The Future's Still Bright
Back From Timbuk 3, Barbara K Is 'Ready'
Barbara K is certifiably insane. That's the conclusion she's guessing you'll draw when you hear what she's done. She knows that a lot of people, even in a town as notoriously free-thinking as Austin, will be amazed, perhaps even offended, by the value she's put on intangibles like convictions and intuition. She also knows that $900,000 is a lot of money -- particularly when it's offered by a telecommunications company simply for the use of her former band Timbuk 3's "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" in an advertising campaign. Why would anybody turn down that kind of money?
"How much tape do you have left?" she asks.
Fifteen minutes later, there isn't an easy answer why Barbara K and her ex-husband Pat MacDonald have refused dozens of licensing requests in the years since their song hit the Top 10 in 1986. The song's value to advertising agencies lies in the universality of its catchphrase title; AT&T's recent offer follows bids from Ford, the U.S. Army, and Ray-Ban. As a matter of fact, at least one insider says the latest bid of $900,000 hasn't been the largest offer the pair have turned down.
What's at stake isn't the rights to the song. K and MacDonald would own it regardless of which ad campaign used it. They'd continue to collect publishing royalties from the song's play on radio, television, at sporting events, and on movie soundtracks -- money K admits still makes more than a few mortgage payments annually. Nor is the band's credibility at stake; they broke up in 1995 and have concrete plans not to reunite. What's at stake, says K, is her personal and world vision: that a belief in the benevolent power of the environment, humanism, and most of all, art, can transcend money.
"Most people think we're crazy," she confesses. "And some people might even ask why I wouldn't just take the money from Ford and give it to something I believe in, like the Sierra Club or Amnesty International. That's a good question, but I think there's a false sense of need to own mass quantities of goods that is not healthy for the happiness of an individual, a community, or a country. What we need is good water, good food, and compassion for each other.
"And artistically, for me to contribute my passion about my music and creativity to something that creates isolationism by making people want more for themselves or feel the need for the newest truck or expensive pair of sunglasses goes against my intuition, my compassion, and my own happiness. Money can't buy those things back."
K's refusal to loan out her work to the bastions of commercialism confirms that her story isn't about money. It's about motherhood, music, and marriage. It's about a husband, a wife, and a boom box. It's about sacrifice, idealism, and a long road back from one-hit-wonderland. It's about a clean slate and a fresh start. Finally, it's about Barbara K's just-released solo debut, Ready, and her hope that the music that makes her happy can make other people happy as well.
In fact, almost as much as her passing on $900,000, the autobiography section of the Web site promoting Ready, www.barbarakmusic.com, offers what may be the best glimpse at what makes Barbara K tick. Between her early years and Ready, she's divided her life into four chapters: "Intuition," "Fear," "Groove," and "Timbuk 3." All told, they describe a career guided by intuition, derailed by fear, and driven almost wholly by the pursuit of groove -- not so much the ass-shaking P-Funk or James Brown groove, but instead a notion she calls "a depth of communication that occurs when one's attention is placed deep within the unfolding moment."
Ready may be a singer-songwriter's album, but it's one unmistakably built on groove. And how could it not be? In the five years since Timbuk 3 disbanded and her marriage to MacDonald ended, Barbara K has focused almost entirely on getting her groove back.
"In the last few years, I've had to look for meaning beyond Timbuk 3," states the 43-year-old musician. "I had to ask, 'What's my purpose in life?' And I've come to realize it's to find the groove -- to find the deepest groove and play in it. It can be in music talking with someone, doing the dishes, or walking down the street.
"And isn't it funny that what makes the best music is also what makes the best life ... to be totally present. To be right where you are and not thinking, 'Oh, I really should be somewhere else now,' or, 'I wish I hadn't said that yesterday.' It's then that life's absolutely the best. It's then that music is absolutely the best. And it's exactly where I am. I'm happy. I'm a happy woman and I think it shows in the music."
Barbara K has not always been a happy woman. In fact, it would be easy to say she was most unhappy in Timbuk 3's waning days. Oddly enough, it's not that she minded "Shades" being her band's only hit, or that crowds were dwindling both at home and on the road. For her, "one-hit wonder" was a tag placed on Timbuk 3 by others, and her belief that each Timbuk 3 album was more adventurous and more personally fulfilling than the last outweighs the lack of commercial success.
