From the TELEPHONE Interview Series. For the fourth conversation in the series, musician Jack Garton spoke with performer and theatre-maker Barbara Adler. Barbara Adler is an interdisciplinary artist whose work brings together literary performance, composition, live event production and arts education to explore the intersections between text, music, sound and theatre. Her work has been presented through multiple solo and band albums, publication in spoken word anthologies and performances at major music and literary festivals, including The Vancouver Folk Festival, The Vancouver Writers Festival, The Winnipeg Folk Festival, and the Vienna Literature Festival. Recent collaborators include Lesley Telford, Mascall Dance, documentary filmmaker Jan Foukal and composer Ron Samworth.
-Joe’s Café, Vancouver BC, March 2017-
Jack Garton: When I was thinking about this last night, I realized that I first met you or at least saw you perform was a long time ago as part of the slam poetry scene here. I started thinking about that and remembering how awesome that was. There was a lot of really great talent performing regularly. I remember loving seeing you, Brendan McLeod and CR Avery and Shane Koyczan. I can’t really remember if it was actually an amazingly rich time for slam poetry or if I was 20 and everything was amazing. Do you still perform that kind of stuff at all?
Barbara Adler: Yeah. It feels like a complicated relationship with it, which is probably because I’ve been part of it in one way or another for a long time. Part of it feels like it has a weight of personal history to it. So, I don’t perform at the slam regularly at all. I don’t go see it regularly anymore, but this year I made an effort to try to go and perform and compete in the slam to see what that was like. Besides that, a lot of the work that I do now has a lot of influence from spoken word and I think about vocal rhythms and communication through story.
Right. Do you think that, after going back this year, it’s changing? Is it just as rich as it was, or was it a thing that was resting at one point and has now moved on? Are you taking those elements into other media or is it still a relatively vibrant thing in itself?
I think that the question is, was it something I loved because I was 20 or was it something that was particularly good at the moment? I think a poetry slam is, for me and for a lot of people, a really good place to get your first glimpse at performing with just a microphone and an audience that is hungry to hear you. Inevitably, anything I remember about those first three years is about how good it was for me personally to go and perform. I think it has changed a bit in terms of the kind of people who are flocking to it right now. There’s a really strong feminist and trans-activist element that wasn’t there when I was starting. I was one of the few women performing poetry for a long time. Thankfully that has changed and the dynamic along with that has… poetry has changed as more people and a bigger diversity of people has come along. With that I think it’s become more outwardly political than when I was starting out, and that changes how the scene feels as well.
I remember the poems at that time that stayed with me the most and still stay with me are super personal ones. What I love about that, what makes it open to diversity, is that it seems to be a place where you can share your vulnerability. It’s pretty open. It’s actually a very inclusive, accessible art form even though it’s fucking terrifying to get up in front of everybody with just a mic and nothing else. Anyone can do it. Anyone can sign up.
That’s the idea. The thing that I’ve noticed about myself is that I’m much less willing to talk about my personal life and my self as a person publicly in that way. As material, I’m not so interested in defining my identity over and over again, and I’m also a little bit hesitant to share personal things about myself. I wonder if part of it is that the scene has aged and I have aged and social media has aged and so personal sharing is the landscape we live in right now. So maybe that special night is not as unique in our lives anymore.
That makes a lot of sense.
That’s something I find kind of challenging when I have gone to poetry slams or when I interact with that kind of genre of poetry is how do you relate to people instantly with something that isn’t directly about yourself. It’s so relatable when you see someone telling their vulnerable and true story. You instantly understand where that’s coming from, but if you as an artist don’t want to use that anymore, what’s the instant relation point?
Also in that form, you have to make an instant connection or you can lose the room really quickly. Everything is happening pretty fast.
You have three minutes.
It’s not the same as a theatre audience that has bought a ticket to invest their time in the whole show.
Or even music that kind of builds a night. And you build a night not just through what you say but what you look like when you show up and how you organize the stage. I’m more and more into that. Just into having more entry points to get at an idea.
You can have the idea for each element and also delegate it to somebody who is extremely skilled in that field and you can collaborate with each of them.
Yeah, one of the things I’m finding out is that a skill I might have is finding out what people are interested in and finding out where it overlaps with my interests and then initiating something where they make a thing that is mostly theirs but it’s part of this bigger thing that I’m working on.
You mentioned that you wished that it [theatre] had more of that spontaneous, shit show aspect to it.
