Barbara Nesbitt

Austin-based singer-songwriter Barbara Nesbitt returns to the UK this summer for her second tour (dates at the bottom), following a highly successful trip in October 2015, when she played to packed houses from the far north of Scotland to the deep southern regions of England. Very much an independent, hardscrabble artist, Barbara runs nearly every aspect of her career—but it’s the sort of struggle that is ultimately uplifting. The sort of struggle that makes every reward seem that much more deserved.

I got to sit down and chat with Barbara and she never focussed on the grind of being a cash-strapped musician. Instead, she highlighted the thrill of doing what you’re meant to be doing … even if it involves driving 300 miles between shows.

“I’d be touring all the time if I could,” she enthused “I love to go home, but I love getting on the road. I would love to just be with the band, running round the country, singing songs and meeting folks.”

This kind of nomadic lifestyle seems ingrained in Barbara’s psyche and her music, right from a very young age. Hailing from Georgia, she first ventured north toward Virginia to fulfil her wandering spirit, but very much an adventure seeker, living life without fear, she moved west to California to settle in San Diego. Then some five years ago she headed to Austin, to further her creative vision to step far and beyond her own boundaries to explore the endless possibilities in a musical community where imagination runs wild and musicianship is bountiful. Austin afforded Barbara room to grow and a door wide open to blossoming, organic, creative expression.

The fruition of her search for self is all there in 2013’s ALMOST HOME, her most recent album. Full of songs brimming over with exuberant melancholy that reflect both the new insights gained along the journey as well as things that have been dropped by the wayside. Many of Barbara’s songs are about leaving, of which she is no stranger, and returning. The time she has put in both on the road and in meeting people on her travels make for the most valuable training, and schooling in her opinion.

She only wants to make people feel something when she plays. From the friendships that come out of meeting other independent musicians on the road to the music that she plays for her audience, Barbara lives and loves the unpredictability of each day and does a remarkable job of capturing the fluidity of life in her music. In fact, in a cynical world, she is a breath of fresh air—a throwback              - because she writes and sings from the heart.

“I grew up in Georgia, most of my early childhood years were in Georgia,” she tells me. “We moved around a bunch of little towns. All around Atlanta and a little bit in the mountains too. My mother was a musician, unfortunately we were separated when I was quite young, and I looked at music as a way to connect me to her. So I think that had a lot to do with my love for music.”

Barbara’s personality is a mix of sunny optimism with heartache. Anyone touched by the pains that life inevitably delivers should identify with this beautiful optimistic lady who definitely wears her heart on her sleeve through her music. Music created by someone who has obviously lived through painful difficulties and understands the universality of these feelings. A somewhat wild and free spirit, Barbara left home at 15 in search of her mother.

“I was living with my father and my brother in Miami at that time,” she explains. “We moved to North Carolina then moved to Miami. Miami was a little rough going, so I decided to strike out on my own and frankly was kinda running about the streets. I was living on the street for a while and then I went to Virginia because I’d heard my mother was there. It didn’t work out exactly how I planned, but I’m so glad I did that because that's where I met Bernie Lee. He was the first person to put a guitar in my hand, put a microphone in front of my face.”

“I was making my living by music. I also decided to go to college. I got my GED {General Educational Development] a little later than the average person and then I went to college. I was going to be a pilot … I am a pilot! I got a degree in Aeronautical Science, I was thinking maybe by the time I'd finish school, I would do a commercial airline thing. But by the time I finished school I was playing music. So I have this lovely degree on the wall.”

How did a girl living rough on the streets of Miami make the transition to gaining a college degree in Aeronautical Science. In many ways it typifies Barbara Nesbitt’s life attitude that you can achieve anything you want if you are really driven and passionate about it.

“I was 19, I fell in love with this guy who was a private pilot in North Carolina. It wasn’t that I was just in love with the boy, I really admired him and all the things that he accomplished and I loved flying. I was terrified that I probably would fail at everything, so I didn't tell anybody I was going to do it, so I didn’t have to fail publicly. I got a second job to save up all my money. I went to flying lessons undercover, even took little pictures of myself and my notebooks. I didn’t tell a soul until my first solo flight. It went okay. I didn’t die!”

“I could tell people I was flying now and I fell in love with it. I fell in love with it almost like music and that’s when I decided I wanted to learn more and get my degree. I was a part of the flight team at college. It was just fabulous. I haven't flown in too long, I need to … I need somebody out there to buy me an airplane!”