Still, when it came time to support Timbuk 3's final studio album, the mostly acerbic Hundred Lovers, MacDonald and K had seen cost/benefit returns diminish to the point where it was time to dissolve the band. That may have ended a 15-year professional marriage, but since they shared a son and a real marriage, the end of Timbuk 3 was hardly fodder for Behind the Music.
"There was no crash and burn, no tragedy," she shrugs. "We just sort of shrunk back behind the scenes."
Although she now realizes that her marriage was deteriorating at the same time, the end of Timbuk 3 is ultimately traceable to "artistic differences." As she tells it, MacDonald always preferred playing his latest material live, meaning Timbuk 3 fans weren't always guaranteed to hear much they'd recognize. (Their 1993 live album, Espace Ornano, doesn't even include "Shades.") Though K typically succeeded in convincing MacDonald to throw fans a few bones, it became a bigger struggle as time distanced them from their successful debut.
"At one point, he accused me of wanting to be in a Timbuk 3 cover band," she claims.
According to K, what ultimately drove the biggest wedge between her and MacDonald were the songs themselves. She believed MacDonald's writing had become darker and increasingly cynical to the point where she wasn't relating.
"The tone had become depressing," she says. "And if that's your thing as an individual or as a band it can work, but it wasn't what I was feeling. I felt like I was getting pulled into something uncomfortable."
More importantly perhaps, K didn't feel like she had many options. She couldn't balance the show by placing more emphasis on her songs, because she didn't really have any. By design, Timbuk 3 hinged on MacDonald's songs. Barbara K may have sung many of them, but what few casual observers realize is that she didn't have a writing credit on any of their five studio albums. Sure, their marriage and original vision for the band made the publishing rights and dividends "community property," but it was MacDonald who put pen to paper.
Nevertheless, in addition to playing guitar and singing, K eventually took a lead role in the band's recording. Greetings From Timbuk 3 (1986) was produced by Dennis Herring (Camper Van Beethoven), but by 1988's Eden Alley, K had taken a significant role in programming the drums. For 1989's Edge of Allegiance, K and MacDonald brought production in-house, and from that point on, recording advances were spent buying equipment for their home studio. K admits she took a back seat on the production of the first home-recorded studio effort, Edge of Allegiance, for "manual labor," because she was "reading all the damn manuals and figuring out what plugged into what."
After helping invent a recording technique that gave them unlimited digital multitrack capabilities before ADATs, K wound up co-producing 1991's Big Shot in the Dark and engineering, mixing, and co-producing Hundred Lovers. Her name may not have been on the songs, asserts K, but between singing, playing guitar, working in the studio, and most importantly raising their son Devin, she believes her time was better spent than had she concentrated on writing.
"To be able to write, I'd have had to put everything else down, which isn't possible when you're raising a child," she explains. "We had the responsibilities divided up, and I'd gladly accepted a role where Pat could go off and write in his own world. It was his songs and lyrics that allowed us to make a living, and I took care of almost everything else.
"I wore a lot of hats, and while it may not have looked like the creative accomplishment it might have if my name were in the songwriting credits, we really worked together to produce this thing. We were a family, just as if we made shoes for a living -- some of the family might make the leather while others sew the shoe and others put in the laces."
Admitting she didn't bring songs to Timbuk 3 mostly because she lacked the self-confidence to believe in her own skills, K now says she doesn't doubt she did the right thing putting the songwriting burden squarely on MacDonald's shoulders.
"What attracted me to Pat in the first place were the lyrics, rhythm, and feel of his songs," K says. "And I still think he's a brilliant songwriter. What we developed was this thing where we had a very idealistic concept, and the innocence of that arrangement enabled us to plow though what most people would not put up with in a band situation.
"We went from huge success to what looked like no success, but I was still able to carry this flame, because I was still doing what I passionately loved -- singing songs I passionately believed in. We didn't need a bus or limos again, because when I was picking up the guitar I was playing songs I loved. If five people were there at the shows that could still make me happy."
