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Denise Barbarita

Chaos and Congeniality

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Chaos and Congeniality 
by Denise Barbarita

 CEV:  Before we start discussing your latest CD called Chaos and Congeniality perhaps you could tell me what was it about music that first grabbed your interest and when was it that you had a pretty good idea that you were going to be doing this for a living at some point in your future? 

DB:  Well, music was always a part of my life, always something I enjoyed doing,..Half of high school was spent practicing!

But, being a working musician wasn’t the quintessential goal. I think a part of me wanted that, but the truth is from an early age I knew I wanted to work in a studio.  That’s really why I went to Berklee. Their music production program was the best around. Of course the added benefit was I could study guitar too. Honestly, I had no intention of being a professional musician,..I wanted to be an engineer/producer,..I did write some songs and recorded some of my own material while I was in school, but it wasn’t my GOAL per se.

It wasn’t until I had graduated and moved to NYC that I started to really write seriously,..more out of loneliness than anything. I had a handful of friends here, I worked a 10 hour day and made next to nothing as an intern, so it became my form of psycho-therapy and entertainment. After a year or so, friends of mine from Berklee made their way to NYC, I played them my songs and they persuaded me to start performing at open mics around the city. That's’s when I caught the bug and thought, “hmm, maybe I can do this TOO!”. But in many ways I was a late bloomer in terms of being a working musician. The first 8 years in NYC were spent mainly in the studio, working my way up the ranks, with this idea of songwriter/vocalist for hire  as a “you never know” pursuit. I worked with a few producers/engineers, I wrote a few jingles and enjoyed some success with that. I had a development deal of sorts with a major label in 1996 which never really panned out, all the while, I was constantly juggling one career with the other. They were always at odds. It wasn’t until recently, when I went freelance, around 2001, that I had the freedom to tour and promote my own music without worrying about whether I’d have a job when I came back. I still think of myself as an engineer first and a touring musician/songwriter 2nd. That may change eventually, but it’s where I am for the moment.  

CEV:  What instrument are you most comfortable with when composing/writing music and has that always been your instrument of choice? 

DB:  The Guitar is my main writing instrument. Or my own voice. I tried to play piano when I was a kid but I could never split my brain in half to read both staves. I’d have to memorize parts in order to play a piece. I couldn’t sight read. I guess that was my downfall where piano is concerned. I do have a song or 2 that I wrote in front of a piano but I never perform them because I can’t play and sing at the same time very well and I never bothered to re-work them for guitar, maybe one day. 

CEV:  Tell me a little about the title of your new CD. Where did the name Chaos and Congeniality come from and what does it represent to you? 

DB:   I’ve been pondering this question. I thought maybe I could write a cool story about how it came about, but the truth is, I don’t quite remember. I DO remember it had something to do with a dream. I wrote down “chaos and congeniality” in my notebook as a curiosity, something I could use at a later date, but as the album evolved,  I don’t know,  I just started referring to the “new CD” as “Chaos and Congeniality”. 

CEV:  When was it that you started writing the first songs that were going to end up on Chaos and Congeniality?  Did you write them knowing how they were going to fit into the CD as a whole or did they just pour out? 

 DB:  Well, I guess I should start with my first CD, “Beauty Lied”. I had a bunch of songs that didn’t fit the first CD so I slated a couple for the 2nd. Those songs were “In Pieces”, “Appleseed”, and “For What it’s Worth”. “Beauty Lied” was finished around the summer/fall of 2001. And it also was a time when huge transitions in my personal/professional life began. I had just made the transition from assistant engineer to staff engineer at Kampo Studio (where I still work). At the time I was in an ugly working situation,.. a lot of drama and promises by a mismanaged management company I was working for at the time. We shopped an artist to many labels, and were offered deals, but each time, at the 11th hour,  the head of the management company got greedy and started demanding ridiculous terms, basically killing each deal, one by one. At the same time, another artist whose project I had put my heart and soul into was being shopped by a supposed industry heavyweight but was eventually not considered “commercially viable”, whatever that means. Both projects pretty much went up in flames within a period of 6 months for various reasons. That time period spawned “Happy Happy” and “Hush Hush”. Both songs came out of nowhere! One day they didn’t exist, the next they did. I wish it were always that simple!

