Industry Profile: Erin Barra
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Erin Barra, educator, musician, songwriter, producer, engineer, and audio-technology consultant.
Erin Barra maintains a music career in which she keeps re-inventing her place in the sun.
Rather than being defined by any one label--educator, artist, songwriter, producer, engineer, audio-tech consultant, or digital technology innovatoróthis 29-year-old Berklee-schooled multi-instrumentalist views herself as a creator working with others seeking to integrate digital elements into their productions or performances.
Brooklyn-based Barra is highly acclaimed in music-tech circles through her role as a product specialist for the German music tech company Ableton. Several years ago, she taught herself how to use Ableton Live, a digital audio workstation that has allowed her to combine digital samples with songwriting, and create a hybrid technical creative performance onstage.
Prior to the June, 2014 release of her 5-song EP ďUndefined,Ē Barra offered up isolated stems of her masters for free in partnership with Blend, the file sharing and collaboration platform. The stems then generated hundreds of versions in varied musical genres from electronic musicians and remix artists around the world.
A classically trained pianist, Barra is the creator and instructor of Beats By Girlz, a recording arts and music technology initiative, being presented at the Lower East Side Girls Club in New York City that encourages young women to further their passion for music production and DJing.
Barra grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah where her father owned a high-end audio store. He also built a dedicated listening room at home where Barra spent hours listening to music.
With a songwriting degree from The Berklee College Of Music in Boston, Barra then landed a job as a bartender--and later as a performer--at the famed New York venue, SOBís.
In 2010, Barra released her debut album, ďOne Woman Army,Ē powered by the Ableton Live, a looping instrument that allowed her to perform solo, using only keyboards and samplers. Her second album, ďIllusionsĒ (2012) was distributed by Black Heart Records.
Most recently Barra has turned to co-writing and producing records for others, including Seattle-based singer/songwriter Rita Boudreau.
Barra recently received news that sheís been hired as an associate professor at her alma mater, the Berklee College of Music.
You wear so many different hats in your career.
I do. Itís part of being in a volatile industry.
How do you view todayís music industry?
I feel that if anybody had a blueprint, or knew what was going on, or knew what was going to happen, we would be in a much better position. Iím not one to say that this is what is happening or this should be happening. I am constantly trying to adapt, and be part of the solution rather than whatever is the problem. If people are streaming, then streaming it is. If people want session files, then I will give them session files. The point really is to make music. Most people donít have the opportunity to even do that. I am just counting my blessings, and going with the flow.
Making it in the music business today means something different than it once did. Itís no longer clear what making it is. Is it being able to maintain a living by touring and recording or appearing on ďAmerican Idol?Ē
I have no idea. A few years ago I had to redefine what my definition of success was. Five years ago, it was a lot different than it is today. I think that for any artist the goal is to be creatively fulfilled and, at least, be comfortable enough to live your life the way that you want to live it. For me, it is about being happy, having enough money to live comfortably, and being able to make music. For me, that is making it. If you can do that in the industry as an artistó even those finite goals--I think that is a huge, huge accomplishment for any artist right now.
What were your goals five years ago?
I wanted to be on a record label. I wanted to be an artist. When I was younger, especially, I was more ego-centric. Things have evolved, and I have matured. I care a lot less about those things today. I want to have a home. I guess I wasnít too concerned about those type of things 5 years ago. Iím not as committed to being an artist anymore. Honestly, I care more about helping other people make music and being able to make music the way that I want to.
Perhaps, that attitude is also a by-product of you turning 30 next year?
That is exactly what is happening. I guess at the end of the day itís all just a matter of being able to communicate, and get along with people. No matter what age they are or what they are doing (in life). It is all set into the same avenue in the end for me. I donít even separate them whether Iím doing really technical work, or Iím doing creative work, or when Iím networking. Itís all one and the same for me which I think is why i have had so much success lately.
So where are you going with your life?
