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The sonic mosaic of Tucson's Language Barrier

To hear local band Language Barrier live, you would think every note and every chord was planned with painstaking precision by a disciplined ensemble of seasoned musicians. The band's sound is a sonic mosaic of sorts —  layer upon layer of gorgeous electronic and guitar based controlled chaos woven throughout with hazy looping vocal melodies. 

Surprisingly, though, this intricate web of sound is all the brainchild of a single, if clever, songwriter working with a team of trusted musical collaborators.

Meet Nirantha B.

Nirantha Balagopal: “Language Barrier started as a fluke. I was living in Phoenix in 2015 and wanted to perform in the Trunk Space's annual Indie 500 festival, so I signed up for a slot and wrote a few songs the week of the festival. I got two friends, Allie Long (a phenomenal vocalist) and Crystal Burnett (a multi-instrumentalist) to learn these new songs literally the night before the festival.The three of us played in this configuration for a while, eventually adding Chad Dennis on drums.”

“After a while I moved back to Tucson, so having these bandmates in Phoenix felt unsustainable. I was getting asked to play shows and I've played in this piano-pop configuration with a whole host of Tucson musicians playing various instruments for me. I'm almost afraid to list them all because I don't want to forget anyone, but Logan Greene and Marcel Sayre have been really key players in Tucson.”

“There were times where it was hard to get together a band for a show so I started experimenting with a solo set. I've casually played guitar for a while so I started doing this looping set, where, with separate loop pedals, I looped both my voice and guitar. Again, I have this weird fear of my voice standing alone, so I felt the layers of vocals made everything more solid.”

TucsonSentinel.com: I saw you lead a workshop on looping at the first Electric Witch Workshop. It was pretty amazing!

NB: “The looping started because I was trying to figure out how to make layered music without another musician. I actually practiced in my room with loop pedals for about two years before I ever performed live with them. With looping you have to be really comfortable with your voice and lyrics. Or with a specific riff. Because it will keep coming back around and around and hitting you in the head. “

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TS: Where did the name Language Barrier come from?

NB: “The name came out of nowhere. I liked the way it sounded and it was kind of a 'backronym' situation. I later realized it was a good metaphor for my songs. I'm often having a conversation with someone in my songs, though the other party is unaware of it."

TS: Describe your music in terms of style and genre. Do you compose and write mainly solo or collaborate with others at all?

NB: “It all started as sort of a take on piano-pop. I was playing piano and singing, but I've never considered myself a strong vocalist, which is why I originally recruited Allie to be an additional vocalist. I like writing vocal harmonies, and I tell myself if there's added layers to the vocals, there's less emphasis on my voice. I've had to get more comfortable with my voice over the years. 

“I've almost never written Language Barrier songs with another person (at least, structurally).The main form of the songs and the lyrics are 99 percent me. But whenever a new musician joins the lineup, I like to have them write themselves into the song. It might be too hands-off for some people, but I trust the musicians I ask to play with me. I like seeing how the songs are so malleable with different musicians' takes on them. And since most shows have a different live lineup, most shows I play are entirely different from one another.”

TS: How does this project compare to your experience in your other band, Lowlife?

NB: “In Lowlife, Jon Malfabon writes the structure and lyrics for all the songs, and he is such a phenomenally talented and prolific writer. I feel lucky that I get to play his songs. That band has always been just the four of us (Jon, Daniel Ramirez, Sean Terry and me), and has stayed that way through three tours and two albums.”

”Language Barrier is very different, a lot more pliable. Besides myself and either a guitar or a piano, everything else changes live. I've had electric guitarists, electric and stand up bassists, cello, violins, percussion, full drum sets, three ir more singers. Whatever suits my fancy that season...and whatever musicians I can find to humor me.”

TS: How did you first fall in love with music? What are your favorite bands and artists?

NB:  “A lot of my favorite musicians of all time don't sound anything like the music I play. I grew up loving, like, Converge and At The Drive In and bands whose influences don't touch my genres at all. And of course I always loved those emo boy bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Saves The Day. But I'd also always been a big fan of Sara Bareilles and Vanessa Carlton, since I grew up playing classical piano (and I still to this day try to practice as much classical piano as I can). They play such intricate compositions accessible to a pop music audience. I think that's so cool. There's some influence of those women in my work.”

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“There's this dichotomy between the musicians I just mentioned, right? Like, the "pretty pop" music made by those women and the more heavy or rocking stuff made by men. I was unfortunately not introduced to too many female bands when I was in high school. Eventually I came to love bands like Rainer Maria and Land of Talk. One of my absolute favorite bands right now is Hop Along. I just love her so much, every time I've seen Hop Along I've left the venue with my face absolutely drenched in tears. “

TS: Thoughts about the state of independent music as a whole and the state of local music?

NB: “We're getting into more and more uncharted territory with independent music. There is so much music that is so easy to access via the internet. It's kind of overwhelming. I'm a weirdo and hardly use Spotify or any competitor's streaming services. I like going to shows and buying CDs or buying music on Bandcamp to keep on my phone. Actually, I really love exploring Bandcamp and finding random music on there.”

