Jef Barbara – authentic and outrageous! by Verena Spilker

In 2013 Montréal’s Jef Barbara released their second album, Soft to the Touch, on Tricatel. Expatriarch (run by my lovely flatmate and friend, Joey Hansom) organized their concert in Berlin/Germany at Urban Spree on October 18th, 2013 together with Noisekölln. Expatriarch says the album ‚blends velvety glam, shimmering new wave, synthetic R&B and fermented kraut (plus duets with Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab and Sean Nicholas Savage)‘ and I couldn’t find any better words to describe it. If you want to find out for yourselves, you can stream the album at Brooklyn Vegan or watch some videos below.

I first learned about Jef Barbara a few years back, when Jef contacted me asking to get listed on Transnational Queer Underground. I really liked their music and so I took this chance of them playing a show here in Berlin to finally meet and interview Jef. I enjoy the honesty you can feel coming from their music and love the videos that look so lo-fi as well as so creative, and that they put their first album out on cassette. Check out the ‘Les Homosexuelles‘ video from their first album Contamination on the right.

TQU: I read that you created Jef Barbara as a persona. How does that persona differ from the other ‚offstage’ you?

Jef: [Laughs] It’s weird because the more it goes, both private Jef and stage Jef are becoming the same person. But initially I started out doing Jef Barbara as a way to integrate performance art into my musical act, as per another friends suggestions. I guess you can see Jef Barbara as an exaggeration of myself, it’s not like a complete creation. So it still feels like it is me evolving. So I guess there isn’t–well there is a difference, but it’s shrinking with time.

TQU: You also mentioned that you had two different wardrobes; one for the private you and one for the stage you?

Jef: Yeah [laughs], it’s true. But more and more I find myself busting out Jef Barbara styles on just a regular basis. Although this outfit that I’m wearing today (see picture) was made by a Montréal based designer called Renata Morales. This is something that I would just wear for the stage. But there’s definitely some elements from my performances that found their way into my general wardrobe, that I would wear to go to parties for instance.

TQU: I can see how that happens naturally, especially if you’re performing more and more, that it’s difficult to keep the two apart.

Jef: Yeah, and I’m afraid that it can become dangerous for my mental health. Because I really do want to keep the two of them separate. You know, I consider myself to be a relatively happy person in my personal life and what I wouldn’t want is for my professional sort of artistic life to become a burden and therefore affecting my private life. But we’ll see. Actually, I take it day by day and pose glamorously [looking at the photographer who is taking pictures throughout the interview and pointing out to him that there is more light in the other part of the room].

TQU: Let’s talk about your music. There are some obvious influences [e.g. glam rock…] to your music that everybody asks you about in their interviews, but I wonder how the Montréal scene and where you grew up has influenced you?

Jef: How has Montreal influenced me? It took me a bit of time to find a community of people that I felt I could exchange with. It took me a few years actually until I was ready to come out of my [solo] artistic bubble. I didn’t want to make my own beats and work with computers anymore. I just wanted to work with musicians. That was around the time that indie rock was really in style. I’m pretty sure all over the world but for sure in Montréal…

TQU: What time was that?

Jef: That was in the 2000s. When I started looking for other musicians to play with it must have been 2005/06 or 07 and indie rock was really big around that time. I soon had to realize that despite a lot of indie rock’s art it is pretentious and people weren’t really that open minded, and it was hard to have a different kind of expression within their community. Traditionally I don’t find indie rock very diverse at all. You know everybody looks and sounds the same. So it was a bit hard for me in the beginning to meet the right people. But then I eventually found some kindred spirits, and gradually even people who don’t come from [indie rock], who don’t have the same or a similar kind of background, such as the musicians that play with me live and on the record as well. They have shown a lot of interest in what I do and they have very much influenced my taste just like I influenced theirs. So when it comes to influences there is people like Bernardino Femminielli who has co-written Wild Boys with me. And he was part of other recordings that I did as well. Yeah, they are just a bunch of people that have influenced my taste.

TQU: So, you are talking about the indie rock scene. How about the queer scene in Montreal? In Berlin I feel like it can sometimes be a problem that you have a queer scene, with queer music and parties and that it’s very easy to just live in that queer bubble without necessarily having to get out of that most of the time because there are so many things going on here already. Is that kind of similar in Montreal?

Jef: I’ll speak for myself: No. It’s funny though… I love queers, power to the queers all the way! And it’s funny that I don’t find myself involving in queer circles all that much, even though I have a bunch of queer friends. Musically speaking, I’m usually the only black fag around. I’m mostly surrounded by cis-gender heterosexual white males. That’s the reality of things–but I don’t see a problem with that. I get to express my queerness the same way that I would in a queer environment. I don’t stop myself from expressing that because it’s part of who I am.

TQU: And is that accepted by everyone?

