Hello again! Katie signing on to talk about one of my favorite new artists— and probably one of yours— Seán Barna. He’s been gaining momentum for weeks building up to the release of his new EP, Cissy, probably due in part to friend and Festival Executive Producer Adam Duritz singing backup vocals on “Routines” and talking about his songwriting on the Underwater Sunshine podcast. But a lot of the attention he’s been gathering has been from sources outside of the festival too. Does anyone remember the scene in That Thing You Do! where the singer’s girlfriend hears the single on the radio for the first time and goes running through the streets, collecting band members as she goes, and they all just keep jumping and screaming, “We’re on the radio!”? That’s how I felt when I saw Seán reviewed on BILLBOARD this week. Do I sound too excited? CAN you be too excited if Billboard is taking notice? But I can’t run through this whole country, trying to gather everyone and scream, “Seán Barna is in Billboard, and it’s for a record called Cissy!”
So let’s talk music. In terms of craft, Barna is a working songwriter, and he’s far from new on the scene. He’s put in his time learning how to tell a story with a catchy and clever twist— sometimes his story, sometimes someone else’s. 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. Barna describes his music as “slutty folk music,” and I laugh every time I see that. There are so many moments where you see a glimpse of that humor in the EP— not just in the lyrics, but in the joy and expressive quality of his voice. When he screams, “Come on, children, let us play!” in the middle of “Danger Baby,” there’s an acknowledgement of the innocence the characters in the song had to leave behind a long time ago.
James Campion, half of the Underwater Sunshine podcast and author of Accidentally Like a Martyr, a collection of essays about Warren Zevon, says when talking of Barna that “the best songwriting comes from a place of desperation.” (I’ll add that anyone who has made a career of understanding Zevon probably also understands the way songwriting is affected by desperation in a closer way than the rest of us do.) There absolutely is desperation in Cissy, but it’s 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. So is the record political? Any good art is, inherently, as it speaks against injustices and for the downtrodden. Think of your favorite artist— or perhaps a better exercise, think of the person you consider the most important songwriter of the last hundred years. They almost certainly took on two things: first, empathy and caring for others, especially people whose voices weren’t amplified in other venues; and second, they probably stretched the boundaries of what being human meant. Many of us learned how to love our friends through drug addiction by listening to music like Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done.” More recently, we’ve learned about the contemporary Black man’s struggle for survival through Kendrick Lamar. Now?
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, as he 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. 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
It doesn’t take long for him to begin defining and re-defining what a “modern man” is, and thank God, thank God we don’t all have to look and act the same to be a modern man or woman. As one of our previous acts, Hawks & Doves, says in a song dedicated to Laura Jane Grace (of Against Me!), “There ain’t no such thing as a real American girl.” Damn right. And Seán takes that a step further— saying that there’s no wrong way to be an American boy or an American girl, whether you are gay, straight, bi, trans, or— well— a cissy.
I was going to end this post with a rumination on “Queer Mad Blues,” which is a masterpiece, but I found myself transcribing the whole song. The lyrics are perfect and move in a Dylan-esque pace, keeping a quick time while introducing interesting characters a line at a time. I won’t tell you what to think— just read the lines.
You can’t go to the bar if you’re already drunk
And guilt doesn’t work if they already know
That you did what you did, knowing what you were gonna do…
So scared of madness in the middle of the room
Blame yourself for your problems, blues are blues
Even queer ones, the sad ones, the scared ones, the mad ones
Even the queer ones
Please join me in following Seán on his incredible upward trajectory. This EP is excellent, but beyond that, it’s indicative of the level of songwriting he expects from himself and what we can expect from him in the future. He’s certainly someone I’ll be recommending for years to come. And the voice… I’d describe it, but instead, I’ll say this: I’ve never heard something both wispy and strong, vulnerable and powerful, as I have on songs like “Routines” and “Serious Child.” So follow the link to his website and listen for yourself. And then please contact someone from Underwater Sunshine so we can all talk about how great Seán is together!
Seán's web home
on the FB
and on the 'Gram