Breanna Barbara’s debut, “Mirage Dreams,” is a stunning album of cavernous psych-blues that conjures images of long road trips and forlorn sunsets. Teaming up with producer Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes), Barbara wears her heart on her sleeve. On the title cut — the album’s finest moment — she swaggers and howls over a Doors-y organ. This year, Barbara appears at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival, where she will appear March 15 at the Barracuda.
Tell me a bit about your background as a musician. How did you get started?
Well I definitely consider myself a late bloomer but have always had music in my life some way or another. I never had lessons or learned how to read music, but I do remember when I was about 8 or 9 getting this little candy thing that came with this really tiny keyboard and a little booklet of what I didn’t know at the time were tabs. It taught me how to play little songs like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and I remember just sitting in my basement in Wisconsin and creating different melodies. That was probably the first time I started making music. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I got my first acoustic guitar and then wrote a song around 18. But after that I consistently would attempt to write songs and play them out.
You were born in Minnesota, but you have also lived in the South and NYC. Has any particular region or music scene been a key influence on your sound?
And Vermont! Ha ha. I’ve moved around quite a bit, but the one place that will always remain very special to me and my music is New Orleans. I was supposed to go just for a weekend and ended up staying for the summer. That’s where I first started playing my songs on the street and really experimenting with my voice. That city has the most soul of any place I’ve ever been, it definitely drew something out of me.
You describe your songs as “a collection of inner strengths that I have been carrying around with me as early as eighteen.” Do you want to elaborate on that?
I’ve always been pretty open about where my songs come from. I’ve struggled with depression, especially after my dad passed away, and I found that in some of my darkest moments I would pick up the guitar and sing it out. Looking back at the songs I remember where I was when I wrote them and am reminded that I’m still OK and I’m still here. In a way my album is my own little army, and I hope that it can be the same for other people too.
Tell me how you ended up working with Andrija Tokic.
I had been following his work for a while. All these albums kept popping up that I loved, and his name would be on all of them. I wrote him one day telling him it was a dream of mine to work with him one day along with some demos, and to my surprise he wrote back.
Some of the songs, like the title track of “Mirage Dreams,” have a psychedelic feel. Are you a fan of psychedelia?
Yes! Major fan. I think our newer stuff has a good amount of that in it too. I’ve been listening to a lot of Grace Slick lately.
Speaking of “Mirage Dreams,” I read a comment from you in Interview where you talked about the making of the song. It sounds like the song was a form of catharsis for you.
Definitely. When I start a song it always comes from a wave of an emotion. If there’s no emotion, I’m not really interested. “Mirage Dreams” sort of exploded out of me, which is why I think I named the album after it. It was a pivotal song for me and my music.
You are a very expressive singer. Have any vocalists influenced you? Any songwriters?
I am inspired by so many. Lots of soul/blues/gospel singers. Mahalia Jackson, Irma Thomas, Big Mama Thorton, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Charles Bradley. I love the power behind singers like Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. Melanie is one of my favorite songwriters, I recently just released a cover of hers called “Some Say (I Got Devil).” I could go on and on…