Jef: Maybe not. Maybe not. But the problem with societies, like the western societies that we live in is that it’s so fucking politically correct. And usually when people have something against you, they won’t tell it to your face. That’s what the problem is. So if there’s transphobic, homophobic, racist people out there, that don’t really feel me. But they’ll usually express their resentment in very subtle ways as opposed to being vocal about it.

TQU: You also mentioned that your new album is like your personal diary. Do you get any direct responses to that? You also have a blog, and I mean of course you get responses, but is that mostly nice or friendly?

Jef: Yes, mostly nice or friendly. But it’s hard on my blog, because it’s not a form through which I can really communicate with my fans. Well I can communicate with my fans, but it’s not a… it doesn’t go both ways, it’s one directional, like I say something to my fans and they just ingest it.

TQU: But I saw that there were also some posts of people that wrote to you on the blog.

Jef: Yeah, sometimes. If people ask me questions and if I decide to answer them they go public for some reason. So some people have asked me questions like “What’s the temperature like in London?“ when I’ve never even been to London. But I just thought it was a cool random question so I answered it. But generally speaking, through all my social networks, if you think of Facebook for instance, the people that are into what I do. They really are, and I think it comes from a genuine place and not a place that has been influenced by any sort of media hype or buzz. Because I’m not truly buzzed out like some of my other Montréal counterparts like Mac DeMarko, Grimes, all those people. I’m not as popular as them. So I think that when people are into me, it comes from a very sincere place. I think what also speaks to them is that they can tell that I speak the truth.
And I believe that despite all the artifice ’cause that’s another problem that I see in indie rock music amongst many spheres. People have an aesthetic idea what authenticity is [in indie rock]. And in order for a person to be authentic, they need to wear a plead shirt, a beard and look like you can strum a guitar and play folk music. But that’s just a conventional idea of what being authentic is and you can be authentic and be outrageous at the same time.

TQU: Yeah, that is very true.

Jef: So, yeah, I think that I speak the truth. I mean for me that is the whole point. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it.

TQU: Have you noticed differences in the way people perceive you when you tour in America or Canada than in Europe or other places?

Jef: You know, it’s funny. I’ve never toured North America. I’ve done shows in North America, like I’ve played Montreal, I’ve played Toronto, New York, I’ve been to South by Southwest, North by Northeast, but I’ve never really toured the US and I think that there’s been tremendously positive response coming from Europe and also from Japan up until now. Mostly because I think that the Japanese and also a lot of Europeans are responding to fantasy way more than North Americans. And I’m very full, you know. I’m in an artistic entity that is full of fantasy. So this is why I’ve been able to tour in Europe. And this is also the third time that I’m coming to Berlin. And playing shows like this is nothing that I could see happening any time soon in North America. I mean, we’ll see what the future holds. I think that my album is very good.

TQU: No, but you could push it a little harder by trying to get more press or promotion…

Jef: Yeah, I mean, yes I can try to get more commercial promotion, but then I have to convince those people that it’s the flavor of the month. And it’s funny how, because I work with a management company in Montreal, who are in relation with the same publicist in New York, who represents all the names like, if you think of Pitchfork, indie music names. They do all of that and they send them my album and early on they seemed very enthusiastic, but two weeks later they got back saying that it didn’t speak to them that much. And I was wondering why that is, because my album is a pop record and not only is it pop, it’s got all sorts of different palettes. It’s got R’n’B and it’s got rock. There’s something for everyone on the record. It’s diverse, it’s edgy and very accessible. It could be very commercial at the same time. And I don’t understand what’s so difficult about my record, I don’t see it as such a difficult sell. But, I mean, at the same time, I’m not an expert. But yeah, people will respond to what seems to be the flavor of the month and I’m not going to be the flavor of the month. I’m the flavor of myself.

TQU: You recorded this R. Stevie Moore song. I read about that in an interview that you gave but I couldn’t really find out whether that was a recent recording or not.

Jef: Oh, yeah. That’s an old song that we recorded before my first full-length, Contamination, came out. And yeah, I did sing a duet with R. Stevie Moore and we’re still buddies. I covered one if his songs called Irony, which he was very happy about and yeah, he’s great. And I love doing duets, my new album also has two duets on it. One on the physical release, the one with Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab and one on the digital, the download version, which is also included if you buy the vinyl. There’s one with Sean Nicholas Savage, so yeah, I just love it.

TQU: Is there one person living or dead that you would really like to sing a duet with?

Jef: It’s hard, because I’m so fond of duets that I would sing with pretty much anyone. But then you don’t even know whether it’s gonna work out or not. I’ve sung a duet in the past that didn’t quite work out, like the voices didn’t match very well… So I could tell you, that I’d love to sing a duet with Nina Simone or with Billy Holiday, but, again, I don’t know what our voices would sound like together…

TQU: Also, when you recorded the R. Stevie Moore song, you said it sounded like Berlin era Bowie?

