The long read: Jennah Barry

By Mia Hughes

When Jennah Barry was in a bad place, she was given the advice to ask other people how they are. “It sounds simple in a way, but it was just huge to me in that moment,” she says. “Because it was a relief to me to just ask other people how they are. It took my mind out of the ruminating I was experiencing. It changed how I dealt with everything.” 

Barry hails from Nova Scotia, Canada, where she lives with her partner and producer, Colin Nealis, and their young daughter. Her album ‘Holiday’ is out today (March 27). It’s her first work since her 2012 debut, ‘Young Men’ – a time that seems an age ago now, maybe was an age ago, given what a full and chaotically paced eight years followed. An eight-year gap between albums seems almost unthinkable, in an age characterised by things moving quickly; but for Barry, there were things to be dealt with; things that left her needing to step outside of herself.

Chiefly a throat injury that left Barry recovering from vocal surgery. “I don’t know how to say the condensed version yet,” she sighs. “It wasn’t a singing injury; it was more of a stress and alcohol injury. I just was touring by myself and driving alone – I was alone constantly. I got burnt out, and needed surgery – and therapy. I had all these songs written, but I was just in such a dark hole that I didn’t know how to put any of it out.”

The injury, it turned out, was one catalyst for Barry to recognise what needed to change. It led her to realise how unhealthy the glancing, superficial interactions that solo touring brings had been for her. “I’m malleable as a person, I’m pretty porous. Some people are stronger, and are able to move through people and have superficial interactions without losing it. But in touring, it’s something I need to reflect on.” Different now is that she has a team around her in her record label, Forward Music Group, also based in Nova Scotia. “I’ve never been on a label. I’ve never been able to say to someone who’s on my side, ‘No, I don’t wanna do that’. I used to write my own emails and answer them with a different name, just to have a little protection. So everyone was looking for ‘Gloria’, and answering to ‘Gloria’, and she didn’t exist,” she laughs. “Having someone to sort of constantly suss out the business aspect of doing this is everything. ‘Cause then I do my job; what I’m good at.”

Another shift in Barry’s life – maybe the largest shift possible – came with the arrival of her daughter. Entering into motherhood, she came to discover more things she had to face in herself. “I freaked out when I got pregnant. I just couldn’t imagine myself being able to handle the fact that they’re eventually gonna be my age and maybe older. I needed to nip some things in the bud in my brain, put some stuff to bed – some body issues and just things that I hadn’t worked out yet. I wanted to be able to help her, because I’m forcing her to be here.” By extension of that came the realisation that indeed all of us are figuring out our way through a life we didn’t choose. “If you let it, [becoming a parent] makes you extremely more empathetic. ‘Cause you realise that everybody was here and they didn’t ask to be here, and they’re trying. It’s changed me forever.”

When she did begin to record what would become ‘Holiday’ (the title itself an ironic joke about her fraught time off), the weight of those years away became almost paralysing; Barry figures that the worrying itself added an extra year. “I was so worried, I was so overwhelmed,” she says. “I just didn’t know where to start.” Largely, having a musical partner in Nealis allowed for her to get the ball rolling again. “He’s the only person I really like showing songs to. I’m very precious and have a lot of hang-ups, and so it was really hard for me to write this stuff. I’m not gonna say it was just him that got my writing moving, but it was helpful to be bouncing this stuff off of someone else that I trusted. That was important to me. Even the criticism – I just needed someone to throw songs in the garbage.”

The writing process was “chaotic and confusing,” as Barry puts it. She would write as she recorded, with Nealis’ input helping to form the work into the shape of a record. They also had to fit recording sessions around their newborn baby’s sleep schedule, allowing Barry to discover that she works best when low on time – “Having endless time is the worst for me,” she says. 

The record that came out of it is extraordinary. ‘Holiday’ is an album that moves like a dance, unfalteringly elegant, fluent, moving with purpose but not without grace. The songs feel classic, set aside from the modern world; Barry cites influence from Nina Simone, something that can be sensed in the record’s jazzy arrangements and soulful vocals. Barry likes to write songs as songs, she says, pieces that can exist outside of their production – in that sense, she feels, they are timeless. 

She describes the track ‘Roller Disco’ as encapsulating the feeling she wanted to depict with the album as a whole. There’s an intense melancholy to its melody and its soft strings and horns, a devastating yearning in its lyrics. The central image is of that roller disco, Barry singing, ‘Round and around to the sound of the radio’. “I pictured rolling around, and all the lights and the party aspect of a roller disco, but you’re alone,” she says. “You know when you’re driving in a car, and it’s raining – you’re not the one driving and you’re listening to music in your headphones, and you’re kind of putting yourself in a film? It’s like, you’re experiencing melodrama, and it kind of feels good, but you’re sad.” She adds that the feeling of “being alone, for an extremely social person,” is key to the entire record.

 It’s clear that ‘Holiday’ is a true culmination of the years of self-examination that came prior; Barry’s lyrical voice is self-assured while introspective, asking questions while almost simultaneously answering them, digging deep but remaining entirely comfortable. Those eight years, while no holiday, allowed for Barry to create a masterpiece. At the least, Barry says, it granted her an understanding of why she creates art at all. 

 “I didn’t know before, honestly. And I was mad at it; I thought maybe I was just making art because it’s the only thing I ever did. I lost it, and now I have it again, and so I’ve had this different value for it. I know [now] that not everybody gets to express themselves, and feel that feeling – feel how good singing feels and where it can take you. My dad has a construction company, he’s been working his whole life, and he’s about to retire and he’s just petrified. Because he expresses himself through rocks. He’s really good at piling, making beautiful things with rocks. But he doesn’t value it that way.

“I have this aspect to my life that is massive and universal, and intangible in a way. And it’s precious.”

‘Holiday’ is out now on Forward Music Group  

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