Yeah, like you might hate it and it might be OK and it will be OK because you didn’t spend $40 and this isn’t sponsored by Alcan or something where there are these expectations of a product or professionalism. I kinda want the product to sometimes be shitty.
Or the freedom for it to be that way.
Because then when it’s great, you know… We’ve been producing shows in the Gold Saucer studio, you know, very underground, tiny shows on a weekly basis every Tuesday and we’ve booked some really excellent people and programmed shows that could be in Music on Main or the Jazz Festival. Those are available people and you can get them.
And there are not a lot of venues.
Exactly. It’s kind of a strange thing that you can see somebody at Jazz Festival and then see them for $5 at a small dance studio, and that’s maybe kind of beautiful. There’s something about coming into our space, which is a very DIY little dance studio and then seeing a show that feels expensive and special. I think that kind of surprise of how did all these things come together, how are they pulling all of this off, is one of the things that makes performance really great. Like, how did they do that? It’s the feeling I want people to have when they come to a show.
There’s a show that can wow you. Like, how did they do a back flip and that’s important and amazing, but there’s the production aspect that I’m really interested in. I want people to get a sense that a lot of people worked on something to make it come together and to have that little, “Oh!” There’s people in this world that cared about doing something together and they had to do it for this to happen. I think that’s a good pedagogical solidarity lesson.
So you’re doing it in this venue, in this smaller space, do you think it’s more manageable? And can you do it regularly?
Yes, doing it regularly is really important because you get better at something you do regularly. So we’re getting better as producers and maybe your audience is getting better at having expectations for the space. Contrasting expectation is one of those places where magic happens. So if you see something that looks expensive in a shitty place, there’s a little bit of an advantage. And sometimes the sound is shitty. I just like that a lot.
The problem too [with high production values] is that that makes it really inaccessible for folks who may be thinking that they’d like to try performing too. And if that’s what it seems like it needs to be, that’s really tough to achieve. I like when you go to see a show and you feel like you could maybe do that.
And not to detract from its amazingness, just that it’s also accessible.
Even if you’re not the one in the light, you could really be involved in the whole process of it. It strikes me that live theatre and live music are both like the typewriters of evening entertainment these days. They are a bit old-school compared to watching Netflix. It seems like that unpredictability and collaboration that we enjoy… do people, after long days of work, want a more controlled experience? Do they want to pick a movie online and watch it in their comfortable home environment, more so than going out and taking a chance? We’ve invested our lives in these media and in performance, but how relevant is it? I often feel like I have that question.
When I was doing my degree and doing some reading about theatre one of the things that would come up frequently was the idea that theatre is dead. I feel like that angst of irrelevance is probably baked in at this point. But, I went to see a show shortly after I did my MFA graduating product…I went to see this really cool band at the Biltmore. They had come from Seattle, and they brought so much gear and interesting old crappy synthesizers that were really hard to mic. I saw part of their sound set up and it was hard and they were getting feedback the whole time and then they played this magical set. It was so good but there weren’t very many people there. They slunk off at 11pm and packed up all their gear really quickly and then the Biltmore opened the doors and 200 people came in to see a DJ set. They had a Justin Bieber video excerpt on a loop and it would say ‘#basic’ and it was this ironic kind of joke on being basic or something. There was a basic bar special and 200 young people came out and were enjoying themselves and socializing and being part of this scene that felt like it was making fun of them. The most cynical set up ever. In that moment, I was like ‘Oh, this is the worst, this is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.’ But also, there were 200 people who came out to have a social experience in public and they left their house and paid their money. I thought, there are people leaving their house and maybe, as artmakers and producers, if we are going to make the complaint that nobody is coming to our shows, maybe we just have to be doing a better job at getting them to come see us or be interested in us. It’s depressing but it’s also something that’s still there that can be shifted
It’s a social experience that has not gone away, but it’s really changed.
What people want to socialize to is not us necessarily, but I don’t think that means it couldn’t be us. I don’t know if this has actually changed or if I’m just not 20 anymore, but I have a feeling that, since you and I were 20, there has been an explosion of DIY artists. I think there are more people who consider themselves artists. Musically, anyway. Because there’s no more gatekeeper record industry thing that keeps you from doing music. I think there’s way more material out there. The theory is that more people have to be both producers and creators because if you don’t self-produce it’s just not going to happen.
