A Film Noir Disco Fantasy

Jef Barbara Headlines Fundraiser for the Plateau’s Favourite Robot

Jef Barbara plays La Sala Rossa March 22. Photo Olia Eichenbaum

Fame and fortune sounds just fine to Jef Barbara, he’s just not in a rush to get there.

He just spent five days in Austin to play South by Southwest, including the annual GayBiGayGay show alongside Cakes da Killa and Mykki Blanco, and the POP Montreal showcase. But rubbing shoulders with the industry’s kingmakers isn’t quite his style.

“I tend to not really enjoy going to parties and trying to schmooze with the right people […] it’s not my thing,” Barbara said a day after returning home to Montreal. “I spent a great deal of time eating tacos and enjoying the weather.”

The festival is known both for packed venues with fans eager to lap up the hype and empty rooms—but this year’s SXSW sported some questionably huge acts, like Lady Gaga and Jay Z, alongside the unknowns.

“I’d rather not force things too much, but of course should I be given the opportunity to play for Samsung and get paid a million dollars, I’m not stupid,” Jef laughed. Jay Z’s partnership with the tech company gave festival-goers a chance to see him and Kanye West play if they had the right phone.

But a festival like Austin’s indie music mecca, where similar bands are often grouped together, does show how unclassifiable his music really is. From new wave riffs to sequin-laced synths—to the odd Pink Floyd-like guitar explosion—it all revolves around Jef’s voice, hanging in anticipation off each sparse vocal phrase.

“I won’t fit in with the R&B crowd, nor will I fit into the synth-pop wavey crowd, nor do we fit into the traditionally rock ‘n roll, indie rock crowd,” he says. “Everything’s sort of in the mix, there’s further layers of identity that are put on top, such as my queer identity, that make up who Jef Barbara is.”

Jef has returned to Montreal just in time for a show at La Sala Rossa, celebrating the 15th anniversary of Archive Montreal, who put on the annual Expozine festival, and to raise money for their Distroboto project—local art vending machines in various Plateau spots for over a decade.

His second LP, Soft to the Touch, came out last fall on Club Roll Records, its 14 songs tied together more by its synthy aura than its sound.

Grainy, glammed-up music videos place Jef in front of the camera striking poses, surrounded by a lush fantasy world where everyone is easy and the drinks are free.

He has a background in theatre, but acting is something he could never fully commit to.

“As an actor you’re always subjected to somebody else’s view of you, you have to correspond to one’s idea to what a character should look like and what they should sound like and who they should be,” he said.

“As a singer, you’re not only your own actor but you’re your own director. Creating my musical universe was the easiest way for me to express myself in a holistic way.”

Jef Barbara is both a performer and performance, in a sensory bath of film noir and fluorescent light. But it’s getting harder for him to separate Jef the persona from Jef the person.

“It’s become rather confusing because a big part of the Jef Barbara character was inspired by inherent characteristics that I already had,” he says.

“It is composition, but it’s based on elements that are already part of my personality that I just decided to exploit, and to a certain extent to caricature. I don’t know if it’s a character anymore. I’m a bit confused.”

Jef Barbara (Archive Montreal anniversary w/ Pyongyang + Tony Ezzy) // March 22 // La Sala Rossa (4848 St. Laurent Blvd.) // 9 p.m. // $12