Del Barber has had a strange few years. After releasing what could have been his career-making opus, Prairieography, in 2014, the Canadian singer-songwriter moved from Winnipeg to a farm in rural Manitoba. For his anticipated follow-up album, Barber decided to release a novelty record of hockey-themed cover songs under the moniker Del Barber and the Regretsky’s, which he then refused to promote. Not long after, both his manager and his record label — the Canadian indie mainstay True North Records — dropped him.
“I’ve been taken down a few pegs, for sure,” says Barber.
But after Del Barber’s extended period of time in the literal and figurative wilderness, the 35-year-old singer-songwriter has finally found solid footing. His new album, Easy Keeper, is a concise distillation of what Barber has always done best: rich, nuanced country-folk portraits told in direct, uncomplicated language. The new record’s narration stays close to Barber’s third-person characters, a mix of grocery-store workers, roadside motel owners, cattle ranchers, and small-town waitresses.
“I feel like I have this absolutely renewed sense that I have something to say, that my songs matter to different people,” says the singer, who has already written the bulk of a new record. “I lost that for a few years.”
The common thread running through Easy Keeper?
“The word that comes to mind is meekness,” he says. “It sounds kind of dumb, or too high level, but I think that meekness isn’t necessarily as looked upon as fondly in our society as it should be. The people I look up to, and the characters I try to write about, and the person I’m trying to channel, is meek.”
Barber has become taken by the philosophical, almost moral properties of meekness. His new album’s title — Easy Keeper — is a farming term for animals that require virtually no attention, that give more than they take. There’s virtue, he says, in simply doing one’s work without calling any attention to oneself. It’s a virtue Barber has tried to live out in his own life and art. His music never foregrounds its own cleverness, neither with his voice — in its folksy warmth — nor his songs, which are novelistic without being overly literary.
Instead, like John Prine (one of his primary influences), Barber writes the types of songs his characters might listen to themselves. After he wrote his new standout “Everyday Life,” the tale of a man who finds contentment in his life “lining up the labels on cans of chunky soup” at a grocery store, Barber realized that he had written a “sadder version” of Prine’s 2004 chestnut “Safety Joe.”
“Instead of me saying, ‘You’re not living to your fullest potential’ or whatever these hashtags are now,” Barber says of the song’s protagonist, “it’s about realizing that they get to have that piece of beauty as well. I’m not allowed to take that from them.”
As a songwriter, Barber, like Prine, is interested in delivering his songs in a language plainspoken enough that it’s accessible for a wide range of listeners. “I don’t want to be a person who just finds a choir and preaches to it,” he says. “I don’t try to write from my own perspective, this middle-class white-guy background. I’m always keen to write songs that are from the perspective of people that I don’t necessarily understand. That’s sort of why I write.”
Five years ago, Del Barber was well-suited to become the next face of Canadian country-roots music. He had been building a devoted following with his character sketches like 2009’s “Love Is Just a Wrecking Ball” and 2013’s “The Waitress” when he released Prairieography, a sprawling, loose concept album about the sad strifes and simple beauties of life in the Canadian heartland. The LP, full of loping waltzes and Western swing, found Barber leaning into more straightforward country music, and earned him his second nomination at Canada’s Juno Awards.
Barber toured Prairieography for years, “singing about rural Manitoba in the middle of Australia,” and he was happy with how the hyper-specific album had been received in just about every regard, apart from sales. “Critically, it got a lot of good responses, but I don’t think it sold enough records for True North to be happy,” says Barber. “And that’s totally fair. They’re a record company; they need to sell units.”
Tensions with Barber’s record company increased as the singer began plotting the follow-up. Barber hadn’t been receiving any feedback from the label (home of Buffy Sainte-Marie and the Wailin’ Jennys) when he began sending them rough demos and sketches for his next record. “So then I sent them this idea I’d know they’d go for, which was a gimmick record,” Barber says, describing The Puck Drops Here, a campy collection of hockey-themed cover songs that ended up becoming his next release.
“No one had ever done this in Canada, and there are tons of songs about hockey, and I love the game. In my first email, I talked about how I don’t want to put the album out under my name, how it was just a fun project. And then, somehow, they ended up putting it out under ‘Del Barber and the No Regretzkys.’ At that point, I told them there’s no way I’m promoting this record. And since then, we basically parted ways.” (“We would never release any music without the artist’s explicit approval of credits, artwork, anything creative,” says the label’s president Geoff Kulawick in an email. “Del’s a very talented singer-songwriter and we wish him all the best with his new album.”)
Regardless, the early demos Barber says had been ignored by his former label would, years later, end up forming Easy Keeper, a document, in part, of the newfound rural life Barber was living. He had become attracted to the idea of being able to speak as a rural voice during a time when, he claims, such artistic viewpoints are increasingly marginalized. “The reality is that more and more people are leaving rural areas. For instance,” he says, cutting himself off to make his point as he talks on the phone from the one part of his property that has cell service, “a coyote just ran across the road.”
Barber believes that moving to such an isolated region of Canada, living among the coyotes and bears, has been a boon to his writing and has helped solidify his greater purpose as an artist. He’s happy to reside four hours away from a major airport, because, he says, it offers him a perspective that’s far removed from the norm.
“I think that it means that my feet are standing somewhere different. It’s just a different way of looking at the world, and I want to be proud of that,” he says. “That’s sort of my artistic struggle, is realizing that I don’t have to apologize for living here.”