Beginning a career as a professional musician at age 19, Jamie Barnes plays what has come to be called “bedroom pop.” In other words, he records literate, lush songs in his bedroom, often alone, playing all of the instruments. His confessional style and way with words incorporates biblical and historical allusions track his journey and invite the listener along. Barnes is an active member and worship leader at Soujourn Community Church in Louisville, KY. I recently spoke with Barnes about his music, his faith and Girl Scouts taking care of public roads and everything in between. Enjoy:
- Were you raised in a musical home?
Yes, definitely. My father was actually a professional drummer when he was younger. He played in a white soul band in the late ‘60’s. They were called Tom Dooley and the Love Slides. They actually had a pretty good following, opening for bands like The Doors and Sam and Dave and the Beach Boys. He had all sorts of neat stories to tell my brother and I. Of course some stories he only shared later in our lives. He always had music playing in the house. He had a pretty extensive record collection that we took to very early on. Music was always going on. I started out as a drummer like my dad, as we often do we try to be different from what our parents do. I think I picked up a guitar at age eleven and it was pretty much it from there.
- Were you raised in a Christian home?
Yes. It’s sort of an interesting story to some. I actually was raised in the Church of Christ, the very consertive Church of Christ. Meaning that the church that I was raised in all we had was acapella music. They sort of take a stance against instruments being used in worship, which is not something I adhere to any longer. Especially doing what I do at Sojourn. That was what I was a part of growing up. They still do that. They sing four part harmony. They feel that instruments aren’t a part of… it’s hard to explain. When I was knee part in it I could rattle off as much proof as I wanted to, now I don’t necessarily agree with their viewpoints, so I’ll just leave it at that.
- That seems like an interesting choice of worship styles for your dad.
Yeah, it was tough for me too. I think that when God give you a gift, especially when you want to be close to Him, you want to draw near to Him, you want to be able to use that gift in service. That was something I was totally discouraged from doing growing up. I became a professional musician at age nineteen or twenty when I was first signed to a label. My music was considered secular. You know I don’t even like to use the term secular, but that was just the way I looked at it then. Most people who were around me at the time I guess were okay with that. They would have rather seen me take another job. As long as it remained secular and no mention of God in my music, which is strange for me to look at now. What aspect of life does God not touch? At the time you know it was very difficult. Now I see differently. I’m very, very blessed to be using what gifts God has given me in service. To lead worship or write songs for the congregation or what have you.
- Can you briefly describe your salvation experience?
Sure. I came to know Christ through the church of Christ. I wasn’t baptized into the specific local church. I very much knew who Jesus was outside of that indoctrination. It wasn’t until years later that I felt like something was missing in my walk and that is when I decided to leave the Church of Christ. I as just recently married at the time. Both me and my brother left at the same time and took our families with us. It wasn’t until later when we found Sojurne where we’re currently members of now. I think I really understood what Grace is. The church that I grew up in is very much…. And I really have no problem saying this because it’s where I come from, its’s very much like a works based sort of church. It wasn’t until later that I really understood exactly how big the gift of Grace is and how dependent I am on God for my salvation and not my own self. That absolutely changes your viewpoint of God and you begin to appreciate your salvation even more, and you’re not weighed down by guilt which I was for years. It’s sort of like two different experiences. I was raised in a house that taught Jesus. I guess I had the basics down. It wasn’t until later that my faith became more concrete and genuine because before I had a huge lack of understanding of what it meant to fully rely on Jesus.
- Before you mentioned you don’t really like the term secular music. On the flip side of that, are you comfortable with the term Christian music?
It’s not something I use to describe my music. My music ends up on the folk rack, or indie rock or something like that. I’m fine with the term when it helps people categorize things. The reason I don’t like secular as I stated earlier, it’s tough for me as a Christian to be able to divorce your faith from anything you do, so why even use the term “secular”?
