Starting when she was young, Barleaux found her lifelong passion while taking piano lessons. It was there where she started writing her own music and later developed the confidence to perform her songs.
Starting with her father as the accompanying guitarist at talent shows and open mic nights, she soon broke away and began to develop her own unique sound and style.
After graduating from Berklee with a degree in songwriting, she now lives in the middle of a deeply rooted music scene in Bushwick, and writes, records and performs her own music for a growing audience.
Fresh off releasing her self-titled debut album earlier this month, Barleaux met up with me at The Lunchbox on Norman Ave. in Greenpoint to discuss the new album, her road to Brooklyn and about her plans for the future.
What got you interested in writing and performing music?
I was a shy kid and I think songwriting was a way for me to feel comfortable in my own skin. I went to a private school and I felt really out of place and I remember coming home the first day of 8th grade and writing a song called, “There Are Days When” and I was really excited about it, and I think it was a way of making sense of my feelings.
All through high school, I went to an all-girls’ school outside of Hartford called Farmington, and again I was an outcast so I would lock myself in the piano rooms and write songs. I had friends, but I think that was more of what I was into. I didn’t really want to become the class president. It was a way for me to establish my identity because I didn’t really know what I was into besides that.
Do you remember the first time you performed your own music?
Yeah, I think the first time I played something original was at an open mic in my hometown with my dad backing me up on guitar. I was like 13 and I remember loving it, and all these drunken old people were cheering me on. I used to write a lot and I actually played back some of these old tapes from when I was 15 that I found recently, and they’re so funny. I had the same quirkiness on stage that I do now, that awkward banter.
How important is it for you to make that connection with your audience?
That relationship you have with your audience is something you have to build. You have to develop that sense of comfort on stage so you can reach out to them. I like connecting with my audience because it makes for a real experience. You can perform in your living room by yourself, and that’s great, but does that mean you’re going to be good on stage in terms of who is listening to you? Not necessarily.
That’s why it’s so interesting with this age of technology right now. Kids are just making beats in their bedrooms. I think establishing that relationship with my audience so young is why I kept with the whole singer-songwriter thing. I like the idea of writing a song and then going to see the reaction.
How do you write your songs?
It happens different ways every time, but mostly the best ones come out all at once, except for the lyrics. They’ll be like gibberish mostly. I usually sit down at the piano, it’s always different with piano and guitar, but it usually comes out in melody and chords. It’s good to have a backbone with anything.
What did it take to record your first album?
I made a Kickstarter and I didn’t think I was going to make any money, but I made like $3,500 and I had an idea where I wanted to record. There was this great studio like a block from my apartment in Allston, which is like the hipster part of Boston. I met this guy who worked at the studio through a friend, and he came up to me in a bar and I was totally freaked out. He was like, “I saw your Kickstarter, do you want to make a record?” I was like, “I don’t know anything about you,” but then I ended up coming around and it ended up turning into a record. I wasn’t so set on recoding there, but it just fell into place. I had the funds, we found the studio and we recorded for about a year and a half.
Did you already have the songs written?
I had the songs written but I needed a first record because I didn’t even have one. I had EPs before that, but I wanted something very dramatic and orchestral. I wanted real strings and real pianos. It was more like a showcase of everything I had written. It was the best 10 songs of everything I had written up until then.
There are things about this record that were really exciting, like getting the strings arranged. I had all the people come in from Berklee and I had those connections musician-wise. My friend Ben Talmi (from Art Decade) arranged the strings and brought in his string quartet.
I got the funds together, I got the people together, I wrote the songs; it was just all me and it was a showcase. There are songs in there that I wrote when I was 16.
Where you nervous about putting out a self-titled album?
I was, but I couldn’t really call it anything else. I played with the title a lot and I was really thinking about it, but I just knew I had to make it self-titled. When you listen to it, there are the self-confessional crush songs of a 16-year-old that were rearranged to be more modern. There are those that are more mad and scream-y. It just showed this whole array. I think I had a lot of anxiety about releasing music because at Berklee I hadn’t really done a lot. I was just so intimidated. I played shows in Boston and recorded demos with people, but in terms of really putting myself out there, I didn’t have the confidence.
What is it that makes New York such a conducive place to play music?
I think it’s the energy of the city that is really inspiring. When you get on the subway, you never know what you are going to see or hear. Sometimes it’s discerning, sometimes it’s beautiful. Since I’ve been growing up in or around New York all my life, I knew that I wanted to be here because of that energy. Everyone’s in a small space and we have to feed off of each other. That was inspiring for a songwriter because you want to tell a story.
Check out Barleaux’s self-titled album and visit her website at Hillarybarleaux.com. Her next show is at Spike Hill, 186 Bedford Ave., with Chamber Band on March 27.