As the follow up to his 2020 Juno-nominated album Easy Keeper, Stray Dogs finds Del Barber bridging his past and present. Conceived during pandemic isolation at his rural Manitoba home, the eight songs on Stray Dogs are drawn mainly from Del’s large stock of previously unfinished demos, given renewed focus and polish by his longtime band and producer Scott Franchuk.
Paring things down to the bone, the acoustic-based Stray Dogs captures the essence of Del’s art, of which Rolling Stone wrote, “Like John Prine (one of his primary influences), Barber writes the types of songs his characters might listen to themselves.”
From the first single “Meantime”—a show of support to his favourite venue in Winnipeg—to the heart-swelling closer “Just A Little Heat,” written with his father, Stray Dogs is a powerful reflection of the resilience we have all displayed over the past year. It also shows how Del has emerged even stronger, and how he truly deserves a place among Canada’s most celebrated singer-songwriters.
With nominations for JUNO Awards, Western Canadian Music Awards, and Canadian Folk Music Awards - Del Barber has shaped the folk music canon in Canada with five critically acclaimed studio albums under his belt, as well as a myriad of fans. His new album 'Easy Keeper’ (acronym Records), recorded in a cabin during the pandemic, has received critical acclaim from Rolling Stone Magazine and The Bluegrass Situation.
Del Barber was really looking forward to 2020. In late 2019 he released the album Easy Keeper, which immediately captured the attention of critics everywhere. In a major Rolling Stone profile, Jonathan Bernstein said of Del, “Like John Prine (one of his primary influences), Barber writes the types of songs his characters might listen to themselves.”
The acclaim continued to build over the next several months, resulting in Del being nominated for Roots Artist of the Year at the Western Canadian Music Awards, as well as SOCAN Songwriter of the Year, and Easy Keeper earning a Juno Award nomination for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year. He had extensive tour dates mapped out, but then… well, you know.
Isolated on his small farm in rural Manitoba, Del began re-evaluating every aspect of his life, although in some ways it was his creative process that was most at stake. He determined to write a new collection of songs, and each morning would go into his shed studio with the expectation of having inspiration take over. However, this approach proved frustrating, and soon Del found himself looking back into old notebooks and going through his hard drive for past demos. Out of those countless scraps and fragments, eight fully polished gems eventually emerged that now comprise Del’s new album Stray Dogs, a more than worthy successor to Easy Keeper in terms of displaying his artistic depth and resilience.
“When the pandemic began I was lost, scared about the future and in the depths of an unprecedented creative slump,” Del says. “I’ve written every other record with a tight vision, a thesis, a picture in mind, subject matter chosen. I’ve written them all with what I thought was a clear narrative thread. This record, however, is a group of songs that ended up together but were never intended to live together—a funny looking pack of stray dogs, different shapes, different pictures, whose differences give them their personality as a whole.”
Stray Dogs exudes a powerful, acoustic-based austerity. After working out arrangements remotely, Del and his longtime band were able to safely get together at a cabin where they laid down the final takes with producer/engineer Scott Franchuk over a period of five days, fueled by the energy of being together again after months apart. It made it all the more fitting to open the album with “Meantime,” technically a “new” song written in support of their favourite venue, Winnipeg’s Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club.
But for Del, some of the most satisfying moments on Stray Dogs are found in songs such as “Friends Like Us,” with its imagery of a man talking to God in a dive bar parking lot taking on larger dimensions of spiritual debate. Del also found a buried treasure in “Just A Little Heat,” a song he’d written with his father that had been largely forgotten. But with its use of an old truck as a metaphor for aging, the song closes the album with an inspiring message that a person’s desire to keep working for the benefit of those they love never fades.
As he refurbished some of his past ideas, Del found himself drawing from the work of Randy Newman and the late Canadian author Richard Wagamese, particularly the latter’s awareness of place, and his ability to develop flawed characters into redeemable people. When listening to Stray Dogs, it’s certainly easy to be carried off into the open expanses of the Canadian prairies one moment, before having to confront the often hard-bitten existence of those who live there.
Perhaps in essence, Stray Dogs is a trip through Del’s own memory and the kind of reflection we all need at certain points in our lives. By the time it was finished, he admits to feeling a sense of rejuvenation and renewed sense of purpose unlike anything he’d ever experienced upon completing a project. And in the end, it’s made the future a lot less daunting.
“I’ve actually had a great year,” he says. “It took a while to get the wheels moving, but I feel like I’m in a great place. I’ve learned to lean into my reality. We have our second child on the way and we have a great deal of hope in the future despite the dark cloud of covid-19. The dark cloud is real though. I’m really hoping to get back to playing shows and touring as soon as possible, because I do miss it. But as things slowly start to open up I don’t want to lose the identity I’ve found over the past year being connected to my home. It’s a lot to ask for, but I guess my art and my life are finding balance more than ever before.”
ABOUT EASY KEEPER
An Americana opus that was four years in the making, the new record was produced by Barber and Grant Siemens (Corb Lund / Tom Russell) and mixed by Scott Franchuk (Corb Lund / Romi Mayes). A hauntingly personal and celebratory collection of songs, Easy Keeper weaves variations of roots and folk music into a revelatory listen. “I want art to be rigorous, to contain cutting social observation while simultaneously being accessible,”says Barber, “I want it sounding familiar and friendly - parable like in scope.” With songs like “No Easy Way Out” and “Louise” that highlight Barber’s incredible storytelling - this record is a testament to how he moulds his empathetic creative process.
Primarily recorded in Manitoba, and featuring top Canadian talent, such as Geoff Hilhorst (Leeroy Stagger / The Deep Dark Woods) on keys, and Jeremy Rusu (Rosie & The Riveters / Red Moon Road) on accordion - the album takes its name from what farmers describe as animals that are literally - easy to keep. “An ‘Easy Keeper’ is what I realized I wasn't enough of... moreover it is exactly how I wanted others to describe me,” explains Barber. “ To me this record came as a direct result of the change in my disposition. It is a sincere reflection of my desire to become someone who is able to see the depth of my own footprint and marvel at those whose footprints become gardens rather than scars.”
With nominations for JUNO Awards, Western Canadian Music Awards, and Canadian Folk Music Awards -Barber has shaped the folk music canon in Canada with five critically acclaimed studio albums under his belt as well as a myriad of fans. Now, as a member of the acronym family, Barber is ready to bring his new music to the world.