Once an R&B keyboardist for a typical four- or five-piece band, the Salt Lake City native has evolved into her own as a solo artist.
With a songwriting degree from Berklee College, she is now preparing to release her fourth album called Undefined, which was recorded at Flux Studios and the recently reopened Chung King Studios, as well as at multiple home studios throughout Brooklyn.
When she is not recording or performing for her growing fan-base, Barra teaches music producing at the Lower East Side Girls Club through a program she created called Beats By Girlz. Today she is also involved in raising funds for curriculum development, marketing and video production for the program at beatsbygirlz.com.
I met up with Berra on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg last week to discuss her new focus on music, the new album and her work with the LES Girls Club.
What made you decide go digital?
I was pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter and it was just becoming too expensive to tour with a full band. The next step I needed to take was to expand, so I just started messing around with a laptop trying to see if there was a way to eliminate human bodies so that we could take the next step. It was just like going down a rabbit hole; it just became a whole new toolbox for me instead of just traditional ways to express myself. I was given a whole new pallet.
What were your bands like before you made the switch?
I was more of a traditional singer-songwriter. I was way more R&B than I am now, much more electronic pop. It was just me and four dudes on stage with instruments, the way that most people do that kind of stuff.
What instruments were you playing?
I’ve been playing piano since I was very young. All of those things equipped me with what I am able to do now. I still do a lot of keyboard stuff, I still do a lot of writing and now with the digital things I’ve found out a way to make myself employable in this business.
What was it that first got you interested in doing your own music?
It has always been “Erin Berra and...” The group of musicians that I played with for three years, the same dudes, was “Erin Berra and the One-Hitters.” When I was in college it was “Erin Berra and the Flow.” It has always been me. At the end of the day you can’t depend on anybody else to show up, so it has always been my efforts augmented by whomever I play with at that particular time.
How has your music changed?
I don’t think a lot changed, it’s just that I’ve evolved over time. That would have happened with or without the technology – my sound would have evolved. I didn’t need to rely on anybody else to make anything happen and that is really empowering. When artists are empowered, a lot of things happen.
What brought you to New York?
Well, I went to Berklee and I had a really good run there. It just came time to make a decision where I wanted to go afterwards and the music industry sadly only exists in three or four, maybe five, places.
L.A., Nashville, New York, Austin and Atlanta are the main places you can work. San Francisco has a good rap scene and some good electronic stuff, but those five places are the only places where I felt I could be potentially employable. It was just making a decision and I felt my sound fit best here. It was very natural.
What’s your take on the New York audience?
I think people here are more receptive to different types of music. If we were doing this in Nashville it would be a different type of response. I like it because it’s brutal in its own capacity, but I feed off of that. I’d rather be really real, whatever that means, versus the L.A. scene. We’re all people, we’re all super jaded, and maybe New Yorkers have an easier time expressing that. (laughs)
I’ve done work in Nashville and it’s equally inundated, and the same thing with L.A. The main difference is we’re all on top of each other here, so if you were in L.A. and there were five places to go, geographically I make decisions based on where I am, whereas here there’s like eight things happening within a 100-foot radius versus other towns that you have to put a little more effort into it.
Explain the meaning behind your new album, Undefined?
I first did not want to name it. Genre-wise, I don’t like to compartmentalize myself and I feel like a lot of the expectation that comes with the word “artists” is stifling. It makes people make bad decisions or do things not for art's sake, but rather for business sake. It has really been off-putting to me and I don’t even like saying that I am an artist anymore, because I am so much more than that.
When it came time to putting a label on the album, I was just very resistant to doing that. I feel like I finally broke free of the connotation of what those words mean. I’ve redefined it for myself and found a lot of success in that redefinition, so I didn’t want to put a name on it, but when it came time to let people know what this album should be called I decided to go with Undefined, instead of like “Untitled” or something like that. It was the closest word to “nothing” that I could get.
How was the recording process different for this album?
It was just a different approach to making it. It’s still pop song writing, and there’s still a good undercurrent of R&B-ness to it, but this record has a lot of hybrid situations. We layer full band tracking with all the musicians in the room at the same time with a lot of MIDI, virtual instrumentation, drum programming. So, some of the songs are very electronic, but they still have some sort of living, breathing music to it.
What is important about keeping that aspect in your music, versus going all digital?
I think what sets it apart is the collaboration, for me. It’s like multiple energies, multiple ideas, multiple people. I can do all the stuff by myself, presumably, but it wouldn’t be an enjoyable experience and I think that would be heard in the music. It was far from a solitary effort, that’s for sure.
What are you doing when you are not recording or performing?
I’ve been involved with the Lower East Side Girls Club since 2011. They just got a grant from the city, a huge amount of money, to build this brand new state-of-the-art facility on Avenue D, so we’ve got a lot of digital audio work stations and an entire recording studio that was built inside of an airstream. There’s even a planetarium inside the facility and Tyra Banks is on the board.
I’m running the music tech program, so I’ve curated and created this entire, four-course program: how to make beats, DJing, mixing and demo recording. The idea is to give young women an opportunity to get behind a computer, which is something they typically don’t do. Women are typically viewed mostly as someone who stands behind the microphone.
Look for Berra’s new album on February 11, and visit her website for upcoming concert dates.