Montreal Synth-Popper Jef Barbara Discusses Bowie, Florida, ‘Dynasty’ + His New Album ‘Soft to the Touch’
Blending French and English lyrics into synth-layered pop, Montreal native Jef Barbara is causing quite a stir, and on Oct. 1, he releases the new album ‘Soft to the Touch.’ Barbara made his full-length debut with 2011’s ‘Contamination,’ a dramatic yet danceable Francophile record on which he experimented with retro and futuristic worlds. But don’t get the wrong idea: This isn’t just some campy, flamboyant glam rocker in ’80s shoulder pads and rouge. The singer dresses social and political metaphors in flair, delivering a theatrical take on topics like love, sex and Florida.
Chatting with Diffuser.fm from his Montreal apartment, Barbara described his aesthetic and musical tastes and explained the differences between recording in French and in English. He also touched on Bowie, ‘Dynasty’ and how he got a bunch of kids to be in his new video.
When you record, how do you decide between English and French?
I guess it’s an aesthetic thing. I can just as easily record in English as I can in French, and I find that most languages have different flows to them. It mostly depends on the music, and the lyrics would just have to accompany that music. The two languages have different a musicality, so certain songs will lend themselves to one over the other.
When you blend languages in the song ‘Credit d’amour,’ it does have a distinct rhythm in each part.
Along with a lot of my friends, I just switch from speaking English to French. It’s as natural for me in conversation as it is in music, and I listened to both English- and French-speaking growing up. There’s another French song on the record that’s entirely in French, ‘Amour Ardent,’ so my mind just goes back and forth depending on the music.
Your look is as distinct as your sound. Who are some of your style icons?
I have to say that I listened to the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album quite a lot as a teenager, so David Bowie’s visual universe has influenced me. As far as other visual references, there are a lot of different figures who I pull from, like ‘Dynasty.’ Joan Collins and the woman who plays the Krystle character, Linda Evans, have definitely nurtured my visual universe. I guess it’s a mish-mash of all sorts of things, though.
It’s hard for me pinpoint any one style, and a lot of the rock ‘n roll elements that I draw from lend themselves visually, as well. Whether it’s Grace Jones or something on the New Wave side, I don’t find the things that inspire my universe to be very calculated, and I don’t necessarily set out to reference any figures.
Do you come up your own video concepts?
Almost all the videos from my past records have come from me, or were basic ideas that were shared with friends and then developed. For this new record, I started asking some filmmaker friends to direct. I find it more rewarding in the end. It’s great to have other people’s input, and I try to focus more on the music aspect of what I do.
For my most recent, the ‘I Know I’m Late’ video, that was directed by my friend Jesse Lee. I’m definitely looking forward to collaborating with other directors while directing a few of my own.
You had a lot of kids in the ‘I Know I’m Late’ video, and it came out looking like a psychedelic kindergarten.
Yeah, that was weird. My records don’t cater to a very young audience, and I’m aware that there’s some perversion and sexual elements to a lot of what I do. That video was my first time venturing out to something that could even use kids. It was weird, though, because we had to send out wavers to the parents and see which ones would let their kids be a part of the video. We were pretty surprised when we got 15 back.
Can you talk a little about the song ‘Florida Is the Future’? Florida has a lot different connotations down here.
I realize that, and it was sort of opportunistic of me, with the Trayvon Martin story. That story specifically has been mentioned to me a lot. The lyrics are very layered, but a friend of mine from Montreal is currently based out in Brooklyn. She wrote a Facebook status that just read “Florida is the future,” and it generated the entire song. That happens sometimes in my songwriting, where I’ll get a phrase or title, then write the song around that.
In the song, I describe Florida as a fantasy. There’s definitely some political and social meaning to it, and it references to a lot the news that gets broadcast out of Florida. I refer to it as the Sunshine State, but then there’s some talk about the polls closing early. I feel like it’s so multi-layered, though, that it’s hard for me to articulate everything that that song deals with.
What the song ‘Erection’? You use sexuality in a really interesting way on that song.
Well the song is actually a cover by a New Wave, post-punk Mag and the Suspects, who I don’t think ever released an LP. You can find it on YouTube, but I think it was only ever released as a 7-inch on vinyl. It was initially released in France, even though I don’t think they’re a French band. There’s really scant info about them, actually, because I’ve tried digging around on them. The song was just something I stumbled upon and loved. The lyrics were fun, and we didn’t reinvent the song or anything, but I thought it would sit well with the rest of the songs.
It’s does seem like a departure from the rest of the album, but it’s still consistent with the other songs.
I think so, too, but I also think other people will beg to differ. Before this, I’ve cultivated an image that is very synth-heavy and very poppy. Dominic Vanchesteing, who produced the record, turned me on to the song, and it really is one of my favorites on the album.
Having never toured in the U.S., is that something you’ll get to do on this album?
Yes, finally. I’m working on a small string of dates right now in Canada and the U.S. this November with a Toronto band called Phèdre. Beyond that, I don’t really know what will happen, but it’s definitely something I’m looking into. I’ve rarely ever played in the States. I did South by Southwest last year, and just one New York date years ago that went totally off the radar. I’m really looking forward to coming back, I’m just trying to close some deals for now.