Barbaro, the Minneapolis-Winona based bluegrass-fusion superstars, reflect on their life experiences through intentionally arranged and intricately performed bluegrass-analogous ballads.
Characterized by their minimal, acoustic setup, Barbaro is an integral part of Minneapolis’ up-and-coming folk/old-time scene. Fusing bluegrass, jazz and chamber music, Barbaro’s sound is representative of the American folk identity.
The band’s debut album, Dressed in Roses, was released back in January. Since then (and up until COVID-19 hit) they toured the Midwest, basking in the light of their new release and building momentum into what was already certain to be a busy festival season come summer.
We got the chance to talk with Kyle Shelstad (guitar, vocals), Jason Wells (vocals, bass), and Rachel Calvert (fiddle, vocals) about process, corona, and community…
Music Mecca: As someone who’s been all over the country but never to Minneapolis, what’s the music scene like up there?
Kyle Shelstad: Minneapolis was built on punk rock, but there’s also that folk history if you consider that Dylan was from here. There’s a huge folk/old-time scene in the state and that led into different types of bluegrass music like Pert Near Sandstone, Trampled by Turtles, a lot of people like that where there’s bluegrass influence but a lot of the songwriting is heavily folk influenced. That kind of old-time folk scene and slightly bluegrass scene is what kind of drew me to Minneapolis, but I also felt like there was kind of a cool opportunity because there’s nobody doing what we’re doing on this side of the genre in town. So that kind of provided a little bit of an opportunity to stand out in this scene.
MM: If I were to ask you the best places to visit while there, where might you send me?
Kyle: So there’s a place in town called the Cedar Cultural Center, which is a nonprofit venue that does a lot of work with bringing in artists and bands from all around the world. They’re an awesome staple in the community here. They bring in a really wide range of different genres and music. Otherwise, First Avenue kind of built this town for live music. We love Cedar because of the real community vibe of it. When you’re playing shows and bringing in money from ticket sales, since it is a nonprofit, you’re really putting money back into the community and supporting those kinds of arts in town.
Jason Wells: I think I’d add Dakota Jazz Club. It’s been a kind of staple for that kind of improvised music, soul music that’s happening in town. It’s kind of branched off recently to cover a lot of different genres and it seems like it’s starting to be a bit more open to folk and acoustic acts. Depending on the night, you could catch some really, really fantastic artists coming through there.
MM: Do y’all plan on calling Minneapolis home base, or do you get tempted to ship out to LA or Nashville or another big music market city?
Kyle: Right now we’re staying put. I think if we do relocate, I’d love to move somewhere like Asheville, North Carolina. They’re always had a really cool thing going on there, especially for this style of music. A lot of my favorite groups growing up came out of there so I’ve always kind of been attracted to the Asheville scene. But if anything in the near future, I could see us potentially moving a little bit south but staying in the Midwest. I know Jason does a lot of classical work in the Midwest and that’s a really great source of income for him. So that’s kind of what keeps us from straying too far from home. But as far as routing for touring, even just being two or three hours south would make everything so much easier.
MM: Now how did y’all come together?
Kyle: I was playing with Isaac Sammis, a banjo player, for a while. We’d met years back at some festivals and I was based out of Montana and he was still in Winona. We started playing tunes and doing a lot of duo shows. We were playing with a mandolin player in town here named Max Graham who plays with a handful of different groups. He suggested that we reach out to Rachel who was playing fiddle in another bluegrass band in town. So we hit her up and started playing together and it was an immediate good mix. We were playing together with a different bass player and well and then that bass player decided to move to China, and my roommate who’s dating this woman who’s a cello player in town knew of Jason from teaching lessons at schools around, and suggested that I reach out to him. So I reached out and we set up a time to get together. I sent some tunes maybe a day or so before hand and he showed up and knew all of the parts. From that point it was clear that we got a great unit. We all have the skill that we were each looking for as musicians, and from there we just started building a chemistry together. We’d play together and things like that.
MM: So I see you released your album, Dressed in Roses, at the beginning of the year- is this your debut album then?
Kyle: So this is our debut full-length. We have an EP that we recorded but it’s a completely different unit and it sounds quite different.
MM: What was the recording experience like, and did it come to fruition as you’d envisioned?
Jason: We were still fairly new to each other at that moment. It was kind of a mix of some songs that Kyle had worked out for a long time, and also some newer songs that were still kind of fresh to us. The way that it came together was really organic. I would say that it was not super thought out in the way that we came in with a really sharp vision for it, but in the way that it did come together was really organic by chance.
