Grasping at Straws is a unique local band that came together through music classes at the Peck School of the Arts. The group includes Joshua Backes (vocals, guitar), Christine Barclay (vocals, violin) and Maggie Iken (vocals, acoustic bass). Backes is currently studying music at the Peck School of the Arts, working toward a BFA in Music Composition and Technology. Iken is studying Russian at UW-Milwaukee while also working as a House Manager for the Peck School of the Arts and as a First Year Mentor for UWM’s Music Living Learning Community. Barclay is a Peck School alumna who graduated from UWM in Fall 2011 with a BFA in Music Composition and Technology and a BA in Voice. Barclay currently works as the Interim Box Office Manager for the Peck School of the Arts.
The group plays original music written by Backes as well as covers, affectionately referred to as “country-fried” songs that use their own distinctive sound within songs from other genres. “Our music is raw and our vocal harmonies are thick,” says Barclay. “I like singing really low, Maggie likes singing really high and Josh is somewhere in between all that.”
Grasping at Straws has already evolved remarkably since its humble Composition class beginnings. Backes and Barclay began practicing together and were eventually joined by bass player Iken, whom Barclay calls “the foundation to our sound.” And, although Backes is currently the lead vocalist, it wasn’t always this way. Both Barclay and Backes at one point sang together on every song before Barclay decided to pick up playing the violin, learning to fiddle and incorporating unique textural sounds into their music. Barclay appreciates the ear training and listening skills she acquired during her Composition degree, which have helped her to expand her capabilities on the violin and build on fundamental techniques.
Barclay fondly recalls her History of Rock n’ Roll course taught by Martin Jack Rosenblum. “That whole course impacted my musicianship and artistry beyond words,” she says. It was this class that encouraged Barclay to write songs and play in bands—not only in Grasping at Straws, but also in an experimental Pop group called Winchester Cathedral. She is currently taking the time to “explore music that I not only enjoy listening to, but I also enjoy playing.”
As for the future, the entire group has open minds. “I’m open to whatever the future has in store for me,” says Barclay, “I like to live in the present. Today, tomorrow, whenever, I’m just going wherever life takes me.” The Grasping at Straws vocalist/violinist has some great advice for students, quoting the infamous composer, writer and artist, John Cage: “Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything—it might come in handy later.”