Ten years ago, singer-guitarist Tim Barry, who cut his musical teeth with the punk band Avail, began a solo career. He went in a different direction, playing stripped down acoustic music that marked a departure from the aggressive punk rock he played with Avail. For his latest album, last year’s Lost & Rootless, he took a real DIY approach and recorded in his own shed, which he padded with blankets, bits of carpet and pallets for soundproofing. It’s the same shed where he once lived, something he admits is rather unusual.
“Most of my life is a long strange trip, as the Grateful Dead would say,” he says in a phone interview. “I’ve lived on the grid and off the grid for extended parts of my life. I lived in a shed for three and a half years. Maybe that’s where I feel the most comfortable.”
That “comfort” level comes across clearly on the album, which commences with “No News from the North,” a twangy tune which finds Barry sing in a raspy voice about being a “drunken mess.” The song is taken from 2005's Laurel Street Demos, the first solo album Barry ever released. He’s been trying to re-record that particular tune ever since his debut came out.
“I really like the lyrics to that song,” he says. “I like how they came out. I remember how I wrote them and what I was doing. The demo presentation was really rough, and I wanted to do a better version. I tried to do that song on every single record and it has come out so bad, it’s kind of unbelievable. I was trying to put an extra guitar and drums and piano and layer the vocals. Every recording I’ve done since of that song has been horrible. I revisited it this time and it was really fun. My sister and I used to play it live, and we did it how we played it live. We did it in one take.”
Barry says he intended for the album to sound as stripped down as possible. Most of the instrumentation is simply acoustic guitar and vocals.
“There are piano notes here and there,” he admits. “My sister plays all the violin parts. Josh Small is picking on a Resonator and a banjo here and there. I’m not sure the approach was an inspiration as much as it was a necessity. Anyone who’s recorded knows that it’s hard to play the song in a formal recording session as well as you can play them when you’re high as a kite sitting in your room. It’s a hard thing. You invest a bunch of money and you suddenly tighten up and don’t play as well as you often do when you’re not in the studio. I decided to play in my shed completely on my own time whenever I felt like it and whenever I was inspired to. That forced me into stripping the record down.”
While Johnny Cash has done something similar, recording in his old cabin on occasion, Barry says he wasn’t even modeling his approach on anyone else’s recordings.
“I have my favorites, but I don’t know enough about instrumentation and presentation and production to be good enough to copy any of the greats that I admire,” says Barry. “I have my own way of doing things. I throw it out there and hope people like it. The truth is, I’m making those records for myself. All of the songs I’ve recorded are just mine. I feel lucky that some people enjoy some of them and I have the opportunity to get them out there but they’re just mine.”
Barry says his music allows him to get by from paycheck to paycheck (if he doesn’t make enough from touring and recording, he picks up the odd job here and there). He’s more creatively fulfilled now that he’s able to do things on his own terms.
“I’ve never been happier playing music in my entire life,” he says. “I never had more fun learning how to play the guitar and learning how to work on lyrics and finding things that help me do that stuff. After many, many years of being in bands and touring, I can be myself. I’m only speaking for myself these days. I feel so lucky — there’s no other word. I just feel lucky as hell.”
Tim Barry, Two Cow Garage, The Public, 8:30 p.m., Saturday, May 16, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216-321-5588. Tickets: $12, grogshop.gs.