Bekah Barnett is a singer/songwriter and pianist from the Bay Area in California. As a young girl, she would always sing around the house and write poetry whenever she could. Bekah also took formal piano lessons. In her school years, she loved to participate in theatrical stage productions as well as the sing with the choir. She later on studied music theory. With all of this creative activity early in her life, we now have a very fine singer/songwriter in Bekah. She has just released a new album titled "Rise" and it's a wonderful collection of songs. I recently corresponded with Bekah.
R.V.B. - What kind of music were you exposed to around the house as a young girl?
B.B. - We listened to a lot of classic singer-songwriter artists like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Billy Joel, and Carole King. But there was also a healthy dose of the Beatles and some selected musicals that made it into the mix as well. I used to love singing the Maybe song from Annie and my favorite musical of all time is Into The Woods.
R.V.B. - Did you take piano lessons and then start singing? Which came first?
B.B. - I started singing and making up songs at a very young age. But I would just sing to myself-or my dog-when I thought that no one could hear me. My mom likes to tell this story about when I was 3 and I spent like 10 minutes singing in the bathroom at the restaurant, and the waitress came and got her because she thought it was so cute. Kinda embarrassing… I remember those songs being about fantasy worlds with a lot of unicorns and pegasusus and forest creatures. I was very into animals…
I started taking piano lessons when I was 4 years old, I don’t remember being very motivated though. It was a struggle to practice because I wasn’t given anything that I was motivated to learn-just these boring songs from the lesson books. I quit when I was 12. I would still mess around sometimes and my mom taught me a little guitar, but I didn’t take it up again until my senior year of high school when I decided I really wanted to learn so that I could accompany myself singing. So I studied really intensely for a year and learned a lot of basic theory, jazz standards, a few classical pieces, and a few songs that I wanted to sing. I’m glad that I had that foundational work when I was young though. I think it really helped me grasp the concepts when I came back to it.
R.V.B. - Throughout your school years did you any choral work or recitals?
B.B. - I grew up doing musical theater. I was in Oliver, Bye Bye Birdie, The Pajama Game, 42nd Street, 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, and I learned a bunch of choral Christmas carols for Miracle on 34th Street. But I always sang in groups as part of an ensemble. My senior year of high school I also joined the school choir and was selected to be part of a smaller jazz ensemble where we got to sing some really cool stuff and I was introduced to scatting-which I adored. I was a natural improviser and I got an honorable mention at a jazz competition at UCSC for my scat solo. Of course, once I decided to study music at Mills I was in a variety of small choral groups they had an Early Music Ensemble, an Opera Ensemble, and an Improv Ensemble, and I learned a ton from all of them.
R.V.B. - Name some cover songs that you played early on.
B.B. - Rainy Night House by Joni Mitchell, Foolish Games by Jewel, Angel by Sarah McLachlan, Colorblind by Counting Crows, Heart of Gold by Neil Young, And So It Goes by Billy Joel, Breath of Heaven by Amy Grant
R.V.B. - What was your first song you wrote?
B.B. - I barely remember it. I don’t remember the harmony or the lyrics much at all, but I know that it was for my best friend who was a chain smoker at the time. In a very veiled and poetic way it attempted to illustrate that the smoking was a symptom of deep pain that needed to be addressed and how I wanted to be there for her. I was so nervous when I played it for her, but I don’t think she even got it. She was kind of baffled that I wrote a song for her.
R.V.B. - How much do you like and visit the ocean and how does it inspire you to write?
B.B. - The ocean has always been a huge source of inspiration for me. When I was growing up in Santa Cruz I would go almost on a daily basis. There is something about being close to the ocean that puts everything in perspective. You just walk along the beach and whatever troubles or worries you’ve got on your mind slowly become smaller and smaller until they are so tiny and insignificant. For some reason that is really comforting to me. When I was really young I asked my mom what infinite meant-we were raised Christian and I had heard that God was infinite but I didn’t know what it meant. She told me that it was like the ocean and how you can’t see the end of it, it just goes on forever off into the distance. So I associated the ocean with God and I think that contributed to it becoming like a holy place for me. If I am feeling off or stressed I know if I can make it to the ocean soon enough everything will be right again. It just keeps things in perspective for me, balances me, changes my brain chemistry. It’s better than any man made drug.
R.V.B. - What are some of your favorite performances to date?
