Vancouver based folk-rock singer/songwriter Leah Barley was born in Saskatchewan and raised Ontario where she spent the summers barefoot and surrounded by music at her family cottage in Muskoka.
Acting and dancing since grade school it wasn't until she moved to Canmore, Alberta in her early twenties that she experienced, and fell in love with, bluegrass and old time country music.
After buying herself a banjo she was writing and performing at open mics within two months and has been on a roll ever since. Releasing her first EP "Fly Away" once she came to Vancouver in 2010, her second "Close Your Eyes" in early 2014, and her third "Come Home" in September 2016.
With just over a decade of performing under her belt, Leah has been compared to artist such as Norah Jones, Amy Winehouse, and Janis Joplin. She's toured parts of Canada for the past four years, performed at JUNOfest in 2018, at CBC Music in Vancouver (2017 & 2016), at the Chilliwack Bluegrass Festival (2017, w/the Spillionaires), at Woodstove Festival (2016), and has even played at the world famous Whiskey A Go Go and the Hotel Cafe in L.A. singing with The Wayward Hearts.
Leah can be found performing solo or accompanied by her backing band; outstanding violist John Kastelic (Salt Thief, Black Dog String Quartet), multi-instrumentalist Ross Christopher Fairbairn (East Van Grass, Glenn Chatten Band), and ridiculously fierce violinist Emily Heldson (The Wayward Hearts, Tamburasa).
Leah also sings and plays banjo with six piece Bluegrass band The Spillionaires, and can be found working in film and television as a background performer and actor.
Bio source "Leah Barley" leahbarleymusic.com/bio Accessed February 12, 2019.
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ARTIST INTERVIEW The Banjo Reserve interviewed Leah Barley, here's what she had to say.
Q. How did you learn the Banjo, and what method of learning do you feel is most effective?
A. I'm actually self-taught. When I moved to Canmore, Alberta in my early 20's I fell in love with Bluegrass and Old Time Country. I wasn't able to get my hand around the neck of a guitar at the time but I could a banjo. I bought myself one, picked up a chord diagram sheet, and just figured out how to make a sound with it. I was writing and performing within two months.
I've had a few people along the way show me different finger rolls and such, and I've taken a few online courses, but other then that, it's all me. I definitely prefer one-on-one learning. I do a lot better from watching and hearing what's happening.
Q. During the early stages of learning to play the Banjo what did you find most challenging? What was your approach to overcome these challenges?
A. I feel like I'm still in the early stages to be honest. Getting to see so many talented players makes me realize that I could be learning about this instrument until I'm old and grey.
What was really challenging for me in the beginning was building up my finger strength. I was a kick boxer in my late teens and did some damage to both my hands along the way. It took a while to be able to play for more then 10 minutes and not be in pain. Totally worth it though.
Q. What specific challenge(s) are you working on today?
A. Learning Spillionaires songs and finding the time to write new material for myself. I've been writing on the guitar more these days and just playing banjo with the Spills. But when a new banjo song comes up, it bursts out of me. Playing with the Spillionaires is allowing me the space to work on different dynamics and learn new patterns, I'm pretty excited about it.
Q. Where do you see banjo music going and what is your role in that?
A. I feel like banjo music is really blowing up lately. You can hear it sneaking into a lot of popular bands these days, especially with Indie musicians. There are a lot of incredible Canadian bands that are really making banjo their own and highlighting how incredible of a sound this instrument can make.
I sometimes feel like there is a “you have to be a white, grey haired male over 50 to play the banjo” stereotype and my part is to blow that out of the water.
Q. Are there any banjo artists from the past or present that have a significant influence on your interest in banjo music, technique, or future project?
A. Oh big time. I love going to see traditional Bluegrass bands like 5 on a String and The Lonesome Town Painters to get a great history lesson and really appreciate when the songs have come from. Lisa LeBlanc totally blows my mind. I've seen her perform a few times, solo and with a full band. Her style of playing is so unique and her songwriting is simplistic and strong. It really highlights that the banjo can be a lead instrument in a rock and roll kind of way.