There were roughly 10 people in the crowd the first time Pat MacDonald's songs made Barbara K happy. While taking a year off to establish the residency she needed to attend the University of Wisconsin's school of biology, K stumbled upon MacDonald in a Madison coffeehouse.
That was 1978, and she was immediately attracted to his songs, lyrics, and rhythm, which assimilated everything she'd seen live while studying at the University of Houston: from the blues textures of Lightnin' Hopkins and Gatemouth Brown to the folk narratives she'd enjoyed from songwriters like Willis Alan Ramsey. K got MacDonald's attention that night with her demonstrative enthusiasm, and while the two ended up talking after the show and hanging out in the coming weeks, MacDonald ultimately became the catalyst for a major life-change for K: her decision to stop writing songs, singing, and playing guitar.
"I told him, 'Your guitar playing and songs are so great and I feel like nothing,'" she recalls. "'You're doing what I want to do, but since I can't, I quit.'"
At the time, K had been playing guitar for almost a decade. Born Barbara Kooyman into a military family, her childhood included stints in Alaska, Iowa, Colorado, and Texas. The guitar she got on her 10th birthday was one of the few constants. In San Antonio, she began taking music seriously, playing guitar in her Catholic church's folk mass and occasionally mustering the courage to enter a few talent shows. After a while, she found herself hanging out with a group of other young songwriters that included Steve Earle.
For the most part, her parents discouraged her musical interests and pushed her toward college. Moving to Austin in 1975 after graduation, she was tempted to try her hand in the city's burgeoning singer-songwriter scene, but ultimately decided on the University of Houston instead. Only after Houston led her to Wisconsin and MacDonald did it take seven months before K realized she'd quit music prematurely.
She realized that music was the only thing she was passionate about, and that just because the man she'd moved in with played guitar and wrote songs better than she did was no reason to stop trying. While waitressing and running sound for MacDonald's band at night, she dedicated her days to relearning the guitar. She hoped to get beyond basic chords into a more rhythmic style of playing. As a test, she'd see how well she could hold her own against J.J. Cale records.
"I figured if I could play along with them, I'd be at the point where I could start expressing myself," she reasons.
K hit that mark in 1979 and began playing around Wisconsin and Iowa in 1980 with Barbara K & the Kat's Away, a band she founded with upright bassist Karen Horner. Within a few months, K's band starting drawing well. In fact, her band was doing significantly better than the more established Pat MacDonald & the Essentials.
"I thought it was crazy, because his songs were so much better than mine," she says. "And why was my band more popular? Because there were women in the band."
Frustrated by the fact that she felt people were there to see women, not to hear her songs, K disbanded Kat's Away just around the time MacDonald's drummer and guitar player quit. The couple played the next two years in a revamped Essentials, with K on some combination of guitar, harmonica, and violin. She took an eight-month maternity leave in 1983, but returned to the band in time for them to record what would become their final album. The band broke up just before the album shipped.
"You could feel the tension, but I was always so optimistic," she recalls. "At one point, before one of our last shows, our guitarist asked how I was doing. I told him our records were a week away from arriving, we had shows booked in Chicago, and that our futures were so bright we'd have to wear sunglasses. Pat overheard me, and as cynical as he was, he knew to write it down anyway."
MacDonald and K wound up reforming the Essentials just to sell the albums they'd pressed, but recognized it was time to move away from Madison. They considered New York, Los Angeles, Austin, and New Orleans, but knew they'd have to travel light and live lean wherever they moved. They also doubted they'd be able to find or afford a like-minded rhythm section quickly, so they came up with the idea of replicating one.
Using a borrowed 4-track recorder, bass guitar, and primitive drum machine, they created rhythm tracks and dubbed them onto cassettes. Armed with tape, they went shopping for the best-sounding boom box they could find. When they found the right one, it not only became their ticket out of town, it was the catalyst of Timbuk 3.
"We'd read a [Robert] Fripp quote about 'small mobile intelligence units,'" explains K. "With the boom box, that's what we considered ourselves. It gave us freedom, although we knew that wherever we moved we'd have to play on the streets to make rent. And we chose Austin because it was warmer and would allow us to play outdoors more of the year."
