We have another extensive interview reviewing your career, so let me skip right to this latest record, “To Live Alone In That Long Summer”. Your press release says you think of it: “I feel I’ve been trying to create this album since I began making records”. Why?
Some people learn by making mistakes, and I think I am one of those people. This is my fourth album, so I have had many opportunities to make mistakes. When I made my first album, I really didn’t know anything about making records. So it was only after I made that album that I realized what I didn’t want in my albums. The same process applies to when I am trying to find the right arrangement for a song. I have to record many different instruments for that song in order to hear all the different options, and only when I’ve done that am I able to stand back and see what works and what doesn’t work. So with each album, I’ve learned a little more about what I like and what I don’t like. And it has taken me four albums to finally achieve what I’ve been after. Some people are able to achieve the sound they are after on their first or second album. I really admire that about those artists. They are able to lay the foundation early on and keep building on it with each successive album. But I think everyone is always trying to fine-tune their sound with each new album they make. The art of album making is very difficult. There is no manual that teaches you how to make it. And with each album you are working on, you are in a particular state of mind and you are trying to achieve a certain task. Sometimes, your goal is achieve a very unified and consistent album where the songs don’t vary very much from another. And sometimes your goal is to create songs that are very different from each other. All these things factor and play such an important role in the album you make.
I have read it has taken quite a long time to be ready. Do you remember which was the first song you wrote? Was everything already shaped in your mind?
I started working on this album over four years ago, so I really can’t remember which song came first. But I do remember I had just come back from a European tour. It was summer time. I rented a little studio and just started working on the songs. A lot of these songs emerged from ideas I had written from before. I had part of a melody, verse, or chorus, and those gave me a good starting point. And then I slowly started to chip away at the songs and build on those ideas.
If “Notes To An Absent Lover” was mostly a collection of songs (as beautiful as they may be), I loved the fact that you managed to create, here, a musical atmosphere, centered around the idea of urban solitude and longing for connections. I think that makes it my favourite record of yours. Is it something you had in mind when you began making this record?
I am glad you feel this way. Thank you. No I really didn’t know what this album was going to be about before I started working on it. Only when I started to write the lyrics and stood back and saw the patterns that were emerging did I slowly see what it was that I was pre-occupied with. I noticed that the recurring themes in all the songs were solitude, the city, and the need for connection. I think that is how I usually tend to write – I let the subject matter emerge after I’ve allowed myself to write without thinking too much about what it is I am writing about. I think that our subconscious mind usually reveals to us what it is that we want to say. All we have to do is sit down and write and not let our ego interfere with what is being written.
In this respect I think you wrote your most “literary” record, with a real sense of a tale being told – even if an intimate one - and so on. Do you agree and was the experience of writing a poetry book, which you did during these last years, informative to writing this record?
My most literary album; I like the sound of that. I studied English literature, so anything with the word “literary” always makes me happy. I really spent a lot of time on the lyrics for this album. I wanted to move away from the simplicity of the lyrics from my previous album. The last album was a very personal note, and I didn’t want to make those words too dense. But with this album I felt I had the opportunity to move the lyrics further away from the simplicity of the previous album. I also didn’t want to make the lyrics too poetic. I have never been a fan of writing lyrics that are so inaccessible where no one can understand what the writer is talking about. I wanted to strike a balance. My main concern with the lyrics was to balance the light with the dark, the ugly with beauty. I feel that in my previous records I have not done that, so I really made this a goal of mine with this record.
Let me ask you right away: is this “long summer” a state of mind you wanted to portray, or an actual summer you spent alone, in the city?
It was both. It feels like I have spent many long summers alone. But I was also trying to capture the mood and the state of a mind during those times.
Arrangements play a big part, in the record, to make this picture become vivid, real. You have enlarged your palette since “Notes”, but I found a more open, luscious sound in “To Live Alone In That Long Summer”. Can you tell us something about the making of the record? I know Tony Dekker and Sandro Perri were still there in the studio, among others…
Well, it was a pretty long process. I first started to work on these songs on my own. I initially wanted to make a simple album. I thought I would make an album with just an acoustic guitar and piano. So I first started off by recording these songs on a very simple recording set up at home. I was mainly doing that to see how the songs would sound on their own. When I did that, I realized that the songs needed more than just a guitar and piano. And that was when I took the songs to my long time musical partner, Nick Zubeck, who has been playing live shows with me for years. It was in his studio that we began to try instruments like drums and electric guitar on the songs. So it was there that we began to enlarge the palate. After that, I asked Sandro Perri, who is a long time friend of mine, to spend a few days with me and the band and to help me shape the songs. I brought together the musicians who were going to play on the album and we spent three days in a studio jamming the songs and trying different arrangements and ideas. Only when we had done that, did we go into the studio and begin to record the album. I’ve known Tony Dekker for many many years. He is another good friend. When it came time to use back up singers on the album, I jumped at the opportunity to ask him to sing harmonies on some of the songs.
