Wonder Women: Kirby Barber
In this month’s installment of Wonder Women; Stories from the Women Who Play Bass, we’re checking in with Kirby Barber. I first met Kirby at the Solo Bass Competition at Winter NAMM 2020, where she competed against an impressive international lineup of performers to become the second-place winner of the event.
She has been the recipient of the bass player of the year award with the BC Country Music Association multiple times and was a CCMA (Canadian Country Music Awards) Bass player of the Year nominee for the past three years. She has won songwriting awards from the GMA (Gospel Music Association) and has received a Juno nomination as a member of the bluegrass band The High Bar Gang. Kirby currently performs with artists that include Heidi Newfield, Bobby Messano, Aaron Pritchett, Shari Ulrich, Barney Bentall, Raquel Cole, as well as freelances and records with various other artists in Canada and the US.
Tell us about yourself…
I grew up in a small town in Western Canada called Salmon Arm. I first picked up the bass when I was about twelve. I always had a collection of different instruments (drum kit, bass, guitar, keyboard) crammed into my bedroom. I would spend hours playing and writing songs after school. I played electric and upright bass in the school jazz bands and had some great music teachers early on. I further studied music at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, majoring in bass and composition. This is where I met my husband, who was studying guitar at the time. It was in Edmonton that I started picking up gigs as a side musician. At the time, there was an abundance of club gigs from 1-7 nighters. I started gigging every weekend while in university, traveling to every crevice of Western Canada. I was playing with a lot of talented, seasoned musicians early on and learning a lot from them. Arguably I was learning as much on the road as I was in the classroom.
After school, I kept gigging full time, often backing a different artist each week. I never committed to being in one particular band because I enjoyed the thrill of freelancing so much. I learned how to chart fast because I was tackling new setlists of often 40-50 songs each week. They weren’t luxurious gigs by any means, but they are now some of my favorite memories. It was a training ground and an experience to play with so many different talented players. Club gigs turned into festival dates, theatre gigs, and longer tours. Eventually, my husband and I relocated to Vancouver, British Columbia because we wanted to grow musically in a new scene. We planted roots in Vancouver and started playing and traveling with many artists from there. After living there for about six years, we relocated to Nashville, TN, where we’ve now been for the past three years. Through music, I’ve been fortunate to tour much of North America, Europe, and Asia. I’ve experienced playing everything from the smallest coffee shop filled with a few people to festivals filled with thousands, and it’s all been wonderful!
Who were your influences?
Growing up, there was a lot of classic rock and country being played in our home. At my grandparents’ house, artists such as Merle Haggard, Randy Travis, and Vince Gill were always playing on the cassette deck. I’m sure that’s where my love of country music stemmed from. A bit later on I discovered the band Nickel Creek and I quickly fell in love with everything about that style of music. I also remember the day I first heard Bernadette by the Four Tops. I heard that bassline and thought to myself, “Oh wow, I want to play that!” Once I was in college, I studied different genres and players, but it was also around this time that I started gigging more steadily. At this point, my greatest influences were the other players on the road with me. When I wasn’t on the road, I’d go out and listen to the bass players around town that I looked up to. I learned from listening and watching. I think every player is unique and has something you can learn from. I’m lucky to live in Nashville now, where there are endless incredible players to listen to and learn from.
What are you woodshedding right now?
I’ve been doing a lot of writing and recording, so I’ve been really focused on improving my recording skills. My home studio has grown and thankfully my recording skills have made huge strides over this past year (which I’m sure many others can relate to!) I am fortunate to have had a continuous stream of recording work coming in from artists for bass and background vocals. It’s been a saving grace to still be able to collaborate remotely with my musician friends in Nashville and Vancouver.
We usually hear about the downsides of being a female in the music industry. Let’s flip the script; do you see any benefits?
I’ve been very fortunate to have been surrounded by some of the most respectful, kind, and talented men in the music industry. They are my brothers on the road, and like family, we all look out for each other. I am always grateful to have a bus full of brothers out there on the highway.
How are you handling working through the pandemic? How has technology helped (or hindered) you? Any tips to share?
I’ve been doing mostly everything remotely, so technology has been everything. I wasn’t very advanced with home recording before this, so the pandemic really got me motivated to learn. I started out with whatever gear I currently had and slowly have been upgrading as I go. One thing I’ve learned is if you can stretch your budget to get better quality gear you’ll never regret it. As I upgrade my studio I realize more and more how much of a difference the quality of each piece of gear in the chain makes. I would also suggest to anyone who’s learning to run a DAW to research tutorials online. I found there are so many great resources out there.
Any current projects that you can tell us about?
I have always been involved in a number of different projects, from Bluegrass to Fusion and everything in between. I enjoy all of it! Most of the music I’ve been working on lately is for my own stuff, which lands in the singer-songwriter genre. I’m hoping to finish my own album later this year. It’ll be the first time I’ve ever shared my music, so I’m really excited about it. They are tunes I’ve written and recorded the guitars, bass, and vocals from home and will have some of my drummer pals contributing from afar. In addition to this, some Vancouver bands I enjoy being a member of are The High Bar Gang (Bluegrass) Rocket Science (Fusion), and Aaron Pritchett (Country). In Nashville, I’m currently recording with a great Americana group Linen Ray, as well as performing with Heidi Newfield (Country) who has a great new record out.
