Singer-Songwriter Marc Barnhill
by Drew Ellis
When New York’s Marc Barnhill released his CD “Blue Time” in 2004, he hadn’t ever performed publicly. Yet within a few months, he garnered glowing online reviews, developed a reputation for sweet songs with smart lyrics, and scored gigs at CBGB and The Bitter End, among numerous other venues. For a while, it seemed that he was debuting an entirely new setlist of material every week, with the promise of a sophomore CD on the horizon. Then he retreated from performing and recording to focus on fatherhood and married life. Recently though, he’s resurfaced with new songs, a new band and plans for the musical future.
He spoke with me at his home in Astoria, Queens.
Q: Did you come from a musical background?
A: Sort of. My dad had an old guitar, though I don’t recall him ever playing it. But we also had a piano in our apartment, and my dad often played popular tunes on it when I was young. I remember drawing little circles randomly all over a blank sheet of paper and giving it to him to play, which he did. I was delighted, but I have no idea what tune he was actually playing. I would pick out melodies on the keyboard and teach myself to play them, but not properly and never with any degree of skill or understanding of what I was doing. I did work out a halfway decent version of [Paul McCartney’s] “Maybe I’m Amazed,” but the piano just wasn’t my instrument.
Q: But your first songs were written on a keyboard, weren’t they?
A: That’s true. While in high school, I bought an electronic keyboard with the money I earned working at a kids’ clothing store. I wrote a bunch of linked fragments that were intended to be part of an operatic song cycle with mythological pretensions, as well as some simpler songs that were more like the material I would write later. My brother Scott meanwhile, got a lefthanded Stratocaster and we started writing some things together – goofy stuff initially. He got very good on both electric and acoustic guitar, and eventually mastered synthesizers and drum machines and wrote and recorded all sorts of interesting and catchy stuff under various names. He later played everything that I didn’t on “Blue Time.”
Q: You were in a band together?
A: No, not exactly. He enlisted the help of a couple of friends on one of our goofy projects that didn’t end up happening, but out of that grew the rock band Fall Out, which released a few albums on audio tapes. I wrote a couple of their songs and sang on one track, but I wasn’t technically in the band. Meanwhile, I’d switched to acoustic guitar, which was a much better fit for me musically.
Q: Easier to play?
A: Actually no, not at first; I had a bike accident when I was a teenager that left me with minor nerve damage in my wrists, which somewhat hampered my early attempts to play the guitar. At the same time, I just didn’t get music theory, scales or any of that. I realized before too long that I simply couldn’t play the way the illustrated how-to books instructed. But I discovered singer-songwriters James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, and heard Jules Shear play “The Sad Sound of the Wind” live on an acoustic guitar on an indie radio program, and there was no going back.
Q: Plus the Indigo Girls?
A: Indigo Girls for sure, and Paul Simon and Tracy Chapman and David Wilcox. I knew that I wanted to write intelligent, carefully put-together guitar songs that captured a fragile moment. So I started using capos, and taught myself basic chords and strummed them in a way that felt comfortable, and used a simplified two-finger picking style for most of the ballads.
Q: You never use a pic?
Q: What was Ontology?
A: [laughs] Ontology was a poststructuralist rock band that my friend Charlie and I started in college. Some of the songs were about literary theory; one was about a particular “Doctor Who” book that Charlie couldn’t find in his collection. The only track we actually ended up committing to tape was, “Watch the Tram Car,” which we recorded unrehearsed, while I was sick. Maybe I’ll release it for the 20th anniversary.
Q: There are some very formally poetic elements to your songs, in that they’re tightly constructed and full of metaphor and wordplay. Was that a carryover of your poetry-writing days?
A: I’m sure it was. I definitely think the experience of writing formal poetry was good preparation for songwriting, at least in terms of expressing thoughts in various rhythms with natural cadences. I’ve also been an English teacher since the early ’90s, so I tend to look at songwriting from a slightly literary perspective.
Q: Do you have a favorite song?
A: I do, but it changes periodically. Right now it’s probably “Winter Hearts” though for a long time it was “Already On My Way” or “Brother of Mine.” I’m also very fond of “Lullaby Liana,” which I wrote for my daughter when she was a baby.
Q: That’s a very sweet one. Any plans to record it?
