“And in the many shades of grey, I see the light...”
The Montreal producer and songwriter born Barbara Bonfiglio is a fireball of positivity, long admired for her adventurous approach to music making. Also known as internationally celebrated club DJ Misstress Barbara, she answered an internal call to launch her parallel career as singer-songwriter with the release of Juno-nominated 2009 artist album I’m No Human. Now, with sophomore album Many Shades of Grey, Misstress Barbara burns brighter than ever.
Misstress Barbara learned a great deal while producing dozens of original techno EPs and DJing at top international clubs during the past 16 years. But even this had not prepared Barbara for just how much she would glean about herself by taking the creative leap of writing, producing and singing on her debut album, I’m No Human. Largely inspired by the illness and passing of her father, that album found Misstress Barbara crafting beats and melodies separate from the poems she had written and would eventually pair to the music. Instead, for Many Shades of Grey, she took the approach of writing lyrics – here exploring themes of love, loss, and actively appreciating the people we care about - to specifically match melodies and musical moods. This makes for a more coherent and uplifting whole.
“I wanted to be very frank and honest about the things I’m happy with in my life,” shares Misstress Barbara. “As much as I’m No Human came from thinking about my dad and talking about love, it was introspective and a bit darker. Most of the songs on Many Shades of Grey are very positive - even the sad ones are luminous. I’m very happy about that.
“I’ve loved so many songs that are positive and simple that for this album, I didn’t want to try for leftfield and complicated. I wanted to be straight to the point and upbeat. My hooks are simple, but simple is good and it’s easy to remember. I want people to listen to the album and have the songs stuck in their heads.”
A rare solo artist who writes, produces, mixes and performs their own material, Barbara recorded Many Shades of Grey largely in her Montreal studio. She wrote and arranged the collection of 11 original songs (13 on the album’s digital release), programmed all of the beats, and played most instruments. Significantly, Barbara also performs all vocals (where I’m No Human featured guest appearances from Sam Roberts, Brazilian Girls and Björn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John), having gained confidence.
“I wrote I’m No Human making sure that I wouldn’t have to sing because I was a bit scared, and didn’t really consider myself a singer,” Barbara confides. “It was completely the wrong pitch for me, much too low and more like speak-singing, and I had a very hard time performing that live. I worked at this, and now I’ve found my true singing voice.”
Through the process of touring with her band, Misstress Barbara not only found her natural vocal pitch, she also realized that her fans also wanted to dance at her live shows. In direct response, Misstress Barbara developed fun, dance floor covers of The Beatles’ “Come Together,” Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host,” and Tears For Fears’ “Shout,” to pair with up- tempo songs from I’m No Human.
“Because of this, what I said to myself was ‘With the next album, I’m really going to sing and I’m so going to make people dance!’ That’s exactly what I did with Many Shades of Grey.”
Indeed. Most songs on Many Shades of Grey, including the infectious title track, bump at a pulsating 125-to-130 beats per minute. Misstress Barbara brings with her sensual synths, solid beats and huge hooks, with more than a hint of ‘80s-influenced fun sprinkled throughout.
“I’m proud of the evolution in the writing,” says the producer. “I really think every song has a strong hook, which was something I wanted to make happen. I very much enjoy performing a song where you see the audience singing along, especially after 16 years as an underground DJ. In that context, it’s almost uncool if people recognize what you’re playing. I was not going to develop a second career to go down a similarly underground road.”
Much of Many Shades of Grey could easily find a home on today’s radio charts, where the sonic soundscape has shifted to embrace the pop-dance tunes of artists like Robyn, Dragonette, and Rihanna.
“What’s happening on the radio right now is good luck for me because that’s what I do – electronic music. But if the radio today was more rock, I’d still be making electronic music. Misstress Barbara has always been about programming hot beats and I’m keeping that.”
As evidence, Misstress Barbara presents the undeniably red-hot first single, “The Right Time,” complete with remixes by Roger Sanchez and others. The original song positively radiates happiness as Barbara’s voice is accompanied by thick grooves, soaring strings and a whistled hook that calls to mind the sunniest of summer days. In fact, the song will sound familiar to those who attended last summer’s Rogers Cup Tennis tournament in Montreal, where an instrumental version of “The Right Time” was played at every centre court match.
“I’m a big tennis fan so I was there all week, at every match, and was very proud,” says the daring artist, also known to snowboard, ride motorcycles and pilot planes. “By the middle of the week, everybody was whistling the hook.”
Whether starring in her own show, producing for other artists or creating original work for corporate clients also including Ubisoft (for the game Your Shape Fitness Evolved 2012) and Telus, Misstress Barbara is true to herself. Whether performing live on stage with her band – as she will in support of Many Shades of Grey – or DJing in front of thousands, Misstress Barbara continues to show us an artist who cares to grow.
“At the end of the day, I do what I do for the love, but also for the challenges,” says Barbara. “It would have been a sure shot to just continue as a DJ and go with the career that I’d established, but I embraced the huge challenge of making the first album and learning to sing and perform live. Now, I’m learning to get better at all of that.
“It’s a challenge that’s worth everything in the world to me. Success comes and goes, but learning is a treasure. I’ve learned so much and I’m so proud of the evolution. What can I say? I love my new album!”