At this point, it’s a well-worn trope to say that many of us were shell-shocked by the results of the presidential election. A scant, if oft-repeated, consolation is the notion that turmoil is fertile ground for creativity. If there’s a silver lining to the ominous cloud hanging over the country, it’s that at least we’ll be getting some really great art and culture in protest to the dumpster fire that is the Trump Administration. And as we’ve seen, the President is watching, and mad as hell about all of it.
“What’s funny about this particular president is that he just can’t let shit roll off his back,” Seán Barna says over Skype. Barna, a singer-songwriter sits in the homemade studio space in the attic of his Brooklyn apartment, swaddled in a sweatshirt and scarves to stave off the brisk winter temperatures. A recent transplant to New York after several years in the DC folk and DIY scene, Barna comes across as an intense and deeply empathetic individual. You get the sense that he might confess his most intimate secrets at any time, whether in song or spoken word. Inhaling sharply, he cracks a wry smile.
“SNL has made fun of every president since the show has existed, and none of them have really cared that much, but it actually bothers this guy. It actually bothers him.”
The creative class is supposed to hold a mirror up to open society, and there’s no denying that in many ways, November was the first time that many liberals truly saw a horrifying reflection. We’ve had to reckon with the reality that a lot of the progress made under President Obama – and the institutions protecting them – is not as robust as originally believed. While there will always be an inherent gap built into processing new realities, it’s refreshing to see so many artists willing to grapple and put themselves out there – for their sakes, and for our own.
As Barna reminds us, it’s important to keep up the steady drumbeat of content to let this administration – and the world – know that our country does not stand for racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia – contrary to what this Administration is trying to do. “He’s not focused on the work – he’s focused on what people think of him. And that’s really stupid. If people like us can nag at him, then great. Artists are essential right now.”
Seán Barna plays Washington DC’s Rock and Roll Hotel on Friday, February 17th. His debut album, Pictures of An Exhibitionist is due out in the Spring of 2017.
Brightest Young Things: You’re a multi-instrumentalist, but your background as a professional musician was as a percussionist and drummer. How have you found the transition to composing music on other instruments? It’s kind of hard to be a songwriter when you’re a drummer – Phil Collins and Dave Grohl the exceptions?
Seán Barna: There’s all kinds of jokes about drummers as songwriters – the end of the band is coming when the drummer starts submitting songs to the lead singer. [Laughs] Drums are my first love – I’ve been playing since I was nine years old. Did it in college, studied classical percussion, and it’s taken me all around the country and I’ve had some incredible experiences playing music. But at some point in college it became something of an obsession for me, and it stopped being fun. I burned out pretty hard, and at this point I haven’t played drums or practiced since 2010, give or take.
What I discovered around the same time is that I enjoyed playing acoustic guitar really poorly – I got some kind of freedom from that. Whereas drums was all about execution and perfection, playing guitar and learning other people’s songs badly was something I enjoyed. I couldn’t sing well, but I did it anyways. [Laughs] Then I saw Tallest Man On Earth’s Tiny Desk Concert and that inspired me to get a little bit better. I was living in Colorado and writing some pretty mediocre songs, but I still hadn’t played the guitar or sung in public – it was terrifying.
I moved back to DC for grad school, and I realized through a tumultuous non-relationship I had that a way for me to feel emotional catharsis was through lyrics and writing songs, and I quickly recognized my particular point of view – which is the most important thing. I’ve been working on that ever since. I also came to accept that I did have something to offer vocally, once I realized that my voice is a little lower than I thought it was. You try to sing along to Led Zeppelin or Steven Tyler when you’re growing up, and you can’t do that! It helps to figure out what you’re physically capable of. And now [singing] is my favorite thing to do. It’s been a great emotional catharsis for me. And unlike drums, which never had this feeling for me, writing songs feels like an art – continually trying to find new ways of saying or looking at things.
BYT: You’ve released two different versions of “Straight Motherfuckers” – one in 2015, and another you recorded just a few weeks ago. What was the inspiration behind this song, and what motivated you to change up the sound for this upcoming version?
