Scranton indie/alt rocker James Barrett comes out of 2020 stronger with new music and fall concert
When your dream is to become a full-time musician, a global pandemic is a nightmare scenario.
Over the last year, though, James Barrett took his already emotional and introspective approach to songwriting and used the anxiety and loneliness of the quarantine to dig deeper into what he started with his debut full band album, “The Price of Comfort,” the year before and develop something even more personal while isolated from the group he had only recently built.
“A lot of the ideas for these songs began in early 2020 and, as the year went on, I was able to really expand on them. Before 2020 started, I fell into the worst mindset I had ever experienced in my life. A lot of my worst days truly came before the pandemic started. A lot of these songs were completed in the early stages of the shutdown when we all truly had no clue whether or not we would make it to 2021. A lot of these songs deal with the idea of love and wondering whether or not I’d be able to experience it again before the world ends. At the time, it truly felt like all I would ever know was what I was mourning then,” the young singer, songwriter, and guitarist told NEPA Scene.
“Like everyone else, the last year and a half was definitely life-changing for many reasons. I lost my job last June, which was pretty terrifying at the time, but I decided to fully devote the remainder of the pandemic to try and further my music career as much as I could through Internet networking and recording my next album. It’s weird. It was easily the worst time of my life but also became the most important year for my career ever. I definitely feel grateful to have been able to make progress without shows for a year. I feel as though I am a better person now than I was before the pandemic, so there is always some silver lining to be found.”
As he prepares to release his next full-length indie/alternative rock album this fall, Barrett announced his first in-person show in over a year today – a special concert at the Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple on Friday, Sept. 24 with Harmony Woods and A Fire With Friends. The last time the Clarks Summit native was able to get on stage was for “Come Together,” a massive drive-in benefit concert held in the parking lot of Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre that he described as “definitely interesting,” and a set live streamed from an empty venue, The V-Spot in Scranton, as part of the Juicebox Sessions series by Ionic Development.
“I am just excited to be back to playing in front of people outside of cars this time,” he admitted.
“I personally don’t mind doing live streams, but it still doesn’t compare to a real show. In the world before the pandemic, I would have always loved to do live streams, but all last year, since it was all we could do, I began to feel indifferent towards them. Once again, I am happy to get back to playing real shows.”
“‘Oh My God’ was the first song I wrote for the album all the way back in October 2019. It was one of those songs that I felt like it was all already there and it just came so naturally. It was the first time I had written anything in about a year at the time because I was busy planning the release for my last LP. I quickly realized I had something special with it and it started the next chapter of my life, which was creating this album. I wrote this after coming home from a bizarre trip that coincided with the demise of a relationship. This song was mainly about coming to terms with where I was in life at the time,” he shared.
Barrett has been playing music since he was 10 years old and started writing his own songs when he was 12, so at 22, with several EPs and now an album under his belt, he was more than ready to take that next step.
“Right before the pandemic started, I kind of started freaking out about my life. I felt as though I didn’t push my last record as much as I should have and I felt like I was running out of time to make this dream of playing music for a career actually come to fruition. All I had was hope that I would release ‘Oh My God’ in March 2020 and start trying to play as many shows as I could. I installed a hitch on my car to tow a trailer full of gear and we got to use it one time before the world shut down. Once the pandemic started, I felt like all my hopes of making this work had been demolished. ‘OMG’ was received very well, but a week later, we entered lockdown and I felt totally lost. I realized all I could truly do is stay home and keep writing,” he recalled.
“My original plans were to continue recording in Massachusetts where my engineer Jake Checkoway was living at the time. Once the pandemic started, the studio closed and that idea was dead. It wasn’t until June when my sister moved in with her boyfriend in Old Forge that I had any idea on how to record the rest of the album. Her boyfriend’s family owned the property they were living on and behind their house was a tiny home with one room, a bathroom, and a little fridge. I immediately realized this would work and I began trying to figure out how to make it work. Jake ended up moving into the house and we tracked the album together while the drums were being recorded in Los Angeles by my friend Billy Gerrity at his home studio.”
The rest of the band, however, couldn’t get together during the quarantine.
