It is not, by any stretch, an overstatement to refer to Tim Barry as one of the premier storytelling songwriters in the punk rock scene for as long as most of us have been associated with it; he was certainly trending in that direction during his Avail days, but it’s become an irrefutable fact in his work since going solo a decade-and-a-half ago. With the exception of maybe “Prosser’s Gabriel” from his 2010 album 28th and Stonewall (or, I guess, “T. Beene” from it’s follow-up, 40 Miler), Barry writes almost exclusively in the first person. Sometimes, this finds him telling the gut-wrenching components of someone else’s story in explicit, vivid detail; see “South Hill” or “Solid Gone” or “Dog Bumped” most notably. While the subject matter is clearly not his story in each of those songs, he’s got a way of pulling the listener in and making you feel every last strain and emotion and decision made by each of the respective narrators.
Sometimes, though, and especially when relationships are involved, the lines between author and subject get blurry to say the least. Sure there are songs like “Lela Days” or “Older And Poorer” that are pretty on-the-nose when it comes to being obviously self-referential. But on classic Barry fan-favorites like “Exit Wounds” and “Avoiding Catatonic Surrender” and “Walk 500 Miles” and “This November,” he long-ago proved that he can write a broken-hearted love song like nobody aside from maybe Ben Nichols. Because the themes present in those songs are so, unfortunately, universal and because of Barry’s adeptness as a songwriter, you’re never quite sure if he’s retelling traumatic events from his own biography or simply relating the cautionary tales of his friends and peers. Case in point: years ago when Tim and I spoke during a prior album-cycle promotional run, he relayed the story of his father contacting him after the release of Rivanna Junction, asking if he was doing alright.
Today marks the release of Tim Barry’s latest album, The Roads To Richmond. It’s his seventh studio full-length, and it is, in many ways, an album that delves into what’s been a very transitional time in the proud Richmond, Virginia native’s life. Not only did Barry quit working a “real job” and make the decision to live solely on music for the time being, but more importantly (and profoundly) Barry and his wife split up in the years since we last heard new music from him. He found himself living, at various times, in his van, in an apartment on the “bad side of town,” and most recently, in the very first house he’s ever purchased. And so the weight of separation and moving on and all of the confusion and emotions that those things entail, particularly when still trying to embrace the role of SuperDad to his pair of young daughters (Lela, 7, and Coralee, almost 5) were destined to bleed into the material that wound up on The Roads To Richmond. In fact, when we caught up over the phone to discuss The Roads To Richmond, it prompted me to jokingly – well, half-jokingly anyway – paraphrase that Rivanna Junction quote from his dad. As it turns out, I’m not alone. “Brent Baldwin down at The Kitchen mastering plant down in Carrboro, North Carolina, was doing the work on it, putting the finishing touches on the recording,” Barry explains. “He’s a professional, and I trust him and I trust his opinion and his work, and basically he said what you were paraphrasing my dad as saying. Like, “whoa, man, I hope everything’s okay!” (As homework, I challenge you to listen to the funeral dirge that is “Box Wine And Xanax” and not feel like you got repeatedly punched squarely in your midsection.)
The tone is present right from the first somber piano notes of album-opener “Big Ships.” When Barry’s voice eventually joins the instrumentation, it does so in a more tender way than we’re really accustomed to. It’s a song that was written in a place that’s been important to a small legion of East Coast punk rock fans over the last several decades: Asbury Park’s Little Eden. “I was sitting in Kate Hiltz’s kitchen at Little Eden in Asbury Park. I don’t know what I was doing there, but I was there for a couple of days, and no one was around, I had the whole house to myself,” Barry tells me. “And I was writing that song, it just popped out of nowhere like songs do, and when it came around to the chorus, I looked up and on her wall it said “Big Ships Turn Slow.” I ripped those lines right off of her kitchen wall, and that completed the chorus and the song kept on trucking.”
Barry tends to play his cards close to his vest when discussing the actual subject matter of some of his more ambiguous material, preferring instead to allow the listener to connect to songs on their own personal level. Still, he offered a bit of a hint behind what went into “Big Ships,” which turned out to be the pivotal moment in putting the writing for The Roads To Richmond to bed. “It’s like this,” he explains. “If you’re taking on a massive life change, you can use the phrase “big ships turn slow,” like, if (I’m asking you for) advice, I can say “I’m quitting my job and I’m gong to be self-employed and I want everything to go right.” And you could say “Tim…big ships turn slow.”