Just last week, I signed with the Berklee College of Music. I am their newest associate professor. I accomplished that before I was 30. Iím going to have, I think, a really bright future ahead of me. So Iím not really stressed about it (my career)
Werenít you already teaching at Berklee?
No. I was a student. I graduated from their songwriting department in 2006.
But werenít you conducting workshops at Berklee designed to give songwriters greater facility with digital technology?
Iíve done some workshops there. Some ďWomen In TechnologyĒ weekends and things like that, but I have never been on faculty until last week.
What will you be teaching at Berklee?
Iím going to be teaching songwriting to begin with. If all unfolds as planned, I will be teaching in the electronic production and design department as well. I didnít even apply for the position. They picked me because the woman who runs the departmentówho has only been there for a few yearsóI guess, she had somewhat of a prerequisite in mind of who she wanted to hire. She wanted someone young. Someone who was already familiar with the curriculum, and the university, and somebody who was really tech savvy. And she wanted a woman. So I was all four of those things. Thereís a short list of people who can do the creative and the technical stuff and are a woman. A niche that I fit perfectly.
What is the curriculum you teach for Beatz By Girlz at the Lower Eastside Girls Club in New York?
I try to focus on having fun. Especially for kids, they donít want to be technical, and they donít necessarily want to learn. Their goal is just to get through the day, and to have a good time.
What age group are you working with?
Itís 10 to 13 year olds. I do a class for the moms as well. I think, it is, honestly, the same (approach). They have kids. The Andrew Glover Youth Program provides babysitters for the moms. Itís an opportunity for them to separate from their role of motherhood. They are there to have fun, as well. I try to focus on the fun aspect, and try to get less technical.
How do you go about doing that?
The analogy I draw mostly is to guitar playing. Little boys, predominantly, love playing guitars because itís a matter of putting their hands in the right places, and they are immediately making music. The knowledge of what string is associated with what note, using which chord, that knowledge is an optional thing or comes later on as they progress. I do the same thing with the technology. I take away some of the obstacles that people encounter in the beginning. Or I will walk though those things briefly; wash over them without getting too technical. Then we get straight to the music making, and the fun having. The idea is that they walk away from that situation saying, ďThis isnít hard. This is something that I could do. I saw a bunch of other women do it. Now, I want to continue to do it.Ē Thatís where the real learning begins. After, you have that initial personal commitment and realization that it is something that they also want to do.
The newer generation is far more experienced with computers. Are the girls more knowledgeable about digital technology than you were?
Oh yeah, definitely. But just in a different way. When I am working with the Girlz, they are so fast to pick up things. They move ahead so quickly using applications that I have trouble keeping up with them or finding ways to feed them information. Then when I encounter students at Berklee, they are using the same technologies but, maybe, with a different type of vocabulary. Kids are definitely way more savvy than I am. I donít think that they are more knowledgeable due to the fact that I have had a huge music education, and a lifetime that I have led thus far which really adds to my knowledge base. You canít replace that with being 15, and being really good with a computer.
You are currently producing several other artists.
I co-wrote, and produced a record for this Seattle-based artist Rita Boudreau. This is her first album. Iím editing the final lead vocals right now. Iíve done all of the track production. We will be going into a mix (session) in about two weeks. The album should be done in a month or a month and a half. I have been working on it since last year. We started writing it in November. So this has been a long process.
Sheís the first artist that youíve produced?
Sheís the first artist that I have done an entire record for. I have done lots of one-offs. A track here, a remix here, a co-write here and there. But I had never done a whole record for somebody. So itís been really fun. Iím also doing a record for New York-based artist Andrew Yang after I finish with this. Heís not a musician or a musical artist whatsoever. Heís more of a personality. We will be delving into making a record. Itís going to be really left and centre. Heís not a typical vocalist, but they want to make a really heavy electronic club music (record). So it will be a fun new challenge for me.
You seem to be working all the time.
