Interview: Casey Barnes

Some readers will recognise Casey Barnes’s name because he was a top 12 contender for Australian Idol in 2009. Others may recognise it because Casey’s last album, Jet Trails, was played on several international flights. And others still may have seen Casey supporting Bryan Adams, amongst others, on national tours. 

Casey has just released a new EP, Flesh & Bone, and I interviewed him just as he had finished a training session for a marathon – obviously he’s a man who likes to rack up achievements!



So you’re planning to launch an EP and run a marathon in the same month.
That’s the plan, that’s the go, hopefully.
It’s a good plan, it’s always good to aim big and you never know what you’ll achieve.
Oh, God I’ve got some work to do though, I’ll tell you.
[Laughs] Are you naturally a runner and you’re just trying to push yourself or you’ve not run a lot before?
I’ve always loved running and stuff – actually I’ve always played a lot of sport and played AFL a lot growing up as a kid and then I did a pretty severe ankle injury probably about two years ago and I haven’t been able to really play footy since then, so I thought well I’ll get stuck into something else and started just running and that sort of got me into starting to run longer distances and everything, so it’s great fun.
And actually it’s quite nice segue to talking about music, because particularly if you’re performing a lot and you’re on the road a lot, in order to maintain your health and probably your sanity it’s advisable to be fit, and lot of country music performers, I’ve noticed, are pretty fit.
Yeah, it’s a good point.  There’s quite a few that try and look after themselves and just into training and stuff.  I’ve noticed especially in the States they’re pretty fit, you don’t see a lot of out-of-shape guys.  I was only talking to somebody the other day – he’s not really a country artist – but I didn’t realise Mark Seymour from Hunters & Collectors [is] a crazy runner. He absolutely runs at wherever he is he’s always – he hits people up to go for a jog and it sort of clears his mind, and I find it’s the same thing for me: it just sort of clears your head and gets rid of all the stuff out of your system, so it’s good.
Also performing is really taxing, particularly if you’re doing a minimum one-hour show, and often a lot of performers, particularly when they start out, are doing three sets and sometimes you’re still doing three sets in some places you can play at. I remember reading ages ago you use more muscles singing than you use running. Running’s good training for singing, I guess.
That’d be right and I’ve done plenty of those over the years, so I guess it’s all helps.  It helps you get through but sometimes it gets you tired towards the end of the night – you might be lacking a bit of energy and motivation – but if you’ve got that bit of fitness there it helps you get through it, I guess.
Now, to talk about your EP – you created this EP in Nashville working with Rick Price. Rick tends to pop up all over the place, I’ve noticed, writing songs with people and also as a producer – how did you come to work with him?
That’s a good question.  There’s a pretty remarkable sort of turn of events and it’s just funny how it works with fate and luck and all these sort of things. I organised this trip to go to Nashville and I booked shows to do over there, and I was writing with a few different people. I planned things for months and as it happened me running into Rick was just completely by chance.  I was grabbing some lunch one day and he was standing behind me and recognised the Australian accent. We got chatting and he came along and had a listen to a show that I did and we just hit it off straightaway, and basically it’s just like we’re – I don’t know, it’s like we’re blood brothers or we’ve just got this really unique friendship that it just works and we work well writing together as well, so he’s been fantastic.
So while you were in Nashville, did you end up recording the EP on that same trip?
No, we wrote our first song together on that trip, called ‘Michelle’. Then we recorded that shortly after, but then the rest of the year too we actually wrote together for a time after that. Then he invited me to go back to Nashville and record it over there and he produced it and he set up all the studio and all the session players and he’s got some fantastic contacts over there, we also got a great guy who came in and mixed the EP, and this guy, he’s won a Grammy Award, so he just took the tracks to a whole new level and we’re very lucky to work with guys like that.
Sometimes that you hear the odd remark in Australian country music circles about people recording at Nashville – in fact, I saw the odd person make such remarks in Tamworth this year, along the lines of ‘Oh, why would you go to Nashville?’ but listening to you talk it’s pretty obvious: it’s because everyone’s there, you can have access to session musicians, you’ve got studios and it can all be organised relatively simply. You don’t have to draw people in from all over the place to make a record happen.
