The Storyteller: A Q&A With Dave Barnes
Even though he’s known primarily as a contemporary Christian artist and writer to many, Dave Barnes’ greatest commercial success has come from a song that was recorded by an artist he wasn’t even pitching to. His song “God Gave Me You,” a single from his 2010 album What We Want, What We Get, ended up with a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song after it was recorded by country star Blake Shelton, who heard Barnes singing it on Christian radio. Shelton’s version of the song reached number one on the country charts, opening a whole new set of doors for Barnes, who has also had songs recorded by Kelly Clarkson, Billy Currington and Bebo Norman, among others.
Barnes’ influences are many, and various shades of R&B, rock, pop and contemporary Christian are all evident on his new CD, Stories to Tell. Even though he’s had chart success as both an artist and writer, and has toured with the likes of John Mayer, Taylor Swift and Jars of Clay, Barnes’ career has entered a new phase with the success of a number one country cut. American Songwriter was able to get a few minutes of his time before he embarked on tour dates in support of his new CD.
Most writers and artists can be compared to somebody, but it’s kind of hard to tell who influenced you because your music, while easily identifiable as yours, is all over the board. Who did you listen to that made you start playing and writing to begin with?
Ha! I have musical ADD, I really do. I tend to be inspired by such random stuff. And that’s not to say in any way that I pull off that music myself, but I really am inspired by such different stuff. I think that’s one thing about the music I grew up on – if you listen to Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, even James Taylor. Those artists covered so much ground musically, and no one cared (that they recorded whatever they wanted). These days we are living in such a weird time musically; artists and bands are being pushed toward one sound for a record so it’s more easily identifiable. It really bothers me. Imagine if someone had told Paul Simon, “Hey man, what’s up with this African music kick you’re on? Why don’t you just call up Artie and do another acoustic record?” We would never have “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” You know? Billy Joel is the same way. That guy has written a song in just about every kind of genre you can, and did it well. I know, I know, those two guys are freaks, but still. They had space to be inspired. I wish artists these days had that kind of space. I wish more people told us to chase the muse wherever it goes. Who knows what could happen. I’m sure some bad music, but what about the amazing stuff that could come of it? But stepping off my soapbox…
A lot of stuff. Emily Saliers from the Indigo Girls was probably the first person I remember loving and really listening to. I mean really listening to. I got real into Swamp Ophelia and Rites of Passage in high school, right about the time I was starting to really play drums and dive into music. She blew and still blows my mind. She probably started a lot of the interest for me. In college, a guy named Bebo Norman was my first real brush up against a guy in the flesh who played and sang and wrote his own songs. And I loved his music and the honesty of his voice and songs. I spent some time with him at a young life camp for a month one summer and learned a lot from conversations with him and watching him do what he did. I was also listening to a fair share of Nashville country songwriters too – I was amazed you could write songs and have someone else sing them. I loved Skip Ewing and what he was doing then. I was also introduced to Jonatha Brooke, John Gorka, and David Wilcox around that time. Hard not to learn something from that crowd!
Some people have opinions, justified or not, about what market an openly Christian writer or artist should be a part of; that is, they believe that some Christians are “too secular” and should be sticking to praise and worship, or hymns, or whatever, and not playing both sides of the fence. How do you react to that?
Man. Great question. Madeleine L’Engle has a quote that basically says, everything a Christian does is Christian, because they are a Christian, which is affirming that no matter what we do, be it secular or sacred, it’s inherently Christian because you made it, and your view of the world is then woven into that thing. I believe that. And if the church only played and sang and wrote for the church, man, what a terrible chance wasted! We would never have had some of the most amazing love songs, paintings, books, ever written because they weren’t hymns, stained glass windows, or scripture! And I’ll say this about myself, I don’t have the gift/talent/calling of writing hymns and/or worship songs. I’ve tried. And they are terrible. I have friends that write them gorgeously. I don’t. But I do believe I have a gift to write songs about love, life, etc., and I hope and believe that isn’t a mistake.
“God Gave Me You” was nominated for the Grammy for Best Country Song. What do you think of it having been recorded in the country arena when you really aren’t known as a country artist yourself?
It’s a humongous honor. I’m still pinching myself. I got started in songwriting because my hope was that someone else would sing songs I wrote because at the time, as a freshman in college, I didn’t even sing. Not even hum. So Blake recording the song is actually a full circle back to why I got started in the first place! It’s amazing.
You probably had most of your new album in the can before the Grammys, but what kind of impact will having had a song up there with the big dogs like Vince Gill and Matraca Berg have on you? Do you think it will affect the way you write, either consciously or subconsciously, or are you secure enough that life will just continue to be another day at the office?
It already has. Before the Grammys. The minute Blake decided to cut it and especially seeing the success it has had as a single, it set the bar quite a bit higher in some ways, because I honestly didn’t know I could write songs that could be that universal. Songs that could be that successful. I think one of the things about that song, as I have looked back on it and sort of examined under the hood, is that the sentiment is pretty universal, which is a duh comment, but in my 15 years of writing songs, I’ve never thought about that. Not once. Which is pretty funny to think about because I’ve been blessed to have songs that have really become parts of people’s lives. But I never wrote them that way. The beauty of “God Gave Me You” was that I finally saw what I had done and it opened this really cool door to me being more conscious about writing songs that appeal to more people, and this new record Stories to Tell really showcases that. I was much more conscious of that as I wrote, much more conscious of trying to make what I’m feeling broader than just me. That kind of recognition is also a really good challenge. I feel like I can’t really be lazy anymore! Ha!
You’ve also been known to do a little stand-up comedy. How does that compare to performing music, and is there any similarity for you between writing songs and writing comedy?
I don’t really find a similarity to stand up and songwriting, but the performance aspect of stand up is somewhat like playing music live, but just much, much faster. Everything in my brain is happening so quickly on stage at my stand up shows, which is so fun, because once you’ve played a certain show on tour a few times, it can get a little stagnant if you aren’t careful!
You hadn’t necessarily planned to be a recording artist but it sort of went that direction for you. But for people who are just pulling into Nashville for the first time who simply want to write songs, what advice would you have for them?
To be open. I’ve met quite a few people in town that are artists by accident. A lot of those people are so compelling as writers, their voices so unique, that they are pushed into artistry because they are too good not to do it! You never know!
You’ve had some nice cuts by people you may have been hoping for and at least one big one by someone you probably weren’t even thinking about with Blake. But who is still out there that you really would like to get a cut on, collaborate with, or both?
There are so many artists – so many. I’m privileged enough to know Bonnie Raitt, but to have her sing a song of mine would be amazing. I got to write and hang for a day with Emily Saliers a few months ago, and after that day, I could have retired. A dream come true, and maybe one of the most kind and genuine people I’ve met in music. There are a bunch of country artists I would love too, that I really hope to be able to write for or with someday. The list goes on and on.