Laura Barrett got more than a little help from her friends to make Victory Garden.
LAURA BARRETT with SUNPARLOUR PLAYERS at the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West), Saturday (August 16). $10. summerworks.ca.
From little seeds, big things grow. Or in Laura Barrett's case, giant, unexpected things. Toronto's folk sweetheart has come a long way since stumbling across the miniature thumb piano known as the kalimba. Since that fortuitous eBay encounter, she's become attached to two bands (the Hidden Cameras and Henri Fabergé and the Adorables), released a pair of EPs and blossomed in Toronto's tight-knit music community.
But there was still one piece missing: a debut album.
"I wasn't sure about whether I was going all the way with music," she says of its delay. "When I first started playing, I was just out of university and felt a lot of pressure to continue my education. It took me a while to accept that I could give myself over to music in a bigger way than before."
And give over to it she has. Released next month, Victory Garden (Paper Bag) is an ambitious shift from an intimate Laura + kalimba set-up to an expansive multi-instrumental, multi-layered orchestral offering featuring Basia Bulat, regular collaborator Ajay Mehra, Lief Mosbaugh and acclaimed producer and vibraphonist Paul Aucoin (who also lends his arranging skills), among many others.
"I've always had the idea in the back of my mind of doing something really large-scale. And it was a real boon to say to my friends, ‘You are going to be treated like a real musician and get paid, and there's actually sheet music.'"
Despite the talent involved and a move away from the simple intimacy of the EPs, Victory Garden feels unmistakably Laura Barrett, even when she abandons her beloved thumb piano in favour of its larger, more traditional counterpart. Moments of heavier orchestration are always carried along by Barrett's delicate, determined voice and her nimble thumb work.
"It's more like a composer's concerto," she says. "I'm there playing my own songs and I have an orchestra playing with me. Various friends added their own parts, but I didn't see it as a band. It's mainly my songs with Paul's ideas and suggestions."
Even so, Barrett likens the experience of recording with friends in east Toronto's Halla Music to "the old days in music camp" - a natural and organic process, which partly explains the disc's World War II-indebted name.
"Victory Garden is about working together with a gathering of musicians, as well as the move toward sustainable farming in a world still embroiled in war and conflict. I am growing some tomatoes and herbs myself. I like getting connected in that way. I've been touring with two bands for a while, so it's been hard for me to touch base."
This disconnection is apparent in Barrett's lyrics. Gone are the explicit story songs of the Earth Sciences EP. In their place is clever wordplay that reveals her education in linguistics and reads like fragmented newspaper headlines.
It's a far cry from her cultish, much-loved Robot Ponies, but fans can be assured Barrett won't be omitting the futuristic fable from live shows just yet.
"I am up and down about it," she admits. "But I recently had Rebekah Higgs join me onstage a couple of times, and Ajay's been playing a bit of glockenspiel here and there, and it's like, ‘Okay, this song could go somewhere different.' I just wasn't letting it do that before."