theartyshow-online.com has an exclusive interview with the one and only Mr Ted Barnes
TED BARNES wants to know how I came to hear of him. It’s a legitimate question. This musician who hails from Kent, in the south-east of England, is so prolific that there is something about him of the proverbial Rome: many are the roads that can lead to him. The one I took started from Beth Orton, the iconic figure of the British folk(-tronic) scene, whom he worked with throughout the release, to both critical and public acclaim, of three breathtaking albums… and then Ted Barnes went off to make his (atmospheric, subtle, haunting ) music by himself, and I followed him. Well, that’s not quite accurate.
Ted Barnes counts among those few geniuses who seem to be able to conjure up the muses whenever they please so that, at some point in time, his various projects didn’t so much line up as overlap and he had to divide or multiply himself to be both making music with Beth Orton – in the studio, on stage – and by himself. Thus, his first solo record was made as he was still working with the British singer. Released in 2002, Short Scenes is an acrobatic stunt of an album: a walk on a fine line between melancoly and (dark) humor, inspired loneliness and great collaborations, the sounds of the past and of today – a “tour de force” also accomplished by its follow-ups Underbelly and Portal Neu, respectively out in 2005 and 2008.
But Ted Barnes does not easily comply to the tidy exercise of chronology, he is too inclined to be doing a hundred things at the same time. For proof, before, after or even during work on his solo discography, he helter-skelter: formed with Ali Friend and Gavin Clark the now defunct band Clayhill, whose posterity is assured by four beautiful records; contributed original soundtracks to the movie Somers House, by British director Shane Meadows and to the performance piece Until Now, by the living-arts collective Mimbre; co-directed a short movie called Seaside Dunce that adds images to the sound landscapes of some of his best tracks; recorded library music for tv, film and other such commercial purposes; played kids’ music… – a mere glimpse at Ted Barnes’ resume is enough to make you dizzy. How can this “craftsman”, to quote Beth Orton’s assessment of him, be so industrious? TheArtyShow put this and many other questions to him during an interview he was kind enough to grant us:
The most striking thing when looking at your “resumé” is how prolific you’ve been which begs the question: how do you manage? Does inspiration just come to you very easily?
It does, actually. I feel very lucky This is my strong point: I do manage to keep writing. And I’m really happy with the quality of it as well. It’s not writing for writing’s sake. I struggle with other aspects – I don’t necessarily rate myself as a great musician – but the writing side of things is not a problem. I guess I came to music quite late from a professional point of view and I don’t know if I’ve got a slightly longer resource because of that… I keep expecting it to dry up but it doesn’t. Every record that I’ve gone to the end of I think “Oh God, that’s it now” and then somebody says “Do you want to do this?” and I find inspiration straight away, really. Another possibility why I don’t find it a problem could be that I’ve never been able to emulate other people. Even to this day I can’t copy other people. Even when I was a child growing up I used to write my own things. Most people learn to play other people’s songs when they learn to play the guitar but I just couldn’t do that. I never had the ear for it. So, there’s obviously something in my brain that’s sort of hotwired to go straight to writing…
You’ve been involved in a lot of artistic collaborations. What motivates you to choose to work with one person rather than another?
I used to do graphic design and if you do a sketch and then you give it to somebody else, that person will take it to another place that you could never reach by yourself if you see what I mean and that’s how you sort of choose who you work with. I find that’s the same with music. The guy that I work a lot with is Ali Friend and he was a really big learning curve for me when I first started work with him. Everything I brought to the table, he would take it to a place that I was very happy with. There’s that trust thing. I have that with musiciens and with some songwriters. I’m not frustrated – I’m happy with how I write lyrics but I would probably love to do it more than I do. For me, songwriters are people that are able to finish off the ideas. I can go to [a songwriter] with a series of chords and an idea of melody that I would keep on the shelves for ages because I’m unable to finish it whereas I give it to them and they will take it to the next level of being a finished song.
You’re obviously still working with other people but you’re no longer a set member of a band. Did you feel the need at some point to go solo?
No, not at all. It was quite by accident, really. I sort of parted ways with Beth [Orton] and I formed Clayhill. It would have kept going really if it wasn’t for the fact that we got dropped by the label and we found it very hard to financially survive, but I do love being in bands. I probably would do it again if the opportunity came. But having said that, I don’t necessarily see my solo stuff as such because I always work very closely with people on it. I find myself in a really nice position at the moment. Probably the happiest I’ve been, ironically. I’ve toured the world and I’ve done all these things but I actually find myself in a position that I feel a lot happier with. I do a lot of library music [for television, commercials…] with Ali so I’m able to survive financially. And I’m working with a lot more people than I ever have done because of that. I’ve worked with Emily Barker – I don’t know if you know her, she’s a great Australian singer – ; I do a lot of kids’ music now and stuff for the theatre… I’m able to do all these things because I’m not in a band anymore.