It’s a good point. It’s fifty-fifty – I mean, there’s definitely no knocking the talent of musicians that we have here and all of that type of thing, but it’s just you’ve got all the right places in the one destination, and you can just draw upon so many different people and you’ve got some of the world’s best producers and studios. We had one guy come in and play on the tracks – his name was Jake Clayton and this guy plays it something like twenty-six different instruments perfectly.  He was playing fiddle and cello and slide guitar and dobro, banjo – he just played everything and he’s just an absolute incredible talent, and it’s hard to come across guys like that floating around every day. We were lucky to have access to people like him and also the cost of recording over there really is quite competitive, so you can save yourself quite a bit of money.
They call it Music City for a reason – because that’s the business of the town.
And it is so competitive – there are so many people there, so it makes it sort of great for guys like me to go over there and come away with a really strong product, as long as the songs are good at the start of the day – I guess that the most important thing that being if you can get the players on there as well it just all sort of works all together.
I also think if you’re engaged in creative work like songwriting and performance, it’s really important to keep your well filled, so to speak, and so going somewhere like Tamworth or just listening to other music wherever you can find it is a really crucial part of keeping your work going.
That’s exactly right and trying to do as much collaborating as you can and getting out and doing as many shows with like-minded people, it just sort of keeps you in those circles. And in Nashville you just meet so many different people. I remember the first night I got there – it was the very first trip that I made to Nashville – I’d got off the plane and I was exhausted from flying and I mentioned this to another Australian guy that was based in Nashville, because he’d been sort of giving me advice about what to do, and I said, ‘I’ve just arrived – I’m pretty buggered, I reckon I’ll hit the sack pretty early tonight and I’ll get up and get into it tomorrow.’  He said, ‘Mate, you haven’t got time to sleep, you’re got to get in the car, go into town now.’ He said, ‘Just don’t stop.  Go in and check out some bands, walk around, soak up the atmosphere.’ I was exhausted but it was the best possible advice because I guess it opened the floodgates from that moment, to just to meet all these different people and then it just sort of flowed from there. You’ve just got to get amongst it.
And just back to your collaboration with Rick: I was wondering, in terms of how your creative partnership works, do you tend to react to what he does, does he react to what you do or do you work it out together?
We’ve got a sort of a similar relationship to – I don’t know, people talking about Elton John and Bernie Taupin collaborating together, they’ve always worked together for many years and Elton John’s great on the melody and Bernie Taupin’s really good with lyrics and stuff, and I tend to find that I’m strong on melodies and chords and vocal melodies and stuff, and then I’ll have an idea and Rick will come in and he’s really great with lyrics and that type of thing.  So we tend to work a lot that way, but we mix it around a little and we’ve just got that connection where he tends to be able to jump in my head and nearly say what I’m thinking, which is very hard to come across – people who you can work that easily together [with] and we tend to, most of the time, be on the same page. There was a couple of moments where we were writing these new songs – and there’s one particular track on the EP called ‘Waiting on the Day’ which is a really, really, really personal song for me, and the song just sort of came out and we wrote it and we stopped in the middle of writing this song and went, ‘Far out, man, this is pretty heavy stuff’, and Rick was actually having a bit of a – I don’t know, a bit of a quite teary look. I know it doesn’t happen every day but this song – when you hear the song you’ll understand, it’s a very personal song.  My wife and I, we lost a baby a couple of years ago, so midway through the pregnancy – you know, going through that grieving process, I found actually writing about it was a great way to deal with it so, yeah, it’s a very special song.
I noticed how much emotion was in that song and thought that you’re quite an emotional singer, and it made me realise that actually not a lot of men are emotional singers in quite the way I heard in your voice.  It doesn’t sound like it’s only in that song that you can access emotion.  So have you always been an emotional singer?
I think so … People that know me well know I probably wear my heart on my sleeve and what you see is what you get, and I’ll try and be as upfront and honest and real as you possibly can, and sometimes through writing songs it’s a good way of expressing different experiences you have in life, whether they’re good, bad or in the middle. I guess there are probably a few songs that I’ve written that do touch on different emotive moments and experiences that you’ve had and it’s a hard … Actually that particular song, ‘Waiting on the Day’, was by far the hardest song I’ve had to record vocals for.  I remember we were in the studio and I had to stop a couple of times and say, ‘Guys, I just need a couple of minutes here to get my head together’. Because to deliver the song the way you want you’ve got to get in the right head space so you can actually connect with the song because when people listen to music they can tell whether you’re just giving a half-arsed performance and it’s easy just to deliver a song without any connection but you have to connect with a song for people to actually – when they hear it to actually feel what you’re trying to sing about so, yeah, that was a really tough song to sing.
