Culture Is A Weapon. Join the Fight:

Jef Ellise Barbara

An interview with Montreal's genre-bending underground pop superstar

/ September 22, 2016

Photo by Ethel Eugene

Jef Ellise Barbara is a singer, songwriter, artist, musician and video director based in Montreal, Quebec. For half a decade, they’ve been churning out complex pop masterpieces filled with a sparkling catchiness and a party vibe that almost belies the deep musicality at work under their structure. 

Barbara surfs their various artistic identities with aplomb, wielding an impressive and excitingly diverse body of work. Their numerous videos are rife with cultural touchstones and references that still present as incredibly fresh. Occupying intersectional time and place both in history and geography, Barabara’s home of Montreal is itself a locus of intersectional living, and Barbara’s art seems perfectly suited to this churning mass of a city. We sat down together on a nice hot summer day over iced tea and spoke about their work, past and present. 

Matt Lee: You’re hugely prolific, you’ve put out so many videos in the last six years! Are you just constantly working on something? Do you do your own production, your own video work, is it all pretty much you? 

Jef Ellise Barbara: I like to be involved in every aspect of what I present artistically. This is why I love pop music. I think that it is one of the most holistic art forms. In addition to music, it can have an element of drama, an element of fashion, an element of politics – it’s such a complete art form. That’s why I’ve had so much fun doing it. I think of myself not as a curator, but I have a curatorial approach to everything I do, such as my social media presence, and music videos are definitely a part of it. So to your answer your question, yes, I did get involved in the making of most of my videos, to varying degrees. They are all at least partly imbued with my vision. With that said, I get people to help, especially on the technical end of production.

Your “Perfect Day” video is a super whimsical throwback to the Degrassi era, kind of 80s careless romping through the park. It’s really fun. There’s a whimsical aspect, but it still feels fresh, and is also directly grappling with politics.

Well, politics don’t have to be tackled in one way. It doesn’t always have to be sort of picketing, “look at my protest sign” way. You can be political just by being, just by presenting yourself, throwing yourself out in the arena. I find my presence is in a way political. But, to go back to me being involved in the production of my videos. I like to be involved in most aspects of image and sound creation. I enjoy directing. I write and I know how to compose. Of course, because there is such a strong, visually feminine element to what I do, people don’t realize that I know how to write and compose.

Part of what I like about your art is that it feels like your position is solidly between things, between genres, between identities. Between Anglophone and Francophone, between constructed and analogue instruments, instrumentation, digital or electronic music, you seem like you’ve derived your own genre within that.

Well, to the extent of me feeling like I don’t fit in most boxes, I guess you’re right. Others might look at it differently, feeling more comfortable being easily categorized, but it’s sort of always been different for me because of the context I grew up in. So I guess it is true that I have found empowerment in all the characteristics that make up who I am. That’s a good observation, but I never really thought of it prior to beginning my artistic path. I am a relatively big music fan. I find that focusing on one style tends to be, I don’t know, a bit boring? And that’s a testament to the times we’re in now. Things are very much iPod culture. The albums I enjoy listening to the most, are the ones that tackle different genres within the same artistic statement. 

I find that focusing on one style tends to be, I don’t know, a bit boring? And that’s a testament to the times we’re in now. Things are very much iPod culture. The albums I enjoy listening to the most, are the ones that tackle different genres within the same artistic statement.

You fit a lot even within even one piece, like you’re saying, “This is not a funk song, this is everything.” I feel that about your newest single Sexe Machin/Sex Machine. You named it in both English and French, right?

Yeah, that’s the A side. The B Side is “Sorcerer’s Delight,” which is a cover of a singer/songwriter named Michael Angelo, whom I’m opening for on Friday, September 23rd at Sala Rossa. The A side is called Sexe Machin/Sex Machine, though it gives off the impression that Sex Machine is the B side to Sexe Machin, but there is really just a slash in the title because it’s in both languages.

That song in particular moves through several genres in one. It starts off, it’s like very playful soft disco tune, but then there’s a lot of complex instrumentation. There’s stuff you don’t find typically in club hits.

Yeah, I used to want to want to explain myself a lot more in that regard, but I gradually stopped. And I understand the importance of framing your artistic impulses if you are speaking in terms of marketing, revenue and popularity and that you want to make a living, which is totally legitimate. I just do what I feel like doing. I don’t go out of my way to create a perfect synthesis of vintage music; it just happens, sometimes. With that I must add that I can’t help but hear a sense of loss and alienation in today’s music. Everything is either extremely referential, like Sexe Machin/Sex Machine, or tries to push the boundaries of music to an extent that makes it sound almost amusical. And there’s the boring stuff. I hope my music isn’t boring.

In your career do you come up against that as a problematic, when people are like, “where do we book you?” Do you find yourself in the wrong place? 

Oh yeah, I’ve had that. For instance, a situation where a rather prominent publicist in New York who represents all the Pitchfork what-have-you artists, said that they were approached by the label who’d gotten a license to distribute my album in North America and they replied that as much as they loved the music on my record, they weren’t interested in representing me because they didn’t know what category to put me in and that in the end it was going to be a hard sell. 

It just feels so antiquated. 