Peppered throughout the album are tracks that are unambiguously autobiographical., perhaps none moreso than “April’s Fool,” a song that in some ways sounds like a follow-up to Rivanna Junction‘s “Exit Wounds,” except with the added weight of a marriage and children involved. “(That song is) autobiographical to a T. And you know, to be clear, that song was written while I was going through possibly one of the biggest transitions of my life. It was written in one go. It was “play and record” on my iPhone while I was living in my van. There’s really very little editing on that song, and I don’t think, for me, that music gets any more real than that.“
While Barry is obviously no stranger to the broken-hearted love song, “April’s Fool” is a track that evokes enough visceral emotion that Barry was initially remiss to include on the album. “My instinct is to not share that kind of song and share that kind of music because it is sad. My job isn’t to depress people. I don’t even have a job!” As time elapsed, however, Barry started to understand that there was real value both to himself and to his listeners in telling such a personal story. “The subject of the song is divorce, it’s separation, it’s the end of a relationship. It’s the difficult possibility of going on alone when you’re not used to that. That’s what the song’s about. It’s just a moment. And when I was going through that at that point, I didn’t have any peers who were. I had a lot of questions, and there wasn’t really anyone to reach out to…But, as I breach the release of this new record, I realize that I have multiple friends that are going through that exact situation. I have many peers who are dealing with that dynamic in their life right now. I think it’s purposeful now to put that sort of intimacy onto a record so that other people know that other people have been through it.“
I suppose this is as good a point as any to explain, emphatically, that The Roads To Richmond is a sad, depressing album; it’s not! There are very real and very weighty feelings on the album. Over the last half-dozen years, a couple of Barry’s musical peers, Dave Hause and Brian Fallon, wrote their own powerful post-divorce albums (Devour and Get Hurt in that order if you’re keeping score) that rank among the best collections of work in either of their respective lengthy careers, both with bands and as solo artists. Part of the reason those albums have resonated with so many people for so long is that, sure, they’re raw, visceral looks at the pain and isolation that separation leave behind, but they also offer a little bit of redemption; a little bit of positive glow that in spite of all the pain, the future may turn out alright. For that reason, there are a lot of people for whom The Roads To Richmond will be their Devour (or their Blood On The Tracks…or their Rumours…or their Tunnel Of Love).
If I’m going to highlight some of the more raw, heavy emotional tracks on The Roads To Richmond, it’s only fair to highlight some of the tracks that provide a little levity and balance. “Bent Creek” is in uptempo, front-porch singalong about being at piece with the freedom that laying your burdens down and moving on can provide. It’s a cathartic song, and Barry’s voice sings like that of a man with a weight that’s been freed from his shoulders. “Fussin’ Over Fate” is a similar feeling track, a boot-stomping jam about not lamenting the fact that your old hometown has changed from the place you used to remember. “East Texas Red” is a reworking of a Woody Guthrie classic that was popularized by Guthrie’s son Arlo, a country and western murder ballad of a cruel old railroad yard boss who gets his comeuppance at the hands of two weary railroad travelers. “Coralee” is a tender, sweet acoustic ballad of Barry’s own, an ode to his youngest daughter.
And then there’s “Oh My Darling.” It’s a rollicking, Pete Seeger-esque finger-picked number that is placed perfectly on the album, as it helps lift the spirits from the weight of “April’s Fool.” “Oh My Darling” is a track that sounds like Barry singing to his daughter, but the reality is infinitely sweeter; it was penned by Barry’s oldest daughter Lela Jane, then five, as an ode to her little sister, the aforementioned Coralee. “Lela free-styled the lyrics!” Barry explains. “She told me to get a piece of paper and write it down as she sang. She’s fast at writing lyrics and melodies.” Barry gave Lela co-writing credit on the song, and Lela even sings some of the response parts on the call-and-response section of the last chorus.
You can check out an abridged version of my chat with Barry below; much of our chat was edited and condensed for content purposes. We talked quite a bit about The Roads To Richmond, naturally, and we also talked about Barry’s recent run of shows with Avail, the seminal band’s first gigs in more than a dozen years. You can also buy your own copy of The Roads To Richmond at Tim’s Bandcamp page or at his official store here or at his longtime label home, Chunksaah Records here.
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Thank you for bringing the Avail thing up here. I turned 40 the night before the Boston show, and that was a really awesome way to close out that weekend.
Tim Barry: Fuck yeah! That Boston show went really good too. It was a lot of fun.
You know, I hope that you guys were having as much fun as A) as we all think that you were and B) as we were. There’s a lot of people that I hadn’t seen in years before that show, and it felt like a high school reunion in that way. All of us getting together and doing that all again. I hope you guys had as much fun as we all did.