Along with the climate, Timbuk 3 chose Austin because a preliminary trip to town had already yielded friends, gigs, and radio play. In 1983, local songwriting-legend-to-be Blaze Foley found MacDonald and K playing an open mike at Soap Creek and brought 15 of his friends to see them the next night at the Austin Outhouse. That night, Foley also introduced the couple to Townes Van Zandt and KUT's Larry Monroe, who put cuts from Pat MacDonald & the Essentials into regular rotation.
They found everything in Austin but a home, spending their first few months camped out near Mansfield Dam with a community of people who wanted to live in Austin but couldn't afford it. After landing regular gigs at Maggie Mae's, the Outhouse, and eventually Hole in the Wall, they were finally able to cover the $300 rent on a small house off Airport Blvd.
Less than a year after they hit town, MTV delivered Timbuk 3's big break. K knew that the MTV/IRS Records Cutting Edge series was headed to town, so she booked a coinciding show at the Midcity Roadhouse on Sixth Street. K then asked local manager Joe Nick Patoski if he'd give the IRS scouts a flier for the show, but as luck would have it, the scout was waiting in Patoski's office, and she handed it to him herself. Not only did the duo's gig that night secure a slot on the show, it led to an invitation to play the party for the show's airing in Los Angeles.
"We were one of three bands chosen to go to L.A., mostly because we were a duo and they'd only have to buy two tickets," says K, adding she didn't go out enough at the time to feel the resentment from other local bands who felt carpetbaggers had stolen their MTV.
IRS label chief Miles Copeland saw Timbuk 3 for the first time at the Los Angeles party and offered them both record and publishing deals. After very little negotiating, all parties came to an agreement and work was soon begun, also in L.A., on Greetings From Timbuk 3. "Shades" was chosen as the lead single and released on a promotional cassette compilation of IRS artists, while the band did a cross-country, pre-release, station-wagon tour of the English countryside. When the couple returned to Austin, they had a bona fide hit on their hands.
Turns out that a radio station in Dallas picked the song off the promotional cassette and got an instant response. Dozens of stations nationwide soon followed suit. Unfortunately, K says IRS wasn't prepared to work a hit song.
"If you look at the poster that still hangs at Waterloo, it says 'Albums and Cassettes,'" she points out. "CDs were fairly new and they weren't going to waste their money burning Timbuk 3 CDs. Originally, they only had 15,000 albums and cassettes to meet the demand."
Despite the fact that a second single, "Life Is Hard," failed to climb the charts, Timbuk 3 began earning as much as $5,000 a night on their first stateside tour, later securing gigs with Bonnie Raitt, Sting, Jackson Browne, and Bob Dylan, and also appearing on Saturday Night Live, Solid Gold, and MTV. While they were in a position to renegotiate both their recording and publishing contracts -- language they added to the latter deal gave them the power to veto commercial uses -- there was one battle K says she felt they lost: IRS asked them to record Eden Alley in Los Angeles, only this time without bringing their son Devin along.
"They said he'd be a distraction," K says. "But you want to know distraction? Try separating a mother and her four-year-old son by 1,300 miles. I wasn't happy and Devin wasn't happy. I spent a lot of years trying to undo the developmental damage of the first few years of Timbuk 3."
Actually, it's no stretch to say Devin served as Timbuk 3's third member; he not only spent his childhood in the van, his needs guided K and MacDonald's every career decision. When Timbuk 3 ended, it was Devin the MacDonalds were protecting. They went back to Miles Copeland in 1995 and renegotiated MacDonald's publishing contract so it would provide for Devin until he was 18. The second part of those renegotiations also took Devin into account: K specifically removed herself from any contractual obligations with Copeland.
"Since Devin still needed years of raising, it made sense for me to contractually withdraw myself from the music business," she says.
After MacDonald left to work at Copeland's songwriting enclave in his French castle, K experienced what she calls a "wake-up call." She says it was part intuition, part self-discovery that made her re-examine her marriage.
"Something happened that made me realize I'd been walking through life with my eyes closed," she says. "I realized I had been oblivious to a lot of personal things in order to preserve the musical thing."