I had already started recording “Hold On”, which was also birthed during that same period of time. Then came 9/11,; The inspiration for the “hidden track”. Basically, Kampo had been closed for 2 weeks, everyone in NYC, including myself, was in disbelief. Once the studio opened, I went in with a guitar and a bow and just started conjuring whatever came. At the same time, my father had heart surgery. Something changed, and he decided my mother was the enemy, so that started the process for his leaving and their subsequent divorce this past year. “Fractured” and “Only Blue” basically were my way of dealing with that. So, to get back to the real question, I didn’t start with a concept. All of these things were happening and I found myself watching all sorts of things unravel, personally, and professionally. I found myself questioning everything I ever believed in. Feeling a need to make some sense of all of these dramas unfolding around me. I consciously tried to find a way to NOT become bitter while finding forgiveness for past trespasses. Including my own.

It’s a hard thing to do! The CD should’ve been called Denise’s “saturn return” album.  

CEV:  People are always asking what kind of music a person does so they can get a handle on what to expect. How would you describe the music you did on Chaos and Congeniality? Is this typical for the music that you write and perform? 

DB:  This is a favorite subject for my band and me. One of my favorite descriptions was from a reviewer inMaine. “A combination of Pop-Angst, Rock, and Folk”. For “Beauty Lied” that fit really well,..and I would say it still does.

We’ve decided that we should describe our style as “Avante-Rock”. I like to say “rock but not”. I would say it’s pretty typical. I don’t stylistically censor myself. I do censor what I think sucks. :chuckle: 

I think these are somewhat sad times for songwriters and bands. The industry says it wants “this” (draw a box) and only “this “ is “hot”. Well, I don’t subscribe to that view.

I’m influenced by all sorts of music; There are the core influences like Led Zeppelin, Kate Bush, King’s X, The Pretenders and NIN. Even then those influences run the gamut. I love writing and singing pretty diddies, but I also love to rock out. I don’t feel it’s necessary to write yourself in a box. I think music should continue to evolve. I keep hearing from people that “everything that can be done has been done already” in the rock genre. Every time I hear that I cringe! I think it’s a short sighted opinion. My personal belief is that the rock genre is being stunted by an industry whose only interest is it’s bottom line. I guess
it’s up to the indie nation to show the world it doesn’t have to be the same ol hum drum. I’m hoping that’s exactly what happens! 

CEV:  What kind of music did you listen to and what would you say was your biggest influence on the music that you wrote for Chaos and Congeniality? 

 DB:  I listen to all sorts of stuff. I’m in a bit of a world music phase right now. Let’s see, (opening the CD player) In the 5 disc player right now are the following: 

RadioHead “Ok Computer”,

Pow “Tajalli”,

A realworld compilation CD called “voices of the real world”,

Terry Riley, “Lisbon concert”,

indie artist, Celia Schaklett’s “Danger: Live Wire”

King’s X “Ogre Tones”. 

These are the CDs in my bag at the moment that I travel around with:

the latest NIN CD, “With Teeth” has been playing on my portable player since it came out. I actually ruined the first copy I bought,  so I just recently purchased a new copy, the DVD this time, and I got smart and loaded into my iTunes library, so if this one gets ruined, I don't have to buy another one. The other CD I take everywhere with me is my “pre-release” copy of Pillow Theory’s newest CD “Out-Patience”

Radiohead «Hail to the thief»

And my old standby, the Bulgarian women’s choir; «Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares» 

Dang nabbit,..I just realized this isn't what you asked me,..oops :chuckle: 

What I was listening to/influences for C&C?

Peter Gabriel’s “Passion”,  Kate Bush’s “The Sensual World”, (which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me considering that’s an all time favorite) Led Zeppelin and NIN,..(These 2 bands are like water. I can’t live without them!) I went through a Bonnie Raitt spell. I was listening to Kim Burrel’s “Everlasting Life” non-stop for a period of a few months. I think the “Hail to the thief” record came out about the same time and I went through a non-stop period with that one too.

Biggest influence for C&C?

I think THE biggest influence musically wasn’t what I was listening to but what I was doing towards the end. I took some group raga singing classes last fall that really opened my palette in terms of improvisational singing. I basically just “went for it” in the studio, not that I don’t normally, but I feel like those classes gave me a few new shades to play with. 

CEV:  When did you go into the studio and start work on taking the music you had written and translating that into what would become your CD?

DB:   It was ongoing really. It started with “Hold On”. And the truth is that recording was meant as a demo. I went in, did a gtr/vox demo, but when I went back to do it “for real” I couldn’t get the same energy back, so I chucked the new version then proceeded to add on to the original, first the cello, then Rich recorded the percussion at home, and finally the background vocals. “In Pieces” started that way also. Everything ass-backwards. Now that I think of it, the Hidden track too.

Again, I have to go back to “Beauty Lied”. In many ways, that album was my way of proving to myself that I could do it myself, in other words, be the engineer, producer and artist, songwriter, performer, blah blah.