I guess Christian music, well, any sort of genre helps people sort through, what’s the fell of it and what’s the message behind it. But it’s one of those things where Christian music has developed a stigma amongst unbelievers over the years, just because the majority of the quality is just sort of questionable, in my mind and a lot of people’s minds. I think it’s taking a turn but if you notice, the good quality stuff that’s coming out, it’s not really labeled “Christian music,” it just happens to be Christians making music. They’re just being honest and they’re not divorcing their faith from their art but at the same time it’s not alienating any listeners that are unbelievers. I think that’s just absolutely necessary; not that you’re ashamed of wearing the name “Christian” at all, I don’t think any of these artists are, I’m certainly not. It allows you to circumvent a lot of the issues that come with labeling something “Christian music.” You’re just being in the world but not of the world.
I think it’s been effective. I know of several people that, after watching the Danielson Famile movie, them not being Christians, they were affected by it and it caused them to want to discover more about Jesus, even in just loving these artists. I think they’re definitely not the same people that would listen to Twila Paris or Carmen.
I don’t know, you can probably make an argument for both sides but that’s just how I see it. I think it’s great when Christians are just honest and make music from their hearts and it just so happens to be a light to people. But it’s just being who you are.
- Is this something that you’re conscious about when you write or not necessarily?
I don’t think so. What comes out of me just comes out of me. I don’t’ think it’s a matter of being conscience about it. There is a different approach that I take when I know that I’m writing something for, like the church that I attend, Sojourn Community Church here in Louisville. We put out our own CDs. We have a lot of really great songwriters and musicians. But I take a different approach when writing for the church than I do when writing for a Jamie Barnes album. It’s not that when I write a Jamie Barnes album I turn off all faith or anything like that; that would be a horrible mistake.
It’s harder for me to write worship songs, just because I’ve been doing the other for so long. But that’s just a personal thing. It should be easier for me but that’s just another issue that I’m overcoming.
It doesn’t seem though that when my records come out people miss the spiritual stuff, even in articles and reviews that are not printed in any sort of Christian-oriented magazine or radio station. They get it and make comments to it. But they seem to appreciate that it doesn’t seem to be written specifically for Christians.
- Have you received any negative feedback because of that?
Not that I’m aware of. I’ve never received any sort of difficult e-mail or any bad press because of that that I’m aware of. Whether or not some people choose to come out to shows because of that, I’m totally not sure. Personally I’ve never had any of that. In fact, I’ve had more of a good response from people that are not Christians. They seem to appreciate it. At least that’s what they tell me.
Even if I did, I’d just have to see what the people have to say. I definitely don’t want to beat people over the head with my faith just because I want to beat them over the head with it. But I also don’t want to be shamed out of sharing my faith through my music because it offends people; that’s just what Christ does.
- Earlier, you alluded to the fact that as your faith progressed, so did your understanding of music. Can you elaborate a bit as to how those two have worked together in your life?
I think that music has a deeper meaning now than it used to for me. When I thought was I was doing was “secular” music, it just didn’t have as much weight or meaning behind it. I’ve seen the fruits of sharing spiritual things, or just having my faith on my sleeve on some of the records that has caused me to realize that that’s what the Lord wants me to do. I think, years ago, I was struck by the parable of the talents.
After I read that and had not been using my music to any sort of advancement of the kingdom or trying to preach to people or even just admonish the Body, I felt like the guy who was burying his talent under the sand. Everything was self-motivated. I looked at music as a way of making my living and I was very intent on gaining as many fans and as much attention as I could as an artist. But it wasn’t for the right reasons. It was just because I wanted to live the dream of being a professional musician. The Lord has helped me take a turn with that over the last few years, through what He’s allowed me to do through service at Sojourn, the church where I’m at. I’m heavily involved with the worship team there. Before two years ago, I had never played music in the church. Just seeing what the music inside the church means to the body of believers and experiencing what a difference it is to play a show at a bar or club versus inside the church. It’ definitely changes your perspective. Music is not just entertainment, it’s more than that. It’s communication, it’s a gift. My view has certainly shifted and continues to do so.