You’ve made the soundtrack for a film called Somers House which seems almost logical considering that your music is cinematic – it conjures up images. Do you have any images in mind when you are creating it?
I do have images in my head. Of things I’ve seen already, maybe in movies or in the life that I’ve had. There’s a couple tracks on Undebelly for which, for some reason, the reference point was Oliver, the musical. As a kid I loved that musical and I loved a lot of the imagery: of London and of Kent. It can be as tenuous as that, image wise. But a lot of them I don’t necessarily have images for. It’s about 50/5O. I always think it’s quite a compliment if people run with [my music] and choose to put on it whatever they put on it. I’ve had people in the past years say “Oh, I get this feeling”… I’ve got a couple friends who are screenwriters and they always say they put the music on just to write to it. It always seems like quite a compliment.
Actually, you’ve co-directed a short movie callled Seaside Dunce. How did that come about?
I released Undebelly and I was aware that I just couldn’t gig it because it was a very large band – it’s like a seven or eight-piece band – and I was with a very small label. There was no finance to be able to tour it so I just did a few gigs in London and I really enjoyed it. I loved working with the people that I worked with. I wasn’t sure after the third album whether I would actually work with all of them again and so I just had a notion of doing it. It felt like a landmark: recording them and the songs through a visual way which hadn’t been done yet. People have often said to me that my music is very cinematic and I’d love to be able to get more involved in film but it’s a very hard world to get into. You have to meet a director who really loves what you do. I mean that’s sort of what happened with Shane Meadows. I mean him through Gavin [Clark] but that doesn’t happen everyday. I’m not like an LA screenwriter who twists and turns what he does, I have an old fashioned way of working. It’s like, “Well if you like what I do we can be involved, but if you want a disco soundtrack I’m not the man for you.”
Your music is a mix of many different things – different moods, different genres,
different eras, even . What feeds your creativity?
I guess what I’m listening to probably has an influence. But your whole life, really, comes sort of pouring out [in your music]. My dad was a toy maker and I think that has some sort of resonance throughout the whole thing. I obviously have some obsession with toys. Likewise,-Pascal Comelade was quite an influence on me and he plays a lot of kids’ toys. And then it’s the people I work with. Ali has alwas brought to my music the whole sort of dance genre and what have you. You soak up everything and then it’s all about finding a way to include those [indluences in your music] but tastefully, not just “Oh, let’s do a fusion song here and add that influence and that influence”. It’s very much about making it your own, and just having a flavor of it rather than a huge stamp.
Would you say that your music resembles you?
I don’t know if you’ve ever read that quote that Gavin wrote me – it’s on my website. He basically says how he doesn’t understand how an instrumental album can be so communicative of a person’s caracter or mood without any lyrical content and that always seemed like really lovely praise because that is sort of how I wanted it to be. Well, not wanted it because that’s not something that you’re conscious of but I’m glad that it’s communicated. And yeah I think it is very much like me. I am melancholic, I convey towards the sadnesses. But in the same way as that there’s always a bit of a dark playfulness to it. Somebody once said that they wanted Little Blue Fish [off my first album] played at their funeral and that seems quite appropriate because it’s a very sad occasion but in the same way it’s not completely dark. It’s reflective of who I am.
What are you doing at the moment?
I’ve just released a kids’ album with a woman I work with. I do a little drop-in with her where under 5 year-olds come and join in musically. That’s been great. I’ve been doing that for the last couple years. That’s very silly music, there’s no depressing bit in that. I’m also doing a new library album [for tv and commercials] with Ali that will be finished in June. I lived on a boat for four years and then a year ago we moved into a house a year ago but it was falling apart, so I’ve been unable to do my own stuff for about a year. I’m very close to getting my own studio working again and as soon as that’s done, in about a months’time, I’m gonna dive into doing my new record. I’m not quite sure which shape or form it’s gonna be taking. I toy with the idea of it being a quartet – an unusual quartet of instruments just so that it’s easier for me to be able to tour it. Moreover I think it’s what I want to hear now. I’m quite into the idea of writing a slightly simpler record that’s not quite as elaborate or has as many members because it’s impossible to gig. But the other part of me is thinking about doing an album with four different songwriters, each of them having four songs. I’ve started working with some people and we’ve written some really lovely songs but I’m not sure if they will make it to their album or anything like that and I think that they’re worth hearing so I’m gonna hopefully record versions. And I’m still working with Emily Barker, we’re about to do her third album.
To find out more: www.tedbarnes.info/