I had quite a vivid connection to one of my favourite movies of these last years, which is “Shame” by Steve McQueen. The two “plots” may diverge a lot, but I think there is a strong emotional connection. Do you think there is a relation between the protagonist of “To Live Alone In That Long Summer” and the one from “Shame”?
That’s really interesting you make that comparison. I am glad you made that comparison. When I saw Shame, my first thought was – here it is, this is exactly what I am trying to convey through this album. I felt Steve McQueen made a film about the exact thing that I was also pre-occupied with in this album – the growing disconnect amongst people living in the city, and the turning towards sex to fill the emptiness. It was interesting to see that film because when you are working on a project, you think that the things you are writing about are your own private concerns that might not matter much to others. But when I saw that film, and saw how it resonated with others, I realized that what I was writing about is something that is quite relevant to people around me. I do have to say that this theme is not anything new. People have been feeling unhappy, empty and alone through out the ages, and turning towards sex to fulfill this need has been going on for a very long time. But there is something about the current state of the North American culture that feels different. It’s as though we are living in a culture that has lost its innocence. Sex and violence are very much intertwined with each other now. There is a sense of cruelty that seems to run underneath all of it. These are just my sense of things, and I am not a sociologist, so I can be way off with my analysis. But I am glad you felt there is connection between the film and the album.
You are releasing this particular record, in Italy, with an Italian label, Ghost Records – it’s quite peculiar. Can I ask you how it happened and if you find you have a particular relation to the Italian (and European) audience?
I have been friends with Giuseppe Marmina for many years. He is one of the people that runs Ghost Records. And he has been a good friend and a staunch supporter of the music for many years. So when I was working on this album, we began to toy with the idea of working with each other on this release. I’ve always liked the idea of working people I’ve known for a long time. It’s like working with family. I am really happy Ghost Records is releasing the album in Italy. It felt like the right thing to do. I don’t know what it is about the Italian audience, but I do feel there is a connection between my music and them that I don’t see in other countries. I don’t know how to explain it. But I love the support I have received from people in Italy, they have been so great and generous.
You have now established quite a trademark in your sound. Do you see yourself on the same path for the next years? Do you have any side projects or collaborations in mind?
Well truth be told, every album I make feels like my last album. So who knows if I’ll ever make another album. We will see what happens. I have many different ideas for future albums, things that are different from what I do. The hard thing with those things is whether or not they can sound honest and genuine. That is my main concern, because if they don’t then I would not feel comfortable sharing it with others.
Thank you for your insightful questions. You really picked up on a lot of the things that I was trying to achieve with this album, so I appreciate your sensitivity to the songs and lyrics.
Interview by Raffaello RUsso (2009)
On the occasion of the release of his third album, “Notes To An Absent Lover”, Barzin leaves the usual introversion of his music aside, to describe himself as a man and as a musican. From his approach with guitar to the drowsy motions of his songs, personal experience and artistic growth are described as parallel elements that defined a peculiar style in telling stories, emotions and memories.
How did your passion for music begin? I read that you played drums in a school-band and only after a time you started playing guitar: how has been the “discovery” of this instrument? What did you think it could give you?
The first instrument I ever owned was the harmonica. That was a long time ago. All I can remember about it is sitting at the back of my parent’s car trying to figure out the melody to Beatles’ “Love Me Do” on it. The instrument I started playing after that was the drums. But that was not because of some deep calling; I started playing drums because all of my friends started playing guitars and we all wanted to form a band. But nobody wanted to play the drums, so I decided to become the drummer. If I look back and think about all the instruments that I’ve played, I can’t say I can define myself by any of them. I really don’t consider myself a guitarist, or a drummer, or a piano player. Instruments have always been means to an end for me. I have mainly used them to write songs with. I love all of these instruments, but the love I have for song writing does not compare to the love I have for them. My passion is really for song writing.
From the beginning of your musical project, in 1995, to your first official album many years have passed, and even after that your releases have never been very frequent. Does it depend on a choice or on the need to approach compositions and lyrics little by little?