- Sojourn is one of a growing number of churches heavily involved in the arts. When you look back on church history, that was the testimony of the church, great art often came from Christians. Yet, as we’ve progressed, this no longer seems to be the case, how did this come about?
That’s a huge question. I don’t know where it can be traced back to or who is to blame. I think it’s just that Christians are to blame due to heart issues. I think it’s a matter of honesty. I have a hard time saying that, obviously you can’t judge people’s hearts when they’re producing stuff. I think that people just picked up on the fact that, for a long time, Christian music just seemed to be like the machine of pop music. It was the same, only we mentioned Jesus. It just wasn’t produced well, it wasn’t written well or performed well.
I guess it comes to personal taste too. I’m sure a lot of people have been blessed through the ages of some art, liturgical art, Christian art or whatever you want to say, but it’s important to always do what we do well and with a lot of thought behind it and make sure we’re not just cranking things out.
It almost seemed like Christian music was cranked out just to combat pop music but that’s not a good reason to do it: “We’ve got to have something for our kids to listen to, so let’s just send this person to a studio and sing this song.” It almost seems to me like that’s what happened.
The Church took such a huge stance, particularly in the middle of the 20th century against pop culture and I think the art that came out of that was just a response to stick it to the Beatles or something: “Our kids burned all of those records so we’ve got to have something for them to listen to.” I don’t know if it traces back even further or not.
The one thing I always encourage people to do when they’re just getting involved in the arts at church is to remember that we’re made in the image of a Creator. That means a lot. We do these things to the glorification of God’s name. Look at what He’s created! If we can understand that, that we’re made in His image, then we too have a creative side and can say a lot about the character of God through what we craft. But we’d better make sure that our heart is in it and the reasons behind it are true and just. I think that when we’re honest enough to really put our hearts behind our craft, people will at be less offended by it. They might object to the message just because Jesus came to bring a sword but I don’t think that people will be able to put it down just because it’s cheesy and lite.
- It would seem that Sufjan Stevens is a perfect example of that, wouldn’t you say? Many reviews essentially say that they don’t like what he’s saying but they love the music.
Right, that is great. At least if they’re going to reject it, let it be the message. Get yourselves out of the way and let people look at the message. We’re definitely not going to get anywhere with a world of unbelievers when it’s just sort of half-way lobbed up there or it’s not a well-crafted thing for everyone to look at. Why would anyone want to be a part of anything that just seems like it was put together half-heartedly?
I always stress honesty when I talk to other writers but that’s tough. It’s tough because that requires a level of transparency. Even as Christians, not just as artists but as Christians, we have a hard time doing that. I think Sufjan Stevens has been great at that. I use his song “John Wayne Gacy” in seminars on songwriting. It’s an awesome song and he talks about Gacy and all the horrible things he did as a human being but the last line is something like “look underneath my floorboards and you’ll see that I’m just like him.” Man, what a confession! That’s a true understanding of sin and depravity. People can appreciate that. Instead of Sufjan pointing a judgmental finger, he points it back at himself. He has the wherewithal to be transparent with his listeners and that’s huge.
- You sometimes lead songwriting seminars. Do you have a typical creative process?
I’m pretty atypical on that. I don’t necessarily have a typical process. I teach building around one thought. Sometimes I teach based working around a title. I’ll give you an example: there’s a song on the last record called “Hell’s Adopted Mile.” I totally built that song around that title. I was driving down a road somewhere and you see those signs saying that this stretch of mile was adopted by the Jefferson County Girl Scouts or whoever and it looks nice and taken care of. So I saw one of those signs and then a few miles later it was apparent the Girl Scouts were no longer taking care of the road and I said that it looked like the Devil adopted that part of the road! There were wrecked cars and trash along the road. I thought that was a pretty good line and started working with it. So I built the song around that. You can train yourself to listen to your thoughts and to other people and listen to yourself ramble off stupid things like that, which I’m very accustomed to! You never know when a thought might be worthwhile that you can build all sorts of themes around. I don’t really have a set formula: it’s hard to schedule creativity. For me, it’s hard to come up with a solid process that you can teach people to do so I just teach a lot of things but I’m still learning too. I hit creative walls all the time and I just figure the Lord wants me to be doing something else until the moment strikes.
