Now/It's: An Interview with Nikki Barber (The Minks)

It is far from an original thought to reference the notion that the current state of affairs in our world would be best described as being engulfed in (proverbial) flames. Or, in less flowery language, “The world is one fire.” Nevertheless, there are moments - albeit, small ones - that provide relief in an otherwise tenuous time. These moments help us persevere and press forth in the barrage of shortcomings and surprises life is known to throw. But there are ways to deal with such scenarios. Like a cup of coffee (contextually, that will make sense later) In other words - or in this case, in Nikki Barber’s words, one can maintain their own sanity in life through keeping things “light and sweet.” It might seem superficial, but it’s true. Appreciate those light, sweet moments, and everything else will seem less dour. That’s what Barber’s kept in mind the past three years with her project The Minks, who are finally set to release their aptly titled LP, Light & Sweet later this year on Cafe Rooster Records. It’s been a long time coming, but those light, sweet moments make releasing singles like “J. Walker Blues” that much more gratifying. Life throws a lot at us over time, but as long as the light and sweet moments exist, things will be, at the very least, okay.

Now/It’s met with Nikki Barber at Riverfront Park in Downtown Nashville.

N/I - For as long as I’ve lived in Nashville, I’ve never really understood where Riverfront Park begins and where it ends.

Nikki - It’s all good. It’s kind of all over the place. I didn’t even think about what part of the park is what [laughs].

N/I - At the end of the day, it’s all on the riverfront, so I suppose that’s all that really matters.

Nikki - Right [laughs]. This is one of my favorite spots.

N/I - So how long have you been in [Nashville]?

Nikki - I’ve been here for six and a half years.

N/I - What brought you here originally? Music?

Nikki - Music. That’s it. And just a need to get out of my hometown.

N/I - And where’s that?

Nikki - Pennsylvania. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

N/I - So when you first got here, what was your initial perception of Nashville?

Nikki - I loved it. I still love it, but I liked Nashville because it was like a sleepy city. There weren’t that many people. It was all kind of quirky and weird, so I loved that about it. It was super cheap too, which was the best, because I was debating between here and LA, and LA is crazy expensive, so I was like “Fuck it, I’m moving to Nashville.” But definitely, it’s increased in price and stuff like that [laughs]....

N/I - That’s fair. There probably aren’t as many people moving here for those reasons as they once were.

Nikki - Right. But it’s still quirky, I love it.

N/I - There’s plenty of quirk all over the place. There’s different kinds, now. You get some of that strange tourist quirk which gets pretty annoying pretty fast, and doesn’t have the same charm the old West Nashville did, or the East side or Inglewood, but it adds an element of quirk nonetheless.

Nikki - Yeah. I remember first moving to town and having a friend come visit and me being like “Well this is kind of where all the artists live,” when we were driving through East Nashville, and he was like “Did we miss it?” You used to not be able to really walk anywhere in East Nashville, except for Five Points, but now you can walk all the way down Woodland. It’s cool to see it grow, though. I have a love for it. It’s kind of like watching a baby grow up, a little bit [laughs].

N/I - And the change hasn’t pushed to start exploring other locales?

Nikki - No. I mean, I definitely talk about it. I never really thought I’d live here for this long….

N/I - Really?

Nikki - Honestly, I like to travel around so much, so I never really thought I’d live anywhere for this long, actually. But it’s such a good hub. Especially as a touring musician - you can do weekend runs and things like that and not really have to be so far out. You can come back and everyone’s here doing the same thing, and there are all these connections here. So it makes sense to live here. There’s nowhere else calling my name. I wouldn’t move unless something else was really like “YES!”

N/I - So when you first got here, did you start The Minks immediately? Or was there some “soul searching” at first?

Nikki - No. It took me a little while to start my own thing. I moved down here with an old band. We moved here together, and then started different projects, as tends to happen. So I started The Minks maybe three years ago? And it kind of just started like a fun show. My friend, Ron Gallo, who was from Philly, was telling me - this was before things really started to take off for him - he was coming down for some show and he was like “Would your band want to play?” This would have been for The Stone Fox at the time. I was like “Yeah! Totally man.” And then I get off the phone and was like “Oh shit. I need to get a band.” [Laughs] So it was originally just going to be a show or two. I didn’t really know where it would go, and now here we are. It’s still going. It’s been fun. It’s been a circus of friends playing with me throughout the whole thing. It’s great.

N/I - Has that made things challenging at all to write for The Minks if you have a revolving door of musicians?

Nikki - Not really. It’s been pretty good, actually, because the songs have a structure, but there’s enough freedom in all of it that whoever’s the group at the time, everyone brings their own thing. So it always sounds the same, but everyone can bring their own something special to it. It’s worked out great. A lot of jams. And room to change things up without ruining the songs.

N/I - And now you’ve got basically an album that’s ready to go. How did that come about?

Nikki - In writing?

N/I - Just in general. In the three years of The Minks, is it the whole thing? Or a recent thing?

Nikki - It’s kind of the whole thing. We put out an EP in….

N/I - 2016?

Nikki - That’s right. So I guess right when we put that out, things were in the works. Ever since then, we’ve been working on the songs through playing them live, and eventually turned them into the album. My roommate - Joe Bissiri - helped record the entire thing, produced it, mixed it. So it’s been great with him, because we live together, if an idea sparks, we’d be like “Hey, let’s do it right now.”

N/I - You can wake up and knock it out.