There are certain types of artists/musicians that have a clear vision of what they want to create right from the start. They can sit down and write a song, a poem, a story, in a week. But the creative process for me is very laborious and time consuming. I would compare myself to the type of painter who paints the same painting over and over again, but each time slightly a little different, until he/she has finally reached the right version by the 30th or 40th one.
When I sit down to write a song, I really don’t know what I am going to say, or what kind of melody I am going to write. I just try and be patient and let ideas slowly come out of me. I just keep writing and writing, and usually I have to throw away a lot of ideas. But I find that eventually a melody and the lyrics will emerge.
Which is your ideal situation for writing music? Do you let temporary emotions guide you, or do you “study” songs in a much more “technical” and rational way?
I think the songs that I have come to embrace and like were the ones that arose out of a particular emotion rather than some technical approach or idea. But I must stress that I am a believer of studying the art of music. I think it is very important to understand theory and what makes a good song. Such knowledge is essential if one wants to produce good work. But it’s important to remember as well that when it comes time to creating, you must allow emotions and the subconscious to be present so that they can enter your work. There have been times when I’ve sat down to create something based on some musical theme or exercise, but I never found the end result very worthwhile. The best times for me have been when I’ve given up control allowing the mysterious process of creatively to do its wonder.
Apart from your experience as a drummer, how’s been your musical education and your background as a listener? And do you think it had an influence on what you write now as an author?
Well, I studied guitar privately for a very long time, and I have studied the piano and the drums as well, but not as long as the guitar. I find the knowledge I’ve acquired about these instruments to be very helpful for writing. Writing a song on a piano is very different than writing on the guitar. It almost feels like different parts of your creativity are being accessed and tapped into by these instruments. Recently I have begun writing on the banjo. I find the banjo allows me to write in a way that is very different than writing on the piano and guitar. I am enjoying it very much.
In the first two albums your attention has been focused on a research for a slow and haunting sound, so that your music has often been not so properly included in definitions such as slowcore or even post-rock (for what they mean…), while expecially in “Notes To An Absent Lover” the sound is lighter and it is greatly enriched with strings arrangements. Did it come naturally or is it something you dediced before writing the album? And what’s the difference between making music nearly all by yourself (as in your debut album) and having a group of musician to perform it with?
For me, going into the studio is a very intriguing experience. Everything can sound so different once your record a song. You can go into the studio and have all these ideas for a song, but once you record it you see that the arrangements you had for the song do not quite work.
So, when I went into the studio to record this album, I told myself that I was going to record as much instruments as I could for every song, and not limit myself to a particular group of instruments. This way, I was able to see how the songs sounded with different instrumentation.
So, I ended up making most of my decisions about the arrangements in the studio rather than beforehand.
This time around, I also worked with a group of musicians that I’ve toured with. So, they knew my music very well. And they are all very skilled musicians. That made things very easy for me.
For example, if I had an idea or wanted to try playing a song in a particular style, they could execute those ideas very quickly. This was perfect for me because I like to try and apply different approaches to my songs.
At the same time, it seems that with with the passing of time you have focused even more on songwriting. Would you define yourself as a songwriter, in the classic meaning of the word?
Yes, I definitely consider myself a songwriter. I love the art of song writing. I am fascinated by it. I still get excited when I think about all the things I could be learning about it. The music that I mostly listen is by songwriters who are considered song smiths.
You have iranian origins and you lived in Iran for some years: while this experience isn’t recognizable from your music, do you think that it had an influence on you, from a cultural or a personal/spiritual point of view?
If you listen to very traditional Iranian music, you will hear this very tragic and melancholic tone that runs through it. And I feel that this tone is very much present in my music. Also, poetry has been part of the Persian culture from its inception. I have a deep deep love for poetry. I think these are the things I have inherited from the Iranian culture.
More or less in the last decade many great artist came from Canada and some musical “scenes” have gathered there around Montreal collectives or around labels such as Constellation, Arts&Crafts, Alien8, Weewerk, WhereAreMyRecords, etc. What do you think about the Canadian music nowadays? Would you mention some lesser-known artists worth of attention?
The Canadian music secne is a very rich right now. There has been so much good music coming out of Canada that it’s a little overwhelming how many talented musicians are out there.
