Father's Day: Juno nominee Del Barber helps retired dad reach songwriting dreams - InfoNews

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Father's Day: Juno nominee Del Barber helps retired dad reach songwriting dreams

Del Barber and his father Boyd are shown in a recent handout photo. Del Barber is a Juno-nominated folk artist from Winnipeg. His dad, Boyd, co-wrote the song "Running on a Wire" from Del's new album, "Headwaters." THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Matt Swatzky
June 13, 2012 - 1:38 PM

TORONTO - For Boyd Barber, work was never about anything as fanciful or intangible as pursuing a dream.

In fact, it was the dreams that chased him. Vivid nightmares that have haunted him since 1969, when he was one of the Canadian Navy members onboard the HMCS Kootenay when a gearbox exploded, killing nine crew members and injuring at least 53 others.

For 40 years afterward, Barber worked as a millwright. He spent most of those four decades toiling in the depths of Manitoba mines, but his was a jack-of-all-trades position that required him to nurture a general aptitude for all sorts of body-burdening tasks: welding, electrical work, installation of industrial machinery.

It's the sort of stuff often referred to as good, honest work, but Barber hated it. So he was glad his son, Del, developed a talent for music and opted to follow a different path than his dad.

But he never expected to follow in his son's fresh footsteps. These things are supposed to work the other way around.

Boyd's son — Juno nominee Del Barber — recently released his third collection of hand-crafted indie-folk, "Headwaters." It features "Running on a Wire," a song co-written with his father, just one of a bundle of songs the pair penned together.

And for a retired 63-year-old who spent most of his life dismissing his creative impulses, the collaboration could scarcely be more meaningful.

"I'm honoured that he would consider anything this old fart's got to say to him," Boyd said in a recent interview from his home in Winnipeg.

"If he thinks that anything I've got to say has some value, I'm really proud of that. It makes me feel really, really happy — it gives me a sense of validity.... Our relationship has improved a lot because of that."

"I'm tremendously proud that he's not afraid to talk about me," he added. "Because you know, I'm a bit of a flawed character. But he loves me anyway. And I'm just as proud as can be about all that stuff."

Yet the elder Barber has always wielded an influence over his son's songwriting career, whether he knew it or not.

Del grew up merrily ensconced in his father's vinyl collection. He was particularly enamoured with John Prine, as well as such "classic Canadiana" as the Band and Neil Young. To this day, their tastes only differ in degrees, with Boyd favouring the politicized blues bleakness of, for instance, James McMurtry, while Del prefers more hopeful material.

"His tastes lie slightly darker than mine, because he's twisted," Del said with a laugh in a recent interview in Toronto.

Then there was the influence of Boyd's own guitar work. Del says he was always private with his playing, only reluctantly letting his bluesy notes fill the house when Del was growing up. He's been playing more since he retired but still dismisses his prowess as quickly as Stevie Ray Vaughan's fingers climbed the fretboard.

"At my best, I think I had some skill when it came to guitar-playing but I didn't really have any talent ... and I believe that Del has both," he said in one characteristically self-deprecating comment.

"It's the most annoying thing," said Del separately, shaking his head. "He can play but he really struggles with having the confidence to play in front of me. And I grew up hearing him play. He's great....

"He's probably going to come up with some big project and usurp me of all my Barber-dom."

For now, it's the younger Barber who handles the music side of their collaborations.

Boyd's contribution was words. After that harrowing experience aboard the HMCS Kootenay, Boyd suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course, he couldn't put a name on the condition until years later — "Back in those days, there was nothing but 'smarten up, go back to your job' kind of thing," he remembers sadly — but the effects of the damage were plain as day, especially at night.

Even now, Boyd has extra-lucid dreams occasionally ominous enough to startle him awake screaming. At some point, he began trying to write out the details of his dreams as best he could remember them, and eventually presented some of those stories and images to Del. Inspired, they began swapping lyrical ideas more regularly.

