Lindsay Barr: Owning the Stage

A life in music, art, and performance

Lindsay Barr (photo by Karol Orzechowski)
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When I saw Lindsay Barr on stage in the local production of Evil Dead: The Musical in October of last year, it felt like the arrival of a new whirlwind force on the local theatre scene. In a production full of big performances and wild, over-the-top moments, she shone bright. Her character, the bookish Shelly, is (spoiler alert) the first to be transformed into a foul-mouthed, unhinged, undead ‘deadite,’ and spends most of the rest of the play locked in the basement, popping out occasionally to viciously mock the rest of the cast, spray blood at the audience, and generally chew the scenery.

“I was like, this is my dream coming true!” Lindsay says of the production. “I feel like my whole life people have been telling me to tone it down. Every class I’ve been in. My personality is very large, and somehow I’ve found that theatre encourages that.”

Lindsay Barr (photo by Karol Orzechowski)But of course, while Evil Dead was Lindsay’s first play since high school, it was far from the first time she’s performed in Peterborough. She’s been a fixture of the local music scene for most of a decade, her big personality finding voice in grimy, visceral blues-rock. When Lindsay is on stage, she owns it wholly. She struts and screams and dances around. “I enjoy watching someone who demands your attention,” she says. “I don’t understand why you’d do it any other way.”

This big persona isn’t just an act: Lindsay has lived life to its fullest, diving headlong into art, cutting her teeth on the discerning stages of St John’s, Newfoundland, releasing three albums, and even making it onto Canadian Idol.

And while Lindsay has been away from the spotlight for a couple years, she is currently planning a major comeback, writing and performing as the lead in A Musical Journey With Janis Joplin this month, and working on new music to be released this summer. There is no stopping this tireless performer.

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Lindsay Barr was born in Labrador, but soon moved with her family to Port Hope, and then, in high school, to Peterborough, where she attended PCVS.

Her home was always full of music. Her parents, both teachers who were highly encouraging of her art, introduced her to blues music, while her brother Geoff gave her an early education in punk and metal, frequently blasting Dead Kennedys at 8:30 in the morning.

Lindsay Barr (photo by Karol Orzechowski)Lindsay cites the songwriting of Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin as particularly inspiring, helping her to realize that “you can say things not everybody always likes.” By age 12, she was joining her brother at local punk shows in Port Hope. “It was very male dominated, but I didn’t care. It was so ignited with energy! People think it’s aggressive and it’s all these things, but there was something inside me that was answered by these very visceral, very physical performances.”

Up until then, Lindsay had been following a path of athletics, as a competitive figure skater and gymnast, “but I had this pull. I loved to write and draw and sing. My style was different than my girlfriends. I had an aversion to pink. I distinctly remember going, am I a jock or am I a freak?”

At age 13, she made her choice: she shaved her head and dove headlong into art. It wasn’t long before she taught herself to play guitar and started singing. “I was very interested in poetry prior to that. Put one and one together, and boom you’re a songwriter.”

Then, tragedy struck when Lindsay was 20, as her brother passed away suddenly. Geoff had always been a free spirit, who was reading Nietzsche when he was 10, quit school at 14, and eventually moved to British Columbia’s Kootenays, where he built a house himself on the side of a mountain and lived off the land. Says Lindsay, “I wonder if, in some way, somehow, he knew he only had 22 years.”

One day, while out sapping birch trees, Geoff’s boat capsized in a frigid mountain lake. “We didn’t find out he was dead for a couple days,” says Lindsay. “Fuckin nuts. That shit really makes you take life a little bit seriously. Go have fun, but spend time with the people you want to spend time with; do the things you want to do.”

At the time, Lindsay was scheduled to start studying Fine Art at York University, “but when Geoff died, I was like, I’m going to go do what I really want to do.” So, she packed up and moved to St John’s, where her family was originally from, to pursue a career in music full time.

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George Street in St John’s is two straight blocks of nothing but bars, pubs, and restaurants, with live music in the air every night. It’s a mecca for musicians, full of boundless opportunities for performance, but also a relentless meritocracy, where the fans know good music and there’s always another show a few doors down. “I cut my teeth on the scene there,” says Lindsay. “They really taught me what’s what. You smarten up real quick when you start hanging out with Newfoundland musicians, because they’re so talented.”

She had a bit of a rocky start. A friend suggested she try an open mic, and when she got there, she found a room crowded with hundreds of people. “I got through a song and a half, and I realized I wasn’t demanding anyone’s attention. Something happened inside me.” She handed the guitar back to the host, grabbed her jacket, and walked out the door. “As I was walking home, I thought, that’s never going to happen again—ever. From then on, I knew my shit, I presented music that was good, and I slowly started performing more.”

Lindsay Barr (photo by Karol Orzechowski)She kept doing open mics, and was soon approached by the owner of a local bar. “He said, ‘Know lots of songs?’ I said, ‘I know so many songs!’” In reality, her repertoire at the time consisted of just a few cover songs, but “I went home and learned every cover.” She quickly built a three-hour set, and started playing every Saturday night on George Street.

She formed a “ska-rock-blues-ish” band, the Firewires, where she was frontwoman and songwriter. They opened for Sam Roberts and Our Lady Peace, but just as they were getting ready to release their debut album, they had a falling out and broke up.

At the time, Lindsay was getting ready to start a Fine Arts degree at Halifax’s NSCAD, and she decided, “Like shit I’m leaving the island with nothing! I marched my ass down to the bank and took out a line of credit. In Newfoundland, one thing they taught me was, why the fuck are you waiting for someone else to do this for you? I poached the best musicians from every band and I put ‘em together and formed a power band and got them to sing my songs.”