Nikki - Exactly. So that’s been fun. It’s kind of weird, because a lot of times, bands will go into the studio for a week and they’ll write the entire album, record the entire album within a week, so that brings a whole different energy to it than what we had. We had…. Not all the time in the world, but we had time to just experiment and do a lot of different things.

N/I - More flexibility, maybe?

Nikki - Yes. So that was fun. We were able to try out different things and record things differently. We recorded some of the songs a few different times until we got it to how we want it to be, so that was fun. But I’m also super excited for it to be out now, because we’ve been working on it for a while. It doesn’t feel like… You know when you write a song? It’s very personal…. At least for me it is, and it’s almost always as an emotional outlet of something. So I’m not even necessarily writing it expecting someone to hear it. I write it because I’m feeling it, so it’s fun to have these songs all be on an album. I feel like they’re no longer mine. I’m ready for the world to take them on and accept them whatever way people do. So it’s nice to not be attached to them. Well, I’m attached to them, but I’m okay with them just being out in the world now. It’s a burden off my back.

N/I - I was about to say, with it being what sounds like - not necessarily a bad burden - a beast of burden in some sense… Maybe an obvious feeling in the moment. Does that affect you in any way returning to them when you play them live?

Nikki - It doesn’t. Now it’s just like a fun song when I sing them. Obviously, some of them are more personal than others. They bring back certain memories and things, but it was kind of like a coping mechanism in writing them. It helped heal me, so now I’m hoping it will help…

N/I - Someone else.

Nikki - Exactly. Hopefully someone will pick up on it. Everyone’s different, but everyone experiences the same emotions and things, so it’s been interesting as we play these songs out. It’s been interesting to see people come up and tell me “This song really affected me for this one thing,” and it’s not at all the same scenario as why I wrote it, but it’s cool that it can help someone in a different way. That’s how any song is. It makes you think of whatever thing it is that song makes you think of.

N/I - You have your reference points. You have your personal touchstones, and when you hear the song it makes you think of those things. But when you wrote the songs, it might not be the same impact or affectation that it might be for me.

Nikki - Exactly. And that’s the coolest thing about music.

N/I - It’s one of the most amazing things for sure. It’s universal, but it’s also so incredibly intimate for anybody who interacts with it, especially to do it openly. It’s a beautiful thing.

Nikki - And it’s really fun to do [laughs].

N/I - Of course. To that point, is there a song where you’ve had someone share that it’s impacted them in a way that threw you off or surprised you?

Nikki - I’ve never really had anything completely off the wall, but I have had people come up to me and tell me that my songwriting has gotten them through some crazy times. That’s just wild. Everything I write has a purpose and a meaning, but to hear someone say I changed their world in any way is baffling to me. It’s really cool. And it’s gratifying because there are so many artists who have done that same thing for me, so it’s cool to return that, in a way.

N/I - Who are some of those artists who have done that for you?
Nikki - Oh man…. Patti Smith is one of my favorite people ever. Her work, she’s such a poet, even more so than a musician. Her words just speak volumes. Bob Dylan. His words touch me a lot. There’s a million and one people. Lou Reed has been really big for me as well. Granted, it all depends on your mood and what you’re going through, but it’s wild how a song can do something…. Neil Young is a huge one too. And John Lennon. I know they’re all kind of the “big dudes,” but they are big for a reason. I think all of those people have a way of writing something so simply that it can touch so many people. You don’t have to decipher each line. They’re just writing something that leads someone to go “How the hell did he write that? He knows exactly what I’m feeling.”

N/I - Sure. In slightly more current comparisons - this is already going to be a bad comparison, I can feel it - John Mayer and Father John Misty. The two of them are kind of the same guy, personality wise, but one of them writes for a more broad audience, and the other is a little too smarmy and specific. You can see who’s playing arenas versus -still huge - rooms, you can see the point of delineation. It’s like Rodriguez and Bob Dylan. That’s always been interesting to me, seeing how those things work out. People respond certain ways, and others will go all in on a Bob Dylan or a Patti Smith.

Nikki - It’s crazy.

N/I - So with this album coming out, do you have a whole of anticipation outside of simply releasing it?

Nikki - We’re going to be touring extensively with it, we have a lot of things in place. “J. Walker Blues” being the first single is the “start” of everything. That’s the start of the roller coaster. We’ve been plotting and planning and going up and up and up, and we’re about to just go off the ledge.

N/I - But hopefully go back up again, too…

Nikki - Oh totally, hopefully we do it all over again. But I’m really excited, it’s not like something I’m able to put out and move on from. I want to put in a lot of effort with it, because so many other people have.

N/I - Circling back to that idea of you music affecting others, is there a particular takeaway you hope for people to glean from the album? Or let them arrive at things on their own, as you referenced earlier?

Nikki - I hope people take something away from it. It will be different for everybody. It’s called Light & Sweet, and it all stemmed from a few years back, I had hopped in the van with my friends the Blackfoot Gypsies, and we were up in New York on this little tour, and we were up in this little coffee shop when this super New York guy comes in and says “I want my coffee and I want it light and sweet, honey. Light and sweet.” And we thought it was so funny, and then just any time something…. A heavy situation or certain circumstance would come about, we’d just say “Keep it light and sweet.” So when I was recording all these songs, I realized all of these songs feel positive and are upbeat and fun, but there’s also a lot of sadness and darkness within it.

N/I - A little more depth than anticipated.

Nikki - Right. So I’m hoping that people can take away that even though life is really hard to navigate and there are always going to be those hard times, hopefully you can always find the positive. Always keep it light and sweet [laughs].