Interview with Patricia Barber


Jazz pianist-vocalist Patricia Barber’s seven albums, beginning with the self-produced Split in 1989, have displayed a knack for sophisticated lyrics and musicianship, leading Time Magazine to describe her as a cross between Diana Krall and Susan Sontag. Her most recent recording, Live: A Fortnight in France, includes original music as well as covers ranging from standards like “Laura” to a reinterpretation of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”

In 2003, Barber was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in composition, for which she is writing a song cycle based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The first song in this cycle, “White World,” tackles the subject of anthropological colonialism and imperialism — subjects not normally referenced by jazz singers.

But 49-year-old Barber isn’t your typical jazz musician.

Having been openly gay since she started out many years ago, she admits she has never encountered much discrimination. She currently makes her home in Chicago with her partner of seven years, University of Chicago music historian Martha Feldman. She recently caught up with to chat about her work, her politics, and the state of jazz today. What made you decide to write a song cycle based on The Metamorphoses?

Patricia Barber: I saw Mary Zimmerman’s theatrical adaptation of it — she did a theatrical adaptation of The Metamorphoses at a theater in Chicago and then on Broadway, and I was inspired to read it…After I got home and read it, I loved it so much I thought the characters were perfect for songs — possibly because they were so brilliantly conceived but basically skeletally drawn, so that it would leave the artist a lot of leeway to, you know, have your way with these characters, so to speak.

AE: Is the song “White World” part of that?

Yes, “White World” is the first; “White World” is the Oedipus.

AE: It’s quite unusual for someone to write a song about anthropology and colonialism. What made you decide to go that route?

PB: [Laughs] You know, I can’t explain what originally…I mean, I’ve always had a bugaboo about anthropology and ethnomusicology. It just seemed to be a form of imperialism, the cataloguing and chronicling of what they used to call “the dark continents.” To me it’s just an extension of what used to be the English or the upper class need for exotica, to travel; and then they kind of institutionalized it in some way into the university format. And they didn’t do anybody any favors by dropping off their viruses and changing their lifestyle and sleeping with the natives. You know, I kind of go along with the Star Trek prime directive: you shouldn’t change the course of civilization.

AE: I’ve read that you’ve gotten some backlash on that one. What’s that been about?

PB: Well, it became very political because of the war in Iraq. Certainly people noticed it; I’ve gotta say it’s by far the most noticed song I’ve done recently.

AE: Who’s noticing?

PB: Everybody. Clear Channel (laughing), the white people…

AE: How do you approach songwriting? Do you think of it as an autobiographical process or more of a storytelling one?

PB: It was at one point autobiographical but eventually you run out of stories — you know, you have to become a fiction writer. Otherwise, it’s not possible; you’d be dead trying to get enough material to write, so it’s more about the storytelling now. Certainly some of it’s based on personal experience, but then, that’s much like an actor or a fiction writer.

AE: When you’re writing songs do you start with lyrics or music?

PB: It’s different for every song; there’s no formula. If there were a formula I would write a book about the formula. Sometimes it can be a melodic idea that starts you off, it can be a lyric idea, it can be a rhythmic hook, it’s all very different.

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