Alongside her flying lessons and going to college, Barbara was still playing music in Virginia, learning and honing her performance skills on the local club scene in a series of cover bands including Rare Daze, Cradle, and The Perpetrators, a duo with Bernie Lee.

“My boyfriend at the time was a lieutenant commander in the Navy,” she recalls. “He had been stationed there. As much as I love Virginia, we were in love and we wanted to be together, so when he was transferred to San Diego, I also was ready to move on, try new things. The planets align perfectly and it’s time to go, you go.”
“It didn’t work out with him and me, but it was so good to break out of Virginia. I ended up really honing my skills as a songwriter. Virginia wasn’t conducive to original music, it was a lot of covers. Good money to make a living, but I didn’t know what I was capable of creating until there was an audience for it. Until people said: ‘I liked those covers that you did, but what was that one original … you should do more of that.’ In six months, I wrote twenty-five songs. I kept doing it and then I wanted to move to a town where they really cared about music. Nothing against San Diego but almost willy-nilly, without knowing a soul, I moved to Austin five years ago, and it’s been just great. Wonderful!”

Before moving to Austin, Barbara had made quite an impact in San Diego. She won the San Diego Music Scene Cream of the Crop singer-songwriter competition and was nominated for best female singer for the inaugural H.A.T. Award. Inspired by her new surroundings and everything that came before, Barbara wrote the words and music for her debut album, A MILLION STORIES. She drew on her wide range of influences to create an inspired, distinctive and beautifully cohesive collection of well-written songs played to near perfection, sung and performed with passion, driving each song to a high standard.

San Diego legend Jeff Berkley came on board to produce the album and to add vocals and guitar. Accompanied by stand-out players Marcia Claire on bass, Bill Coomes on drums and vocals and Mike Spurgat on guitar and vocals, plus special guests including Dennis Caplinger, Freebo, Ben Moore and John McBride, the album was well-received leading to nominations for a San Diego Music Award in the Best Americana category in 2008.

Three years later Barbara released THE BEES, her second album. Again produced by Jeff Berkley, it was yet another that featured more-or-less the same line-up of session players with the addition of Doug Pettibone on lead guitar on several tracks. A masterful album featuring poignant songwriting, honey and whiskey soaked vocals, burly riffs, dazzling guitar playing, and bucolic pedal steel guitar, Barbara sings with a passion that can be heard on every track. You can tell that she lived these songs, every note, every lyric is her. You can’t ask for anything more from an artist.

To walk away from the vibrant San Diego music scene at a time that she was making such a big impression was risky decision for Barbara to make, but she’s always been bold and fearless, so she packed up all her worldly goods and headed off for the Lone Star State.

“It was daunting,” she admits, “but I would have to say that I was received very well. I met some wonderful people right off. I was taken under a few wings and it’s been incredibly inspiring. I don’t know how I got so lucky. I’m so full of constant gratitude.”

Initially Barbara played the regular Austin nightspots, performing mainly solo, often busking or just playing for the tip jar. Whilst opening for the popular Austin band The Moonlighters, Barbara struck up a friendship with their lead singer Teal Collins Zee. Impromptu jams led them to realise that their voices blended well together and when Teal and her husband Josh Zee decided to take a break from the Moonlighters, it was a simple move for Barbara and Teal to get together to form a new band, the Whiskey Sisters. The five-piece outfit fronted by two sassy gals soon made a big impact, not just in Austin, but all around the Texas music scene.

“It was a matter of priority for the last three years,” Barbara explains. “We had a great run, just a really fun, raucous, upbeat, Americana-country act with two female singers harmonising. We just really took the Austin music scene by storm and just had a wonderful time. Unfortunately, she and her husband, who was also our guitar player, moved so we kinda called it kaput. Now I’m back doing my own thing again with some new folks in my band, and I’m loving It. It's kind of a win-win thing. I hated to see The Whiskey Sisters go, but it’s really fun to get back into my singer-songwriter style of writing. It’s just from one thing to another. I guess I sound a bit like I’m bragging.”

It was at the end of October 2014 that the Whiskey Sisters announced they were breaking up, the band performing their final gig at the end of November at the Continental Club with Dale Watson,

A major factor of Barbara Nesbitt’s success has been her hardworking nature. She is completely independent, and assumes the roles of label, booking agent, and manager. “I’m a true believer that if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen,” she says.

That was the attitude she took to setting up her first UK tour last year. She quite literally rolled up her sleeves, got on with it and made it happen.

