"I'm really superstitious," says Jennah Barry. "If some little weird thing is going on in the day or someone walks downstairs or if I'm around someone, or I'm around the wrong person, I'll stop. Solo, alone. Because that's important to me---if I can't play the songs solo I won't be comfortable playing them at all."
She's talking about how she writes songs, and if there's any point at which you should listen to Jennah Barry open her mouth---excepting, of course, when she is singing---it's when she's talking about songwriting. Her songs dance the spectrum between folk and indie rock ("I'm waiting for someone else to say it," she says of genre) and the 11 tracks on last year's debut LP Young Men contain shameless declarations, sharp insights, quiet revelations and big reveals set against a backdrop of the sea and snow of the south shore, where she grew up and still lives.
In person she has an easygoing confidence, an undeniable charisma, wears flannel and drinks, as if Tim Riggins decided to pick up a guitar instead of a football. Her casual small-town friendliness is kept in check by a weary guardedness befitting a rural Nova Scotian who spent five years in Toronto straight out of high school.
"I got dumped and I wanted to go home," she says of her time studying jazz at Humber College. "It was so confusing. The city was horrible, a total nightmare." She and her brother were evicted from their first apartment. "We lived above the landlord, and we thought we were being reasonable, but we weren't used to---like my father built our house, we didn't have to walk around on our tiptoes," she says over noodles and beer downtown. "All the apartments were made of sticks. I came home from Toronto with shingles, I slept for 24 hours, my calves hurt from tiptoeing, I was super-lonely."
She poured that loneliness into songs, first with The O'Darling, a seven-piece dark orch-pop band that "was so tedious because everyone had their opinions and everyone had their ego," says Barry. "Three girls writing songs? We actually did pretty good. There's only one person that I don't talk to."
You can hear her distress on "City Part 1" from 2009's The O'Darling: "I lost/I admit it/ I fold I fold/I lied to the city/I'm sorry."
But it wasn't all bad---she points to a course at Humber taught by Rik Emmett of Triumph as an influence. "I swear he taught me pop sensibility. I'm not ashamed, cause he was badass," she declares. "You had to have shit. And you had to get up there and sing it in front of people. And he would rip you a new asshole. He'd be like 'There's gotta be something new you can say, you sound like an idiot.' And that's what got me critical, I feel really comfortable being critical. Rik Emmett, you ruled. And then on the last day he played 'Lay it on the Line.'"
After graduation, mutual friends pointed her to Diego Medina, who owns and engineers the Old Confidence Lodge recording studio in Riverport, and together they put Young Men on its feet, with her Toronto friends comprising the band. "I think she's relaxedly obsessed about things," says Medina. "There can be two ghettoblasters on either side of her head, and she's listening to both of them intently, and judging them. When she came to me she said 'I'm learning how to play the guitar right now' and then she comes and plays this picked tune. She just takes on a lot of things. It's really honest, that's it, really. Her lyrical approach is accessible. It's poetic but it's not corny."
"You know it's really fun to put on a costume and put on a character and think about all these things that we can watch on YouTube, we can put any costume on," Barry says. "But in songwriting I appreciate honesty. You know you can tell right away. I was in Toronto watching this band called Grand Canyon and they live at fuckin' Dufferin and Queen and they're singing about Western saloons. It's like, at least sing about Canadian country, don't sing about fucking American country you don't know anything about."
The country, which she does come by honestly---she's building a cabin right now and proudly shows off her primer-ringed fingernails---seeps into all her songs. On the propulsive opener "The Coast" she sings: "We know the way our bodies handle in the water/we know the way the water opens like a mouth"; "Bee without her sweet honey/She don't believe in anything" on "Mountie Mountie" and on "4x4" she's out in the woods, "Smokin' rifle on my back."
But Young Men is ultimately about "straight up, what I named it---just a smorgasbord of a bunch of people that left a huge impression that I've never had before in my very small, family-oriented life," she says. "My family's really close, so moving up to Toronto and having all these people fucking around with me---I'm not a wuss by any means, and I'm not incredibly open, so the fact that stuff happened to me, it's left a huge impact."
The title track is quiet but still fierce: "Raise a glass for all young men/they fight till they fall apart/turn around and they're gone again/for the love of another one."
"It was recorded at a completely different time, just me and Diego," she says. "We're two super-dramatic Gemini crazy kids; I was dead, I was super-sad. I like that song because we forgot about it, made the record, didn't have a name for the record and then remembered that song."
"She writes tunes that are somewhat girl-centric but at the same time doesn't seem too girly," says Medina. "It's got a masculine approach to being a girl, a tough girl. She talks about basically being where she is, being tough and being around here. It's different than being in the city, living an average nine-to-five life."
The girl thing is something Barry has had to confront often since she released Young Men in May, became a buzz name and played a bunch of high-profile opening gigs including Jenn Grant's album release, Royal Wood at St. Matt's and a theatre tour of Ontario with Rose Cousins.
"People are openly saying, when they're taking my photos and having their opinions about what I'm wearing---maybe I do look bad, but fuck it," she says, getting angry. "Fuck it. I sound like a girl, I sing like a girl, I'm coming from a girl's point of view, I'm wearing whatever the fuck I want. Right down to my mother telling me, but I wanna wear this whether I look like a square or not onstage. Like, I totally look square in a flannel shirt." She air-draws a box. "Like a box." She laughs, but not really.
"Nowadays it should be to my benefit that I'm a female---I have a perspective that a man doesn't have. And it effects what I write and it effects what I'm saying. It doesn't make me any less skillful and it's not a big feat for me to be writing my own songs, and producing my record and playing fucking drums or whatever. It shouldn't be a freak-show act, it should just be that."
As more shows and industry interest accumulate, all Barry wants to do is make a new record without having to sacrifice her personality. Medina, who manages her now (he doesn't want to see her "get douchebagged"), isn't worried. "I don't mean to inflate things, but I think that every tune that Jennah writes is hit-worthy," he says. "Really good, accessible, catchy. And they're timeless."
"I wanna be myself," Barry declares. "I've been this person for 24 years now, and all of a sudden I'm playing these songs and I'm trying to write now and I have to take a break or something, because all I can think about is what's been said about the last record, and Herohill was like 'Does she have the chops to continue?'" she says. "And it doesn't really bother me that much, but thinking about how I've sounded in interviews or what I sound like on the radio---that's in my head. I wanna be myself!"
Tara Thorne wants to be like Jennah Barry too, but in the city. In the meantime she is The Coast's copy chief.
Jennah Barry w/Gabrielle Papillon, JP Hoe, Andrew O’Brien, Saturday, Jan 26, 8pm, The Company House 2202 Gottingen Street, $15