Dave Barnes Biography
Last updated: 06/09/2012 11:00:00 AM
As singer/songwriter Dave Barnes tells it, he had a Harry Potter moment while in college. Like the poor, misunderstood boy living under the stairs with his Uncle and Aunt, Barnes also belonged to a magical tribe, but up to that point hadn't realized it. "I was thinking I was weird, or something was wrong with me. But when I found the magazine Performing Songwriter, I thought, 'you mean there's a group of people who relate to this? Who have a hard time talking when there is a melody in their head or will run off and call their voicemail so they can remember how this one lyric goes?'"
That's right, Dave, you're a wizard. Well, a songwriting wizard, anyway. So get out of that cramped room and get to Hogwarts-er, Nashville.
A few years later, Barnes graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with a degree in Recording Industry Management-"I'm one of the few musicians in the world actually using my major," he laughs-and became a performing songwriter himself, relocating to Nashville to see what might happen.
At first very little was happening, with Barnes cutting his teeth in a 50-capacity room-and drawing just seven people at one point. But just a few years later, after crisscrossing the country and selling vanloads of two independent albums-Brother, Bring The Sun and Chasing Mississippi, the artist had landed songs on television and in films, and was well known to thousands who'd discovered his soulful, supple way with a melody, wrapping itself around a lyric that sneakily burrows under the skin. Those fans include Vince Gill and Amy Grant (who made guest appearances on Chasing Mississippi) and John Mayer, who said on his blog: "Go where this guy is taking you. My man's aim is true!"
Where is Barnes taking listeners? Judging by a spin of his latest, Me and You and the World, just about anywhere. The Steely Dan jazz-pop of "Someday." The Blind Boys of Alabama-style gospel of "Carry Me Through." The lighters-in-the-air sing-along chorus of "When A Heart Breaks." The crowd favorite and first single, "Until You." Or, perhaps, the delicate, cello-laced ballad of "On A Night Like This." It's all here.
"I always want my songs to be served individually," Barnes says. "As we approach production, what I'm always the most conscious of is, 'is this song sounding like it needs to sound?' I do want the record to sound good, but I'm a lot more concerned with an individual song. That's all that anybody's listening to at one point anyway."
Me and You and the World refers to Barnes' expanded lyrical perspective. Profoundly affected by his work with the Mocha Club (mochaclub.org)-which builds orphanages and supplies medical care in Africa-and service trips he's taken to the continent, the songwriting began shifting. As he says, "You can beat your fans up when you write about yourself all the time. I never want them to be like 'okay, give us a break you egomaniac.' Now I love to write about my experiences, but I think this record is much more about realizing there are so many other stories to tell."
Born in South Carolina, Barnes grew up in rural Mississippi, first gravitating to the hip-hop popular with his classmates (first CD: Young MC), then latching on to the soul, blues and soulful rock favored by his Jackson-born mother and Clarksdale-born father. "We listened to so much Motown and old school R&B. That was just completely normal for Dad, growing up in that world. He's told me so many stories of being in Clarksdale, going down to the City Hall and seeing these amazing bands playing."
Newly arrived in Nashville, armed with just his acoustic guitar, Barnes gravitated to the folk scene. After playing his fair share of solo acoustic shows, though, Dave made has way back to his roots, and found himself looking for music with both depth and groove. This lead Barnes to embrace Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan and seemingly everything in between. "I've been on a massive Toto kick lately," he shares, gleefully, just after communicating his affection for Phil Collins' melodies in Invisible Touch-era Genesis.
This would be a good time to mention that it's a bad idea to take Barnes seriously all of the time, or perhaps most of the time. A YouTube search turns up almost as many homespun comedy clips as fan-shot performances. In fact, Barnes has a stand-up comedy sideline, selling out a 350-seat Nashville theater for a show that included no guitars. "I just remember, in the middle of the routine, thinking, 'this is maybe the most fun I've ever had.' Because it was working well and people were responding."
A sense of humor also helps when arduously building an independent career. "You get a lot of 'hey, yeah, come play at the college-you can play in the cafeteria while people are eating.' And it's like, 'yesss!' 'And you're staying with a student.' 'Oh, great.' And there were those shows where you're like, 'oh my gosh, am I really playing in a basement?'"
Once earning a following though, Barnes played shows for years before he realized that often his audiences were singing every word of his songs along with him. "When I play, I'm so in the zone that I don't really pay attention," admits the artist, who performed hundreds of shows while still unsigned. "It's only recently that I've appreciated that. Now, there are a couple of places in the set where I stop singing the song and let the audience sing. Not having a radio presence (yet), and being able to play places where people are singing songs loudly, it's pretty amazing."
Amazing, yes, but not unexpected, given Barnes' talent and stage presence. The response also speaks to the power of his songs, equal parts depth and hooks, both thought-provoking and dance-inspiring. It's so contagious that even newcomers have been known to join in. Barnes recalls, "there I was, three years ago in a room just writing a song because it needed to be written-and here I am today in a room in front of 500 to 1,000 people with everybody singing it. And that's a weird feeling."
Despite Nashville's reputation as a cutthroat industry town, best known for commercial country and Christian music, a group of young, pop-oriented singer/songwriters is simultaneously thriving. Barnes counts locals like Matt Wertz (with whom he's toured), sometime-McCartney keyboardist Gabe Dixon and Mat Kearney as friends and peers. It's a non-competitive, supportive community, he says, but the peer pressure is definitely there.
"The great thing about being in Nashville is that you've got to constantly write stuff that keeps your friends on their toes," he says. "I've got so many talented friends that I don't want to be the guy where everyone says: 'Did you hear Dave's new record? Isn't it, um, interesting?'"
Strangely enough, Barnes never made a conscious decision to arrive where he is today. As he puts it, one thing just led to another, without much of a master plan. "I am thankful that many young singer/songwriters ask me, 'dude, how did you do it? Give me the roadmap.' But the truth is,' I don't know.' I can't tell you that I've ever planned anything. And I like that, because it must mean I am meant to do this. Right?"
Undoubtedly, Barnes' enthusiastic audience agrees.