“Independent musicians can get their stuff on streaming services and get noticed easier, I think, than in the past where needing a label or an agent was an absolute necessity. But then again, it's hard to say since I wasn't alive back then.”

“I'm grateful to everyone in the music community in Phoenix and Tucson who has kept this project alive. After that first show at the Indie 500, I figured we'd never play again and that it was a pop-up experience. An audience member approached me later that night to say they loved the songs so much and they hoped I would record them and continue playing. It was so meaningful.”

“Something else like that keeps happening every time I think Language Barrier is done. The songs come out at a pretty slow rate since I feel so strapped for time (this is more of a back burner project), but I have a feeling Language Barrier in some form or another will have a long lifetime.”

TS: Thoughts and experiences on touring and recording? Future plans for either?

NB: “I went on one super short solo tour as Language Barrier. I like touring with bandmates better. I've also released a few EPs and singles as Language Barrier. I've never done the full album thing but that's actually something I'm starting now -  guess the cat's out of the bag! Maybe that album will be out in the spring of 2019. Maybe later.”

“It's hard for me to envision myself recording a whole album, because I get so impatient that I like to record a song or two at a time and then instantly barf it out into the world. I need to be more patient. I need to wait and ruminate on a song more and see if it grows and changes before letting it go.”

“I put out an EP last December called 'Crosstalk,' available on all digital platforms (it was also on cassette but they sold out!). There are two piano pop songs and one experimental looping song on there, so you get a little taste of it all.” 

TS: Favorite venues?

NB: “I'm forever indebted to Plush/Flycatcher. I miss that place so much. They gave me some of my first shows ever and continued to let me play in all kinds of weird setups at that venue. When it was closing, I did a rough count in my head and I think I played in seven different bands over the span of six years at that bar (but, weirdly, only one Language Barrier show).”

“The Trunk Space in Phoenix has all of my heart. The Trunk Space and everyone who runs that place are true committed DIYers. I actually learned how to book shows and make fliers and run sound all because of the Trunk Space. Plus, that's where the first ever Language Barrier show was.”

TS: You were part of the team that put together Electric Witch, which was pretty remarkable in its level of non-judgemental, collective, collaborative atmosphere. I feel like younger artists and especially women/femme artists these days seem less cut throatedly competitive and more open to learning and teaching and passing the torch to others. And that's really cool. What are your thoughts and experiences in this regard? Do you feel it's important to mentor others and demystify music tech and technique?

NB: “Oftentimes the legacy of patriarchy is that subconsciously or otherwise women feel like there's only room for a few of us at the top, or only room for a few of us to be successful, which is of course ludicrous. With Electric Witch, we really tried to fight that.”

“I have so many thoughts about our first workshop it's hard to summarize it into words. The short version is, it was such a warm and lovely experience and I learned so much and I'm so grateful for all the women who shared their knowledge with us. The long version is...come listen to us talk about it Tuesday, Dec. 18 at Club Congress as part of Ladytowne Live!”

Nirantha Balagopal and a few of her fellow Electric Witches take the stage on Tuesday night at Club Congress.

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A Ladytowne Winter Wonderland

Speaking of Ladytowne Live... it's that time again. The December edition of the monthly live feminist talk/variety/music event once again takes over Club Congress this Tuesday night. In addition to Nirantha B and fellow "Electric Witches" Hannah Yeun and Chelsey Trejo, this month's guests include comedian Mo Urban, Erin Daye from sex and body-positive adult boutique Jellywink, activist Barbara Eiswerth of the Iskashitaa Refugee Network, and Joanna Lynne Smith and Rambo Rose of Different Strokes erotic performance showcase.

The show will be, in the words of host and founder Miranda Schubert, "a veritable smorgasbord of artistic expressions that could only have been generated from this beautiful dusty desert town." 

Ladytown Live December Edition at Club Congress will happen Dec. 16 at 8 p.m.

Dance Macabre

What better place for a goth dance night than a former funeral home? At least that's the theory behind Owls Club's Goth nights, a fairly recent institution at the music venue and bar housed in the former Bring's Funeral Home. Get your goth on and tempt the resident spirits with new and old school post punk, darkwave and other gloomy mood music while dressed to the nines in your most funereal finery. Absinthe optional.

Goth Night at Owls! takes place at 10 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 20, at Owls Club in Downtown Tucson.

Smells Like Teen (Holiday)Spirit...

Remember your first teenage band? It was awesome and fun and the best of learning experiences, right? But, odds are, it wasn't all that good.

Luckily, the current crop of Tucson high school punk and indie bands is much much better than the terrible garage atrocities that many of us were part of in our younger days. In fact, these kids are much much better than a lot of adult led rock bands currently playing. But don't tell them we said that! Better to let them keep playing, practicing and getting ever better gig by gig.