Thereís so much going on between the teaching, and the record making and also with my own platform. I can only manage to bang out two records a year with the other work that I am concentrating on.
How does it feel as a producer when the pressure is not on you but on the artist?
I love it. Itís a lot less stressful. If I had to choose one of all of the things that I do, just one thing to focus on, it would definitely be writing and production.
Your recently-released EP ďUndefinedĒ features different remixes of tracks that evolved from the production platform Blend. How did that work out for you?
We came out of the situation with 9 remixes. The majority of the remixes were European. There was one guy from New Zealand, and a couple of Americans. It was an awesome experience. Blend is the answer to a lot of obstacles that I have come across collaborating remotely with people. File sharing and file management is a huge clique where music technology sort of falls short. Their platforms seamlessly allows you to share and collaborate in a way that Drop Box doesnít really cut it.
Blend is not the only contender out there. Thereís a lot of other cloud services that are coming up, and adding new functionalities. But generally-speaking, I had a great experience. There is also an archival system that goes along with it, With people commenting, uploading, and updating. You can look back and see how the process unfolded. I felt like I contributed to everybodyís remixes. I met with and worked with people that I would have never had an opportunity to without leaving my house.
[Blend is a collaboration network for music creators started by Alex Kolundzija, and built in New York City at the startup studio and seed stage venture capital company, Betaworks. On Blend, musicians and producers share in-progress music projects, and connect with others to collaborate. Projects can be discovered, previewed, commented on, and more importantly, "pulled" in source format to add to, remix, and learn from. Other creators or fans can not only discover new music in an interactive format, but can also participate in the creative process.]
Blend opens up a lot of creative options for producers and musicians.
I agree. Itís like the start of something that is much larger, and will evolve probably to be a real common place thing. They are definitely pioneering a place in the electronic music file sharing and file management that needs people working on it.
Blend also introduces musical creators to a wider community of creative voices, Also another way of spreading your brand.
Oh definitely. I work in electronic music, but the music that I make is not necessarily electronic.
At heart, you are a songwriter.
I am. People want to compartmentalize or pigeonhole me at any opportunity. ďOh, you are an educator. You are a producer. You make electronic music.Ē But I donít. I just do whatever I want, and thatís what Iím doing. But there has always been this whispering in the background, ďOh, you should make EDM (electronic dance music). You are working for Ableton, and you are working with the electronic music community.Ē The view is that I should be making electronic music which is something that I donít do. So when we gave the files to people (via Blend) that content created itself without me actually having to do anything. Now I have an entire album full of remixes that are all EDM-based. I have satisfied that need for people that need to hear that kind of music from me without me actually having to do any of it on my own which is insanely beautiful and a scary thing.
You seem to still be a traditionalist.
Oh, thank you. I agree. I use a lot of digital technologies, but I donít make electronic music. There are some Moog synthesizers (including a Moog Little Phatty for lead lines and basses), and traditional electronic production techniques that I use but, first and foremost, Iím a musician.
With the tracks created through Blender being a shared creative experience, who owns the final tracks?
When they (collaborators) download the stem, they agreed to (honor) collective common copyright laws. With the winners, we actually did have paperwork signed, and we split the rights according to what we had agreed upon. It was pretty clear cut.
Itís important legally that Is and Ts be crossed because a film and television music supervisor could hear the track and want to use it. So you have to make sure everything is legally cleared.
Absolutely. Thatís why I took the time to do that. I had a really similar situation with a remix from my last album for a Victoriaís Secret advertisement. They gave me about two days. ďWe want to use this, but we really need to move this along. So let us know if you have all the rights under your control. Otherwise thanks very much.Ē I was able to pull it off because I had crossed all of the Ts and dotted all of the Is.
It was a remix from a song called ďGood ManĒ on the album I released in 2012 called ďIllusions.Ē
ďIllusionsĒ was the album that Blackheart Recordsóco-founded by Joan Jett and Kenny Laguna--distributed. How did that work out for you?