Yeah, but that’s how it is. A friend of mine told me that his album was deemed not worth being reviewed by a big music site editor because they were looking for something different at that time. It just goes to show how much trends dictate what’s popular in the music industry. So when such problematics occur, I’m able to take a step back and go, “well, there’s nothing I can do about it. Capitalism is doing its work.”

And that is compounded with the fact that as a transfeminine person of color, I’m not granted a lot of agency, in terms of what I can do as an artist. I find that that space is mostly reserved for white people to begin with. You have to stay in your lane. You are expected to pander to the cis white gaze, and what it expects a transfeminine black individual to do. You can’t represent something universal. You must stay in your exotic lane and often draw upon tropes of primitivism so that they can fetishize you. Still, there was a time when a trans person of color would not have even been given a platform to express themselves. But because we are in an age of increased information and increased curiosity I find that there is a space for trans people of color. But even then that space is meant to be used a certain way. You’re not allowed in, if you don’t meet the cis white gatekeepers’ expectations.

It’s kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t in a way? If you do present that way you are staying in your lane and following those expectations, but if you step outside of it then you are kind of stepping off a cliff into the unknown, which is always a kind of a frightening and less stable place and you are vulnerable that way.

Yes, but I do not feel frightened or vulnerable in that respect. There was (and still is) no ballroom culture in Montreal when I was growing up, so isolation as a black queer baby child felt very real. But I don’t think of my current artistic process as an act of courage or self-determination. I just do what makes me vibrate, which happens to be more unique than average because my trajectory is quite unusual.

As a Montrealer too, we are kind of isolated here, we’re stuck here; if we’re not francophone we’re cut off from a lot of grant money, tour support, super-structures, of like Sodec and Les Francopholies. And if you’re Anglophone and you’re not playing with the kids of the Rest Of Canada, then where are you? You’re kind of lost with the few of us who are bilingual and grew up here and don’t situate yourselves specifically anywhere. 

I understand how some people might have an issue with that but I personally do not feel invested in language politics. Being genderqueer and becoming genderfucked has certainly given me a different view of oppression, in addition to being Black, which dictates a lot of how I see the world. Language is, to me, really nothing in comparison to other vectors of identity. I know how the French-English-dichotomy makes up a big part of how people identify in Quebec like, you have to pick a side, but I prefer to think of language as a tool for communication. Besides, historically, both French and English were (and still are) used as colonial devices. So all this noise about French vs. English is to me like two settlers fighting over the same turf. I’m like: “Bye, bitches.” My first full-length was bilingual and I felt some people wanted to hail me as the Next Promising Francophone Figure, but then they heard my second album which was more English. So yeah, I won’t get into the subject of English as an oppressive force. That is not an issue I am feeling compelled to make statements about. 

I know how the French-English-dichotomy makes up a big part of how people identify in Quebec like, you have to pick a side, but I prefer to think of language as a tool for communication. Besides, historically, both French and English were (and still are) used as colonial devices. So all this noise about French vs. English is to me like two settlers fighting over the same turf. I’m like: “Bye, bitches.”

What can we look forward to from you in the near future?

I have my mind made up on many things. I have this new backing band called the Black Space and so we’ve been doing these new songs that are meant for my next record, which is going to be my first real concept album. 

Can you let us in on the concept? Is it still being conceived?

No, it’s fully conceived, composed and written. It’s a bit hard to, how would I explain it? There’s an element of artistic parasitism in the concept in that, it’s a Montreal-centric concept. If you’ve seen little cardboard cut-outs with anti-Kraft propaganda on them you’ll get it.

The mysterious anti-Kraft sticker person? It’s been years he’s been at it.

It’s been like 20 years. I’ve been collecting them. I discovered them about 10 years ago. That person tends to repeat the same things over and over again. “Boycott Kraft Nazis, swastikas” and so forth. I wrote an album from that (imagined) person’s perspective.

Specifically, or an imagined individual?

It is based on who I imagine that person to be, since I do not know them personally. I used elements of different personalities that I felt fascinated by to create an arc because all I had to form a narrative were a few cryptic anti-Kraft messages. I also put in some of my own fantasies in there. It’s fun. It almost veers towards Contemporary Christian at times.

Anti-Kraft art in Montreal. For Spark Mag.
One of the legendary pieces of anti-Kraft art placed throughout Montreal. Photo by Neal Ungerleider

Is that going to be on Fixture Records?

I don’t know. We’ll see, I guess whoever is interested. I’ve had the most wonderful experience working with Fixture. I’ve known them for years but I had previously never released anything with them, besides a few artist comp contributions. When came the time to find a home for my single, I had severed ties with a European label I was on – which turned out being one of my worst experiences – and so I needed to get back to basics and work with folks that I could trust, and I had known the people at Fixture for such a long time. It was just so obvious to me.

That’s with the Black Space band?

For sure. The Black Space is the new Barbara band. Barbara’s Black Space. All of the core musicians in the Black Space are of sub-Saharan African descent. Yet the band isn’t about excluding anyone. I think of it in terms of the inclusion of black people. And to take it further away from the idea of Whites once again being at the center of a discussion about race: Blacks including one another. Black people creating their own space without the interference or approval of Whites. Black people representing themselves how they want to be represented, without having their voices funnelled by White Supremacy. Without abiding by this sort of Hip hop blackness that most of us feel is the necessary route. But at the same time not shunning any elements of what is traditionally associated to black culture, including hip hop. Being free. Freedom.