There was a lot of stress involved. You understand, there’s a lot of pressure in that. But by the time we got to Boston, we were fine. I really understood how to alleviate any problems and anxieties that I would have stepping into it just because I’m always on the road. It’s a really big deal for so many people. The Avail stuff was neat. I think it could have happened for a lot of bands, but that whole Avail run from the Richmond shows to the end of it in Chicago certainly became bigger than the chords and the beats and the lyrics. It was like a reunion of a time frame that was really special in a lot of people’s lives. It was really cool to note that the music really was secondary because people gathered and were excited to spend time with one another for the first time in years. It was cool to be a part of that, and I think once the music started clicking, we started having more fun.
The Boston show I really enjoyed, because I don’t know if anybody noticed it, but right when we were supposed to go on stage, we couldn’t find Gwomper, the bass player. It became so comical. There was nothing that anyone could do but laugh, and when you laugh you bring each other together. Then Joe the guitar player’s amp broke during the first song, and that brought us even more together. And then the crowd recognizes it, like “look at these guys, still doing this, it’s still a fucking train wreck, and they’re still doing it on their own.” When things click like that, that’s my favorite part of live music. Anything can happen, and you either get pulled together or pushed apart. That show was a lot of fun for everybody I think.
So how are you doing? I finally got to hear the new album yesterday, and one of the things you and I talked about years ago is when your dad heard I think it was Rivanna Junction, and he asked you “are you okay?” And boy, there’s some feelings on this one, man…
See I didn’t realize that until it was getting mastered by Brent Baldwin down at … hold on, let me see if this CSX police officer is gonna harrass me, because I’m on CSX property right now. Nope! He just waved! I’m in jeans, a Carhartt jacket and a camo hat; I do not look like I’m doing anything wrong. Anyway, Brent down at The Kitchen mastering plant down in Carrboro, North Carolina, was doing the work on it, putting the finishing touches on the recording, and he’s a professional, and I trust him and I trust his opinion and his work, and basically he said what you were paraphrasing my dad as saying. Like, whoa, man, I hope everything’s okay. I didn’t really think of the record that way.
But there are some really tough moments on that record, and I realize that now. All I can say is that there are two things about my writing that are pretty important. First and foremost, songs that are in first person are not always about me. That should be a strong point for people to understand. And number two, if a song is in first person and it is about me, that was my way of fixing what was going on with myself at that time. David Anthony, who did the first writing on this new record, said in the bio that he put together … he brought up a song called “April’s Fool,” which I don’t think I realized until he noted it, that it is autobiographical to a T. And you know, to be clear, that song was written while I was going through possibly one of the biggest transitions of my life. It was written in one go. It was “play and record” on my iPhone while I was living in my van. There’s really very little editing on that song, and I don’t think, for me, that music gets any more real than that. My instinct is to not share that kind of song and share that kind of music because it is sad. My job isn’t to depress people. I don’t even have a job!
But then I realize that when I was going through – the subject of the song is divorce, it’s separation, it’s the end of a relationship. It’s the difficult possibility of going on alone when you’re not used to that. That’s what the song’s about. It’s just a moment. And when I was going through that at that point, I didn’t have any peers who were. I had a lot of questions, and there wasn’t really anyone to reach out to. And also, that was years ago. That situation is years ago now; it’s so far in my past that it’s even hard for me to find those emotions that I was having when I wrote that song. But, as I breach the release of this new record, I realize that I have multiple friends that are going through that exact situation. I have many peers who are dealing with that dynamic in their life right now. I think it’s purposeful now to put that sort of intimacy onto a record so that other people know that other people have been through it. Certainly the record is not intended to be sad or too internal. It’s just another record.
Do you really feel that way? Well, I mean I guess you do because you said it, but I feel like you have a way of writing songs, like “South Hill” or “Solid Gone,” or “Dog Bumped” or whatever, and you can take a story about a person that exists in real life and write the song first-person and put yourself there and evoke that emotion in a way that everybody can relate to it. There aren’t any stories like that on Roads To Richmond, so maybe that’s why it sounds like the album is more autobiographical.
To even complicate it more, some of those songs were written as far back as Rivanna Junction. “Birmingham” is a song I wrote before Rivanna Junction. That should have been on my demos, that would have been 2004.
I’m glad you mentioned that David Anthony thing, because I just learned he wrote that about ten minutes before I called you. I put the album on for the first time last night and I started taking notes, like I normally do, and the notes that I had about “Big Ships” and about “April’s Fool” are almost verbatim the same as the notes he made in that bio. So I went to give Vanessa props because I assumed she wrote it, and she said “no, that’s David Anthony!”