The resulting album was 2007’s Devils of Pride, released under her own name. It was a moderate success, with songs on the East Coast Countdown, a MuchFACT-produced music video for “Riot Queen,” and a number of gigs and small tours while Lindsay attended NSCAD.

Soon, Lindsay moved back to Peterborough. It was supposed to be a short-term thing: “I just thought I was coming back for a couple weeks. Shoved all my stuff on my parents’ deck and covered it in a tarp. Eight years later…”

Again, Lindsay dove in head-first. “I just fell in love with it. It had been eight or nine years since I’d been here, and I hadn’t really played outside open mics here, so people didn’t know me, but I was equipped.” She already had a band lined up before she even arrived, and within a month, the Lindsay Barr Band had another regular gig, playing every Thursday at the Dobro.

Her well-honed musicianship and dynamic stage presence made her a local favourite. She released another two albums, 2011’s Dove and Dagger and 2013’s Time to Let Go; performed regularly at Dobro, Black Horse, and other bars; and was even a rare local headliner on the Peterborough Musicfest stage. “When I look back I’m proud of my work and I’m thankful to be able to have done it, and have the balls to do it. A lot of people hem and haw, but it either is or it isn’t.”

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The last couple years have been relatively quiet for Lindsay. The grind of pursuing a career in music was taking its toll, and Lindsay made the decision to take time off for herself. “Something needed to give,” she says. “I was chasing something that a million other musicians and actors and whatever are chasing. And I learned on my time off that I don’t have to chase anything. I don’t have to be anything other than I already am, and I’m comfortable with that. I was always looking for bigger, bigger, better, better. Just to be able to create is enough for me. It’s been a great experience. I feel more well rounded… however, I’m thirsty.”

Lindsay Barr (photo by Karol Orzechowski)Her role in Evil Dead helped reignite something in her. She’s taking those lessons into a new project, A Musical Journey with Janis Joplin, which she’s writing and starring in. It’s not hard to see the parallels between Lindsay and Janis, the bombastic, full-throated singer and wildwoman who brought grimy blues to the stages of Woodstock and Monterey Pop in the late 60s. Indeed, Lindsay first sang Janis in high school, when a music teacher saw something in her and suggested she perform “Piece of My Heart.”

“I really started listening to her then, but now I’m studying her—two very different things. I really do feel like, yes her performance is aggressive, but she was a very fragile person. Everyone thinks she didn’t give a shit about anything. She cared deeply about how people felt about her and how people treated her. She’s raw and all these things, but have you heard ‘Summertime,’ or ‘Maybe,’ or ‘My Baby?’ These songs…”

The show will marry Lindsay’s love of music and theatre, with songs broken up by ‘theatrical moments’ that chronicle important moments in Janis’ tragically short career. “I’m Janis all night. I don’t break character. I am embodying her, as much as I hope I can.” She’ll be joined by an all-star local band, and Emily Burgess Band’s Rico Browne serves as the show’s musical director. Barbara Mills’ Scene Productions is producing the show.

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When I ask Lindsay if she’s continued writing during her break, she responds flatly, “That was the break.” Creating art seems to be a compulsion for her. She’ll frequently wake up in the middle of the night to write poetry, paint, or work on songs. “I’m always coming up with little bits here and there. Maybe think of a chorus, and put it through the microphone, send it to my producer, like is this even worth pursuing?”

Working with producer Adam Newcomb and her guitarist and husband Denis Goggin, she’s been in and out of the studio, “really listening. Would this sound better with this behind it? We’ll put in horns and take ‘em out. We’re not married to the music, so it becomes all about the songs, which is a really interesting process.”

Lindsay Barr (photo by Karol Orzechowski)The result is six songs that Lindsay is planning to start releasing over the summer. She describes the songs as more “pop-oriented” than her previous material, and with them, she’s hoping to return to the scene in a big way, with a series of singles and music videos.

“Living in Peterborough I feel support. I feel really at home here. I’m sticking around for a while. I really just want to be immersed back in the arts scene, back on stage. I want to focus on putting some music out, gain some people who are interested in my music.”

For the moment, Lindsay is focused on A Musical Journey with Janis Joplin, which happens April 13, as well as her next theatrical endeavour, a role as Captain Hook in the St James Players’ production of Peter Pan: A Musical Adventure, which happens April 27 to 29. “But then come May—woo! Spring cleaning and making music.”

Her theatrical projects and art-making have clearly been exceptional creative outlets for Lindsay, but when she talks about returning to music, she seems to vibrate with excitement.

“There’s a release,” she says. “It’s calisthenics at its finest. You’re using your natural instrument, and then you have an instrument on. So you’re accessing different parts of your brain. And then you’re also reacting to the music physiologically. You’re bouncing around. It’s an all-encompassing thing to me. The next day I feel this lovely experience of energy expenditure, where you’re just, like, satisfied. It’s coming from within, and from outside of you, and the whole bit.”

She pauses, seemingly worked up by her own description, and gives a broad smile. “God, I just want to go sing in the street!”

 

See Lindsay Barr in A Musical Journey with Janis Joplin, April 13 at Market Hall (more info), and in Peter Pan: A Musical Adventure, April 27 to 29 at St James United Church (more info).

 

Photos by Karol Orzechowski.

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Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock is Editor-in-Chief and co-Publisher of Electric City Magazine. He is a Peterborough-born freelance writer and editor who has covered Peterborough music and culture since 2012, first on Electric City Live and now in its magaziney successor.