Frank Evans from The Slocan Ramblers does an incredible job playing traditional tunes with adding a side of “check THIS out” during performances. He's one hell of a picker and a damn good singer as well.
My friend Chris Dawson-Murphy of the Bottom Shelf Bourbon Trio has been playing since he was five. The sounds he creates on a banjo are like nothing I've ever heard before. He plays with such ease and just knows exactly what to do every time.
I really enjoy seeing artists going out on a limb and figuring out a completely different sound then the norm. Logan Thackray of Logan and Nathan does this so well. She uses a pick and effects pedals which create a strong punch of sound that is completely different then standard finger picking.
Q. With your impressive list of interests and accomplishments as a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, banjo player, and actress, what is your advice to other young musicians about preparing and defining themselves in the music industry?
A. Build community. Surround yourself with people who inspire, support, and believe in you.
Stay focused and remember that self care is number one. Know what you're worth and create boundaries around that.
Q. I recently listened to your album “Come Home”, released in 2016, and instantly needed to explore more of your music, Fly Away, Close Your Eyes and The Spillionaires. Can you share your thoughts, interests, and/or approach to your next album or major project?
A. My next album is already written, I just need to decide on if I want to record another EP or if it'll be a full length album. I spent a lot of time last year focusing on recording the Spillionaires first EP, which will be released this Spring, and self-care.
For a long time I was non-stop with touring and playing shows and after becoming very ill in early 2017 I had to take a step back and just focus on me for a while. I realized, there's no rush! I'm going to be playing until the day I die. My favourite place to be is on stage performing.
A new album will be coming, when the time is right, and it will be a heavy hitter. Some fun tunes as always, and some big time gut wrenchers. It will be very personal and raw. I'm really taking my time in finding the right space to record in and a producer I'd like to work with.
I will also be doing some work on an upcoming Bottom Shelf Bourbon Trio album, playing banjo on a song as well as some vocals on a couple others.
Q. You are a singer and the banjo player for the band The Spillionaires, how did you become a member of this band and is this where you focus your banjo playing interests, versus your solo performances or playing with your backing band?
A. I've been with the Spillionaires for just about two years now. A few of the members were mutual friends of an old roommate of mine. I jammed some of my songs one day with Matt, the bass player, and a short while later he reached out saying their main guitarist had moved and asked if I wanted to audition. I came for a jam and that was it!
Playing with them is by far where most of my banjo playing comes in. We all take turns leading songs which gives me space to play around with different strumming patterns and rolls. I'm not much of a soloist, in terms of fancy picking during instrumental breaks, which gives Al and Ryan more opportunity to shine on the mandolin and guitar while I help to hold down the base of the song.
When performing my music my instrumentals tend to be more simplistic to hold down the structure of the song. I'm a singer first and foremost. John and Ross, my super talented backing band, bring all the incredible dynamics which take my songs to a completely different level.
Q. You have performed at several festivals and in numerous venues, including the infamous Whiskey A Go-Go in Los Angeles. What venue or festival, that you have not yet played, would you love to perform at? Are there any Artists you would love to have on that stage?
A. I'd love to play the Canmore Folk Festival just because that's where I started playing music and I'd be honoured to be able to perform at Edge of the World in Haida Gwaii someday. There are so many incredible festivals in Canada that I have yet to go to not to mentions the US. Getting my Visa to tour in the states is a major part of my to-do list.
As for artists on the stage, I'd just be thrilled to have my band mates with me. To share such an amazing experience and do what we love. And I'd obviously be over the moon to be on a bill with Lisa LeBlanc or some other fierce female fronted bands like the Alabama Shakes or Lake Street Dive.
Q. At this point in your banjo playing career, what work, project or event are you most proud of?
A. Playing CBC Music in Vancouver. To be acknowledged by such a highly respected corporation and to be given the chance to perform for such a diverse audience just meant the world to me.
Q. What other interests do you have? Hobby, charitable group that is special to you, pet(s), etc.
A. Beyond performing and going to shows, I'm also a Holistic Nutritionist and I live in an incredible Communal House. I spend a lot of time cooking and laughing with my roommates. I also work in Film and Television so I'm constantly taking workshops and classes or checking out new films and shows.
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