So many people told me it was a mistake, that “nobody” does that. Well, Todd Rundgren is my role model. If he can do it, so can I! In retrospect, I was much more “procedural” and precious about the first album. Everything had to be a certain way, for that one I had a vision. For C&C, I let go of the reigns quite a bit. The difference also is that I have a band that has been playing together for some time. The band was more in its infancy stages for “Beauty Lied”. The biggest difference from “Beauty Lied” was the songs were recorded live as they were written. In other words, with an exception of the 3 I mentioned, all of the tracks were recorded live, then we did overdubs later, you know the background vocals, percussion, and little ear candy tidbits.

So it went something like this: I wrote a new song, we rehearsed it, and the next available day in the studio we set the gear up and pressed record. A much easier task! The process started in 2001,  after a few tours and other recording projects were completed, we resumed in 2003, finished in 2005. 

CEV:  Tell me about the time you spent in the studio. Was it as much fun recording the music as it was writing it in the first place? What did you like about being in the studio and what did you not like about the process?

DB:  I think more fun, but that’s because the studio is my second home. It’s where I always wanted to be. It’s safe and comfy, but yet I have all of these tools at my disposal to wreak havoc! I could make myself sound like a duck or turn a song into a microtonal orchestra by twiddling a few knobs, not that I would, but I could!
I’m actually more comfortable in the studio than anywhere else.

We had a blast doing this record! Every time we went in, we tried some different things, and I think it’s safe to say we spent more time setting up and getting things to sound the way we wanted at the source than we actually spent recording the songs. Generally speaking we’d spend 4-6 hours or so to set everything up “just so” and spent only an hour or so of actual “playing”. 3 to 4 takes max. “Only Blue” and “Fractured” were both recorded the same day. That was the most difficult session for me because of the subject matter. I was a mess emotionally speaking. The songs were so fresh. The rest of the tunes were recorded one at a time as the studio became available. “Happy Happy” and “Hush Hush” were recorded live as a trio, just me, Rich, and Jay. David came in later to lay down his guitar tracks. It’s funny, the things that I enjoy about the recording process are, in a way, the same things that makes it a drag. For example, it’s impossible to be objective while mixing when, as an artist, you’re listening with a critical ear in terms of performance issues. I’ve gotten better with that, but it’s still hard. There were plenty of times I was ready to just erase every lead vocal. All the things I could’ve done better, etc etc. There are times when I want the luxury of walking into the studio with everything already set-up and ready to go. A situation where I can just be “the artist”. I don’t want to worry about my levels to “tape” or,  “is there too much compression on the vocal”,  “maybe I should have used this mic instead of this mic”,etc etc. On the flip side, I love being able to go into the studio and do vocals alone, and the very things I complain about are the very things I love. A conundrum for sure! There may come a time in the near future where I may hire a producer or maybe hire another engineer to mix a few tracks to see how it turns out. Maybe not. I guess we’ll see.

CEV:  Was Chaos and Congeniality all you or did you have help? Tell me about some of the folks that you worked with in the studio and what roles they played in helping you to bring your songs to life? 

DB:  I have to begin with Kampo Studios. If it wasn’t for Kenji, our studio manager, allowing me to use the studio during off hours, there wouldn’t be a “C&C” or a “Beauty Lied”.  Credit where credit is due.

I have the best band in the world (IMHO).

A lot of times singer/songwriters forget how very important the musicians they work with are to a project. Sometimes we singer/songwriters can get short sighted or possessive about arrangements or songs. Musicians are hired to play on a record because you like what they do, right? Musicians can make it or break it. Lucky for me, David and Rich and Jay are 3 of the most talented people I know. They were instrumental (pardon the pun) in making the record sound good. A great recording has (IMHO) more to do with the musicians in front of the mic than with the quality of gear used to make the recording. An engineer can only polish sh!# to a dull luster.

