Breanna Barbara on bringing blues to Brooklyn

Brooklyn singer Breanna Barbara reflects on her journey in the music industry so far, as she prepares for the release of her second album. 
Brooklyn singer Breanna Barbara reflects on her journey in the music industry so far, as she prepares for the release of her second album.  Photo Credit: Netflix/Eric Liebowitz

Musician Breanna Barbara’s silhouette appears almost as mysterious as her bayou-inspired blues-rock tunes as she sits in a dimly lit bar in Ridgewood, reflecting on the career she’s built since breaking into the scene three years ago.

Barbara, 29, has performed extensively throughout Brooklyn, where she got her start, and has taken a recent hiatus from performing live to focus on her untitled second studio album. Her sound is an amalgamation of New Orleans blues and New York vivacity, self-describing her genre as “occult blues.”

“The next album is going to be super percussive,” says Barbara, leaning back into a wooden chair at The Keep. “I want that live experience to be super raw and the exchanging energy and just dance and have a good time.”

Singer Breanna Barbara chats at The Keep on Cypress Avenue in Ridgewood.
Singer Breanna Barbara chats at The Keep on Cypress Avenue in Ridgewood. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

The songwriter — whose song “Nothing But Your Loving” soundtracked Dior’s 2017 Love Chain New York ad campaign — describes her act as an experience meant to be heard live, and she is certainly not a stranger to performing in the area. Barbara has played Baby’s All Right, Bryant Park Emerging Talent and House of YES. She states that she has a huge love of performing that is essential to the energy of her five-member band.

“I think there was one [show] at Brooklyn Bazaar that was crazy,” says Barbara. “It was one [show] where I wasn’t me. I was on another plane and I think that was when I realized ‘OK, I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.’ It was like two years ago I think.”

The December 2017 showcase featured a lineup of local funk and soul acts that the audience grooved and jived to. Barbara’s signature wails and smoky blues-rock filled the room as melodic organs and reverberated guitars had the Greenpoint crowd up on their feet.

“I remember saying like, ‘who is this person performing?’” Barbara continued. “‘Who is this girl? I like her,’ because I can be very insecure at times. I doubt a lot of stuff when it comes to music, every artist really is but I don’t think they talk about it. I remember feeling like so … confident and having so much fun [at the show].”

After finishing college and leaving Florida to follow her first love — riding on freight trains, basking in New Orleans and seeing plenty of waterfalls — Barbara found herself in one of the “darkest periods” of her life. She was living in Vermont, secluded from friends and family, digesting the death of her father in a region foreign to the Florida-raised musician — the Northeast.

“After my dad passed away [I started] running away from everything,” she says. “I got it so bad that I was like ‘all right, I need to do something’. Like there was like a turning point. So I was like, ‘I’m going to go to school for acting.’ That’s what I was set on doing."

After applying to several institutions, Barbara enrolled in acting classes at Circle in the Square in Manhattan in 2012. The songwriter relocated to Brooklyn, eventually attributing part of her sound to the bustling city atmosphere.

While the band hones a sound that screams delta blues and bayous, Barbara as an artist emerged somewhere between Manhattan acting school and a dark Brooklyn warehouse.

“New York City saved my life,” Barbara says. “It’s something that pushes you to your extreme limits … for me to be surrounded by this constant like vibrations I think is almost masochistic in a way, but they say that winters build character. I think I’m absorbing all of this for just the sure reason that I fell in love with New York City. The fact that it’s so diverse, it has a little bit of everything.”

One of Barbara’s friends obtained a large warehouse on Central and DeKalb Avenue, which she and 11 of her pals used as a living space. Most of the songs from her first record were written in the cramped space of her warehouse room, a confine without natural light, heating or circulated air.

“One of my favorite old singer-songwriters Melanie Safka … she says, ‘you know, I love this city but we have to be really crazy to live here,” says Barbara. “[In the warehouse] we had one shower, it was like a sink basin. It was a blast … it brought character, but it was definitely very illegal.”

Singer Breanna Barbara poses at The Keep on Cypress Avenue in Ridgewood.
Singer Breanna Barbara poses at The Keep on Cypress Avenue in Ridgewood. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

Most of the songs written and refined in the DeKalb warehouse made it onto Barbara’s first album, 2016’s “Mirage Dreams,” a compilation of blues-rock tunes that were written in a span of 10 years. After sending her demos to producer Andrija Tokic (who worked with rockers Alabama Shakes and Hurray for the Riff Raff), Barbara went to Nashville to record the debut release.

The grueling recording process was as dizzying as it was exciting. Yet, the duty of being signed to a label left Barbara with a hint of disenchantment. Without a mainstream sound, she says she’s concerned record labels won’t take her seriously. 

“Labels — right now at least — I don’t think they like me, or I don’t think they want to invest money in someone that they don’t know is a sure thing,” she explains. “They don’t see the numbers. That’s when it was also really helpful for me to go back into myself and be like, ‘wait, when you first started this thing in your bedroom, you had no idea your dream producer at the time was ever going to listen to your song. You had no idea anyone was ever going to listen to your song. I just had this dream to sing … you have to keep doing things for you.”

Currently, Barbara lives in Glendale, Queens, which she describes as “definitely like the suburbs.” She has laid down the demos for her sophomore album and is in the process of finding the right producer and studio to record the release.

She doesn’t have any upcoming shows and is instead dividing her time between the album cycle, retreating to Rockaway Beach and attending the donation-based Yoga for the People yoga studio four times a week.

“My last shows were this past summer and [after that] I went through a big, big growth spurt I would say,” says Barbara. “I haven’t been playing live shows recently. I’ve been taking a break to work on the second record and I’ve been doing a lot. I’ve been going to therapy and really doing a lot of healing and I’m realizing [that] I have a community here based off what I’ve created …

“I’m not making 100 percent of a living off of music yet, but I think I will.”