It’s become redundant — and probably a sign of downright journalistic laziness — to refer to singer-songwriters like Tim Barry as being of the “heart on their sleeve” variety; the scene is not just full of them bit is outright defined by their presence. With the release of High On 95 last month, Barry has now amassed six studio full length albums (seven, if we’re including the Laurel Street Demos, which coincidentally now means that the Richmond, Virginia native has released more studio albums as a solo artist than he did in his past life as one of the scene’s most posthumously beloved bands) that truthfully don’t find him wearing his heart on his sleeve. Hell, just the idea of Tim Barry even sporting sleeves on his trademark, road-battered Conrail Twitty t-shirt in general seems almost laughable. Sure, as with his other albums, High on 95 contains it’s share of up-tempo, foot-stomping, front porch rockers, a few that take the piss out of himself and his surroundings, and of course a few introspective tales of frustration and catharsis. But if you’ve truly immersed yourself in Barry’s solo catalog, you’re no doubt aware that each album contains at least one track that your heart out of your chest and uses it to punch you directly in the midsection. As Rivanna Junction had “Exit Wounds,” Manchester had “South Hill”, 28th & Stonewall had “Walk 500 Miles,” 40 Miler had “Driver Pull,” and Lost & Rootless had “Solid Gone.”
Continuing on in that theme, High on 95 has it’s own such moment 9/10ths of the way in, on a track called “Running Never Tamed Me.” The weight of the song can perhaps best be told in an anecdote from Barry himself. Not one to normally listen to his own music, Barry was minivan-bound, sorting through mixes in the High On 95 recording process while taking his girls — Lela Jane, now 5, and Coralee, who’s soon-to-be three — to school. Generally a time reserved for singing children’s songs or fighting in the way only siblings can, one day in particular found the van eerily silent. “I realized,” says Barry, “that both of my kids were peering out their respective windows just fucking bawling while the song “Running Never Tamed Me” was on, and I just thought “What have I done?!” Now, if you’ve not availed yourself of the album, and the song, yet, you should know in advance that it finds Barry channeling some of the most genuine and heart-wrenching feelings of regret and desperation he’s put on record to date. His daughters, it seemed, had noticed. “I had to pull over and hug them both and ask them what it was about this that made them feel this way. And we had to talk about it, and Lela, my oldest daughter, was hysterical about it. Coralee started loudly crying too. So we just sat on the grass for a second, and they just said that I sounded sad, and they don’t like hearing me sound sad.”
While “Running Never Tamed Me” is not necessarily written with present-day Barry as the narrator and central character, the parallels are obvious. Pour through Barry’s catalog and you lose count of the times that a sort of directionless running and wanderlust factor highly among the recurring themes, no matter the album. Much of that is driven by a similarly recurring sense of seemingly not always knowing where he fits in to the world, in either a micro or a macro sense. Hell, his last album was called Lost & Rootless for a reason.
Yet perhaps more than ever before, what High On 95 also contains is a tone of what may be hope but what is probably more accurately described as contentment. Running, it seems, may not have tamed Barry, but maybe age and the wisdom that comes with it have at least helped rewire him. And no, that’s not just due to the obvious fact that he’s raising two daughters now. “I just don’t love being that far from home anymore,” says Barry. “I like to go camping, I like to get cabins in the woods, and I like that kind of stuff, but I don’t like riding on the back of a freight train with a backpack and never knowing where I’m going anymore. I don’t like being in Europe and not being able to check in at home and knowing that I have to take three flights to get back there. I don’t know what happened, I think it just comes with age.”
It’s not that Barry doesn’t have the same stressors or the same reasons to run now as he did in his younger years. Far from it, in fact. “There’s an element of stress constantly on my shoulders, like you have, like everyone has,” he explains, noting the weight in his situation as an individual trying to provide for a family as an independent, working musician. “Because money isn’t easy to come by in my position – or enough of it to sustain a family with the parameters of health insurance and all the other bills and all the other stuff that all of us have.” So what used to be a life of running — drifting, really — is now more of a life that contains periodic, temporary breaks, ways to step back and process life and hit the proverbial reset button on his brain — just not the literal button on his cell phone. Technology has obviously woven its way into the most minute details of most of our lives, but it brings with it a particular set of challenges when you rely on it to put food on the table. “Technology is such a blessing but it’s really not healthy if used constantly. Especially for someone like me who’s trying to provide for a family by doing music which makes me a businessperson or my own boss, which is kind of incredible but it’s also just weird and it’s nothing that I intended on doing. – it becomes an obsession to check your fucking email! Check your email, check your socials! It’s this false urgency that induces this incredible stress that’s really completely irrelevant!” He adds, rather poignantly, something that most of us raising children in 2017 have struggled with: “Before you know it, your kids aren’t going to give a flying shit about you again, so am I going to miss this beautiful moment of my two-year-old sitting on my lap eating her butter pasta because I’m lurking on Instagram?! Really?!”