Barna: I was living in LA and drumming for this (theatrical) show, and that show moved to New York – it was getting bigger. I wasn’t brought along; I don’t know if it was a personal thing, or if it was just easier to get someone locally, but I had moved out West for it, and then it didn’t work out. Instead of spending my days with music like I had been doing, all of a sudden I was working two jobs, minimum wage, doing counter service – the kind of thing where people come up and never stop looking at their phones. I don’t mind working in the service industry, inherently, but it’s hard when you’re looking at stories of what you were a part of, and aren’t anymore. That was really hard.
I was highly stressed out and waiting on a confirmation if I was going to New York or not, which was going to have to happen the next week, if at all. During that period of stress, I was home watching interviews as I do when I’m stressed out, and it was David Letterman – he was the interviewee, not the interviewer this time. He was talking about his heart surgery, and how after that he would cry at things, just cry all the time – which is apparently a symptom of heart surgery. But he said “I don’t think it’s depression.” And something clicked with me. I had a guitar and my phone with me, so I made a voice memo. The original version of “Straight Motherfuckers” was done nine minutes later, stream of consciousness, complete with a snippet of the Letterman interview at the beginning of that voice note.
Later that week I looked at Instagram and saw a picture that confirmed that I hadn’t been taken on the show, because I saw another drummer in the spot. I happened to have studio time that afternoon, and that original version that you hear on Spotify was recorded that same day. Sorry that was long. [Laughs]
So then I moved back to DC, and my friends there – I never thought I’d play that song, or even acknowledge it. I put it on the internet without any fanfare and went and hiked a 10,000 foot mountain because I was super stressed out, and anxious, and depressed. Anyways, my friends in DC loved it, especially Alex Tebeleff (Paperhaus) and Ben Schurr (Br’er) would push me, push me, push me to record a full band version, and Alex suggested his band could play it. We probably talked about this for a year, and then we decided to do it on inauguration day, because fuck what just happened [the election of Donald Trump]. We’re all a bunch of shameless liberals. And I thought it was a great idea, and a productive way to spend an otherwise depressing day. We got together, set up some mikes, and did it in one and a half takes. It was still semi improvised – though I had rewritten some of the lyrics to be more about what’s happening in the country – but everyone brought their own thing and kind of just did it.
BYT: How did the friendship with the guys from Paperhaus come about?
Barna: So, we actually lived together until I moved up here, but I was drumming for a band back in 2012 called England In 1819. Now, I had been in DC since 2010, because I moved there for grad school, but I wasn’t involved in the DIY scene at all – I was playing drums in this band that wasn’t part of it, and they had contacted Alex about playing with Paperhaus, or playing at the old venue. When I moved back to DC after grad school, I heard about these house shows and wanted to check it out. And I walked into one, alone – which is a scary thing! It was the original Bathtub Republic, and Alex Tebeleff was playing solo, as was Marion McLaughlin. I met Alex that night and we’ve stayed in touch since, and he went on tour with me recently as a string set player.
BYT: Who have been the artists or writers that you consider to be touch points or beacons of what you’re trying to do? Not saying that you’re emulating anyone specifically, but who do you look up to in terms of your approach to music?
Barna: The first time I was enlightened to what songwriting could be was in the Summer of 2007, when I went to see Counting Crows, Collective Soul, and Live playing together at a minor league baseball stadium in Connecticut. My cousin brought me, because her best friend knows Adam Duritz, the lead singer of Counting Crows. I had known some of their hits, but I had never thought about it too much – it was catchy enough, and I liked it.
I watched that man sit at the front of the stage and rip open his chest – really, really let the audience in to his vulnerability, and it was the most honest and unsettling thing I had ever experienced in terms of live music. It was the first time I got an inkling of the higher thing that could be achieved through songwriting, which is forcing yourself to be honest on this public stage, which struck me as exhausting. I happened to get to meet him after the show, and it was very clear to me that he was living in a reality up there, and using the performance to get through something that was going on in his life. I was really intrigued by that, and I had never thought about it before. I became somewhat obsessed with some of their early albums, and hearing how he wrote lyrics, and expressed things, and described things, and how well he did it – it was my first songwriter obsession. When Adam’s at his best, i think he’s among the very, very best lyricists.
A few years later I was living in Colorado, and I was captivated by the Tallest Man on Earth – particularly the Wild Hunt record. Here’s this Swedish dude, singing kind of poetic lyrics and possibly not even knowing English so well, and delivering them with so much power in a self-contained package – a guitar and his voice. He had a rough voice, as do I, and I was really blown away by that.
