Seán Barna

Hello again! Katie signing on to talk about  one of my favorite artists and people, Seán Barna. Last October, I said he would probably be one of your favorite artists too, and after watching him play a set in a jam-packed room at the Bowery Electric, I’m pleased to say I was right. Seán is an expert at leading a crowd: his energy is that of David Bowie and Stevie Nicks’s love child— but beyond that, his music is meticulously, beautifully crafted, which makes perfect sense once you get to know Seán: that radiance, joy, and sense of humor— that’s who he is on and off the stage. I got in the habit last year of looking around every time someone made a joke to see if I could find Seán because I knew he was going to top it. Listening to his music, there’s that same electricity. Once you’ve seen or met Seán, you keep looking around the room— any room— just to see if he’s there. 

Dan Vasta

Dan Vasta

The songs he released on his EP Cissy may be some of the most important songs I know. Seán speaks for and through the marginalized voice, but not with any kind of dread or self-pity: in fact, he speaks with authority and confidence. Even his characters— even the mad, queer ones— they’re all people I want to meet. I’ve heard some of his newer music, which I’m sure you’ll get to hear in November, and those songs are equally moving and musically layered, creating what feels like almost movements instead of three minute singles. Seán is a master of tension and release, which is desperately important in music: he signals when to hold your breath and when to breathe, and it’s all subconscious. His higher vocal register is chilling; his lower register is soothing. Really, I’m not sure there’s anything he can’t do. He even took over our friend and co-star of the Underwater Sunshine podcast James Campion’s column at The Aquarian recently to talk about having to come out to his family— and to say it’s worth a read is an understatement. I’ll include a link at the bottom so you can hear from Seán yourself.

It takes a lot to make me cry— but his article did. He’s a master of not just leading you through a musical set, but telling a story in a way that moves people. I don’t know if he just sees things differently or if he has deliberately set out to isolate and build stories and music the way he does, but there’s something so intuitively clever and brilliant to both his writing and the arrangements. And it’s even better live. Trust me. 

Actually, don’t trust me— check it out. 

“Queer Mad Blues,” Garden Sessions, filmed by Ehud Lazin, October 2018

Last time, I wrote “In a culture where identity can so easily be misappropriated, listening to him sing from the point of view of a drag queen or a woman is refreshing because it feels urgent and real.” Everything about his songs is essential: these songs are lean. The “slutty folk music” as Seán calls it usually has a clever turn of phrase or a moment of humor— which is why when he ramps it up and the tension is overwhelming, you’re still able to breathe.  Part of the appeal is, as I noted last time, “the joy and expressive quality of his voice.” In songs like “Queer Mad Blues,” you see that light and you know the moments where it’s extinguished—but it’s got a driving rhythm section that pushes you forward, following the character wherever they go. Plus, it’s got some of my favorite lyrics in it— and as good as it is on the EP, it’s even better live in the Garden Session.

You can’t go to the bar if you’re already drunk
Guilt doesn’t work if they already know
That you did what you did,
Knowing what you were going to do
You can’t sing all the songs written for your mouth
Why can’t she sing her own goddamn songs?
Lord knows, she’s got the stuff
I took what I wanted, the queens and the jokes
Burned all my belongings except Jessie’s note
So scared of the madness in the middle of the room
Blame yourself for your problems…

Like I said. Exceptional writer. It’s easy to write about Seán because he’s done my work for me— I don’t have to convince you he’s great. You just click “play” and learn about the blues— for the sad ones, the scared ones, the mad ones, and even the queer ones.

Dan Vasta

Dan Vasta

Seán Barna is important right now though. In a time where we’re ruled by fear, anger, and the 24 hour news cycle, Seán greets his audience with compassion— all the characters, even the ones who don’t quite “get” how the world is changing, are treated with respect. Unfortunately, what I said last time is even more true now: Cissy speaks of “the desperation of a nation on the precipice— one that felt like, for a while, things were moving forward, and people could explore and express the edges of who they were. But the characters on Cissy know that times are changing, and that who they are isn’t respected or honored in public anymore.” But even in just a year, I think it’s important to note that his narrators, while they have stayed the same, are in a new political and emotional climate— one in which they’re more important than ever. I talked about Seán amplifying voices of the marginalized members of society and whether or not he’d created a political album. Now? I don’t think that matters.

Is Seán’s music political? Inherently, when you speak against injustice, you are doing the good work of Woody Guthrie and everything that follows. But Seán does something just as important, and maybe at this point, even better: he wrote a human record. This is a guide for how to view everyone as a person, not by what they are, but by who they are. It takes a special man to write these songs. A few things I said last time still stand, but now you can see the songs I was talking about live from the Garden Sessions:

“Routines,” Garden Sessions, Filmed by Ehud Lazin, October 2018

“Seán Barna has written a primer on how to love and understand your friends, no matter where they fall on the spectrum— LBGTQIA+ and otherwise… he even speaks from a woman’s point of view in “Routines” that makes it clear she is probably on the same learning curve as other people who want to be accepting but haven’t really figured out how. And perhaps most impressively, he does all of this while making it feel like a conversation. For example, in “Modern Man,” he starts by addressing the audience and then telling them not a story, which is a brilliant technique, by the way, but by telling them that his friend likes his story and then only tells us there’s a blood-stained street:

In the end, I feel for you
But I’m not sure I need what you do
I’m a modern man, I’m a modern man
Adam said he liked my story
About that street of blood-stained glory
I’m a modern man, I’m a modern man…

…I’ll paint my nails when it suits me
Breathtaking, isn’t it, masculinity?
I’m a modern man, I’m a modern man

This song immediately spoke to me, and I am excited to hear it again— I keep saying he’s doing important work, but if you’ve watched the news in the last year, you know how important it is to hear voices that are unconventional. We are living in a pivotal time, and for love and kindness to prevail, we all have to learn what it means to actually love our neighbors— and Seán does that with ease, slipping into personas that we need to hear from. Like I said last time: “thank God, thank God we don’t all have to look and act the same to be a modern man or woman. And Seán takes that a step further— saying that there’s no wrong way to be a personl, whether you are gay, straight, bi, trans, or— well— a cissy.”

Dan Vasta

Dan Vasta

I’m beyond excited to say that we get to see Seán Barna play the Underwater Sunshine Festival in November— I want to see him play again desperately. He’s an excellent performer. But as much as that? I can’t wait to be around him, because his positivity and intelligence is both refreshing and challenging. You have to be quick on your feet around Seán and I love that. Cissy is an amazing EP, and I don’t think there’s any question of that. But wait until you hear some of these new songs. You have to come share the magic with us: Seán Barna, welcome back, and God, I’m so glad for your music to be in the world.

Sean’s article for The Aquarian:

Lindsay Nie