- Your music has been described as “simple, hooky, lo-fi, bedroom pop gems.” How would you describe your music?
I don’t know that I’d use any of those words. I don’t know, I guess that would be fine. I think the one thing I would agree with is the “simple” part. That’s not self-deprecating. I like the idea of things being simple. I try to be simplistic in my approach to it.
- And yet there’s a lush-ness to your music. How do you balance that?
I don’t know that I have an answer to that. I know that it takes a long time for me to write a song. I wouldn’t call myself prolific. I definitely err on the side that it takes me a very long time to craft a song. There’s a lot of thought and pain that goes into every one of them. Whether or not that’s for the better, I don’t know. So in that way, they’re not simplistic. But I think the musical presentation is simple, maybe that’s what I’m trying to say. If someone down the road publishes a Jamie Barnes fake book of guitar chords, which I doubt that anyone ever will, but anybody can play these songs on guitar. I dress them up simply but the words is what I focus on. I love language and I love words. That’s something that I really try to put a lot of effort into.
- Do you read much literature or poetry?
I don’t read a lot of poetry. I’m a real history buff and I read a lot of things about obscure portions of world history. I really like early American history, Civil War and around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. I’m a big documentary watcher. I love the History Channel. I love being able to look at history and how that applies to present day and learning from history. But also, it’s very easy for me to make poetic allusions from history. That’s a resource that’s always been very precious to me as a writer.
I’m not a big poetry guy. That’s not to say I don’t like poetry I just don’t read it a lot. I love novels. I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy whose been getting a lot of attention lately. Flannery O’Connor. I love writers that seem to have their own jargon. Like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the language is just so rich, it’s just a very violent book. The language that he uses to describe all the depravity and absolute ugliness is truly beautiful and that’s something I’ve always admired.
- Who are some of your musical influences?
Tom Waits is a big one. He’s just been a huge influence on me in the way that he thinks. He’s someone who can make ugly stories into something beautiful. I wish I had a voice like his. A lot of people say not to wish that upon yourself because it probably took years and years of cigarettes and who knows what else. When he sings about hard times or being some sort of rambling guy who sleeps in a graveyard and watches TV through the window of a furniture store, you believe it when it comes out of his mouth.
Another big one over the years is Leonard Cohen. I love the early Leonard Cohen songs; not the greatest musician but a heck of a lyric writer. Jim White is another one. His first record, Wrong Eyed Jesus, I got when I was pretty young, like 16 or 17 and it just blew me away. I still listen to that a lot.
There’s other stuff that might not seem so obvious in listening to my music like, I love ambient music and I love contemporary classical like Steve Reich. Last year there was a whole summer I listened to nothing but old reggae. Sometimes it’s stuff like that that might not be so familiar that’s really fun to listen to.
- Are there any current artists you listen to?
I recently just discovered Neko Case. I know everybody’s been hip on her for years but I totally missed that boat. I bought Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and, man, that’s just a great record! I love it. I’ve been listening to Dawn Landes lately. She’s a Louisville native whose taken up residence in New York. Her latest album is called Fireproof and it’s really good.
- What’s next?
That’s a good question! I’m finishing up producing an album for a guy named Luke Asher. This is his debut album and I’m excited about that. I’ve done production work before but I feel like his record might actually do something. He’s really talented and he’s already got a label behind him. We’re just finishing up the mixing and mastering for that.
- Is producing something you’d like to do more of?
Yes, I think so. It’s just a matter of having the time. It’s time-consuming. I don’t notice how much time goes into my own stuff because I produce myself but when it’s somebody else’s music you’re more aware of time.