The Aesthetic Cotillion of
Written by Simeon Flick
You walk into a certain Mission
Valley Hotel on a Friday night because you've heard they have live music
there a few times a week and won't for much longer. The lounge is called
"Postcards," and you chuckle to yourself because most hotel bars
and restaurants seem to have sentimental, touristy monikers like
"Memories" or "Reflections."
You pass through the lobby into
the lounge proper and see gig flyers for a guy named Christopher Dale
fanned out on the long bar counter and luxuriating on tables of myriad height
and design throughout the room. The lighting is low-key and sultry, and
you're wondering what record they're playing over the hotel PA.no, wait -
the music is actually emanating from a stage off to the right, in the deep
heart of the lounge alcove!
There's a blondish woman up on
the small riser flanked by two gruff and capable-looking musician dudes who
probably roll out of bed in the morning and eat music for breakfast.
Blondie croons strong and true, with a voice like a steam train whistle
resounding down a long valley; the two gentlemen occasionally sing along,
creating tight three-part harmonies reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash
in their seventies heyday (no wonder you thought you were hearing a
record), but less pretentious, more believable in this day and age. No
bones about it: the acoustic trio in front of you is performing in a way
that makes you feel like you're watching a sunset on the South rim of the
Grand Canyon with your lover at your side and your favorite alcoholic
beverage in your hand.
The music you still can't quite
believe you're actually hearing is monolithically strong in its
vulnerability, highly personal but somehow universal at the same time,
familiar and yet hard to place like the name of that A-list actor on the
tip of your tongue who cameo'd in that great indie film. The sound is
memorable, full of hooks like a veteran stream fisher's hat, but without
overstaying its welcome. You want to call it country or Americana but that
wouldn't be entirely true. You want to compare her to other American female
artists like Melissa Etheridge or Emmylou Harris, but that would denigrate
the singularity of what you're hearing. And calling it Joshua Tree-esque
arena rock isn't quite accurate either. The bottom line is, it's just good music,
plain and simple, and you can imagine these songs going over just as well
at Qualcomm stadium as in this lounge or late at night around a campfire.
And you can also imagine this woman being rich and famous.who knows, maybe
she already is.
The blonde banters between songs
with a mixture of humility and sass, grabbing a drink from a special caddy
that hangs off her mic stand and taking a hearty swig. She and one of the
guys - the hand drum player - drop less than subtle hints that any
"donated" Patron tequila shots and/or beers would not be turned
down. Off-color jokes and sly innuendo inspire honest smiles and
spontaneous laughter in the relaxed, appreciative crowd, and short but
revealing stories about the next song surprise you with their illumination of
an element of your own life experience. She is confident, a consummate
professional who for all you know has been doing this since she was in
diapers. She's making this look ridiculously easy.
You detect something southern in
her demeanor, the kind of hospitable charm and engaging verve you would
expect of someone from that part of the country. She seems to be the same
person offstage as she is on: a brightly smiling spark plug emanating an
innocuous salaciousness (at one point, you seem to overhear her cleavage
entering the conversation) and an ease of being that would seem to inspire
a feeling of simpatico with anyone she might meet.
Before she leaves the stage, she
introduces the band and discretely mentions the CD of original music for
sale and then convinces you to sign the mailing list.
She says her name is Barbara,
A cotillion in the American
sense is a long-standing tradition wherein young debutantes celebrate their
societal coming-out in a formal setting, usually after a series of
instructional classes on manners, social graces, and the like. It's
essentially a rite of passage or coming of age party for the benefit of the
celebrants, who are seen as full-fledged adults from that moment onward;
sartorial frocks are donned and hair is done up and fancy dancing happens
with potential life partners. These suarets still occur in many states of
the union, and some of them once brooked the subtext of elevation to
Since Barbara Nesbitt moved here
from Virginia roughly three years ago, she has experienced a kind of
aesthetic cotillion as a songwriting performer.
"It wasn't until I moved to
San Diego that I began to REALLY write my own songs," Barbara relates.
"I had written a handful of songs over a handful of years, but something
happened when I moved here. I don't know if it was because of my
relationship troubles, or the culture shock of moving across the country,
or the support San Diegans seem to have for original music-the ones I've
met, anyway-but I just started writing more than ever and have been lucky
enough not to have stopped. I finally feel like I am expressing my own true
She has quickly made a name for
herself here in San Diego with these wonderful new songs and powerfully
consistent live shows; first briefly on her own with solo gigs (props to
Listen Local SD's Cathryn Beeks for getting her plugged into the scene) and
a guitar-and-voice demo EP recorded at svengali producer Sven-Erik
Seaholm's Kitch & Sync Production, then gradually bringing in other musicians
(including percussionist Billy Coomes and guitarist Mike Spurgat of
Deadline Friday--the two "music dudes" mentioned earlier--and
ubiquitous bassist Marcia Claire, all three of whom Barbara is immensely
proud to know, even just as friends) for full-band gigs and a fully
produced CD out of producer/engineer Jeff Berkley's Miracle Recording
A Million Stories is remarkable
for a debut in that it contains such an individuated sound as to virtually
create its own sub-genre. Nesbitt sounds only like herself on these
recordings, which makes accurate comparisons virtually impossible. The
pathos of some of her life experiences is laid bare in the album's lyrics,
but gently softened and exalted by the music-songs like the title track,
"Broken Girl," "Don't Bother," and "It Is What It
Is" transform moments of sorrow and frailty and longing into tracks of
uplifting, poetic and anthemic fortitude. Instead of wallowing in self-pity
or playing the victim card, Barbara catalyzes a universal connection by conveying
a coping strategy through the transmutation of her suffering into art.