Left to right David, Rich, Denise and Jay

Basically, as I mentioned before, I let go of the reigns for the most part, and allowed David and Rich and Jay to do what they do. They added their uniqueness and flavor to the arrangements. Jay’s Bass part and David’s guitar part for “Hush Hush” are awesome! Their parts make the song. Leah Coloff brought “Hold On” to life with her cello part. Her part also spawned the background vocal arrangement, though I’m sure she doesn’t know that. Rich came up with the drum loop under “In Pieces” and took the track to another level. I could go on and on, really. They were integral to the making of the CD. I asked a few friends of mine to come in to do little parts here and there,..Kelsey, Leah, Karen, Lu and Steele,.. All made huge contributions,..It would have been a much different record without them! In terms of roles,  well,.. Jay is the “anything goes” guy. He’s the most “even-keel” in the bunch, I think we amuse him with our individual rantings more than anything! Hehe He plays his ass off,  and always comes up with something super cool! And he’s the nicest guy in the world to boot! Rich is my fiancée. He keeps me focused and grounded and he’s super supportive outside of the studio. He’s also the one who listens to vocal takes because I’m too critical. He tells me, “I like take three but I like the first verse of take two” and we go from there. When I listen to the takes on my own, I want to erase them. Rich has heard me sing for years and knows my voice so well that he’s become my objective ear, my performance barometer. David and I met at Berklee. He’s my antagonist. He challenges me. Challenges my production decisions when he feels he needs to. Makes me take a second look or helps me to see a song in a different light. He continually challenges me to reach beyond my comfort level, whether I like it or not! Every songwriter needs someone who challenges his/her way of approaching a song or a performance!  It’s not always pretty,  but it’s necessary. While I may not agree with everything, I respect David for caring enough to speak up! He really inspires me to be a better musician. 

Both Rich and David were super helpful in the mixing stage too. We mixed the way we recorded, one by one. I would go in, set everything up, and mix for about 4-6 hours. I’d get the mix to a point where either I was happy with it or I was pulling my hair out. For the ballads, I pretty much mixed alone, Rich came by, took a few listens and made a suggestion or two, then it was time to print. For the louder songs I really wanted David to be there as he’s the guitar tone guru and he’s picky about that stuff. He and Rich would come in, I’d let them know where I was with the mix and they would listen, take notes and then we’d tweak this or that guitar needs to come down here, snare is too loud there, that type of stuff. Four hours of tweaking later, we would be ready to print. They really made the mixing process easier for me by being there. When I’m mixing someone else’s music it’s a lot more fun, and believe it or not, easier, than when
I’m mixing my own music. 

CEV:  Taken as a whole do the songs on this CD tell a story about your life? As a songwriter does it ever make you feel a little too vulnerable when you open up to personal issues in the songwriting process and then those issues end up in your song? 

DB:  Oh yeah. This album painfully so. For a while there, I was able to get away with the  general “you”. i.e.
“You” are the reason for this or that.

No one really knew or needed to know who the “you” was. No one got hurt. Those who know me personally have their suspicions who the “you” is from song to song. The two songs about my parent’s breakup, on this album.. Phew!  That was hard,. And I waffled as to whether they would make the cut. My dad was pretty livid about “Fractured”. He didn’t get it, I don’t think he does even now. It’s a cry for help more than anything. A way of reaching out to say I was hurting too, we all are. He saw it as an attack. I was crushed by that. Broken is a more succinct adjective. I still am. But the issue with the song is a small part of that. It’s not something we talk about since it’s now deemed a “non-issue” since I’m supposed to be “over it by now” but I’m sure I’ll catch hell at some point for mentioning all of this in the interview.  

That’s the other can of worms a songwriter faces with personal issues making it into songs. Sometimes the person you intended the song for know it’s about them! And sometimes they get pissed off, as is the case with this one, BUT, I can’t hide from the truth as I see it. I don’t want to sugar coat anything.

As a songwriter, it’s my job to question the world around me. I mean, I could just be the type of songwriter who writes the whole “boy meets girl, girl dumps boy” scenario, I could keep it light and narrow. But the way I see it there are already loads of people who do that better than I do and LIKE it!
I’ll write that song if I’m in the mood to write that song, but generally speaking, I like to dig deeper. On the other hand, if someone wants to pay me a ridiculous sum to write a nice happy pop song, or a nice feel good all American diddy,  well,..OK! Need a love song? Got a jingle? No problem! I’ve done that too.
I’m fine with that. That’s part of the business,  and it’s a nice change of pace to write in a purely “craft” sense. It’s good exercise. But when I’m writing for my own piece of mind, and it’s a song that represents “Denise Barbarita”, well, it’s a different story. 

CEV:  Looking back at the finished project are you happy with the way that the whole thing turned out? Does it make you want to jump right back into writing mode and work on new material or does it make you want to rest a bit and savor what you’ve created? 

DB:  I’m super happy. Are there things in retrospect I’d like to go back and fix, are there things that make me go “ouch”? Sure! But I’m happy with the end result as a whole. It’s a moment in time frozen forever. I want to get back into the studio eventually. I’d rather pursue the outside projects that are on the table before doing that though. Working with other artists inspires me. I’m not sure whether I’ll be savoring any moments. It’s more
“Ok, I did that! NOW what?” It’s more a jumping off point. 