“Well the first thing I did was contact my good sweet buddy Bob Cheevers, because I know he's been doing this for 18-plus years. He has great contacts and helped me out the last time I toured in America. He gave me innumerable, I don't know how many … contacts and suggestions. Not only that, he contacted all of these venues and all of these PR people and newspapers and magazines himself, and said: ‘hire this girl’, ‘promote this girl,’ ‘you’ll like this girl.’ He really was my champion on this tour.”
“So I started there, and to fill in the extra dates, I contacted another friend of mine, and he helped me out with a few dates. Then after that, I reached out to anybody I knew, anybody in London, anybody in the UK, anybody that could tell me where to play, tell me who to contact. I did phone calls … it’s an everyday job, all day long. People don’t understand the behind-the-scenes part. They see me swilling whiskey, talking shit and singing songs, which is a large part of it, but there is another very large ‘other’ part of it, that musicians, as a rule, are really bad at. And that’s booking, and PR, and tour management. Somehow, here we are, two weeks in and it’s been a success!”

With such a vibrant music scene in Austin, and in fact seemingly right across Texas, why would Barbara Nesbitt want to risk coming to the UK, a virtual unknown traversing uncharted seas ...

“Well, I'm a huge Anglophile,” she beams at me. “I’m from a Scottish family heritage … Nesbitt, so I knew I had to get back to Scotland. I love Scotland to pieces. I have been to England and London but I have never played, so I wanted to incorporate that into the tour. I’ve been here a couple of times, the last time was three years ago, on vacation. London was my last stop. I just had to set it up, so I set to the task and got it done.”

Unlike too many of those looking to make a career in music as a performer, Barbara never set herself lofty goals, She’s never actively chased super-stardom or celebrity status, for her the important ingredient of her music is passion and connecting with her audience. She does possess driving ambition and a great work ethic and yes, she would love to be more famous, but fame isn’t what drives her.

“Somehow I’ve gotten lucky,” she says. “Between music benefactors and gigs and a lot of recording work, I’ve been able to pay my mortgage with music. It’s fabulous. A lot of other people aren’t as lucky. People ask me what does success mean? And to me, doing what I love and being able to pay my rent is the bottom line for success.”
Soon after returning home to Austin, via Spain. Lisbon and Fresno, California, Barbara set to work recording a new album, which is due for release later this year. There are sure to be a few songs on the new album inspired by her travels across British Isles … 

“Oh God yes! I’ve already been writing notes and jotting things down. Absolutely! Yes! It’s tough for me to write on the road, ‘cos I’m driving every day and playing every night and I need to preserve my voice, so I haven’t been writing. I’m looking forward to that part of getting home after I get over my jet lag. Sitting down and just absorbing what happened to me.”

“I don’t want to leave!” she adds, a little misty-eyed. “I love my home. I miss my kitty-cats and I love the venues there. But there's something really special about this place, about Scotland, about England. The support of Americana music is just unmatched. I am absolutely broken-hearted, gutted to go.”
In a field overcrowded with dreamers chasing the same rainbow, Barbara Nesbitt is a genuine Americana gem. Cramming six lifetimes into her years on the road and collecting triumphs and heartaches in every corner of the globe, she crafts intimate, country-tinged tunes that remind me of some of my all-time favourite singer-songwriters. Her music is down-to-earth and thus totally alive. It’s as thin as the edge of a razor, the road separating Heaven from Hell, sin from salvation, redemption from despair. It’s a lonely road to go down and like the old gospel says: ‘You’ve got to walk it for yourself.’ Barbara Nesbitt has walked that road boldly and written about the people she’s met; the joys of falling in love and the break-ups that have broken her heart and shared her experiences through her passionate music, with a voice full of confidence and a hopefulness that’s tempered only by a small wisp of sadness.
Barbara Nesbitt’s 2016 UK Tour

June 25 - Sevenoaks Summer Festival, Oaks Theatre, Knole Academy, Sevenoaks
June 26 - Dorset Arms, East Grinstead
June 30 - Platform, Southampton
July 2 - Maverick Festival, Easton Farm Park, Suffolk
July 3 - The Maze, Nottingham
July 5 - The Tap, Hull
July 6 - The Musician, Leicester
July 7 - The Beamish Mary, No Place, Stanley
July 9 - The Golden Lion, Allendale Town
July 10 - Rose & Crown, Hill Street, South Shields
July 11 - String Theory, Heart of Hawick, Tower Mill, Kirkstile
July 14 - Perth, Scotland - David and Fiona McNamara’s House Concert
July 15 – The Allanwater Brewhouse, Bridge of Allan
July 16 – Craigrossie Hotel, Auchterarder Gleneagles