September 13, 2006

Patricia Barber makes music that is both intelligent and irreverent. Her new album, Mythologies, may be based on The Metamorphoses of Ovid, one of the undeniable bulwarks of Western literature, but the songs never come off as didactic or pedantic—it is Barber’s wit and humor—not to mention her undeniable affection for some of these classic literary “characters”—that will delight and tickle her listeners’ ears.

“Ovid was a Roman poet who was putting a spin on Greek mythology,” says Barber. “I just couldn’t believe what a wonderful writer he was – how funny and smart and brilliant are these characters he created. He doesn’t flesh them out so I can understand why opera composers and librettists throughout history have used Ovid again and again.”

For close to fifteen years, the Chicago-based singer/pianist has built a successful career by touring relentlessly with her own band and releasing a string of critically acclaimed albums, including Cafe Blue, Modern Cool, Nightclub, Verse, and Live: A Fortnight in France.

Mythologies, Barber’s ninth career album, features eleven tracks that traverse a spectrum of musical styles and moods, with each song focusing on a character from The Metamorphosis. In 2003, Barber applied for, and was awarded, a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed her the time and the space to do the copious research the project required. She is the first popular songwriter to have ever received such an honor.

Here, Barber talks about how she gravitated toward jazz, what it’s like to be an out lesbian in the jazz world, and the secrets to a successful gay relationship.


Q: To call your music jazz ultimately seems kind of limiting. To my ear, it encompasses several styles—jazz, classical, folk, pop. What was your favorite kind of music when you were growing up?

Patricia Barber: Jazz is my musical home, and while I incorporate many of the idioms of other music, only jazz musicians are able to play or execute my music. It demands knowledge of sophisticated meters, harmony, improvisation and interaction. Growing up, I followed my parents' tastes and listened to the great American songbook and its singers. I loved Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. Then I stumbled into R&B with Motown, pop with Joni Mitchell, Sting, Seal and then into jazz with Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Chick Corea and Bill Evans. Now it’s Outkast and the Black-Eye Peas and whatever pop is fun.

Q: How did you end up gravitating toward jazz?

PB: Jazz is a family legacy. My father, Shim Barber, was a jazz musician of some success in the Midwest and Chicago. It is also, in my opinion, the most flexible and the most interesting of all the genres of music; the improvisational element in jazz makes it the most individually expressive.

Q: Were you trying to say anything in particular about human nature with Mythologies?

PB: Perhaps that the most interesting human behavior, the behavior that merits stories and songs, is always driven by great passion.

Q: What’s easier for you to write about: unrequited love--as in your song “Pygmalion”--or fulfilled love?

PB: Most of the great songs written by the great songwriters are about longing or loss. For instance, "Spring Is Here" by Rodgers and Hart, "In the Still of the Night" by Cole Porter, "The Shadow of Your Smile" by Johnny Mandel. If you think of music as a transliteration of emotional experience, it is easy to see why people would be interested in the healing power of music for pain or unfulfilled desire. When everything in your life is fine, you don't need any explanation, though certainly there are songs about the joys of love.

Q: I remember being in love with Apollo when I read about him as a young boy. Who has been the most attractive mythological character to you and why?

PB: I fell in love with each of them while I was writing their song. However, I have a particular fondness for "Persephone." She is a queen, can traverse the upper and underworlds with impunity and stirs up trouble whenever she gets the chance. I am also nightly and forever moonstruck.

Q: One of the ways to interpret “Narcissus” is that it’s a same-sex love song. Do you think we, as homosexuals, are inherently looking for partners just like ourselves to fall in love with?

PB: Two people of the same sex are not necessarily more like each other on balance than two people of the opposite sex. This is a simplistic idea tinged with a moral judgment that loving someone of the same gender is a lesser form of love. This is the opinion of many detractors of the gay lifestyle. It was inherent in all the secondary literature I was reading. So I simply turned this pejorative slant on its head and thought, "Fabulous!... What better idea than to seduce one with whom you are intimately familiar?”

Q: Do you think being gay gives you any kind of unique perspective on making music that your average straight female jazz singer/songwriter might not have?

PB: I know women well, from the outside and from the inside.

Q: Was there a defining moment for you when you decided to be open about your sexuality as far as your career is concerned?

PB: During the first part of my career I was bisexual... with men and women. Then when I had a real girlfriend, yes, there was a moment when I decided I was going to bring my girlfriend to the club and stop hiding the fact that I had one. That meant telling the club owner and dealing with the possibility that he might think I would lose some of my sexual appeal to the audience. It didn't work that way--in fact quite the opposite. Straight people have always been fascinated with the twist.

Q: Has that decision cost you any disappointment or loss?

PB: During my career, I have never felt any discrimination because I was gay. In fact, after I finally decided I was gay, I didn't notice any discrimination whatsoever until the current political administration, where you can't help but notice it.

Q: If gay marriage becomes legal in your home state of Illinois, do you think you and your partner would marry?

PB: Yes, of course. It protects both partners legally and financially. Martha and I did get a Chicago city marriage license. Yay for Mayor Daley.

Q: For your art, you’ve explored the idea of love from all different perspectives. What do you think is the secret to a successful romantic partnership, gay or straight?

PB: Passion. For each other, for your work, for your friends and family, for your life together.