Still, it was through particularly well-timed call on his cell phone that Barry was presented with an offer to participate in one of the more unique experiences of his professional career: his recent performance with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra at the legendary Carpenter Theater, right in his own hometown. Because the story is so perfectly “Tim Barry,” it’s better off if he just tells it: “I was in the dressing room in Garwood, New Jersey, with Brian Fallon, getting ready to play a show during a series that he was holding where he was playing small club shows for a week. So we’re sitting in the dressing room and I get a phone call from the Executive Director of the Symphony, and he invites me to play with the full symphony backing me, and I almost kind of choked and laughed at how absurd it was. I think I got off the phone and Brian inquired who it was, and he said “what are you going to do?”. And I said “I’m not going to do it – fuck that, that’s crazy! I’m not talented enough!” And he was like – to paraphrase – he said “if you go on stage tonight and talk about challenging yourself and scaring yourself and doing things out of the ordinary, then I’m going to call you on it!” So, I consented to doing a show with the Richmond Symphony that night, right after that.”
Even though Barry hammers away at an acoustic guitar night in and night out on the road, he is punk rock ethos personified, creating some interesting issues when translating things for the different environment. If we can peel back the curtain a little bit, a lot of the time that you hear Barry (or any rock musician, really) engage in stage banter or play a few seemingly random between-song chords, there’s usually a reason for that: radio silence. “Growing up in punk, the worst thing you can ever do at a house show or a small club show or a squat or whatever is have radio silence. So instinctively, the second you finish, the guitar player hits feedback or the singer starts babbling or the drummer hits the cymbals. There’s nothing worse than a song ending and everybody going “Chirp. Chirp. Chirp.” I instinctively finish songs and hit an open note and then take a sip of water, and then hit an open note and maybe say some stuff, and then hit an open note!”
Take a song like “Church of Level Track,” for example. The song has long been a staple — and a crowd favorite — in a typical Tim Barry live set. “(The song) starts “I was drunk as hell with a friend way back…” and to get the key, so I don’t just start signing in the wrong key, I hit a C chord, which is the first chord of the song (and let it ring) and then whenever the fuck I feel like it, I’d say “I was drunk as hell…” Barry explains. But in an arena like the symphony, which is predicated on military-like precision and all things being properly, meticulously graphed and charted, there’s no room for a random chord to help you find a pitch. He continues: “In her sheet music, the song starts with me singing on the first note, that C chord. So she’s standing in front of a million players and she hears me (*briiiing*) which is just me playing the key, and she starts to count there, and the whole fucking song is completely off. And they’re all just like “what the fuck???” … We had to meet in the middle, we had to make compromises. I was like “Chia-Hsuan, look, I can’t sing this fucking song without hitting that chord!”
When all was said and done, Barry worked with the director and the conductor of the Richmond Symphony to pull together a small batch of songs that kicked off a showcase that found the RSO backing a handful of Richmond-based musicians in a variety of genres. While the other artists may have found the event to be noteworthy for good reason, you’d be hard-pressed to find one that it left such a personal mark on. “For years, I worked for this symphony unloading their trucks and setting stuff up, and I worked for the Richmond Ballet driving their trucks and unloading them setting stuff up and for IATSE Union 87 doing the same sort of thing,” says Barry. And while it might be easy to get wrapped up in the whirlwind of the performance, Barry was able to find a way to step back and absorb all that was going on.
“I did the song “Exit Wounds” and when I play it live at club shows, I end it before this big musical break, because that would be boring and redundant for me to play on an acoustic guitar,” he explains. “So I think that was one of my favorite parts of the symphony show when we included that. I just stepped off to stage right as far as I could and let Chia-Hsuan Lin who’s the conductor just fucking handle it. She was like “I’m going to be paying attention to your timing” and I said “no, I’m just going to play as quietly as I can. I want you to blow this fucking place out. Get loud!” And she did! I could see that she gave me a little smirk in the middle of it.” If there’s a moment that more perfectly encompasses the entirety of the Tim Barry Experience, of standing back and absorbing the gravity of an overwhelming situation that came from a period of self-doubt and personal challenge to a moment of triumph and appreciating all that you have when you have it, it simply hasn’t been written yet.
High On 95 came out on September 8th through Chunksaah Records. Head over here to grab your copy of the album. While you’re at it, head here to see where you can catch Tim on his upcoming tour dates, including a handful with the likes of Roger Harvey and Off With Their Heads. Check out our full, wide-open and far-ranging interview below.