Well, I can understand why Rick got a bit teary – I did as well when I listened to it. It did seem like grief was very much in that song.
Yes, and it’s sometimes a subject matter that people find it difficult to talk about. I’ve only played the song a couple of times at live shows because it’s obviously a new track. When Rick was out here a few months ago I did a show with him on the Gold Coast and I’ve played that song and it was really interesting at the end of the night, there were about five or six different ladies who came up to me after the show and just had a bit of a chat and they all had gone through the same thing.  And they’ve said, ‘Thank you for writing that song’, because it’s something that they’ve gone through with their partner and they’ve sort of kept to themselves or they haven’t dealt with it, and I guess sometimes it’s a tricky subject matter that often people find they can’t talk about it but it does happen to so many people, it’s amazing.
When you’re taking these songs out on the road – and obviously now that this is on the EP you’ll be playing it more and more – a large part of your job is entertaining but at the same time if you’re singing this song – how do you access that emotion every time you perform it live without running yourself down, if you know what I mean?
I don’t know yet – it’s going to be a trial-and-error thing because every time I’ve played it so far it’s been a really, really tough song to sing and it’s definitely not an easy one to sing. I don’t know whether I probably play it every show because it is that type of song that you probably can’t sing every single show but I think it’s one of those songs where if it’s an intimate acoustic-type show it sort of lends itself more to that. I mean, I’d love to play if I had the opportunity because there’s quite a lot of strings, live strings and cello and stuff happening in that track, and I would absolutely love the opportunity to perform it once with an orchestra and a cello and that whole set-up just to create the same vibe that we produce in a studio, it would be a dream come true so maybe one day.
Well, Queensland has a symphony orchestra and Troy Cassar-Daley lives in Brisbane maybe you and Troy should talk about doing a show with Queensland Symphony Orchestra.
I could handle that. I could handle doing a show with Troy too, that would be great. I rate him very highly, Troy, he’s very talented and he seems like a really humble, down-to-earth guy as well, from what I’ve seen. I’d love to do a show with him one day.
You never know what happens once ideas are percolating out there.
Rick Price is probably, that’s a good example. I remember catching my bus to high school and they had the radio playing, and I remember listening to all of Rick’s songs on the radio when I was in high school and always just going, ‘Oh this guy’s got such a great voice’. And then, what do you know, you get to work with him a few years down the track. Very funny how life works.
Yes indeed.  So in two years’ time I hope to be hearing about your QSO performance because it might be how long it takes to organise, but just listening to you talking and thinking about that song and other songs on the EP, when you first started out as a performer did you feel that it was partly because you wanted to connect with an audience or was it just that you loved singing and playing and that’s what you wanted to do?
I guess it’s a funny thing.  It’s nearly like it’s born within you that you want to get into that – that type of feel. My mum’s got this really interesting photo of me when I was a little kid, I would’ve only been about the same age as my little girl now, around that four or five year old and she took me to see – I think it was Fat Cat live with Patsy Biscoe and there’s this big crowd of people and they’ll all sitting down near the stage and here’s this photo of me, I’ve climbed up on to the front of the stage and I’m on the stage with Patsy Biscoe and Fat Cat trying to get up there. I don’t know what I was trying to do, maybe trying to get up and sing or whatever, but I think that sort of was the moment where maybe my mum realised, I think this kid wants to get up and sing. There’s pivotal moments along the way when you grow up – when I went through high school, my music teacher, he was the one who pushed me – I was quite nervous to do it but he pushed me into performing in front of the whole school assembly, and I really didn’t want to do it because I was too shy, but I ended up doing it and then – when all the kids come up to you at school and go, ‘Gee, that was crazy’, and I think I was, like, ‘I think I could get used to this’. Then I guess, as you say, in that connection with an audience there’s nothing better when you can tap into a crowd of people, whether it’s ten people at a little intimate gig or – I’ve been lucky to perform in front of 50 000 people at Suncorp Stadium a couple of times. And if you can tap into a crowd and connect with them, there’s just no better feeling it’s amazing.  I love, absolutely love doing it.