I have always been a fan of Michelle Mcadory. She has released only one album so far, but it’s great. I am also a great admirer of an artist who plays under the name of Bd Harrington. He is one of most talented people I’ve met. He actually just finished shooting a video for me. He has been working on his album for two years now. I think it is close to being released soon.
Talking of other Canadian artists, since from the start you worked with Great Lake Swimmers’ Tony Dekker, while after that you collaborated with Sandro Perri, both artists with a style and musical background quite different from yours. What did you get from these collaborations? Are there oher artists you’d like to work with?
Both Tony and Sandro are very talented artists, and they have different strengths. I have always thought of Sandro as a producer. He has a lot of very good ideas when it comes to arranging songs and finding the right instruments or parts for a song. And he has an experimental quality to him that allows his ideas to go in unexpected places.
Tony is a craftsman and a songwriter at heart. He is concerned with writing and saying something that is concise, memorable, and simple in a three and half minutes. He has written some very beautiful songs. Tony inspires me to keep things simple and to continue to explore my interior world more and more.
The one artist I hope I get a chance to work with is Eric Chenaux. He is a songwriter/guitarist whose work can be found through Constellation Records. Eric is a really interesting guitar player. His approach to guitar playing is very unusual. I hope to one day make and experimental album, and I would very much like to have Eric play on it.
On this side of the Atlantic, one of the first countries where your music has been appreciated has been France, so that after your debut album you published “Songs For Hinah” on the French micro-label Hinah. It looked like a very peculiar choice, expecially for the limited edition of the release: how did you get in touch with the label? Can you tell us something more about that experience?
I go introduced to Hinah through Liz Hysen who is in the Canadian band, Picastro. I found Hinah to be a very interesting label. They were releasing these small, limited editions by interesting artist and bands.
When I was working on my last album, I had some songs which never made it on to the album. There was enough of them to make a small Ep out of, and I thought that it fit the style of music that Hinah was releasing. So, I got in touch with them and they were kind enough to release it.
The limited edition of “Songs For Hinah” has been a good reason for you to go back to some of those songs and revise them in the following albums. Do you like to go back to songs you already published? How do you feel when re-working on something already done and with its own shape?
I usually go back to songs if I am not happy with the way they were recorded or arranged. That’s why I re-recorded “The Dream Song” for the new album. I try and not make a habit of doing this, but in the case of “The Dream Song” not only was I eager to record the song differently, but I also felt that the song fit the theme of the album.
One of the re-worked “Songs For Hinah” is “Just More Drugs”, whose lyrics and electronic appearance differ a bit from your usual musical imprint? How do you generally relate with electronics while creating music?
When I was working on my last album, I was going through a phase where I was interested in electronics in my music. I was really interested in trying a make a “unique” style for myself, and I felt I could achieve this style by incorporating electronics in my music.
I think that when electronica is used effectively in a song it can sound great. I think bands such as Portishead and Radiohead are great at using it. They are so tasteful in the way they include it in their music. But the danger with using electronica is that you can ruin a song if you aren’t careful with it.
I find myself moving away from the use of electronica in my music. I think that phase in my musical development is slowly coming to an end.
In “Notes to an Absent Lover” you go back to another one of the “Songs for Hinah”, “The Dream Song”: in its lyrics there’s a phrase - “king of all things weak” - that I can’t avoid to relate to your music and its fragile intimacy. Is a somehow autobiographic definition? Could you explain what it means?
I was living in the U.S. at that time. My partner and I were renting this old house. I was alone one evening, and I had been sleeping. When I woke up, the sky had taken on that strange, other worldly colour that it does just before night falls. And something about the silence of the house, and the dream I had just woken up from combined to create this fear in me. I am not sure what it was, but it felt like all the things that I had pushed away from my thoughts had come back to the surface. So, I sat down and decided to write about that moment and all the things I was feeling. I think I was trying to control the situation by writing about it. I tend to do that sometimes. I find that writing about things that are troubling me can be an effective way of dealing with them.
“My Life in Rooms” could be considered as a “manifesto” of your artistic sensibility and can be interpreted nearly as a need for isolation, for a private loneliness where everyone can find himself. Is this the album message? And what does a “life in rooms” mean for you?
Yes, I believe in the necessity of isolation and loneliness, not just for artists who are trying to create, but also for anyone who is interested in exploring his/her inner world for self knowledge or personal growth. But I also think - and this was something that I was trying to talk about in the album - that too much isolation and self searching without proper guidance can lead you to exhaust yourself both emotionally and spiritually. Solitude is a necessity for creating art, but it can also cut you off from life. You can forget how to live. I think artists are always trying to figure out how they can live in their art and in the world at the same time.