From there, I was living in Berlin for a semester during grad school, and I went to visit a friend in Zurich. To kill some time while he was working, I put on Blonde on Blonde and went for a walk around the lake. I remember hearing “Visions of Johanna” and I stopped, sat on a bench, and I was blown away. I couldn’t write for weeks after that – for weeks. That’s the type of surreal lyricism that I don’t do, and that Bob Dylan doesn’t do anymore – you need to be on certain kinds of drugs for that, I think. [Laughs] I’m more of a “Blood on the Tracks” kind of writer. but I was blown away, and he remains number one. I’m always looking to people who bring a degree of intensity and honesty to their songwriting, and do my best to approach songwriting in a similar way.
BYT: It’s safe to say that many of us feel like the country has taken a marked step backwards in the last few weeks in relation to progressive causes, but it’s nice to see that so many people are not going to put up with fascism or discrimination in any shape or form. How do you try to synthesize or grapple with all of these emotions beyond your music? How are you staying sane?
Barna: I mean, music is my avenue. I woke up the morning after he got elected – and a lot of my artist friends felt the same way – all of a sudden, we were essential. It put a focus on my songwriting I hadn’t previously felt. I tend to write songs internally, and even “Straight Motherfuckers” is internal-looking. It’s like “woe is me” but also “our cops are killing black people on the streets” – that’s what that songs is about. My life in this mess.
All of a sudden, I’m writing everything in the context of climate change we’re not going to deal with for the next four to eight years, or racism making a comeback in an overt way. Everything is now in the context of that. I have friends writing about the environment and are going out to places that won’t exist soon, and write about what they see, and they’re essential. We’re all going to play our small part.
Artists look at the world and describe what they see as honestly as they can. That’s the job. And I’m so grateful to have this opportunity. Maybe it will suck, but I’m excited about it – we need to speak up.
BYT: Are there any contemporaries of yours who you think are doing a particularly good job of getting their message across?
Barna: Yeah! I think PWR BTTM is killing it right now. I love that band because first of all they’re playing this punk music, and they’re these two queer people, and it’s a big “fuck you” to people who would try and suppress rights. [Pauses] I wasn’t expecting this question. I dunno – who is doing that right now? Who are you thinking? I’m actually curious.
BYT: I think Solange did a great job of that. A Seat at the Table has some of the most pro-black messages on record.
Barna: Oh yeah! And Beyonce, for that matter. But NOT ADELE, for the record! Adele was not doing that with her record, that just won Grammys Album of the Year. [Laughs] But there’s going to be a lag, you know? This guy just got elected. It doesn’t happen quick, and I know that from making a record. But I think in the next year or two you’re going to see a lot of people who feel similarly who are turning their powers towards this. It’s going to be an interesting year for art.
I have a record that I’m about to release that doesn’t have anything to do with what just happened, and it’s almost anachronistic all of a sudden. It’s like immediately it doesn’t matter. But what am I supposed to do, not release it? The next one I’m working on will definitely have a lot to do with it. The next album or two by all of these people will be more of a resistance. We’re all pissed off.
BYT: Since you just moved away, what would you like to see continue to happen in the DC arts scene? What would you like to see less of?
Barna: I mean, DC is ground zero for the resistance. This is a people who don’t have representation in Congress, which is what our fucking country was founded on, so they need to keep fighting back. I like to think of myself as bi-city, and I’m going to try and get back there at least once a month to play shows. DC needs to keep fighting back, and there are a lot of people who are well-positioned and talented enough to do it. Increasingly you’ll hear about DC as one of the major artistic cities, and I’d like to see it get more attention.
As far as what people should not do…let me think on that. [Pauses] Yeah, we need to be more inclusive. I come from the white hipster DC scene, and a lot of that are male hipsters. These aren’t people who are trying to stay away from people of color or anything, but it would be neat if we made active efforts to have events where these groups of people can come together. It’s an acknowledgment of the fact that – for whatever reasons, and not all malicious – these groups of people are not together, or necessarily going to the same show. We want to make sure that people are feeling welcome. It just needs to be a more active effort to be inclusive, and that starts with awareness. If there’s one thing DC people tend to get, it’s awareness. Having all white bills, or all male bills; we can do better than that. And we are.