Kyle: We had an idea of what tunes we wanted to put on it and so we worked through 11 or 12 tracks we wanted to put on it, and we decided on 10 for the album. What I really enjoy is that we try and work off of feeling and emotion- either the emotion of our listener, or of ourselves playing it. So I think a lot of these songs kind of came together that way, like Jason was saying, pretty organically. We didn’t really have a plan on how these songs would fit together or how they would become a cohesive piece, but then once we had all of these tracks together and once we were able to step back and look at it, I think we found a decent amount of cohesion in it all. I don’t think we worked too hard to make sure the seventh track felt this way or led into a certain one this way, they just all kind of fell together pretty organically. I think the album kind of flows nicely like that too.
MM: What’s the overall theme or inspiration behind it?
Jason: As Kyle was saying earlier, it’s kind of hard to pinpoint one thing that encompasses the whole album, but the cohesion for me comes sonically. I think the album is very cohesive in that way. The essence that we bring to each song is similar. We have a style where the songs ebb and flow. There’s a randomness to the energetic moments and when we’re laid back. In my opinion, I think that’s where the cohesion comes from.
Kyle: In regard to the songwriting and things like that, the songs have been a collection of tunes from the past four to six years that I’ve been working on and growing. What was really exciting for me was about six or seven years ago I was out in Montana playing in a band called The Kitchen Dwellers, which were a much different style of music, but I decided to leave that band. I was in this kind of period of floating, more or less. A lot of these songs kind of reflect the noise of that, like the challenges and heartache and kind of being unsatisfied with where I was. So to get all of these tunes out there together, it was an awesome accomplishment for the band but also a very personal accomplishment for myself too just to get this project out there and get all these very personal songs out. In many ways it kind of felt like, once we got all these songs out there, it was kind of like I was a snake shedding my own skin with the ability to look forward and not so much living in the past.
MM: How does the songwriting process typically work within the band?
Kyle: A lot of the songwriting process is really collaborative as well. I’ll come to the group with a song or an idea and it’ll be pretty clear after the first time we run through it whether we’re going to do anything more with it or we’re just going to forget about it. It’s really fun. I might have an idea of how I want the song to sound or where I want it to go, but once I bring it to the others, they might have a completely different vision of that or they might completely respect my vision of the song, so it’s fun to collaborate and sometimes make songs completely new. Some of us live really close, some of us don’t, so a lot of the songwriting is kind of collaborative over distances. So we’ll get together and we’ll record a voice memo, just a little demo, and then we’ll go home and sit on it for a while, listen to it, work through it, record it, send it out. So that’s a lot of our general process in writing tunes.
MM: Were you able to get a good amount of support for it through live shows and whatnot before the pandemic struck?
Rachel Calvert: We had a really lovely moment at our hometown release show here in Minneapolis. It’s always really fun when we get to play at home and we have our friends and family. I think we all worked really hard on this album and we’ve been working really hard together the last couple of years and we had a wonderful turnout and a big full room and it’s so exciting to see a lot of familiar faces of people who have been in our lives supporting us. Also great to see so many new faces as well. I think we were all just really thrilled and happy and humbled by that visibility of support we had here at home. Then between January and very early March, we were doing a series of shows up here around the upper Midwest. I feel really lucky that our last couple before having to hunker down at home were us playing in some really exciting venues that were just lovely and full of creative communities. We were going to a lot of places we hadn’t been before and a couple that we had been to before. It reinforced that what we’re doing is connecting with others. It also reinforced that the community that centered around music in both cities and small towns is thriving. It’s nice to participate in all that and have that experience before going into hibernation for a while.
Kyle: We did get kind of lucky because the tour supporting the album ran basically January through mid-March. And then we were planning on taking the rest of March and most of April off. So we had like two gigs in April. So we kind of lucked out there. But summer, for everyone, is changing. I’m just kind of sad about the whole thing because we’re really just trying to build momentum off this album. We’ve had some really awesome opportunities coming up this summer at different festivals all over the country from California to New York to Missouri, Wisconsin, all over the place really. But those are getting rescheduled and changed around. We were hoping to really push and ride out the summer, and now it’s almost like we’re set back another six months to a year, and we’re just trying to figure out ways to keep this momentum going through this weird time.
MM: Would you say you’re planning more for now, once this is all over, or both?
Kyle: I think it’s a little bit of both, considering where we’re at as a band. A lot of people haven’t heard of us before. So we were building momentum and attacking new markets this summer on our way to these great festivals. So that has caused a little but of a challenge, and we’re trying to figure out ways to still do that. I think one way we’re doing that is we are trying to put out a lot of content. We just put out a video for an NPR Tiny Desk contest. We’re all kind of separate, but we’ve been brainstorming how we can get some new music out there, and what we’ve been doing recently is reaching out to other artists and trying to work more collaboratively. This one project I really want to do is where we all cover this Gillian Welch tune where we all play and have our friends in different genres and different parts of the Minneapolis music scene overdub their parts. I think we can use that to help cross-promotion and maybe stay relevant and get our sound out to people who may not have heard it otherwise.
Photo and video credit: Kyle Lehman, Ivy Media