Laura Barrett with Mortimercy , Pyramid Culture and DJ M. Roboto as part of Wavelength at Sneaky Dee's (431 College), Sunday (January 22). Pwyc. 416-603-3090, www.wavelengthtoronto.com. Rating: NNNNN
Inspiration often comes from unexpected places. Consider the fortuitous combination of events that brought Laura Barrett to Toronto stages.
Barrett, a classically trained pianist and recent U of T English/linguistics grad, was idly searching eBay for MIDI controllers when she changed some search terms and found herself gazing at a list of assorted thumb pianos. Struck by a sentimental recollection of plinking a kalimba her uncle had brought back from Africa when she was a child, Barrett bid... and won.
Here's where it gets weirder. Though she worked out kalimba-based covers and wrote tunes in her bedroom, it was Weird Al Yankovic - king of the polka-based parody song - who finally got her thumb piano wizardry into the clubs.
"I was conscious of how silly the whole thing was," she giggles, recalling her big break at last summer's Weird Al tribute night organized by Matt Collins (of Ninja High School and a handful of other bands).
Barrett showed up, kalimba in hand, and delicately warbled and plinked her way through a shockingly great cover of Yankovic's classic Smells Like Teen Spirit ripoff, Smells Like Nirvana.
"First, Weird Al alone is pretty ridiculous. Then you have to consider that I'm a girl playing a man's sort of song. Then factor in that I'm playing this song on an instrument so far removed from my cultural background.... Wow," she laughs. "It was actually totally in keeping with the spirit of the event. There was a duo who did Eat It with a laptop, heavy beats and singing, and a crazy noise version of Yoda."
You can find Barrett's Smells Like Nirvana cover on her independently released and lovingly hand-assembled (by Pounds) Earth Sciences EP. She's also included a handful of her creepy-beautiful originals on the disc, like the ragtime shuffle Deception Island Optimists Club and last year's dystopian holiday hit, Robot Ponies (co-written with Ajay Mehra).
Barrett's arrangements are fascinating, an otherwordly glimmering mass of delicate folk, minor-key waltzes and dissonant polyrhythms that are all the more interesting for being produced on a traditional African instrument. She's quick to point out that she's moved quite far away from conventional kalimba-playing styles.
Though the thumb piano is pretty low-tech, Barrett's kalimba creations have a peculiar electronic feel to them, suggesting demon-possessed music boxes. Barrett eagerly jumps on that idea.
"I was talking to a friend yesterday about how breakdancers and liquid lockers can reproduce effects that we usually associate with animation or digital manipulation, and in some ways I feel like the kalimba analogously implies other instruments. "For instance," she continues, "we're used to hearing bass lines played on a bass, but when I throw in an occasional oompah on the thumb piano, you fill in the rest of the bass with your mind."
A bit academic? Okay, but Barrett's unabashed nerdiness is one of the things that make her songwriting so engaging. We're talking about a girl who called one track - a tumbling waterfall instrumental - Stop Giving Your Children Standardized Tests, Part One.
Barrett happily admits that her linguistics background has played a huge role in her writing process.
"When I was talking to Ajay about certain lyrics, I'd say things like, 'That consonant cluster is totally ridiculous,' or I'd realize one particular word was totally hurting me.
"Actually, I like the idea of having a vocal track that's a bit like the Cocteau Twins, either in a nonsense language or meaningless chanting. There's something about lyrics that locks a song into a certain meaning, and I feel like the music already has a purpose on its own.
"Lots of my professors would acknowledge that certain sounds had onomatopoetic things going on, like how 'glimmer,' 'glisten' and 'gleam' all mean similar things and sound like what they're trying to describe," she says.
"But they'd try to steer us away from discussing that because most of language is arbitrary. Linguists hate it when you look at the aspects of language that aren't actually functional."