I know that I was still, as a kid, really steeped in the older way, where you think that the way to get your work out was through those gatekeepers. That was the way that it was with mass media and everyone consumed it. But, it’s changed over the last decade. And we’ve had to adapt with that change. I’ve always admired your ability to do that. You do so many different things. You made a film (Amerika)… Is it Czechoslovakia or Czech Republic?
I think they changed it to Czechia recently.
It should have been in my Facebook feed with my relatives complaining about it. Like, “look at the latest stupid thing our country has done.” So I think it might have happened.
And you’re doing theatre and writing and music and it’s all these things. I have always thought that, in a way, you’re very good at getting your work out and very good at producing shows too. I don’t know whether that’s a conscious choice to do different mediums to do that.
Conscious choice makes it sounds like I feel really good about it. So it’s not so conscious, but I’m interested in a lot of different things and I do follow my interests and so if something comes up and there’s energy there I follow it. The downside to that is that you don’t get good at any one thing as fast and it take a longer time for things to come to a similar level. I worry about that sometimes.
In all the different things that I’ve seen you do, even in social media posts and stuff like that, you have a consistent voice as a writer and creator.
I try to…but what’s my voice?!
It’s Barbara. It’s definitely not anybody else and it’s definitely clear and I really really admire that. It seems to have been consistent since I first saw you perform at poetry slams and open mics. Has it always been there, or do you work your writing a lot to try to make it sound so natural? It always comes across as extremely clear and not imitative of any other style. I always struggle with the fact I’m maybe just now starting to feel comfortable speaking in my own voice and not imitating other people’s style. Have you always been confident being yourself?
It makes so much sense to me. The compliment I would give to you is the opposite: that I’ve always been so impressed by what a command of material you have and how much musical history and knowledge you’ve incorporated into what you do. You can do vaudeville stuff and you know all of these songs and now you’re playing this heavily rhythmic party music with country influences. You’ve absorbed all of the idioms and can perform them, which is so impressive to me because I can’t do that.
It’s like opposite side of the coin or something.
I think the idea of voice is really important to writers. I grew up liking really voicey writers, like stylists.
The catch-22 of that whole thing is that the people that I admire are people who have their own very strong voice and then through the admiration of them I am trying to copy them and do the opposite thing and not create a personal one.
What writing teachers have told me about that kind of thing is that it’s natural and you take on somebody’s voice for three chapters and shake out of it and it’s a totally normal thing. I look at things that I wrote when I was reading certain things and then think myself, “you were into this person then you shameless idiot.” Then I settle somewhere and can hold on to things over time.
JG: Is it kind of a modern thing that we use the written the word in a lot of different ways now. There’s the Twitter format, the Facebook post, and it’s less formal. Then there’s all these different ways we engage as an artist using words, and I notice that you do it very well.
The Facebook thing is one of those moments where it’s something I dislike. I dislike that there’s this contemporary need to constantly be representing ourselves and selling ourselves. That’s how I see it. I see Facebook as an exercise in personal branding. This shitty capitalist logic has made us think that we need to sell ourselves to our friends and our social networks. I fucking hate it.
Or the romanticism of it. I think the broadcasting of yourself is a romantic idea and you think that all these people might like this picture. There’s a lot of stuff we’re being inundated with all the time. I also wrestle with it too. I think this is part of the idea of trying to adapt to it while it’s happening. I’ve tried a bunch of different platforms and found that I’m not very good at any of them. I find that I still go back to connecting with people in person, which is better. Like, doing a show and talking to everyone afterwards, like hanging out still works better for me than putting out a monthly email or having an awesome website or doing a Facebook post regularly or any of the other music platforms online. I find I also have to do those things.
It’s great that you have that social energy. I don’t always.
After the show, not before.
Before a show you cannot…
… connect to people. I’m an insecure puddle before a show, I can’t talk to anybody.
I love that.
I’m a total mess.
Do you ask yourself, I hate this, why do I do this?
I don’t really ask myself that… it’s more that I think that this time it might not work, like I might not be able to do it. I blank on songs all the time before a show. I make a set list but then I’m like, I don’t know any songs. And I blank. I know so many songs and I just can’t think of them for the life of me. I’ve tried to be more present in everything. I don’t drink before shows anymore. One or two whiskeys would help with that a lot but then I think it doesn’t help with being a band leader and being mentally on top of what’s going on.
How do you like being a band leader?