This week at Club Congress, a good half-dozen of the finest youth led bands in Southern Arizona kick off winter break with a bang. Because, it turns out that the kids are all right...more than all right, in fact.

Check out the High School Winter Break Kickoff featuring Rough Draft, Pelt, Carnival, Calling Upon Theory, The Trees and Yum! at Club Congress this Thursday night at 6 p.m.

A Beary Special Holiday Tradition

It's beginning to look a lot like a certain holiday. You know the one. There's gifts and warm tidings and food and a lot of music...it's time for Salem The Bear's Holiday Food Drive!

This year's edition of the annual music even and fundraiser for Tucson Community Food Bank features live performances by Lucky Lenny, Bryan Dean, Heather Hardy, Amosphere, and Top Dead Center. 

Salem The Bear's Annual Holiday Food Drive takes place at Hotel Congress at 6 p.m. on Sunday Dec. 16.,

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Discover the Covers

Another tradition that usually rears its cleverly disguised head every year in Tucson is The Great Cover-Up — the annual event in which local bands tranform themselves into well loved music icons for one weekend only...a weekend that shall live in infamy! Who's covering who? Well, that's a carefully guarded mystery until the night of the show.

This year's Cover-Up launches Thursday night at Cans with an all-star imaginary lineup that includes interpretations of the Cars, Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Rage Against The Machine, Bruce Springsteen, Garth Brooks and Garbage. More bands will join in the masquerade next weekend on Friday, Dec. 21 at Club Congress and Saturday, Dec. 22 at 191 Toole. Stay tuned for more info in next week's column.

Night One of The 2018 Great Cover-Up takes place at Cans beginning at 6 p.m. and features local bands Spacefish, The Bennu, Fitter Happier, Juju Fontaine, Natalie Pohanic, Cloudless, and Southbound Pilot. 

Check your local listings...

Friday, December 14

  • Dieselboy - 10 p.m. Rialto
  • Piano Jazz - 6 p.m. Dusty Monk
  • Advance Base w/ Lisa/Liza, Karima Walker - 8 p.m. 191 Toole
  • decker, Carlos Arzate & the Kind Souls, Keli Carpenter - 8 p.m. Club Congress
  • Sad Boi Night - 9 p.m. Cans
  • "Pigmy Death Ray w/ The Paris Accord - 9 p.m. 
  • Saint Charles Tavern - 9 p.m. Saint Charles Tavern"

 Saturday, December 15

  • Generation Cool 5 Year Anniversary - 10 p.m. Club Congress 
  • Salem the Bear Annual Food Drive - 6 p.m. Club Congress
  • Lisa O'Neill & the Open Ocean at Crooked Tooth - 6 p.m. Crooked Tooth
  • Metalachi w/ Miss Olivia and The Interlopers - 7 p.m. 191 Toole
  • Gila Byte, Heroes Reunion, Oversic - 9 p.m. Sky Bar
  • For Love or Absinthe - 7 p.m. Button Brewhouse
  • Chateau Chateau, Spider Cider, Crooked Saints - 7 p.m. Club Congress
  • OK Go - 7 p.m.Rialto
  • Monsoonpsyche Presents: Dementia, w/ The Trees, Topnax, PONDI, DJ Yungalva - 7 p.m. Solar Culture Gallery
  • Eugene Boronow Duo - 8 p.m. Dusty Monk
  • Old Paint Funky White Elephant Record Exchange - 8 p.m. La Cocina
  • Lucky Lenny - 8 p.m. Saint Charles Tavern
  • Leila Lopez - 8 p.m. Westbound (MSA Annex)
  • Club Sanctuary Krampusnacht - 9 p.m. Surly Wench

 Sunday, December 16

  • Kid's Open Mic - 4:30 p.m. La Cocina
  • Salem the Bear Annual Food Drive - 6 p.m. Club Congress

Monday, December 17

  • Nanomi Ozone, Dread Cat, Gem Show, Top Notch & Fonz - 8 p.m. Cans

Tuesday, December 18 

  • Patio Party w/ DJ Nada - 10 p.m. Hotel Congress
  • The Jazz Guild Jam - 7 p.m. Galactic Center
  • Ladytowne Live - 8 p.m. Club Congress

 Wednesday, December 19 

  • Street Blues Family  - 8 p.m. Club Congress
  • "Loser's Lounge w/ Natalie Pohanic, Gabe Rozell, Hank Topless Band - 9 p.m. Owls Club"

Thursday, December 20 

  • Goth Nite - 10  p.m. Owls Club"
  • Great Cover Up: Night One - 6 p.m. Cans
  • High School Winter Break Kickoff w/ Rough Draft, Pelt, Carnival, Calling Upon Theory, The Trees and Yum! - 6 p.m. Club Congress

Each week this column compiles a choice selection of live gigs in and around Tucson with the help of good venue and band event announcements and other resources. If you've got a gig coming up and you'd like your event listed in this space (or if your local band has a major announcement or a new release) drop me a line at arts@tucsonsentinel.com.

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Paloma Colacion

Nirantha Balagopal

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