“It was honestly very difficult because I couldn’t work with a band at all. I essentially wrote the album and all the parts on my own and then would demo the songs out and send those demos to Billy in LA. He would then track his drums and send it back to me and I would finish the rest in the mini house. It was really difficult and took so long because writing the songs without having a band around me to practice with made me really have to trust my gut feelings on how each song should be structured – issue is I tend to second guess myself often.”
The other thing weighing on his mind was following up “The Price of Comfort” (released on Oct. 11, 2019 via Honest Face Records) and building on that experience.
“I think overall the songs were received pretty well for really not having a team behind me. I definitely had higher expectations, but I learned a lot from my last record and I hope to do things better this time. My goal is to have that record grow more in time as I release more music and hopefully then I’ll truly be satisfied with how it was received,” he noted.
“I think this new album takes what my last album started and truly uplifts it to the next level. I wanted to expand on the sound I gravitated towards for ‘The Price of Comfort’ without feeling like I was repeating what I did in 2019. I wanted to incorporate different instruments this time around, so I spent a lot of time on string and horn arrangements for the tracks. I also decided to fully embrace the synthesizer this time around.”
That growth and expansion of his sound can already be heard on “Love Song in 2020,” the second single that premiered in October and reflected the fears and despair of the year from hell.
“‘Love Song’ came to me in March or April of 2020. I wrote this song mainly as the pandemic was just starting and the uncertainty was palpable. It kinda felt like the end of the world and the worst time to be dealing with a really difficult breakup. To me, this song is about trying to find forgiveness at the end of the world.”
Now, coming out of this thing at 24, he has renewed confidence in his work and an extended lineup for his band.
“I have never been more proud of anything in my life. This record feels like it is my life’s work. The amount of time and energy I devoted to it surpasses anything else I have ever done before. I would like to believe this is the one,” he emphasized.
“I am so unbelievably excited about my band. Tyler Barrett (drums), Chris Kirby (bass), and Vinny Amarando (guitar) have been in my lineup for a few years now. Adding Jesse Morvan (lead guitar) and Chelsea Collins (synth/piano) to the band has been a game changer for sure. Before, we were operating as a five-piece band, but I felt like I needed someone on synth full time. Chelsea has filled that role beautifully, and I am so excited to have her. Jesse and I became friends over the last few years and, during the pandemic, he helped me demo the songs for the album. After working together all last year, I realized we had fantastic chemistry and I wanted him to be a part of the band. I feel great about the people involved.”
Going from small acoustic singer/songwriter shows to what he calls his “stadium rock” band has been a transition all its own.
“The stadium rock genre started as a joke by a lot of my friends and then I decided to fully embrace it because it is the truth. My goal is to make my band sound like we belong in an arena until we find ourselves playing in one [laughs]. I think the super loud rock guitars and heavy synths give it this wild alternative rock feel with a hint of the ’80s,” he described.
“I am still adjusting after all this time. I find it way harder singing with a band than by myself, and overcoming that hurdle has been challenging. I definitely have a lot more anxiety playing shows now with a band, but I know that’ll disappear in time.”
Shopland Hall, located on the fourth floor of the Scranton Cultural Center (420 N. Washington Ave., Scranton), will serve as the perfect venue for their live debut with their longtime friends.
“The Cultural Center is such a beautiful spot, and it truly is an honor to be hosting my own show there after so many years of attending shows there or opening them. I hope this can be the start of more shows happening there,” he said.
“Both bands have been my friends for quite some time. I met Sofia [Verbilla] back in 2016 at her first show played as Harmony Woods. We became friends ever since, and we’ve supported each other through it all. As for A Fire With Friends, I grew up always hearing so much about them, especially when I started playing out. They are one of the best local bands around, and I am so excited to have them on the bill. ‘White Owl’ was my third most-played song last year on Spotify, so I told Dan [Rosler] and Chelsea [Collins] they need to play it.”
Tickets, which are $15 in advance or $20 at the door, are on sale now at ticketmaster.com. Following the fall release of his as-yet-unnamed LP, Barrett is planning to tour through the winter, including a two-week run in January, now that he can actually make plans again.
“It feels incredible. It feels great to see all your hard work pay off, especially after such a bummer of a year. I am so excited – and nervous – to get back to reality again.”
Lead photo by Rich Howells/NEPA Scene