While the searching "Running on a Wire" was their only collaboration to make "Headwaters," Del hints that they have a bundle of other tunes so unique that they might make more sense as a separate release.

It all sounds great, but let's face it: there are those among us who would probably opt for dental surgery over the intimate, frustrating process of trying to write a song with one's parent.

And Del gets all that.

"It would've been (weird) to me five years ago, but it's all been pretty easy," said the 28-year-old, who speaks with a clear-eyed candour that would appear to be genetic.

He notes that the duo exchanges ideas via email, rather than sitting down together and trying to hash out tunes in real time.

"There's always space between us, which helps — because it's weird being really intimate with your dad," he added. "(But) it's a person you can talk to who's totally going to get what you're about."

While Boyd has always understood his son's wholly consuming passion for music, he admits it wasn't easy watching Del fight through the formative years of his musical career.

As a teenager determined to make it, Del hit the road with more vigour than savvy. He figured any gig was a luxury regardless of the size of a crowd or cheque, and his love of travel made the prospect of even unpaid gigs in far-flung locales sound appealing.

As he spent evenings pouring his heart out to indifferent bars and coffeeshops, he used the range of skills inherited from his handy father to generate a living allowance, taking on an almost comical range of short-term jobs to fuel his passion.

In all, he worked in 15 states and eight provinces. He pulled crab pots in Alaska, poured espresso in Georgia, worked the phones at a cell centre in Chicago, drove drug addicts to court dates in Winnipeg and planted trees in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario. He was a dishwasher, a janitor, a teacher's assistant, an addiction counsellor, a farmer, a roofer, a fisherman, a landscaper and a mountain guide.

Some of the work was illegal, all of it was short-term. Many of the gigs that came his way were simple construction jobs, a cinch for a millwright's son.

"I grew up with a wrench in my hands so I'm pretty good around building," Del said. "I always liked to work.... I'm from a pretty blue-collar family background so it was just expected that you would work and figure out how to like it."

Except his dad never really did figure out how to like it. Even now, he dismisses his life's work as "not just uncreative, but really non-contributing to society."

So he liked that Del was pursuing his artistic vision. Still, watching his son ricochet around the continent while gobbling any crumb of menial labour tossed his way wasn't easy.

"I was worried every minute of every day," Boyd said. "I was worried about his career choice for a while. I didn't ever want him to do what I did ... but I thought that for a while, he should have a backup plan — for instance, carpentry. And I thought, well, that'd be OK. You can contribute and feed yourself."

But Del didn't see it that way.

"He told me that if you have a Plan B, then Plan A doesn't have the importance that it should. And that still makes a little bit of sense."

So he's thrilled that Del's fortunes have improved dramatically since those lean years.

After his sophomore record earned a Juno nomination for roots & traditional album of the year, Barber was signed to Six Shooter Records. He also finally has a proper management team behind him, and it's helped Barber take his third album — a highly literate gem of earthy songwriting — to an ever-expanding audience.

For the record, dad approves.

"I absolutely love the album," he said. "His chips are all in the pot now and I think he's holding kings or aces, I really do."

There are other perks.

Boyd cheerfully brags about rubbing shoulders with Buffy Ste. Marie at the Junos, with Chris Luedecke and Catherine MacLellan at the Western Canadian Music Awards (where Del was a double winner) and with Tom Wilson at Mariposa.

It's been a thrill for Boyd and Del's music-fan mother, Jean.

"This is kind of like being a hockey parent except your kid's got the puck almost all the time," he said.

Of course, he's proven a willing passer. And in sharing the achievements of his still-developing career, Del has given his retired father a sense of achievement that his long career never could.

"I'm a housekeeper, I'm a cook, I'm a yard-maintenance man and I'm a bloody songwriter!" Boyd enthused about post-retirement life.

"I'm maybe a little long in the tooth to be doing anything new, but it's OK with me."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2012
The Canadian Press

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