Easy keeper is a term given to livestock animals that can survive on relatively little food. Horses often fall into this category.
It’s also the title of Manitoba-based Americana artist Del Barber’s newest record, the cover of which captures a beautiful autumnal scene with a majestic white horse at its centre and the content of which praises the type of people who are also easy keepers — the ones who don’t ask for attention, who generally give more than they take and live contented, happy lives because of that.
Album release of Easy Keeper
Friday, Oct. 18, 8 p.m.
West End Cultural Centre
Tickets $22.50 at Ticketmaster or the Winnipeg Folk Festival office (203-211 Bannatyne Ave.)
"All the songs I was writing were celebrating those characters. People in this world who just don’t require a lot to be well-adjusted, to be happy and to be contributing to their communities in whatever way. And I want to politically celebrate those characters... most of the time when people have real-world humility, they get looked over a bit, and I’ve always tried to write songs that make mundane things holy in some way... and these characters were inspiring me to be a different person," Barber said over the phone from the BreakOut West: Canadian Music Festival and Conference in Whitehorse, Yukon, earlier this month.
"And even in terms of what’s required of me in relationships with whoever, I want to be someone that is able to give more emotionally than I need to take from people. I think, in a lot of ways, musicians, we get really used to taking, and I just took a pile of money from a bunch of people to make a record, and I think being an easy keeper is a way to celebrate meekness."
It’s been five years since Barber released a solo album (he put out The Puck Stops Here, an album of hockey-themed songs, with the No Regretzkys in 2016, but he says that was more of a side project). A lot has changed for the 35-year-old in that time. The luxury he previously lived with — a manager and multiple record contracts in his back pocket — was no more. And that had him second-guessing whether he would even be able to continue his music career. But his fans weren’t ready to give up on him, and their support helped to spark the creation of Easy Keeper.
"I kind of felt like I was done. And not intentionally, but I kind of lost all the infrastructure I had built up in the industry... it all kind of disappeared on me and I was left feeling like I had no clue how to keep going. I had all these songs and I was still playing shows, but it was increasingly difficult to do," he said.
"I kinda went from having everything figured out for me to having to figure it out again myself. It was a pretty serious dose of humility on one hand, but it was also a realization that there were people out there who wanted me to do it, and it was that feedback that was the catalyst for trying to figure out how to make another record and get back in the game, somehow."
During that career uncertainty, his personal life flourished. Barber got married, had a daughter, moved to a western Manitoba farm near Inglis (near Asessippi Provincial Park) and started living his best life.
The birth of his daughter, Guthrie — named after legendary folk musician Woody Guthrie — earlier this year became another source of inspiration for Barber, and though he is missing her now as he dedicates his time to the first big tour in support of the new album, she has inadvertently and unknowingly encouraged him to continue pushing and touring and creating.
"I’m pretty scared... the longest I’ve been away is about a week and a half. I find it really hard, but you know, when we had Guthrie, I felt like there was no way I could give up on music at that point. It was a catalyst for me really believing in it again, and I didn’t want to use her as an excuse for not pursuing my first love," Barber said.
"We have these great tools now. I get to see her every morning on FaceTime, but it’s still really hard on the heart. I’m missing some pretty big changes. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I also feel a little more hopeful about the whole deal because she’s around. I might be using her as an excuse in a different way, like a reason why I’m out, especially when some days are hard and some shows are hard, I feel like it’s a way to direct my love for it and make me remember why I’m doing it."
To get Easy Keeper off the ground, Barber turned to Kickstarter for the first time in his career to raise the necessary funds.
It was never a tactic he saw himself using, but in the end, he crowdfunded more than $23,000 from folks who were paid back by way of early access to music, concert invites, handmade wooden goods and a handful of other options, depending on their pledge amount.
"It was something that I basically refused to do, refused to think it was a good idea for anyone. I was pretty judgmental about the idea of crowdfunding for a long time, but I definitely did an about-face about it. I took for granted the infrastructure I had and how easy it was for me to make records and tour and the support I had, and when I lost it all, I’m like, ‘How am I going to find $20,000 to make a record?’ I had no clue what to do. And being backed into that corner, more and more people were almost getting angry at me for not asking them for help," Barber said.
"So, then I decided to do the Kickstarter and it was increasingly clear people didn’t want me to stop, the support was completely overwhelming.
"I completely turned around and became the thing I didn’t think I would ever have to be, and now I’m sort of proud about it."
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.