Interview: Micah Barnes

micah barnes

(November 2017) I first met Micah Barnes back in the 80’s when we were both lads cutting our musical teeth. He was playing the iconic clubs of Queen St, while I busked outside them. One thing that struck me was his dynamic presence, ability to entertain… and the voice! It would be those vocal chords that would eventually take him around the world as part of the acapella sensations The Nylons. Returning to his own musical roots he left the band, and while coaching some of pop music’s great singers, he continued to write and record the Jazz that inspired him decades ago. We caught up by phone….


Mb: Hey Micah.
Micah: Hey Michael. How’s your morning?
Mb: How’s YOUR morning!?
Micah: It’s really good actually. It’s always a bit business heavy in the morning, don’t you find? You have to catch up with everything?
Mb: My brain doesn’t like business in the morning. Good time to be creative.
Micah: Ya! That’s when you want to read a book or something that’s good for you, but of course we’re just basically answering emails, right? (laughs)
Mb: Now if I could only make some money at it!
Micah: (laughs) And that’s why I coach. Now, without the touring dates, and once in a while they’ll even cost me money, as you know, but occasionally a month will happen when I’m equal performing money and equal coaching money and I’m always really happy about that.
Mb: What inspired you teach?
Micah: It’s funny, when I started coaching it was literally to pay the rent. I make no bones about it. I was just kinda… hoping! (laughs) I’m thinking “Somebody needs to learn to sing and I need to make the rent. This is the perfect marriage.” I was 20 or 21 and a couple of actor friends of mine were in shows that I had written the music for and they came by to learn how to sing the songs better. I was highly motivated to get them to perform my material better and that actually led me to developing an instinct for helping singers over their challenges, tensions and fears. When I was living in Los Angeles, post-Nylons, I really dug in for my coaching and sort of recognized I had a calling and started to get more serious about it. These days I’m on faculty at Seneca College and doing workshops across the country.. and working on a book, so you know, I’m definitely a coach!
Mb: So are you back performing to relive some era when….
Micah: No, actually. I came back to Canada and I was situated well because of the coaching. That’s my fantastic day job and I started to dig-in right away. Molly Johnson put me on tour with her across the country. That was fantastic because I started working with her team and dig-in for a jazz career. Our last recording “New York Stories,” I’m now taking to Europe. As it turns out I actually have a solo career that I can be proud of! (laughs)
Mb: Tell me about Europe?
Micah: Because they are such Jazz fanatics.. they see Jazz as a classical form. Because it’s developed in North America, they think “Oh this is this new art form and we’re going to pay homage to it and respect it and love it .” So they actually curate and care for Jazz as much or more than North American centres, because they’re hungry for new jazz artists. We’re just in the midst of putting some tour dates together. It looks like we’ll be starting in Holland. Promoters I’m working with are really excited because, The Nylons were very beloved in Europe. So that’s a fantastic open door for me as a solo artist, as it has been across the country in Canada! I’m very blessed to have been part of that. A musical brotherhood.
Mb: That show looked like a lot of fun. All those harmonies. The vibrations of voices, vocal “chording”… sends chills.
Micah: You’re exactly describing the joy of acapella singing with The Nylons. It was a huge learning curve for me, keeping in mind I’d been a kid on Queen St and hadn’t sung real harmony with other singers like that.
Mb: It was a discipline….
Micah: Oh my god, it was like going to University. I started working with a voice coach. I started to take my on-stage movement seriously… dance classes. I recognized my job as a concert entertainer was to have new challenges but… The Nylons put me in a boot camp and I learned how to sing and dance and remember the choreography and tell a joke and jump into the next song. It was a learning curve. The guys were very patient. But after 5 or 6 years of touring the world in essentially one show, we kept developing new material but, I thought “Ok I could do this for the rest of my life but I’m going to end up bored.” I’m a song writer and into developing recordings that are more reflective of my personal experience, which is what New York Stories ended up being. So in a way, The Nylons set me up to have a solo career. I acknowledge the fact I would not be here today if it wasn’t for the leg up they gave me.
Mb: You’ve got instant “cred” having sung for the Nylons, so there’s no doubt you can sing!
Micah: exactly. You want your bio to tell people what you’re capable of. I’m very blessed. There are a lot of great singers out there who didn’t get that particular break and I’m keenly aware of it!
Mb: So, Market Hall….
Micah: I really love the space. Peterborough, as I don’t need to tell you, is a hot bed of fantastic music. Both as a coach and as a musician, I have 3 or 4 clients who are all powerhouses, working in or having recently left the Peterborough area, so I recognize the combination of college town and music culture, it’s just an incredible place. We’re going to be bringing out a few surprises for the audience, in that we’ve started recording a new album, so there’s going to be a few sneak peeks at the new material. It’s a Vegas oriented album. We’re not exactly doing material from the Rat Pack era, but we’re paying homage. So we’re taking some of that swaggering mid-century entertainer thing and working with a batch of new material. I’m really digging working with this trio. They are shockingly good!
Mb: So it’s great to talk to you again. I have fond memories of haunting your shows at Garbo’s on Queen back in the 80’s. I learned a lot listening.
Micah: That was the beginning of my career!
Mb: In the day we’d go see you and then over to the Rivoli to catch Jane Siberry and then the Horseshoe. It was a far more creative strip back then, not so concerned with door revenues.
Micah: You’re spot on with that, what you’re describing in terms of the 80’s Queen St scene, it was so nurturing. If you added the Cameron and the Bamboo… certainly Garbo’s was the last of the Cabaret scene there. When I crossed the street from Garbo’s to the Rivoli there was this major change. I stood up from the piano and I started singing in a more contemporary setting. The whole experience of being nurtured as an artist there. The show at Garbo’s is essentially what I’m doing today. Because of that musical culture I’m allowed to be everything I am.

Micah Barnes performs at Market Hall Thursday November 30, 8pm

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