I was just thinking what you’d said before about you coming up with the melodies when you’re writing with Rick. Is that an instinctual thing for you or have you had any musicianship training?
I’ve had a few different lessons and stuff growing up, but on the whole I found it easier to learn by ear.  My mum always listened to music and stuff and I’d grab a tape or then when we got into CDs or whatever, and I’d go into my room for hours and actually try and learn how to play songs just by listening to them. That taught me to play by ear and getting melodies in my head, and then I guess as I got older and started writing, often different melodies would start in my head and might just be humming something in my head and then I’d start writing it – sometimes the main thing with songwriting, it’s like you tap into something and it just flows out of you, Rick and I have spoken about it a few times because he’s had the same experience when you write – sometimes when you’re writing a great song and you don’t even know where it’s coming from, it’s just flowing out of you, and it’s a pretty amazing experience when it happens, but often it just sort of comes – little ideas come to your head and you just try and get them out as quick as you can.
It sounds very much like for you and Rick this EP is the start of a potentially very long-term creative collaboration, because it sounds from what you’re saying there’s so much more that the two of you have to do together.
Yeah, absolutely. We’ve become very good friends now and his wife and my wife have become good friends, and he’s a great person and an extremely talented guy and he’s become a bit of a mentor for me, I’ve no doubt we’ll continue to write together.  My wife and I have actually – on the EP there’s a duet, the track called ‘Valentine’. We even want to record some more stuff with Michelle and I together and write with Rick, so that’s another little project we’d love to do down the track as well.
I actually did have a question about your wife singing on that song have you sung together a lot in the past?
Yes, we have. My wife’s always been a singer and that’s how we met, through the music industry, and we’ve been singing together for years. But we’d often just muck around and do stuff for friends and family, we might record a song and we’ve always sort of had our friends saying, ‘When are you guys actually going to release a song together?’ So it was definitely one thing I wanted to do was at least write one track that was a duet with my wife and ‘Valentine’ ended up being the perfect sort of song. It turned out really well.
So is your household constantly musical? Are the two of you singing and humming around the place?
Yes, we are pretty musical, and our two little girls have got right in to it and thanks to the Frozen soundtrack my little six-year-old girl is nonstop going around singing ‘I Want to Build a Snowman’ – I don’t know what we’ve created there.  We’re definitely all very musical.
How fantastic, that would be a great household to live in, I think.
It’s pretty good.  I don’t know – our neighbours probably get sick of us sometimes but we’re always listening to music.
I’ll ask you just one more question … You’re originally a Taswegian and now you’re a Queenslander, so I was wondering if it’s easier to navigate a music career from the mainland?
Look, it’s a really good question and I don’t know what the perfect answer is, because I think when you get to a certain point in your career you can pretty much base yourself out of anywhere.  There are a lot of musicians that are probably that little bit further along the track than I am and there are all sorts of guys that base themselves up the back of Byron Bay.  They’re sort of in the middle of nowhere but when they’re out on the road and really busy and hectic lifestyles they find it great to come back to a place where there’s that bit of grounding, and my wife and I have sort met halfway in the middle and we’ve moved recently down to a little place called Kingscliff, which is south of the Gold Coast.  I find it’s great because you can come back to a place where it’s nice and laid back, and because our lives our always pretty busy but I’m still close to the Gold Coast and close to a major airport and stuff for going and touring around and doing stuff.  It’s a hard question to answer.  I still love Tassie. I’d love to go back and live there again one day, but it is a little bit harder when you are isolated sometimes though – there is that argument with some musicians basing themselves in Sydney and Melbourne that they’re in the thick of things all the time but the big city lifestyle really doesn’t connect with me, so we’ll see how we go.
And south-east Queensland is really fertile at the moment within country music and in music generally.  So I’d suggest you’re in a good place for creative cross-pollination and all sorts of things.
Well, yeah, so far so good and I think the Internet, social media and the way things work with music now is if you do have that connection with an audience and the right people and the right places, it’s amazing what you can still achieve, and I’m starting to get shows contacted by booking agents now that are asking me to play at different festivals and stuff that I didn’t used to sort of get so I think things are heading in the right direction now so it’s exciting.
 Flesh & Bone is out now.

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