I like it. Maria in the Shower was way more all for one, one for all. I just found it so emotionally and organizationally messy to do that. I try to be a good band leader. It’s a really big challenge though because to be a good leader you have to lead from the bottom and do all the dirty jobs that nobody wants to do. And take care of everyone so that they’re feeling good about the project. But, I’m coming to appreciate that way more over time. Producing a show is probably the most thankless aspect of the experience someone has. They don’t really think about producers. You’re invisible almost but absolutely important to the thing going well. I’m also the most visible on stage, but that’s just what people see. What they don’t see is that I’ve spent 10 hours a day organizing everything for the last year. I’ve admired band leaders who do that. I’ve always thought that’s what makes James Brown so awesome.
I was just thinking about that.
He’s like doing that awesome stuff that you’re seeing but then you also know that he’s running the whole business and that just makes it so much more awesome.
I don’t know too much about him except for the story about him fining people and not giving them their uniforms.
I tend to do that with my band a lot.
I threaten to take away people’s costumes all the time.
I’d love to be able to fine people for wrong notes. But then I think none of us are really making any money doing this. But maybe that’s not the right attitude.
People would be in terrible debt to you.
Imagine how awful it would be.
There would be this other layer of admin that you would have to do.
I’m enjoying it. I find that being a dad too, I enjoy all the parts of my life that are just the least glamourous but so rewarding, making other people feel good and cared for.
How old are you?
32, I think.
I think I’m turning 34. We are at very similar parts of our lives. I feel like having kids can put a few more years on you.
Yeah, maybe a few more gray hairs… like, sleepless nights. I think a lot about what my role is in the next phase or as I grow, I don’t like being one of those people that seem stuck in their youthful self, not able to grow and be a really functioning contributing adult to all the other people in life. It would be tempting to just be totally free and live the same life of a really young person, but I really think of my self-identity as trying to be a good father and contributing community member. I think there is a cool thing it does to the art too even though it’s probably not as sexy. Whatever art can survive through all that stuff of being a good person, you know, doing my taxes and covering child care when my wife works, that is going to ring true.
It passes through the filter. Everything you’re putting out is something you really want to do.
I don’t know if you find this but I find that over time I’m less sure about any particular system but try to be more open to how things are going and try to do work that I feel I resonate with. I’m less sure than my black-and-white mind was 10 years ago, but I’m committed to doing it.
Something I ‘ve been telling myself pretty frequently is that whatever it takes to keep making art is fine. If it’s something really boring like I’m going to have a happy full life and nice family, I need a garden, I need people around me, then that’s not shameful, it’s actually…
It’s fine, but I think the elephant in the room in that conversation is that there’s still that myth clinging on of the star artist who is not responsible for anything else and is somehow able to just lock themselves away and create this great work. For me, that’s fallen away more and more.
I appreciate that you see it that way. I feel like that myth is historically easier for a husband or for men to take on—to even be able to conceive of art as being a singular, most important thing that they put all their energy into. There are a lot of women taking care of the back-end for them. Another theme of this conversation is making the back-end visible. All of the invisible parts of the iceberg other than the tiny little performance tip is actually really essential and has to be spoken out loud. That’s the real shit. That’s what’s making it go. Psychologically, even if you know that and talk about that all the time, I think letting go of that feeling that you have to be single-mindedly driven or only devoted to your personal artistic practice is like a little talk you have with yourself.
Steeped in the solitude of the mountains and islands of the Pacific Northwest, raised in the boisterous and irreverent East Vancouver arts community, Jack Garton’s music is a dance party for the vulnerable at heart. In the lineage of Weird and Wonderful Canadian songwriters Leonard Cohen, k.d.Lang, Corb Lund and Geoff Berner, Garton’s songs alchemize brokenness and pride, and celebrate the sheer “absurd difficulty of being alive” (Geoff Berner) with wit and grace. Over the last ten years while touring Canada, the USA and Europe, Garton has developed a distinctive voice on the accordion, mixing cajun, european and country styles with ease into an exciting roots music feast. Whether backed by his powerful band the Demon Squadron or solo, armed with an accordion and trumpet, his shows are theatrical, fluid, confessional, and fun. They reflect a lifetime of devotion to the art of live music as well as an impressive breadth of life experience including his roles as a father and husband, local gravedigger, theatre artist and music teacher. In this series, he was interviewed by Travis Bernhardt.
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