more about yourself and you hear less of the static and…there’s more of an urgency to figure out what you care about and what you want to do.”
These notions are familiar to everyone after the recent events. But Lindsay’s story came with aspects even she couldn’t anticipate. Upon her fathers passing, while “the world continued to spiral,” she recalls it was “really scary not having the person in your life who was the emblem of stability and who always was reassuring and told you what to do in any situation, and so it was like a real like, grab your shoulders and shake a moment to be like, Okay, you have to figure out what you want to do now.”
Recalling an interview with someone she heard recently, whose parents happened to pass around 9/11: “They were like, there was something really comforting about the country also being in mourning at the same time. It’s ended up just being this really heavy weird time, like a weird fever dream of a couple of years.”
Lindsay has always been someone who’s known what she’s wanted. Wrapping around this directness, however, comes an ability to simply float down the middle embracing whatever flotsam appears because life’s too short. When I ask if her direction for Barrie has changed since starting; releasing her debut; the band dissipating, the ensuing answer is a wonderfully stumbling path where her feet trip on the roots of certain uncertainty. It’s a thought process similar to Barbara, wherein the front end is loaded with synth and soft-pop songs, before growing into more analogue focused folk tracks, featuring her cast of weird and wonderful instruments; a duality of ideas.
“It's interesting to try to be honest with myself about where is that openness to success coming from?” she questions. “Is it because I genuinely want that and I'm stifling it with myself or is it just some kind of like, need to please or need for approval thing but I don't know. I have sat with it for a while and both feel true and genuine. I don't know, if you get that kind of success and you don't like it, it's easy to shun and back away from it like MGMT have kind of proven. You can see you don't have to accept that you can shun it.”
Seeing herself as wanting to be a background figure, more producer than Madison Square Garden-headliner (not that she’d turn her nose up at such offers) - either option works - but as long as Lindsay is playing the game by her rules and following her heart, then the ensuing result is what it is because that's all that matters.
“I'm pretty true to myself in general but very adaptable,” she nods. Recalling a story from her elementary school days where after completing the mandatory recorder course, she decided to choose the trumpet: “Because that’s what my brother played and I just did whatever he did.” After the two years, instead of returning the rental instrument, she opted to buy it. Rather reasonably her parents questioned such motives.
“They were like, you're ten years old - do you think you're gonna use a trumpet the rest of your life? And I was like, yes!” The same trumpet she refused to return all those decades ago features on Barbara. “I think I'm pretty certain of what I want when I want it. And the rest is pretty adaptable.” She says laughing.
Barbara’s personal effects don’t stop there. The album's title stems from Lindsey’s birth name: “I didn't learn my name was Barbara until I was older,” she says. Admitting that it’s always been “a bit of a mismatch” thanks to its connotations of suiting older and more femme faces. But Lindsay’s decision to rename this reintroduction into the world - theoretically - after herself was purposeful to acknowledge the personal context inside while knowing that it’s essentially a mask that can be removed if any hands start grabbing at it.
“It's really personal but at the same time like as you pointed out I have a bit of a reserved…[I’m] a little bit hesitant to completely give all of myself to this job - making music is a job and I love it. But also I'm keeping a bit of myself to myself,” she says. “And so it feels perfectly fitting that with Barbara, which feels like this formal legal name, it’s technically self-titled but it's this name that I have a bit of distance from. It's kind of like a reverse Sacha Fierce thing where it's not this like, ‘hell yeah, grab life by the horns!’ alter ego that's really brash. It's this more buttoned-up, femme, grownup version of myself.”
The sounds of Barbara are equally as serving to Lindsay as the emotional content. Initially going into the project with vague ideas of making a big pop album: “I was like, I'm gonna make whatever I feel like making and I think maybe that means I want to make some like big pop songs.”
While those are indeed present to a degree, it's the records experimental and subverting moments that offer even more insight. Admitting that these choices were a little bit more vulnerable including using a drone note inducing dulcimer and other out-of-the-box instruments - something Lindsay previously promised in a 2019 interview with Best Fit.
Executively produced by Smith, there was no doubt in their heads that what they were making was special. But it’s one thing to make an album that follows no one distinct path in the wilds of Maine while isolated. It was landing back in New York City that there were trepidations of “Oh my god. Is this like, alright?!” She laughs. “I have to stay true to feeling this vulnerable emotional thing. It’s hard not to fall into the ‘but what if I did make just like a super fun synth-y pop album.
“So that's been an interesting experience, being like, Okay, you gotta stay true to this and remember how it felt when you're making this and in those moments hoping that it resonates with people and remembering that if it doesn't, then like that's okay because my whole goal was to make this album for me and for basically my wife and I guess my dad on some level.”
There’s no doubt that Barbara is a dog-earned grainy photograph for Lindsay. Letting this all out into the world is equal parts a re-imagination of just who or what Barrie is but also a moment of extreme vulnerability. Admitting that they decided to hold back some of the contexts around the album until closer to release, all so she could grieve privately.
Mentioning Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner - who’s good friends with Lindsay’s wife - and who also went through her own form of private-to-public grieving, it was watching Zauner’s process that helped Lindsay with hers: “It's [been] interesting to see to be on the sidelines watching her make this album about death and her mother, and then a book about it and she's blown up…she’s now this emblem of parental grief.” Once these floodgates open it means the uncontrollable flow sweeps up anyone who's listening.
“When you write about that kind of stuff, people come to you at shows and cry to you and express their experiences and then you are taking on you're opening yourself up to take on a lot of emotional baggage,” she shrugs. “I'm not sure how it'll feel for it to become this public thing, this experience that I'm now handing over. I feel like I've done the private grieving part of it, and I'm in a place to talk about these things more publicly, and a more open and honest person, but I've been thinking a lot about how to navigate and how to balance the keeping some of that for myself.”
This leads us to briefly circle back to her career aspirations. When you’re in the background, toiling way with creating rather than being the focal point for music, you can retain a level of privacy, but more importantly, control. “I really like the idea of being more of a musician's musician or something…but not having it be this full-on life absorbing thing,” Lindsay mentions. “Where when you're a pop star it’s so life-consuming and you have to give so much of your private life and private self and that's not something that I'm willing to do.”
It may seem ironic given my chat with Barrie encompasses a lot of her private self. But this is a secure context surrounding the album as opposed to a torrential downpour of spotlights tearing each of those private moments apart. “I'm much happier to have a more humble behind the scenes career," she says. "Although it's interesting under Gen Z's regime, I think pop stardom looks a lot different. And I realise I keep going back and forth!”
But for as long as that drone note keeps ringing the highs and lows will rapture around it creating the harmonics that make life, life. “And this is the ever forever question," she adds. "Where it's like, I don't know because my dream is just to like, make whatever music I feel like making in that time,” Lindsay ends. “And then however it's received, it's how it's received and I’m happy with whatever outcome that is as long as I can just keep making it and don't have to be a barista - which is honourable - but makes it really hard to do music all the time.”