CEV:  As an indie artist what is the next step after you finish up a CD like Chaos and Congeniality? I mean how do you take it in this finished form and put it into the hands of your fans? 

DB:  I work my ass off touring and sending out press releases and writing people in the press begging them to review the CD! The record was released on June 30th, 2005. I just finished touring for the year.
I’m STILL writing reviewers, getting in touch with radio stations in the hopes to get airplay, I’m already booking the next tour for the Spring of 2006. It’s endless. The part I enjoy the least is the promotional aspect.

CEV:  Do you enjoy the marketing aspects of being an indie artist as much as the writing and recording of the CD? 

DB:  Absolutely not. It’s the part I dread more than anything, but it’s a necessary evil. I’m not a “showboaty” kind of personality. If I were, it would be much easier! Some friends of mine are great at self-promotion! No fear! I’m envious! Really I’m more of a wallflower and I always feel uncomfortable when I need to list my accolades or talk myself up. Blech! It’s becoming clear to me it’s time to find an outside marketing person. 

CEV:  Going out and playing the songs live also contributes to creating new fans and keeping your old fans happy. Not to mention helping you to make a living.  How do you feel about the tours you go on to promote your music? Is it fun or is it like going to work? What do you feel about meeting those who buy your CD’s, your fans?

DB:   Depends on the tour, really. This last one was difficult because my heart wasn’t in it. It was a last minute “can you fill-in for this person” type of thing and the honest truth was I really didn’t want to do it. It was the
“you never know” paired with “luck equals opportunity which meets perseverance” aspect that sealed the deal. In retrospect, I probably would’ve been better off listening to my spider senses and stayed home. That being said, I always meet the coolest people on tour. And this time was no exception. Most of the time I LOVE the traveling aspect of touring, it’s the booking of said tour I don’t like. It’s tedious.

I love seeing other parts of the country, I LOVE meeting fans, are you kidding? And people who buy the CDs come from every walk of life, in every size, shape and color. I love to hear their stories, what life is like for them. What it is that makes them tick. THAT is what makes it fun for me,..I look forward to that. Some fans have become friends. We go out for dinner before the show, stuff like that. I LOVE that.

CEV:  What kind of feedback and comments have you been getting from your fans since Chaos and Congeniality was released? How does this feedback motivate you as an artist in regards to your songwriting and performing? Do you take the reviews personally when you read what others write about your music? 

 DB:  98% of the feedback is good; For both the CDs and for live performances. Some people only come out to see me when I play with the band, others only want to see me solo. Some people like
“Beauty Lied” better, some people like “C&C” better. Obviously, positive feedback is always a good thing. It makes me happy. I don’t know that I’m particularly motivated by comments people make. You have to take everything with a grain of salt. Some people will like what I do and some people won’t. I
don’t know how much of that is personal taste or whether a particular person just doesn’t like ME for whatever reason. If you take yourself too seriously as a performer things can get ugly. The person and the persona are not really the same. On a blue moon I may get bent out of shape by a comment, but for the most part, comments are positive and it makes me happy, kind of like your boss taking you aside to say
“good job on that project”. It’s gratifying to know someone was moved or enjoyed a performance or a song on the album.

In terms of reviews, no I don’t take them personally,..Each reviewer has his/her likes and dislikes. I’m not going to please everyone, nor do I expect to.

All of the reviews have come back positive, some with relatively minor nitpicking. There haven’t been any
“Bad” reviews, so far for either CD. Hopefully it’ll stay that way! hehe 

CEV:  Finally, do you think that you have grown as a songwriter during the creation and recording of Chaos and Congeniality? In what ways and how will this make for even better music the next time around?

DB:  Grown, yes, I think so. But more because of the people I surround myself with than anything I’ve done. Honestly, I’m not really sure how this experience will make for a better go the next time. I’m ready to move on to something different, something I haven’t done before. I’m actually starting to get to work on an experimental electronica project. We’ll see how that pans out. Lyrically the new material has shifted from personal issues to political/social commentary. I think that’s just natural since I’m in a committed relationship and no longer have unresolved feelings in that area. Time heals all wounds, right? Hehe

I think working on this last record I was able to open some doors and let go of my control freak-ish tendencies. So I think the next record will be even more of a collaborative effort, band-wise. We’ll see.
I’m open to anything at this point. 

CEV: Thanks for your very open responses to my questions and I do hope that the one answer doesn't get you in any hot water with family. I wish you much success with Chaos and Congeniality and I will be looking forward to whatever you decide to do next time around.

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