A: I did start some preliminary sessions on it a couple of years back. A children’s hospital was planning to put out a charity album of kids’ songs, and they contacted me to ask if I’d contribute something. The project fell through, but I’ve thought about putting out my own children’s album at some point.
Q: Do you have other kids’ songs?
A: Oh, a bunch. “Up Up Up,” “Don’t Step on Your Stepmom,” “You’re Not a Baby Any More.” My personal favorite is “Baby Butterflies (Only Want to Eat French Fries),” which sprang from Liana literally telling me to “write a song called that.” Which I did.
Q: Will “River Rocks” [a song written for wife Emily the day before their wedding] ever see the light of day?
A: Maybe. It’s very personal and specific to the two of us, but if I can find a logical place for it to live, then sure.
Q: Are there any songs that you’ve abandoned over the years?
A: Oh, tons. I’ve probably written and trashed three songs for every one I’ve kept. Many of the songs I write turn out to be exercises or experiments, and often I end up using pieces of lyric or melody from an abandoned song much later in a completely different one, so there tend to be these recurring images and themes that run through a group of songs. Often, I realize that what I’ve written was useful or valuable in a very personal, therapeutic way, but that it lacks the artistic qualities that would lead me to play it live or record it.
Q: So there are songs that have only you as their audience?
A: I suppose so. But I tip well, so I don’t mind.
Q: Others have pointed to the serious subject matter and touching emotional content of your songs: Relationships, regret, redemption, loss, hope, risk-taking — big, meaningful stuff. Do your newer songs continue in that vein?
A: Well, I feel like first you have to have something to say or else there’s no point in opening your mouth. And sometimes that something can simply be a question, or a cry, or a snapshot of a feeling or situation. If it’s described well then someone will connect with it, and if they like the tune then it might stay with them. I’m a humanist, and ultimately I hope I’m speaking to our shared experience of being human. But I hope there’s enough humor and creative imagery in there to strike a balance.
Q: How is your return to performing going?
A: Oh, it’s great. Once upon a time I thought of performing as merely a way to advertise the recording, but now I love the conversation that happens between me and an audience. And playing live is just lots of fun.
Q: Do you experience any difficulties when performing?
A: Well, the spelling of my first name can be a problem [laughs], especially since there are a couple of actively performing Mark Barnhills out there. When I used to announce my website, I’d tell the audience, “Be sure to go to Marc-with-a-C Barnhill dot com. Mark-with-a-K Barnhill runs the unofficial ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ home page, and if you ask about his CD, he’ll reply with ‘What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?'” Or something like that. I’d make up a different thing each week that this other website was supposed to be. Which was funny for the first couple of weeks.
Q: Have you found a way around that difficulty?
A: I tell folks to go to marcbarnhillmusic.com, which is the same with a C or a K. Alternately, thatsingerguy.com will also get you there.
Q: Your second CD, “Circles of Surprise,” has been a long time in coming. Will we be seeing it soon?
A: I’m working on it. I already had the songs for that CD in mind back when I was finishing “Blue Time,” and they’ve been piling up ever since. I can’t help but be thinking three or four albums ahead, which isn’t necessarily the most helpful mindset to be in. In a way it doesn’t much matter, because there all just songs, and they’ll all be available online individually for folks who don’t think in terms of complete albums, and I love playing them all live. And now that I have some other musicians around, the projects may fall together more quickly.
Q: So your band will be on the CD projects?
A: I hope so, at least where their schedules permit. Rorie Kelly and Andrew Jimenez have their own projects and busy musical lives, and will be touring this summer, so we’ll see how much we can get done. It’ll happen.
Q: You’re enjoying playing with other musicians?
A: Tremendously. I find it’s kind of thrilling to play with different people and see what happens to the songs in their hands. It’s like watching them grow and develop in unexpected ways.
Q: Kind of like watching your children grow?
A: Something like that, yes.
Q: Do you still enjoy performing solo?
A: Oh absolutely, I do, but it’s a very different experience. I’m entirely focused on the words and melody when I write, but once a song is done I inevitably start hearing specific arrangements, instrument solos, and harmony vocals that I come to think of as being in the song. Then I perform it bare, just me and my acoustic guitar, and I know it’s not coming out the way I hear it in my head. Still, something seems to get across.