When MacDonald returned from France, the couple discussed the state of their marriage and quickly decided on a relatively mutual, amicable, and uncomplicated divorce. Today, K and MacDonald talk occasionally, discussing licensing requests and even listening to each other's albums. But at the time of the divorce, K vowed that Timbuk 3 would never reunite, a promise she says she has every intention of keeping.
"You're never supposed to say never," admits K. "But I made a decision never to play music with Pat again. When our paths split, they split. As a couple, I'm never going to sleep with him again as a husband and wife would, so why would I go back and play music with him?"
In rebuilding her career, K says the first step was getting out of what she calls a "Drain-O period," a series of negative songs that, like pouring acid down the drain, cleared the way for her normal songwriting voice to flow again. At the same time, her personal journey was on a path that was anything but negative. She says a series of "profound spiritual experiences that can't be validated by scientific method" led her back toward the confidence to trust her intuition.
"I wound up discovering a lot of deep and profound truths about my life that may have been esoteric in nature, but were profound and universal enough to lead my life and songwriting," she says. "It brought my intuition back to the forefront. I could always access it, but it hadn't always been a deciding factor. I too often allowed somebody else's necessity or way of getting from point A to B get in the way."
Ironically, K's intuition told her to step back from songwriting and performing. Providing for Devin's final five years living at home was her first priority, after which she'd return to music sometime around 2000.
"If I hit that mark," she smiles. "I figured it's really the new millennium, perfect timing. I'd be the first thing out of the new century, instead of the last thing out of old. And five years may have seemed like a long time to wait, but I'm a patient woman. You have to have a lot of patience and be able to commit to the long haul to be a parent."
Despite a yearlong, weekly happy hour stint at Steamboat in 1996, in which she began testing her own material with Will Sexton, K has indeed spent the bulk of the last five years concentrating on Devin and production. At Fire Sister Studios, K has produced albums for local acts such as the Sleepwalkers, Librarians, East Babylon Symphony, Sara Hickman, and Wammo, whose K-produced Fat Headed Stranger wound up being released by Mercury.
"I think I'm able to nurture those performances out of somebody, because I've been on the other side of the glass," she says.
Two years ago, K became comfortable enough with parenting and songwriting to consider switching sides of the glass again. Her intuition told her that if she spent as much time and effort on her own songs as her production work, the possibilities would be limitless.
Ready was recorded between early 1999 and August 2000 at her Fire Sister Studios with an all-star cast including bassist Mark Andes (Spirit, Canned Heat, Heart), guitarist Robbie Gjersoe (Jimmie Dale Gilmore), and drummers Rob Hooper (Gilmore, Mary Cutrufello) and Wally Ingram (Timbuk 3, Bonnie Raitt). Along with a stunning cycle of songs -- songs about compassion, spirituality, and yes, intuition -- Ready also features what are undoubtedly K's most natural and unaffected vocal performances to date.
"I learned more about singing in the last six months than the last 20 years," she says. "The primary thing is to be in the moment with the original intent of the songs -- that there's nowhere else I have to be except right there in it. With that mental approach, you don't have to push it, force it, or make it bigger than what it is. I also don't have to downplay it.
"And now that I have gone through the process of examining every vocal, every track, every inflection, and every note on the record, I understand something I didn't two years ago -- that I now have the confidence to say 'Anything goes, and I'm going to go for anything.' What's the worst thing that can happen? Part of the personal reprogramming I've spent the past five years working on is taking the negative things out of my life and rephrasing them in a positive way."
If the reaction to the local rollout of Ready is any indication, her positivity is contagious. KGSR has added the title track to its regular playlist, and both her headlining and surprise show-up-and-play "Girlrilla Warfare" dates have been well-received. The next step is securing a label or distribution deal, but K says even if Ready doesn't take off, she'll still be a happy woman -- not simply because she's back, but because it's been on her own terms and timetable.
"I don't need a big hit or a big record deal to be happy," K says. "I'm into the idea of things growing, as opposed to things hitting. And yet, I will give this record everything I have, because the musicians and the people in my life gave me everything they had. I just want to live my life, put one foot in front of another, and hopefully take bigger steps each time I pick up my leg. I want to make right choices doing things I love and live compassionately. Everything else will take care of itself."