“There it is!” Joanna Barker is excited as she points to the old apple tree she was talking about on the ferry, the one that marks the grown-over plot of land in Wabana where her mother’s childhood home once stood.
It’s Sunday evening just before dusk and we’ve made the trek to Bell Island because it seemed an appropriate place for the 23-year-old Grand Falls-Windsor native to share some thoughts on her debut album, “February,” which she celebrates the release of this weekend with a pair of performances in central and St. John’s.
At 12, her mother, Dianne, became the woman of the household when Barker’s grandmother, mother of nine children, passed away.
The story is recounted in the folk songstress’s tune “Dianne,” a solemn number that seeps into the subconscious with candor, like most of the songs on “February.”
“It was overnight that she became a lady,” Barker explains. “It floors me to think how that would affect my entire life. For my mom to turn around and have nine children of her own, like her mother — she’s something else.”
Growing up in a large family was a humbling experience, she says, as we return to the car and continue our drive around the island.
Influenced by her five older siblings’ diverse musical preferences and her parents’ encouragement, in retrospect Barker realizes she was on a path to songwriting all along.
But it wasn’t until she left home for university that the creative drive to make her own music began.
A series of experiences with relationships, losing a close friend and learning of her Innu heritage sparked in her a compulsion to turn her bricolage of “feelings” into song.
Barker reunited with high school friend and rising Newfoundland star Matthew Hornell in the spring of 2010 when he and his band The Diamond Minds spent five days with her on their tour through Nova Scotia.
The visit came just two months after her first public performance, and the encouragement she received from the band, she says, stirred a new level of confidence in her.
“We’d stay up late jamming cover tunes every night,” she recalls. “Matthew was so instrumental in encouraging me to pursue songwriting.”
It seems fitting that when she returned to Newfoundland and settled in St. John’s, Barker eventually moved into Hornell’s old bedroom and took over the basement jam space of his Cabot Street apartment as he packed his bags for Halifax.
Her first notable St. John’s performance came that fall when she opened for Hornell, Dead Language and The Dardanelles at The Ship for the Diamond Minds’ national tour kickoff show.
“I played a packed Ship of people listening attentively, and they had no idea who I was,” she recalls.
The ensuing year precipitated a period of songwriting, but with no intention of making a record, she says, although in the summer of 2010 she had read a book that inspired the eventual concept for her album. It was Lisa Moore’s novel “February.”
“I read that book in a day, on my birthday, and spent two days crying and walking around St. John’s thinking, ‘I felt all of that?’
“Even though the actual story isn’t at all what I went through, a lot of the themes and parallels of what that character was feeling is what I was feeling. So I realized (my album) was my February, and it was kind of a shout out to Lisa Moore and the incredible novel she wrote, and what I got out of it.”
In February 2011 she revisited one of her first songs, which alludes to “a list of stuff I need to do before I’m able to accept (adult) life decisions,” she explains.
“And that’s where the song ‘Closer’ comes from,” she continues, citing the album’s closing track, a retrospective song written a year after the opening number.
“It’s me revisiting, verse by verse, with the same chord progression and a similar melody — I’m not there yet, but I’m closer than I was,” she says.
“I’m not who I’m supposed to be, or who I have the potential to be, but I’m closer. And then I started thinking about the album — here’s track No. 1, track No. 10, and the other eight, which were already written, go in between.”
The album is a timeline of events and experiences Barker wrote between February 2010 and February 2011, so she called that first track “February” and subtitled the closer “February Reprise.”
Poignant and sombre, the songs in between introduce us to Barker’s distinct thick, folky contralto voice and might resonate with listeners as one of the strongest recent efforts by a Newfoundland female songwriter.
We pull into Lance Cove on the island’s south shore at dark and, continuing our conversation, stare across at Topsail’s illuminated shoreline.
“Empty Boat At Shore” is one of the album’s more stunning tracks.
Conjuring sentiments from a past relationship, it both epitomizes the talent of her string section, which includes Ilia Nicoll (Hunter Gatherers) on violin, Billy Nicoll (All The Wiles, Hunter Gatherers) on cello and Dave Bridger (formerly of Pilot to Bombardier and Duane Andrews’ band) on standup bass, and demonstrates the young songwriter’s personal courage and maturity.
Banjo player Ben Rigby (Dead Language, All The Wiles) and drummer Jake Nicoll (The Burning Hell, All The Wiles, The Hunter Gatherers) round out the band, and Lawn native Shona Stacey (The Drows) contributes backing vocals on a number of tracks.
The majority of the album’s songs were given life in that basement jam space, as was a band dynamic that Barker, an inexperienced collaborator at the time, values to no end.
“It was definitely a great big creative process (and) a lot of the songs changed in the rehearsing process,” she recalls.
“I tried to establish a creative space. We’d just meet on Cabot Street, people would show up at staggered times, everyone had a cup of wine, and it was so hot in the basement we’d just open the door and play.”
Longtime friend and “February” producer Michael Dalton also plays guitar on the album.
At summer’s end, Barker and her band went into the studio to work with sound engineer and “February” co-producer Leo Bruce of Henge Productions.
When Bruce discovered Barker had 10 years of piano lessons under her belt, he suggested she play around with a few of the songs so they might encompass a taste of her other musical talent — and she did.
“Blackfoot,” “So Good So Easy” and “Once Was A Tree,” among the record’s standout tracks, are sure to substantiate her spot on The Newfoundland Herald’s Artists to Watch in 2012 list, published in January.
With its bold lyrics relating Canada’s colonial past to the circumstances aboriginal people around the country face today, “So Good So Easy” marks a brave effort to address an important but often neglected piece of our shared history.
“I’ve been carrying around the lyrics for that a long time,” she explains. “In university I was taking some anthropology courses on Mi’kmaq people and indigenous studies.
“I could never find the music for that song to get the feeling across, I think because I felt like it wasn’t completely my story to tell,” she continues.
“I was nervous about voice appropriation, about offending, about breaking a vow of silence that, yeah OK, I have Innu heritage but in that class I had women come into our lectures who (talked about) surviving residential schools, (about) having their children taken away from them.
“At the same time, I had to get it out there.”
Whatever her future in music holds, Barker is off to a promising start. Like one of her biggest songwriting inspirations, Joni Mitchell, she has opened herself up to the world with at times aching, but always heartfelt, honesty.
And, following in Amelia Curran’s footsteps, she might just be the next in line to inspire other young female songwriters in the province to step the lyrical bravery up a notch and catalyze the exciting new wave of young folk musicians into the realm of intrepid artistry.
Barker and Hornell perform at the Grand Falls-Windsor Arts and Culture Centre Friday evening and, accompanied by Nova Scotia songwriter Kim Wempe, at The Ship Pub in St. John’s Saturday.