Who is your dream artist or band to collaborate with?
There are so many! This would range from Jeff Beck to Vince Gill for me!
What would you want to change about the music industry?
I wish it was easier for small to medium-sized venues to continue to host live music (the global pandemic aside). Live music on this scale seems to be less and less of a priority with changing times. As people stay home more, these venues opt-out of having music, and then these stages seem to be dropping off one by one. It’s also concerning to think that younger players don’t have this platform to get started in the industry and hone their craft. I hope after we come through these times, people will be excited to go out and support live music again, and we’ll see these stages slowly coming back.
Any artists, both established or emerging, that is new to you that you would like to tell us about?
I’m a huge lyric lover, so singer-songwriters are always on my radar. There’s a Canadian favorite of mine that may or may not be new to others, but his name is Donovan Woods. On the flip side, I’m also really into instrumental music. Many of my bandmates have been putting out their own music during this time which has been so great to hear. One of my bandmates, Scott Smith, put out an excellent instrumental steel album called “Lifeboat: Explorations in Pedal Steel” which can be heard on Bandcamp.
Any early experiences that shaped you as an artist now?
Every gig I’ve played has shaped me in some way. From traveling in a crammed van to play the dingiest club in the middle of nowhere to flying first class to play a private function in Tuscany, I have learned a lot from each of these experiences. Mostly that no matter what the gig, I had to show up and give my all. I’ve backed so many artists who have given 100% of themselves even in the smallest clubs, and I want to be that as a bass player.
You know bassists are all about the gear. And I’m definitely a gear nerd. So I have to ask…any recent game-changing acquisitions to your toolkit?
I recently acquired a beautiful new P Bass. It was built by luthier Dave Reimer, who’s located on the west coast of Canada. It’s one of the most incredible handcrafted instruments I’ve ever played. It’s my go-to bass on so many recordings these days. I’m also enjoying a Brubaker J bass I acquired at the latest NAMM. These are two new basses in my collection that I’m completely in love with! Also, in the past year, I started using Phil Jones bass gear, and it has become my absolute favorite rig. I’ve got the BP-800 head paired with a couple of their C4 Cabinets.
What advice would you have for someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Stay focused. Put aside the people that don’t believe in you or your career choice. With time, I’ve learned how important it is to lean into your musical strengths. It’s ok to accept that you won’t be the absolute best at every genre or feel. We all have natural strengths and the sooner you accept those, the sooner you’ll find your sound and your spot in the music world. Learn to read all types of charts. Whether you studied music in school or not, you should educate yourself on reading a certain amount of music notation, chord charts, and number charts. You’ll likely come across all of them in your career, and it’ll be a much better experience if you’re able and ready for any of them. Finally, don’t spend more time on social media than you do on your craft. It’s ok to promote yourself, but not at the expense of your work.
What drew you to the music industry?
When I started on this journey, I didn’t know much about the music industry, but I did know that when I fell into a groove with a drummer there was nothing else in the world that felt that good. So I suppose that feeling is what led me deeper into the music industry. I didn’t think too much about what I was getting into as a musician, which was probably for the best. Music seems to just choose you, and away you go.
What’s an average day like for you?
Well, my average days now are much different than pre-pandemic. I used to average around 150 flights a year for gigs, which meant 3 AM alarms and constantly being on the move. These days I’ve adjusted to living a very typical lifestyle of getting up early and making the most of the daylight. As I mentioned before, I’m doing a lot of writing as well as recording for other artists. I’m also teaching a few hours a day which has been a fun, rewarding change in my lifestyle.
What’s your favorite part about this line of work? Your least favorite part? Why?
My favorite parts are the people and the experiences. As musicians, we get to experience life in the fast lane. I often stop and think about how lucky we are, for what we get to see and do. Many people work their whole lives in hopes to travel the world when they retire. We do that on a daily basis. It’s such a gift. My least favorite part, I suppose, would be the sacrifices we make with our families. We often miss birthdays, anniversaries, etc, because we are on the road. It’s a choice we make, but if we can find a balance between home and the road, we can live the best life possible.
What was the first instrument you learned how to play?
My parents put me in piano lessons when I was about 8; I picked up the guitar around 10, and then the bass around 12.
Where can we find you on the interwebs?
Any final thoughts?
I think through this pandemic, most musicians have a renewed appreciation for what we do. I know for myself moving forward, I never want to take any of it for granted again. My hope is that we all come out of this refreshed, on fire to play again and that the world is hungry for live music.
Brittany Frompovich is a highly regarded educator, clinician, blogger, and bassist who currently resides in the Washington DC/NOVA region. For more content from Brittany, check out her blog, her YouTube channel, and her Bandcamp site. She also offers handmade unisex music-themed jewelry through her Etsy store. Get a Wonder Woman Tee!