Ultrasound, the new 12-song concept album by Charleston guitarist, songwriter, and producer Lee Barbour, is a dream come true. Not in the cliched sense of someone’s aspirations becoming reality, but in the sense that two years ago, Barbour had an eerily prescient dream — a dream that started Barbour down the path of combining jazz guitar, electronic R&B, ambient soundscapes, and voice recordings from his own life to create a musical cycle about the birth of his first child.
The first sound we hear on Ultrasound is a resonant keyboard tone, which builds slowly into a massive hum, over which a conversation begins about the conception of a child. “You’re bringing an entity into the world because you already understand that each of you is a whole being, and you have a whole, and holy relationship,” the voice says.
It’s a fitting beginning to an album with song titles like “Multiplying Selves: Floating in the Womb,” and “Birth.”
And though he’s a father now, when the idea first came to Barbour in the aforementioned dream, he wasn’t planning on becoming one anytime soon.
“I saw a baby boy with blue eyes who appeared to be maybe 10 months old,” Barbour says of his dream. “He was staring at me with these luminescent eyes. And he communicated the idea to me of creating this concept album about documenting the occurrences of our lives, and then creating music around it and presenting the story in a concept album format, which is something I’d never done before. I’d also never thought seriously about having a baby before. My wife and I had talked about it but there had never been a discussion of, ‘Are we really going to do this?'”
After the dream, however, things were different. “We got a little more serious about it,” he says, “and two months later we found out my wife was pregnant. And then I realized that I needed to take this message a little more seriously than just a one-off dream, and I decided I’d start doing what I learned in the dream.”
Before there was a note of music written, Barbour and his wife, Vicki [together, they founded OHM Radio 96.3] began recording everything they could, from trips they were taking to the moments that they told their friends and family members about the pregnancy. After that process, Barbour began building musical tracks around those candid moments. “I built the tracks to score those scenes in our lives,” he says.
If it seems like sharing those intimate real-life moments might sound too personal, Barbour says he didn’t know of another way to create the album.
“I received this message from my future child,” he says. “That’s a pretty personal way to start a project. So I don’t think it could’ve been done any other way. While this is certainly the most personal of my projects, I was very happy to open up my life to the world and say ‘Hey, this is what I’ve done with my life.'”
After creating the songs, it was simply a matter of Barbour settling down in the studio and recording them, which the 20-year veteran musician (a former jazz guitar professor at the College of Charleston who’s performed or recorded with Fred Wesley, Earl Klugh, Jeff Sipe, and Cary Ann Hearst, among others), did entirely on his own.
“I had the concept, and a general idea of what I wanted to do,” he says. “After that, it was just a matter of sitting down every day and putting some time towards it. I found that as long as I did that, as long as I basically just showed up at my studio and worked, that it tended to work itself out. And I was able to create this album a little bit at a time by sitting there and making tens of thousands of decisions one after another. I couldn’t see the end result of it, but I knew that if I kept making them, that eventually this album would be complete.”
The fact that the album took a little over a year and a half to complete stems both from Barbour being a bit of a perfectionist, and from the fact that Vicki gave birth while he was still recording it.
“A lot of it was me having to learn how to make an album,” he says. “I learned how to make a complete album on my own without anyone else in the production process. That was the first time I’d ever done that, so it was a heavy learning curve. I didn’t finish it until five or six months after my baby was born, because at that point I couldn’t just go into the studio when I wanted to, because I had a newborn. I started in January of 2016 and finished around July or August of 2017.”
The decision about how to release the album, by playing it from start to finish in a yoga class, came from both necessity and inspiration.
“Since I wrote and performed everything, I didn’t have a band to perform the album,” Barbour says. “And it wasn’t something that intuitively felt like the right answer. So I kept looking for other possibilities.”
Still searching for ideas, Barbour lent the album to a yoga teacher friend of his, who played it during one of her lessons.
“She told me later that it was a huge hit and everyone in the class loved it,” he says. “I loved the idea of having a release event as part of a yoga class. Not just how different it was, but that I didn’t have to create a band that learned the material and interpreted it. It’s just the material as it is, with guided movement. It made sense to me.”