I have the utmost respect for Barbara Kessler. Here’s a woman who was definitely on a musical roll with her songwriting career but she heeded the call to nest and nurture and raise her daughters. She’s a humble and caring individual whose joy bursts out of her when she sings and plays. Barbara may not have been touring but she’s been teaching and helping to produce and help other artists along the way. Her latest recording What You Keep is chock full of wonderful songs and is definitely worth a listen.
Check out Barbara’s website to see what’s been happening her life.
Here’s a video of Barbara and some family members and friends playing “A Little Good News.”
Your biography states that you didn’t get started in the music world until after you graduated from Cornell. What did you study there? And did those studies prepare you for the life of a singer-songwriter?
Industrial and Labor Relations and organizational behavior
I used to do song by James Taylor called “Millworker” (from the musical “Working”) and joked that it was the closest thing I did related to my major. I was inspired by the academic atmosphere at Cornell (I transferred there) and could have probably lived happily as an academic in research or teaching. But I never played or performed much while I was there and didn’t start writing songs till my late twenties
Your entry into music pretty much began with the Rounder Records songwriting contest at the formerly known as “Great Woods Pavilion” in Mansfield, MA. Tell us about that experience and what that nod of approval did for your career.
That was a cool experience! It solidified my confidence in trying my hand further in songwriting. At the time I’d only written a handful of songs and had mostly played cover gigs in bars. It also led directly to an invitation from Christine Lavin to attend the Martha’s Vineyard songwriter’s retreat. The open mic from that show became a record released on Rounder called “Big Times in a Small Town,” which included my song “The Date.” That got me out to radio across the country before I’d even put out a record of my own.
What inspires you to write a song? Do you find yourself keeping notes about everyday little things that seem like good song topics or do you sing yourself little phrases and record them on your phone or electronic device?
Yes, nowadays those iDevices are quite useful!! In the “old days” I kept journals with me on the road and in general; but the best ideas were always the ones when you were just struck by an idea and had to scribble on a bar napkin or a takeout bag or something. I always feel intimidated by stark blank pages. Scraps of paper are more forgiving and therefore more inspiring).
I have not been writing much these last few years, but when I do, the ideas seem to come a bit more fully formed – literally melody, lyric, guitar changes and groove all at once. Doesn’t happen very often but is quite a thrill when it does. But then I have to “write” the rest of it…
Has the sabbatical from touring given you some ideas for new material?
Fewer ideas, but enjoying the ones I do get – as well as enjoying this time with my daughters
You’ve said that you were heavily influenced by the 1970s singer-songwriter scene. Tell me the first song that comes to mind for each of these artists and why it’s an important song to you.
See above! “Millworker.” Also love “Secret of Life.” It just seems so right on. JT is a wise man!
“Boys In The Trees.” She is writing from the perspective of looking back on that adolescent longing. That time of life is so powerful and it seems like songwriters draw on that same angst.
“To The Morning.” I used to sing this with a friend when we were in junior high. It seemed so profound, which is amazing that I got that then! “There is really no way to say no to the morning.” The music just has this poignant ache to it. Also “There’s a Place in the World for a Gambler.” Again, this just killed me back then; I think if I heard it now it still would.
I always joke that there were two words that almost kept me from ever trying to write a song: Joni. Mitchell. Why bother right? Such brilliance and such innovation. She is the ultimate “singer-songwriter” — what I think of as such, “confessional” but in an artful way. It’s staggering to think of her influence.
Saturate Before Using was one of those records my big sister brought home from college that I didn’t get into at first but OD’ed on later. There is a quality to that recording that is just so bare and intimate.