This is actually killing me. I hope I’m not putting out a record that’s going to depress everybody. I can’t make it any more clear. I’m so happy. My daughters are doing great. We finally bought a house, that’s the first thing that I’ve ever owned in my life. Things are going so great. I’m very happy in my solitude. I’m very happy with music and constantly moving forward. Again, maybe I’m that way because I have this opportunity to sing songs when I’m down or up. It just dawned on me that I sang “Big Ships,” and then I always grab one song from an old record, usually a demo, and put them on a new record if I don’t think they had a good chance at first. I re-recorded a song that’s a deep cut called “Raised & Grown,” which was on Manchester, and I really wanted to redo that without a click-track and play it live in the studio. I put that on this record, and I sang “Raised & Grown” and “Big Ships” on Instagram live, and when I woke up the next morning, I had a lot of text messages from friends and acquaintances around Richmond being like “hey, you wanna grab coffee? Just checking in!” And it dawned on me that they thought that I was on my last leg, and it was very kind and that’s what we do in communities; we check on people when they need to be checked on, and I appreciated it. But man, I was actually so happy, I was so happy about the music, so it was weird!
Well, I don’t want it to come across like it’s a depressing record, because I don’t think that it is. I think that the feelings that are on there are heavy, but there is some sort of hope for the future that resonates at times. It’s not an emo record, you know what I mean? There’s some sort of light at the end of the tunnel after you move on, in a way that’s hopeful.
You know how I get about talking about or analyzing my songs, and this is why. The record is coming out on Friday, and I’m going to promote it and play shows. I really did enjoy recording it. It was noted in the bio, but it was a really relaxing process to do it just live and without a rushed schedule, with no idea of a deadline, and going “oh, well, these songs go well together.” That was a nice way to do it, just going in casually. Luckily I have that freedom because I’m not working a regular job so I can make those schedules, as opposed to the old days where you take a weekend and and record and mix everything as fast as you can.
Do you miss working a regular job?
Yes, I miss a regular schedule a lot. I miss the camaraderie of working with other people. If I had a regular job, my ability to be super dad would be limited. Living off of music right now, I always know that his is temporary, but it has afforded me this incredible luxury and blessing of being able to really give all of my attention to my two daughters. I have them often, and when I do I won’t work. It’s incredible to have the freedom where if their teacher calls and says “hey, your daughter isn’t feeling well,” I can shut my computer and get in the car and pick her up in twenty minutes. There’s a lot to be said about this temporary self-employment, but it does go both ways. I would like a neck-down job, where I can just get home and not worry about anything.
“Big Ships.” If I tell you what I really think it’s about, you won’t have your analysis of it. But, you know what, I wrote that song in Asbury Park. I was sitting in Kate Hiltz’s kitchen at Little Eden in Asbury Park. I don’t know what I was doing there, but I was there for a couple of days, and no one was around, I had the whole house to myself. I really don’t know what I was doing there. And I was writing that song, it just popped out of nowhere like songs do, and when it came around to the chorus, I looked up and on her wall it said “Big Ships Turn Slow.” I ripped those lines right off of her kitchen wall, and that completed the chorus and the song kept on trucking. I could explain that, but it really doesn’t matter, other than to the people who know who Kate Hiltz is and that she’s a special person to a lot of folks, or to a few people who know Little Eden or who are attached to the Asbury Park community. But to the general public, that’s not a real interesting story. And if you get too deeply into what I’m actually writing about, I’m just not volunteering that information. That’s my own. But big shops do turn slow!
That’s an old Navy saying I think, right?
Yeah, my family was all Navy, so a lot in there are a lot of references to that in there. To use the phrase “big ships turn slow,” and take it out of the nautical world…it’s like this: if you’re taking on a massive life change, you can use the phrase “big ships turn slow,” like, if you’re asking advice, I can say “I’m quitting my job and I’m gong to be self-employed and I want everything to go right.” And you could say “Tim…big ships turn slow.”.
It’s funny how when I’m working on a record, I don’t have deadlines. It’s just how I am. I don’t give a fuck about the music industry. I don’t care at all about business or fame or any of that junk, so when I’m writing, I’m just writing. When I’m recording, I’m just recording. There’s no end in sight, I’ll just suddenly stop. But it wasn’t until I wrote that song that I was like “Ah, record’s done!” I remember that when I was doing 40 Miler years ago, I remember when I wrote the song “40 Miler,” I said “ah, record’s done.” There’s always one song that is the final nail that shuts it and then I can move on to the next thing. “Big Ships” was it this time. And I really have got to say, I have so much fun playing that song. I sing it to myself every day. I haven’t gotten sick of it and it’s been a long time. That’s a good sign, that you still enjoy what you do.