B.B. - I had the best time at my most recent show at Avonova in June. It was to celebrate the completion of the album, and also my birthday, which was the day after the show. It was my first time playing live with a full band and it was SO MUCH FUN!!! I had drums, upright bass, violin, and vocal harmonies and being able to share my music live, all fleshed out like that, was absolutely incredible. I already loved performing when it was just me, but adding all these other elements takes it to a whole new level. Other favorite performances have been at The Lost Church, Viracocha, and the Holy Folk event at St. Luke’s Cathedral in San Francisco.
R.V.B. - Your new album "Rise" seems to have a variety on genres on it. When you created the music for it did you have a general theme and work the music into it or come up with the title later after the songs were completed?
B.B. - The title definitely came after the songs. I had a lot of different ideas for titles. RISE came pretty late in the game, but it just felt right. I feel like that’s what’s been happening in my life. I’ve been moving from this place of darkness into a place that holds more light. I think It’s reflected in the songs as well. Many of them begin in a space of sadness or disappointment, but they lift out of that into a space that is triumphant and weightless.
R.V.B. - Can you describe how it was working with Julie Wolf? Any interesting studio stories?
B.B. - I can’t say enough good things about Julie Wolf. She was an incredible partner to make this record with and it would be nowhere near as good as it is without her capable hands on the project. She is a listener, and she has such a strong heart. She listened these songs into the best versions of themselves. She was really invested in this project from the very start. She was so enthusiastic about my music from day one.
At first I wasn’t considering putting Jesus & Judas on this album. After some encouragement from my mom, I played it for Julie in her office to see what she thought. The song brought her to tears and she told me we absolutely had to include it. So we did.
Of course, she’s a master pianist, she plays anything that has keys, so she is on the record playing everything from Organ to Accordion. Harmonium, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Glockenspiel, probably some other things I’m forgetting about. And she is just magic on all of them. That’s one of the last things we did in the studio, was adding all of her overdubs, one after another. I couldn’t believe how, no matter how good I thought the song already sounded, she would always add something that made it sound even better. We were kind of racing against the clock, and she would be recording parts on multiple instruments on multiple tracks during the course of a day as we worked our way through the album getting it ready to be mixed.
R.V.B. - Are you proud of any particular poem's that you created that haven't been put to music?
B.B.- That’s a really good question. Since I started writing songs, most of my good poetry is seduced into being set to music. But over the years I have definitely written things that I am proud of that didn’t make it into a song. I started writing poetry when I was in 8th grade. I do remember one poem I wrote very early on that was called Masks. And it was all about the masks we all wear in life and why do we have to wear them and everything. It would probably be very obvious and cheesy to me now, but at the time I felt it was epic and downright revolutionary. I have been an avid journaller since that period, and I know there are a bunch of poems I’ve written over the years that, if memory serves me, would probably be worth reading. It would be a fun project to read through and collect them, but as of right now, they are scattered throughout the pages of the journals in boxes under my bed. I’ve also started working on a memoir but I digress...
B.B. - Man I hate trying to answer that question. I know it’s an important question to ask, please don’t take it personally, I just have always had trouble projecting into the future like that. I would love to be touring the world, playing music for people. I would like to be making my living doing music. But it feels a little ridiculous to come out and say that. But if I’m honest, that would be the goal, really. I’d love to be able to play in some really nice venues, with good sound, for people who are there to listen to music, and are willing to enter into a moment with me. That’s what I love most in life, so I’d love to be doing that with a lot of my time. But trying to be a successful musician is kind of like trying to win the lottery, so it’s not like I’m holding my breath… but I’m not giving up either.
R.V.B. - What do you like to do when you are not playing music?
B.B. - I like to write, read, watch movies, binge-watch shows on netflix, you know-the usual. I also love to travel. I love road trips and stopping off at beautiful places in nature, or random roadside attractions. I’ve pretty much taken every opportunity to travel that has presented itself. I went to Japan when I was 19 for a month long exchange program through Mills. I spent my Junior year in Florence, Italy and while I was there I tried to get to as many different places as possible-I even made it to Africa. I think leaving the country and visiting other places in the world gives an important perspective and it’s something I hope to do again soon. I’m also a completely fascinated by religion and spirituality-basically the human connection with the divine. I love having late night conversations about the nature of the universe and magic.
R.V.B. - Thank you for considering answering these questions.
B.B. - Thank you for asking. These were really thoughtful interesting questions and it was fun to go through and answer them. J
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Bekah Barnett please visit her website http://www.urbanminstrel.com/
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