Barbaro, who take their name from the famous Kentucky racehorse whose life was tragically short, have recently released About the Winter, their second full-length album.
The band was founded as a duo by Kyle Shelstad and Isaac Sammis in 2017, later welcoming Rachel Calvert and Jason Wells into the fold. They released Dressed in Roses in 2020, and while Sammis departed the band after the birth of his second child, he contributed heavily to the new album and left a great deal of inspiration with the rest of his bandmates.
About the Winter, which was co-produced by Shelstad and Brian Joseph (Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens), features nine original tracks that seamlessly weave in and out of one another, gently guiding the listener through vulnerable lyrics, intimate soundscapes, and technical prowess.
BGS caught up with Barbaro following their month-long album release tour to chat about the new record, their musical process, and recent world travels.
The textures on this album – while ranging from synths and samples to pizzicato bass and fiddle – maintain a familiar sonic foundation for each of these songs to sink into. How did you go about selecting and arranging the material for this record?
Kyle Shelstad: As a group, I think we tend to gravitate towards tunes that we can connect with on some sort of deeper level, tunes that we can internalize in some way that provokes an emotional reaction in ourselves and hopefully those listening. This is the basis for all our song choices in this group, finding tunes that allow our whole selves to buy into the intimate, distant, delicate, and coarse moments that help create the dynamic range found in many of these tunes.
Regarding the arrangements, some of this was pre-planned going into the recording, but many of these songs were somewhat unfinished going in. Our goal was to explore in the studio and Brian allowed us a space to be creative and experimental with these songs. For example, there is a moment in “Subpoena Colada” where Jason is crunching a plastic water bottle full of leaves into the microphone… it’s a sick solo, check it out. Brian took all these experiments and helped us make them musical.
There’s a line in the album’s press release that caught me: “Barbaro’s compositions prioritize texture and expression over technical virtuosity.” I really like that, considering that two of you – Calvert (fiddle) and Wells (bass) – come from the classical world, whereas Shelstad has a stringband background. That said, this music is thoughtfully orchestrated, which I know must require a fair amount of calculation and precision. When putting this music together, where do you find the balance between those two worlds?
Jason Wells: I’d say the balance comes more from each of our instincts than from traditional orchestration. Since Kyle writes the material and brings the songs to the rest of us, I’d say the base of the music is in the string band tradition, but the way Kyle writes and how he uses space and texture is really unique and lends itself to a more classical approach to filling out the other parts.
What makes the songs work is each member’s commitment to really listening for what each song needs and not adding any more than that. As we workshop new material, each of us will try different things and only keep what seems essential to the song, and through that process the form of the song takes shape. It’s a really natural process.
I love the Bruegel piece, “The Hunters in the Snow,” that you chose for the album cover, and the way that it pairs with this music. Can you tell me more about how you came to feature the famous painting alongside this music?
Rachel Calvert: I was researching how winter shows up across art history when I came across the Bruegel painting. I was surprised that it was a 16th century painting, it looked more modern to me. I was seeking something that evoked emotional ambiguity, nostalgia, and the collision of the natural and manmade – and it hit all the marks! I also noticed that the colors matched up with the Barbaro “uniform.” We typically show up to gigs wearing denim, black, and earth tones. “Hunters in the Snow” was already one of us!
The farewell track, “Ike’s Farewell,” is obviously much more than a lone instrumental to close out the album – it’s clear that Isaac Sammis had a big impact on this music, both through his co-founding of the band, and expressive banjo playing. While I know that someone leaving the band can be difficult to navigate musically, I like that Sammis’ contributions are celebrated on this album. I was curious if you could attest to the influence, musically or otherwise, that he’s left with you.
JW: Man, Isaac’s influence on the band’s sound can’t be overstated. He has this unique ability to really push the boundaries of sound and tonality, and I attribute his instinct for tension and release to be one of the primary reasons our songs flow compositionally the way that they do. In addition to his stellar banjo playing, Isaac’s also a hell of a guitar player and you can hear him adding electric guitar effects and note bends on several of the tracks. Those lines and sounds he laid down ended up being foundational to the new sound direction for the album, so his influence is everywhere!
This is unrelated to the record, but I wanted to ask about your 2023 American Music Abroad tour. That seems like a pretty special thing to do – to get to journey to Qatar, Turkey, and Bulgaria to share this music. I know it was after the recording of this album, but how do you think that tour influenced the band?
RC: Our travels abroad reaffirmed our overall mission – to form pathways for all sorts of folks to connect to both their interior emotional world, and to the people and place that form communities around them. Bringing audiences to tears, even through cultural and language barriers, was a powerful reminder that music and art are indeed universal languages that allow us to see the sparks of life and love within ourselves and others.
With your album release tour wrapped up, what’s on Barbaro’s horizon for 2024?
KS: Barb is excited to keep working on and recording new music. We really enjoy the process of writing together and look forward to working on a fresh batch of tunes. I think we found a voice on this record that is uniquely ours, and we intend to keep exploring that.
Photo Credit: Wolfskull Creative