In many of your songs can be found a sense of lack, of absence, that you perfectly resumed in the phrase “in love with everything that is lost”: is a tangible, real absence or something more related to spirituality?
Speaking generally, I think that we turn to spirituality, art, drugs, etc… because there is a lack or void in our lives. And we hope to fill in this void through something that is outside of our selves. The path that I took to deal with this lack, this void was the arts. But I learned that art could not completely take away the absence that I felt in my life.
I am not sure how correct I am, but I believe that we will continue to live with a sense of incompleteness all of our lives. You can find love, or create a great work of art, or have lots of money, but whatever perfect condition you find yourself in will not compensate for the sense of incompleteness that exists in your life.
Despite these recurring themes, in your music the suffering for these absences seems to be tempered under a smooth and well-controlled surface; is this one of your characterial attitudes or does it depend on how you relate with writing music?
If there is a connection between the way I make my music and this absence, it is something that is done unconsciously. I am not aware of it.
Many of your songs talk about sentimental arguments and have very intense lyrics, expecially the ones from “Notes To An Absent Lover”. Still, none of your ‘love songs’ is way too sugary: what is the link between your feelings and your music? What kind of emotions do you get from both of them?
I find that writing about love is a very difficult thing. I say this because I think it’s the one topic that has been written about endlessly. It’s hard to say something that hasn’t already been said before. So it’s easy for your words to sound meaningless. The only way I felt I could talk about my experience of love and make it meaningful was to personalize it as much as possible. If I tried to make the songs seem general, I don’t think I would have felt like I was being true to my experiences.
And when it comes to singing, I seem to always gravitate towards the style of singing that does not express a lot of emotions. I like the stoic style of singers such as Leonard Cohen and Dylan. I am not a fan of the style of singing that expresses too much emotion.
In “Notes to an Absent Lover”, apart from the absence, another recurring argument is memory and the will to forget and leave behind the past. In particular, the lover's absence is observed through the light of memory, and everything is wrapped in a sweet melancholy, as if the past was a river in which you can lose yourself so that it can fill any emptiness. It made me think to some Emily Dickinson lines: "Looking back, is best that is left/ Or if it be - before -/ Retrospection is Prospect's half,/ Sometimes, almost more".
This is only a very personal thought, but how much space memories have inside of you? And do you think that expressing them in music can turn suffering for separation into a sweet melancholy?
To be honest, I don’t know. What I know is simple and not very profound. I experienced a great loss in my life. I tried to walk away from it, hoping to leave it behind, but it continued to follow me. So I tried to confront it by writing this album. They tell you that if you confront what you fear, then it will go away. So, I thought that if I wrote about it, I could exorcise it out of my life. But I don’t think that worked. I have tried many ways of distancing myself from this loss. I have tried to simply forget about it; I have tried writing about it; I have tried travelling. I have tried many things, but none of them have worked. But the main reason for writing this album is because I thought it would help me move away from this loss and close the book on that part of my life.
I am slowly learning that certain things in your past will remain with you for a very very long time, no matter how badly you want them to go away.
Another peculiar argument of your songs is driving, recurring in the opening tracks of both “My Life in Rooms” and “Notes to an Absent Lover”. Is there a symbolic meaning behind it? What music do you like to listen when you’re driving?
I love to drive, especially at night. And I love listening to music while driving. I have been living outside of the city for the past couple of years now, so when I go into the city I have to drive for a long time. Because of this, driving has become a big part of my daily ritual.
I think what I like about driving is the illusion of freedom that it gives you. You feel like you are leaving something behind and moving towards something better. When you’ve been inside a house for a long time you can grow tired and somewhat claustrophobic from being in the same environment. But then you get inside a car and all of a sudden the movement, the change in scenery fill you will new feelings. It’s a lovely thing.
What do I like to listen to while driving - I guess that depends on the time of the day. If I am driving in the morning, than I’ll usually listen to the news. But when I am driving during the night, I like listen to music that is reflective and lyric based.
Your next European tour will finally lead you also in Italy: will it be your first time here? Have you got any expectation about it?
No, this will be my third time in Italy. The first time I was to Italy, I played in Milan. And last time we played in Italy we did about four shows in various cities. Both times it was wonderful. So, I am really looking forward to coming back.
So, hope to see you soon live here!
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I enjoyed it very much. And I hope to see you in Italy.