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How the COVID-19 pandemic allowed Del Barber to finish some songs written by his younger self

Manitoba singer-songwriter Del Barber has always relied on a distinct vision for the creation of his albums, and this formula has served him well. He’s been nominated for a Juno Award three times and earned multiple nominations for Western Canadian Music Awards and Canadian Folk Music Awards. His new album, Stray Dogs on Acrönym Records, is a bit of an odds and sods grouping of songs culled from unfinished demos going back as far as 10 years. In spite of the supposed mishmash of songs, Del was still able to find a common thread running through the material.

“It was different, but it also sort of happened naturally,” he said. “I’ve kind of described the last couple of years as a forced sabbatical. It was an opportunity to sort of fiddle with my memories a little bit, to think about a decade of touring, to try and remember some of those people from the early days and try to talk to some of [them] again. [In] putting myself in the posture of remembering things, I started going through old books and stuff and realized there was a bunch of work that I loved that I had forgotten about.”

During the lockdown period, Del was faced with the bane of every songwriter’s existence: writer’s block.

“So it was a really nice way to procrastinate [on] trying to write new stuff, falling in love with old ideas again and trying to do right by them,” he said.

The development and improvement of any songwriter is done incrementally over the years. Looking back at his unfinished songs, Del was able to see how far he’s come as a wordsmith.

“Most of the ideas I encountered in those old books were pretty—juvenile’s a bit harsh but that’s how they felt,” Del said. “A lot of them were bad from the outset, and I could tell. But it was good to sort of interact with that person in a way, to remember who I was and how important I thought I was when I was 20 or 25. All the ego that goes along with who I was at 20 trying to be a songwriter was reflected in some of my songs that never saw the light of day. And thank goodness for that! But there were also moments where I felt like I was becoming a good songwriter. I felt like I was starting to hone the craft, and I was able to commune with those [songs] again and try to bring them home. That’s what this record represents for me.”

The songwriting skills Del has developed over the years came in handy when it came time to revisit the old songs because now he knew what to do with them!

“It’s just a matter of pragmatism in some ways,” he said. “Learning not to go on and on, trying to write better hooks. Most of my ideas now are ‘song-ier’ than they were, I think. I just felt like [if] you put enough time into something you’re going to become more proficient or efficient at it and have a little more ease. Some of these songs really felt like I was able to exercise some of those editing muscles that I’d been developing for a decade or more.”

As an artist who’s married with two young children to support, the pandemic lockdown presented Del with imposing challenges. But ever the optimist, he was still able to see some benefits.

“It was scary,” he admitted. “My wife luckily has a good job. She’s a teacher. But we need both of our incomes to make this household work. I was really rattled at first and then slowly learned to lean into that reality. Generally, I see myself as a very positive person, trying to find the silver linings in these types of situations. This one was a lot harder, or it just took longer. But I did find some ability to resolve my situation into making this record, writing another record and trying to see it as a chance to really be able to work on songs intentionally and having the luxury of time. In so many ways I’ve ended up now with this grateful feeling for those past couple of years. It enabled me to get better at my craft.”

And yes, you read correctly, Del has yet another record in the works.

“I probably have a record and a half written,” he said. “I’ve been sitting on them long enough and criticizing them enough that I think I can say they’re the strongest group of songs I’ve written. I’m chomping at the bit to record them and get them out. I just don’t feel like I have any lazy lines in this next group of songs. I’m so excited about sharing them.”

Until then, we can enjoy Del’s latest album Stray Dogs. For more on Del, go to delbarber.com.

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