Ahh, it was a learning experience. It didnít change my life. They are a traditional label, and they sell a lot of physical product because Joan Jett is their main artist. Joan Jett fans still buy Joan Jett albums. So they put a lot of emphasis on the physical product. We didnít lose a ton of money, we didnít make a ton of money either. The whole situation was sort of a draw, and I learned a lot.
Until recently, music production had largely been a male dominated field. Interestingly, the new technologies coupled with the internet are opening doors for more women to emerge in production.
Yeah, especially with the anonymity that you can kind of hide behind on the internet. With file sharing I could be working under any name that I wanted and I could assume the identity of a male if I so desired and nobody would be the wiser. People can be whoever they want. I think that gender does matter less than it did 10 years ago, but itís still a male playground.
Within a band, gender can still matter. Iíve seen very few male musicians seek advice from a female musician.
I agree. I think that I have experienced it on both sides. It a little difficult to sell people in the beginning but once you do gain that respect, itís there. I donít really experience that anymore honestly. I think that I have accomplished enough that my work speaks for itself. I hardly ever experience anybody treating me ďlike a woman.Ē
Computer technology has been heavily used in recording studios for decades for creating music and is now playing a larger role in live performances. Rather than musicians working around looping and audio effecting on stage, they are integrating technology into the creative aspects of live performances. The New Frontier?
I hope so, mostly due because that is what I specialize in, with the digital integration into creative, lighting, production and live scenarios. Itís interesting because it is the intersection of two very separate fields. Like a right brain technical aspect, and then a left brain creative one. You donít really see that many people able to simultaneously handle the whole thing. Electronic music is becoming much more organic and live while band scenarios are becoming more structured wand musicians are using lap tops onstage. So I think that they (the two different approaches to music making) are becoming one and the same. Itís a really interesting time to be in the field.
You use a MacBook Pro with Ableton Live in your performances. You are, in effect, utilizing technology in performances rather than just looping and using audio effects.
For me as an instrumentalist, and as a musician, this is a blast for me. I know that many people do just press ďplayĒ and play along. But that is so against my ethos that I just canít do it. I think that there is a lot of room for life in being engaged with digital technology. Itís not easy, but it can be done. When electronic music is really awesome it is when itís very alive. For me those things arenít usually inclusive
How did you begin working with computers, and digital audio workstations? Certainly, a 360 turnaround for a classically trained pianist.
I was against using synthesizers or computers for a long time. Then, I was cutting my first record and I didnít have money to pay the engineer to do the type of editing that I wanted. Audio editing is a laborious, and arduous task. The engineer I was working with suggested that I learn how to edit. Then I could cut down my costs, and also get in the driverís seat in terms of what was happening on the record. So he gave me an hour long crash course in how to use Pro Tools, and I never turned back.
How did you come to start using the software music sequencer, and digital audio workstation, Ableton Live?
I had been a ProTools user previously to picking up Ableton. So I had been working inside of DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) for awhile. At a certain point, I just had a strong desire to tour but I didnít have the money to cover the overhead costs of bringing multiple musicians onstage. I initially started kind of messing around with a laptop as a way to cut my overhead (on tour).
A Mac Book Pro?
Yeah. I was using a Mac. When I started, I was like, ďMaybe we will take three or four people on the road instead of five.Ē But once I really wrapped my head around what was really possible, I started to articulate ideas, and concepts that I had been thinking about for a long time. It was like going down a rabbit hole. I swung (toward) the complete opposite direction. I was on tour by myself with multiple synthesizers, MIDI controllers, and microphones. I was doing everything as a solo artist without a band. Then I sort of swung back the other way, and did it with a trio and still used the laptop. Itís been a huge journey, but it started just out of the sheer necessity to cut my costs.
Were you surprised that you could use Ableton Live with a band? Many musicians canít wrap their heads around that.