"My writing has been my
therapy," Nesbitt confirms, "and it hasn't exactly sprung from
the most relaxing and happiest moments of my life. My songs are about
relationships and overcoming hardships and thank yous and loss and leftover
s from my childhood and crap that came out when I was drunk and telling
people off. For the most part, my songs include a positive note. a strength
that I hope comes through. I am happy most of the time, but when I am
happy, I am too busy enjoying myself to sit down and write about it."
"I'm grateful that I have
the outlet I have in music and in writing," Barbara continues,
"because my other career choice was to be a hooker. Seriously though,
music for me is a need I have, a catharsis.and I would be a lost little
girl without it."
A Million Stories garnered a
2007 San Diego Music Award nomination, and Will Edwards' HAT (Honoring
Acoustic Talent) awards have also honored her with two nods so far since its
inception three years ago. Barbara also entered and won the San Diego Music
Scene Cream of the Crop singer/songwriter competition soon after rolling
into town, which was an auspicious beginning to the Southern California
segment of her career.
Barbara Nesbitt seemed to appear
out of nowhere in 2006, fully formed like Venus de Milo emerging from her
shell. And if you're entering her life at this particular point in time,
this will indeed seem to be the case. But every comet has a trailing tail,
and every artist has a long road of trial-by-fire development behind them.
Because of, or perhaps despite her difficult formative years in the Petri
dish of hardship, and the self-doubt and struggle inherent in anyone's
early aesthetic development in obscurity, Nesbitt emanates a
comfortableness in her own skin and a sureness of purpose derived
predominantly from internal validation. Like any relatively fresh face, but
especially one so vivacious and charismatic, Barbara arouses curiosity. The
San DIego Troubadour recently succumbed to this curiosity and interviewed
her briefly via email to find out a little more about this dynamic artist
in her own words.
us a little about your formative years and influences.
My first musical influence would
have to have been my mother. She sang and played guitar and they're some of
my earliest memories. and I loved what she loved, and therefore I loved the
Carpenters. Does that make me a bad person?
My formative years were
difficult. My mother went to prison when I was young, and after she was
gone, music became something that linked me to her. I would listen to the
Carpenters and have daydreams of her rescuing me from what was an unhappy
In the basement, I found a box
of old 45s like Righteous Brothers, Sam Cooke, and Elvis. I would put on
shows in my bedroom for no one, singing and dancing and thinking,
"maybe I can't sing, but I can remember the words really well!"
There was no rescue. Eventually
I rescued myself and left home at 15. I lived on the street, went from
shelter to shelter, and eventually wound up in Virginia where I met a
keyboard playing Deadhead named Alfred. He had inherited a pretty
decent-sized house in Virginia Beach and a bunch of us lived there, where
he and his friends would jam in the living room.
When I was 16, I met Bernie Lee
[who joined Barbara onstage at Tim Flack's birthday gig during a recent
visit]. He would play music with my roommates, and he eventually was the
one who gave me my first guitar, and gave me the courage to get up and sing
in front of people for the first time. I don't think I actually believed I
could sing until many years later.
"It's kind of funny. for a
while, we [a group of would-be hippies living in this inherited house, with
little or no source of income] were so broke, the only food we had was a
15-lb bag of waffle mix and a waffle iron. So I would make waffles for
everyone to eat, and I would sing along in the background while they were
"One night, Bernie started
playing "Vincent," by Don McClean. Knowing it was one of my
favorites, and having heard me shyly singing it to myself before, he
convinced me to come into the living room and sing it through the
microphone. Two weeks later I was singing backups at our first gig as Rare
Daze at a bar called Cogan's in Norfolk, Virginia.
After years of playing and
touring with Rare Daze, our guitar player, Keith Hudgins, tragically passed
away. Keith was very much the glue that held Rare Daze together. and though
we tried to play for a couple years following his death, Rare Daze finally
ran its course, as most bands do. I also spent many years in a money-making
duo called the Perpetrators [with Bernie], playing cover songs in pubs and
sports bars to pay the rent. It was fun, but not exactly creatively
Bernie Lee and Rare Daze were
very much the pivotal point in my musical career. he and the band brought
me out of my shell and helped convince me that I was good enough to do in public
what I had secretly been passionate about in private: singing.
does the future hold for Barbara Nesbitt?
I don't know what the future
holds for me, but as long as it holds music in some regard, I can't
complain too much. Don't get me wrong-I would love a big pile o' money and
stadiums full of people singing the lyrics to my songs [if anyone knows how
to do that, feel free to email me at any time: Barbara@barbaranesbitt.com].
But I already feel like I'm a pretty lucky person. I'm looking to get more
gigs, I would like to tour [email me], and I'm getting ready to go in the
I will be working with the
amazing Mr. Berkley again. I think I might do it a little different this
time. I'm torn between two approaches to making this record. The first
would be a record that would be easy to replicate live, at my shows, with
my band [which, by the way, is called the Barbara Nesbitt Band]. The second
would be a record with my fantasy instruments and things that would be
difficult to replicate live; for example, a cello, a timpani, or me
harmonizing with myself. So, who knows? Maybe I'll do a little bit of both,
but I haven't really fleshed all that out yet.
Ultimately, I would like to see
me writing and touring and performing for people who value my music until I
can't walk on stage by myself anymore. And then you can bring me out in a
Perhaps the best note to end on,
and the best way to illustrate the resilience underlying her now
flourishing art, is to share an anecdote Barbara related a few days after
"The song `Fly' from A
Million Stories was written after I had gotten my heart broken,"
Nesbitt recounted. "I was fairly devastated, and after some time
passed I decided to do something for me, something to improve my life and
my attitude and get me out of my funk. I got a second job and saved up the
money and went and took flying lessons. By the time I got my pilot's
license, I was over the heartbreak and had a great new passion in my