Nikki Barber keeps it Light and Sweet
As the leader of the Minks, Nikki Barber is living the rock ’n’ roll life every day. It’s a path she began following when she was just 14 years old and was struck by a common but profound musical epiphany.
“Right when I started high school my friend Levi Landis opened an event space [in her hometown of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania] for bands to play,” Barber says. “I had always loved rock ’n’ roll. My dad was a big music fan and we would go to shows in Philly, but it wasn’t until I started going to those local shows that I realized I could do it, too.”
I-can-do-it-myself revelations have launched rock ’n’ roll careers from the moment of Elvis’ first hip-shake on stage, but as Barber found out, a local, DIY scene nurturing that sudden, powerful realization can make all the difference.
“Levi had a makeshift recording studio, and me and my friends were all making tapes and sharing them. The event space and studio shut down right about the time I graduated from high school, so it only lasted four years, but it was a pivotal time for me.”
Barber first fell in love with performing through dance, an interest that also inspired a love for costuming and design. After graduating high school, she pursued her passion for fashion by earning a degree from the Academy of Art University and her love of music by forming the band Static Trees with fellow Gettysburgian Dylan Whitlow. After establishing themselves on the Keystone State’s indie rock touring circuit, the group headed south in 2011 to record the EP, Necessary Risks in Nashville.
“I loved my home town but I wanted to get out, travel, and live somewhere else,” Barber says. “I fell in love with Nashville, and Dylan and I moved here in 2012, but I didn’t come with a plan for how long I was going to stay.”
By 2014, Static Trees had run its course. After the break-up of the band, Whitlow joined local rockers the Blackfoot Gypsies, while Barber pursued other paths, including Electric Thread, a custom stage wear and design business she launched with fellow designer Liz Earle.
“Everyone kept asking me what I was going to do next with my music,” Barber says, “but I didn’t want to do something just to be doing something. I took some time for myself and learned to play guitar better and worked on writing songs. I cut some of the bullshit out of my life and tried to grow up a bit. Nashville is a tough city. You have to bring your best to make people
Barber’s return to the stage was precipitated by a phone call from an old friend from the Pennsylvania touring circuit. “Ron Gallo called me and said his band was coming to Nashville to play a show, and did I want to open for him,” Barber says. “I said sure, got off the phone, and said, ‘Shit. I gotta find a band.’”
Pulling together several friends, Barber formed the Minks, for what she thought was one show. “I just wanted to play and prove to myself that I could get back into it, but it was so fun, we kept playing,” she says. “It’s been a revolving cast since day one. I call it a rock ’n’ roll circus — you don’t know what line-up you’re going to get, but it’s going to be fun.”
With her many friends in the Nashville music scene, Barber guided the Minks to an increasing number of live appearances and the self-released Sweet Talk EP in 2016. The steadiest line-up eventually coalesced to include Jamie Timm on guitar, Joe Bisirri on bass, Houston Matthews on drums, and Barber on guitar and lead vocals. With Bisirri as recording engineer, it was this line-up that cut the 10 tracks that make up Light and Sweet, the band’s forthcoming full-length debut on Cafe Rooster Records.
“We wanted a full package to show people what we could do on our own,” Barber says. “It was all recorded and mastered, and my friend Bridgette Aikens shot the cover before I pitched it to Brian Wright and Sally Jaye for Cafe Rooster Records. They were looking for a rock ’n’ roll act, so we sat down in their backyard and talked about joining in their little collective. It felt like the right fit.”
Kicking off with the hard rock anti-depressive rocker “I’m Okay,” Light and Sweet powers through 10 tracks of “psychedelic-bloos.” With its mix of grungy garage riffs and self-revelatory lyrical defiance, it invokes the spirit of the early Patti Smith Group, but Barber never stumbles over the rocks of inspiration as she blazes through her vision of no-bullshit rawk for the 21st century.
“I never really wanted to be a singer-songwriter. I always wanted to have a band, a group of friends to have fun with, travel, and make music together,” Barber says. “I think being in a band stemmed from my own desire to build a community and share our music.”
Barber’s dedication to community and the DIY ethic extends beyond the music to every aspect of the Minks. In addition to designing and sewing clothes for herself and band members, her personal touch extends to the band’s merch and even the limited-edition, lathe-cut singles, manufactured by local, custom record cutters Groove Family Records, that have presaged the release of
The personal curation of the band’s image, marketing, and merch isn’t a conceited hipsterish-maker culture choice. It’s drawn from that same DIY inspiration that supercharged her 14 years ago. It’s a faith that great rock’n’roll will always find its audience if the people who make the music work hard enough and the people who love music simply come together.
“Just being able to make music for a living is the dream now,” she says. “By yourself you may not have the power, but working with others you can do it. People still want to come to shows to hear music, feel the energy, and leave a little sweaty at the end of the night.”
Preorder Light and Sweet at theminksband.com and see The Minks live at the High Watt on Friday, Sept. 20