I donít think that I was necessarily surprised. I donít know with everything like how I got into songwriting, producing and singing and anything it was blindly bludgeoning ahead and thinking about it later. So I just put one foot in front of the next and I never really thought about it.
[Developed by Berlin-based music software company Ableton AG, Ableton Live is currently in its 9th version. There are three versions of the software available: Live 9 Standard (the core software for music performance and creation), Live 9 Suite (Ableton Live, Max for Live + all of Ableton's software instruments/effects), and Live 9 Intro (an introductory version of Live with fewer track and effect slots). Ableton Live is designed to be used with a wide range of USB and MIDI controllers, as well as instruments, and virtual instruments.]
You were, however, a bit skeptical about the Ableton Push controller (the music making instrument designed like a keyboard that can be used in either studio or stage settings) were you not?
Yeah. It was mostly because of the X and Y axis that it functions on--the polyphonic functionality. I think of music in a linear fashion in being a keyboard player. And it took me a little while to wrap my head around playing on a grid. But just like any instrument or piece of technology, once I integrated into my work world, I found that I able to do different things that I canít do on a piano on Push. Itís cool. Itís like giving yourself a brand new set of ears and eyes to see the world in. People are generally resistant to change and so was I.
One element of Push that has surprised me is the ability to mix with it.
Oh yeah. That probably one of the strongest functionalities that I can get. I donít do huge mixing projects on it, but when Iím stretching out ideas and I can get quick rough mixes going. Iím able to get a really strong product out of it in a fraction of time if I was doing a lot of clicking and looking. I am just using my ears and Iím using my hands. I think that is how music is meant to be made. Itís not about looking at a computer screen, and seeing frequencies. Itís really about hearing them. So, for me, itís a great mixing tool.
Digital technology may offer performers greater control in live performances, but can also inhibit spontaneity. Arenít there pluses and negatives in using digital technology in a live setting?
Yes, definitely. The hardest part is striking the balance between live and programmed (performances); playing and pushing; responsibility and spontaneity is always a struggle. Thatís probably the thing that has evolved the most with me which is finding that balance.
Are younger people as aware of that balance? Do they have similar concerns?
I donít think so. With Ableton, they refer to these people as laptop musicians. It is definitely a new breed of creator. They sit in their bedrooms, and they can do amazing things all by themselves with very little money. It is kind of insane. They donít have the vocabulary particularly, some of the more musical or instrumental elements of what is possible then I donít think that you really bother yourself with making sure that they are integrated. Itís like you donít know about it, you just donít care.
In 2010, you released ďOne Woman Army,Ē the first album in which you used Ableton.
Yeah. That was four years ago. Wow. It was like going down a rabbit hole.
Were you still working at S.O.B.ís at that point?
You know, I think I was. That was toward the end. I started there in 2007 and I was there for three or four years. So that was right at the moment that I decided to jump off the precipice, and just go for it.
[S.O.B.ís, aka Sounds of Brazil, is a live music venue in the lower Manhattan neighborhood of SoHo which opened in 1982. Owner Larry Gold opened the venue with the purpose of exposing the musical wealth and heritage of the Afro-Latino Diaspora. It has since become one of Americaís leading venues for Latin, Haitian, Brazilian, Caribbean, R&B, hip-hop and world musics.]
You started at S.O.B.ís as a bartender.
Yeah. For three years. That was intense.
Welcome to New York City.
Especially for a girl from Utah working at a world music venue. At that point in time, I didnít even understand the distinction between the Latin countries. I thought Boston was pretty cultured when I lived there (attending Berklee) but it is nothing like New York. The first day I thought, ďThis is so amazing. Thereís so much culture here.Ē
When you first moved to New York where did you live?
I was in what is called now the South Slope right outside of Park Slope in Brooklyn, which is now a real hip area but, at the time, it was industrial and on the outskirts.
Was it a career turning point for you appearing at Eric Robersonís Sol Village showcases at SOBís?