Jef: I said that? You know what? Ok, I’m gonna say something. Ok, so far I haven’t lied during this interview. But I lie a lot [laughs] in interviews because not a lot of people make such an extensive research as you have and you can sense that. So when people are not that invested in what I do it shows. And I really do my best to give truthful answers, but sometimes I really don’t have a clue what to say to them. So I’ll invent something…
I’m not surprised I said that. I might have said that. It might have been one of the elements, like one guitar strung sound in a song, that was a reminiscent of referencing Berlin era Bowie. But I’m not sure… I think that might have been… I would probably say Berlin era Bowie for some guitar feedback of the cover I did of this song ‘Irony’.

TQU: And do you think there will be a Berlin era Jef Barbara? Could you see yourself coming to Berlin and staying here for a while?

Jef: Well, why not? I mean as much as I love Montréal, I’d really like to go to different cities. The only problem is that I have to pay rent. So, I’m putting the word out there. If there is any organization or entity that wants to finance a long term stay for Jef Barbara and his band in Berlin, contact me! I will gladly accept your offers. I was also in Serbia a few days ago, and it was amazing. It was totally exotic to me because, unlike Germany, which is like a powerful country, Serbia has been ostracized from the international community and the European Union. So it was very weird for us to go there. It is an experience that I would like to live. Even though, I guess I would probably come across weird situations. We got pulled over by cops and there was a huge language barrier. They couldn’t communicate with us, but it would be interesting for me to go to a country that is so far out.

TQU: On the first song on your album, ‘About Singers’, you sing about singers being famous, but also that they will be forgotten very soon. Do you see yourself in that, or is that a critique on someone?

Jef: It’s a general critique, but I also speak for myself in the song. Whether I’m gonna be forgotten or not is not such a big deal to me to be honest. I believe that you got [more than one life] and my level of spiritual consciousness isn’t developed enough for me to understand the many lives I’ve been through if one should postulate that reincarnation is a thing. So my objective is to live a good life and when I die, if people remember me, it’s honestly good for them. I’m very happy for them, but I won’t be around to live it. So for me it’s all about now. It is what it is. So the song ‘About Singers’ talks about an artistic ego and it is a critique of that… I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I sing only of other people and not include myself in it. I also talk about my own experiences.

TQU: Ok, thanks so much for the interview. I have two words as a last question: mermaid and winged unicorn.

Jef: Yes, what about them?

TQU: You were asked at some point which super powers you wanted to have or which super hero you would like to be you named these two.

Jef: Oh really? Well, I’m not surprised. It was the truth. But sometimes you don’t know. Yeah, sometimes people ask you questions and you don’t really know what to answer and you’ll say something like the first thing that comes to your mind without necessarily meaning like the ultimate thing, but it’s true like that.

“When I was growing up, I was much like I am now, very a fine and fragile. Not fragile as far as my personality was concerned because I was very convinced of who I was and no one could tell me to conform myself to any social norms.” And I felt very strongly about Barbies and Mermaids and Unicorns and Strawberry shortcakes. So yeah, I love them. But if I could be one of those two… I don’t know… I honestly don’t know. Because your comparing a water animal to an animal that flies…

TQU: Well then what are your pros and cons to a unicorn or a mermaid?

Jef: When you are a mermaid, then you are totally gorgeous and live in the sea and you can also walk the earth, I guess. I mean based on Splash, the movie with Daryl Hannah where she plays the character of the mermaid. And when her tail dries she sprouts legs. With unicorns, they are mythological. I guess they both are, but unicorns are horses that fly. I don’t know. I guess I’d be a mermaid because it resonates also on voodoo culture. My parents are from Haiti. I’m of Haitian decent, and mermaids are very much part of [Haitian] voodoo culture.

TQU: What is the mermaids role in the voodoo culture?

Jef: It would be very hard for me to explain, but there’s many representations of the wilds in voodoo culture. There’s spirits in voodoo culture and one of the spirits that is commonly worshiped is the mermaid. She’s got all sorts of …. But I wasn’t raised in voodoo, so I couldn’t tell. It comes from a sort of naive, sentimental place in my heart. But I know they are part of it and it is something that I even channeled in my work because the first EP I did under the Jef and the Holograms moniker had a mermaid on the cover. It has me posing as a mermaid. I even rented a mermaid tail. My mom hated it, but I think it was gorgeous.

And so do we! So this is the glamorous picture of Jef as a ‘merman‘:

photo by Jason Harrell

Last but not least, check out Jef Barbara’s blogue for more videos, information and random thoughts and this piece on the new Arcade Fire video ‘We Exist’ where he talks about the need for more positive images of LGBTQI humans from his own bi-gender perspective.

Find out more about Jef Barbara:



Interview by Verena Spilker | Pictures by Jason K. Harrell