Eric (aka Erro, a singer/songwriter/producer from Rahway, New Jersey) puts on those showcases once a month, and I played, I think, four of them. I was really lucky to receive support from him. and SOBís. Those four walls (of the club) are filled with really amazing music, and really important people. Heís just an amazing advocate, in general, for young artists. I am forever indebted to him for all of the support that he has shown me.
Did a light bulb come on for you in seeing someone that advanced in their craft?
Yes. Not just Eric but everybody that was on that stage. It makes a huge difference when you see live music 5 days a week for three years. I really understood what a great performance was because I experienced it over and over. It was everything and, especially, Eric. Heís one of the best performers that I have ever seen ever anywhere. Handís down.
Where were you born?
I was born in Salt Lake City right after my parents moved there. I think they moved there in í84. I was born in í85.
How did you parents come to live in Salt Lake City?
My dad worked for an explosives company in the Ď80s called Trojan Explosives. They detonate and dispose of nuclear explosive things in the desert in Utah. So we moved there because that was there they were doing business.
A Catholic girl growing up in Salt Lake City. A strange place to be anything but Mormon.
It definitely was. It is such a beautiful place, and the Mormons are such nice people. It really had a huge impact on me. My parents did a good job of keeping me Catholic though.
Any ďFootlooseĒ moments? Did you rebel during high school?
I definitely did. Itís like any place where thereís a religious one-sided perspective, I think that the counter culture is very strong in those places. But I never felt like I was oppressed by the Mormon domination of that state. I always found like-minded people to hang out with.
With your parents being children of the Ď60s, you probably grew up listening to James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, and the Doors.
Yea. A lot of singer/songwriters, definitely. My father, after he stopped working in the explosives business, he started a high-end audio business. Heís a true audiophile. We always had a room in house that was dedicated to listening. A lot of those classic recordings like the James Taylor and Steely Dan records, they are just such masterpieces. Not only musically but with the fidelity and the way that they were done. They are just amazing. That was what he was listening to all of the time. I was influenced not only musically, but sonically, by those recordings, for sure.
You started piano lessons at an early age. Did you have any expectations of a classical music career?
No, I never really thought that. I would say that I was a big fish in a small pond. I always knew that I wanted to play music but I never wanted to be a pianist with a sad solitary life (laughing).
Why did you seek to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston?
I donít know. I came within a hair of going to The Oberlin Conservatory of Music, (located on the campus of Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio). They offered me a full scholarship. I visited there, and it just seems so stodgy and conservatorish. I just knew that wasnít the music that I wanted to make. It was really a last minute decision to go to Berklee. I think I figured that it was the last opportunity that I had. Most people told me not to go, but I just felt that my music and my aesthetic would be better there.
Why did people tell you not to go to Berklee?
I had been working with a lot of more classical musicians. I had done a bunch of work with the Utah Opera. So traditional purists--those type of conservatory classical musicians--I donít think they like Berklee because they are so opposite (from whatís done there).
How do you separate being creative and being a business person?
I donít separate the two. I think why Iíve been successful is that I can be creative, and also show up on time which is sometimes mutually inclusive to people. Thereís a lot of influence there from my dad. Heís a business guy. I guess I just picked up a lot of those people skills. Thatís all it really is. Itís really being cool and following through. I donít understand why thatís so hard for some people, but it really is.
Filing paperwork isnít much fun for creative types.
Yeah. Iím really involved in the business side of things which a lot of artists arenít. I have a great manager, Duncan Hutchinson. We have been working together for three years. He used to run Black Heart Records. We met when I started working for Black Heart. We have a really strong friendship that has developed over the years. Itís great. I am indebted to him.
How do you two work together?
Itís more of a partnership. Weíre able to work as a team. All the money that I am making goes back into funding our projects and publicizing and promoting whatís going on. He and I are both looking at the long term.
You seem to have a balance in your life.
Finally, yeah. It took years and years to get here.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book ďMusic From Far And Wide.Ē
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.