Like many local performers before her, songstress Robin Barnes keeps music as a family affair. She is a cousin to legend Dave Bartholomew, her brothers Jaron and Des fill in on drums and trumpet when she’s in a lurch, and her father Robino is her regular bassist. “He’s not only backbone of the family,” she says proudly, “but backbone of the band.” With a twinkle she adds, “Bass players are always the coolest musicians. So it’s cool having a dad like that.”
While rooted firmly in family and home, Barnes dreams of bringing her stew of pop, soul, jazz and R&B to the world. Cousin Bartholomew once assured her, “Once you get to a certain point and everyone sees and knows who you are then they’ll love you.” Nevertheless, he warned about the hard work and trials involved: “No one is going to give you your shot ‘til you earn it. If music is what you love and what you’re passionate about, then be prepared to suffer for it.” Spend a few minutes with Barnes and it’s apparent she took heed. She is optimistic without seeming entitled and enthusiastic without being naïve; onstage she’s teasing and self-effacing. If she truly wants to follow in the footsteps of her idol Whitney Houston, then someone needs to give her diva lessons.
“I was actually really shy,” she says, referring to age nine when her mother signed her up for choir. “I was just a little bit taller so I would sit in the back and pray that they never called on me for a solo.” Her mother soon forced the issue, and the crowd’s cheers left her hooked.
She began singing in the family jazz band, the Soul Heirs, and credits this jazz foundation for her versatility. During regular gigs at Hotel Monteleone and Windsor Court she purrs old standards, but when gigs allow her to cut loose she belts out classic R&B influenced interpretations of contemporary songs like Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Kanye West’s “Heartless.” Some venues and promoters have demanded that she be either/or, leading her to ponder; “Other artists have developed themselves over decades and gotten that privilege, but what about us younger ones … why can’t we try doing both?”
All these influences seep into her self-released EP, Me, which hit local music stores and iTunes last month. Opener “Rescue Me” is a guitar-driven power-pop plea for love; “Running” is a folksy tribute to her mother’s encouragement to persevere; “What I Gotta Do” has a classic funk flair; “In Your Arms” is straight soul balladry and “Pieces” is a fitting bookend to “Rescue Me.”
Barnes, who finds rhythmic inspiration in everyday sounds such as traffic or the windshield wipers during a storm, describes the lyrics of the five songs on her EP as loosely mirroring the ‘five stages of grief.’
“My songs are all about me,” she says with a laugh. “The first songs are about getting your heart broken—getting it tossed to the wind.” They continue through denial and anger until ultimately self-awareness leads to “happiness and realizing how good your life is.” It took time and life experience, though, before she could write with such honesty.
“There’s no way you’re gonna be a good songwriter until you suffer—until you feel what you’re writing about,” her father and musical mentor once told her. Father does know best and she was paradoxically grateful when the life lessons finally arrived: “When you get your heart broken—I kid you not—it’s the best thing ever. I think I wrote twelve songs about heartbreak.” Chuckling, she adds that she wrote twice as many songs once she found love again.
Although Barnes’ parents always supported her dream, first they insisted: “You have to go to school for business.” Then they added that the best time to get a Master’s is right after your Bachelors. She complied but never lost her focus: “I think they thought I would give up.” She shakes her head and points demonstratively. “But pretty much after I finished my Master’s I was like, ‘Nope, music!’”
Barnes’s business background has served her well in reading contracts and negotiating gigs. Although nurturing aspirations of someday turning over such details to a support staff and finding a national or international audience, she vows to remain grounded: “I’ll travel anywhere in the world, but New Orleans is my home.” She returns to advice from Bartholomew, who said if she’s willing to persevere, “You will always remember that you didn’t owe your success to anybody. You did it because you earned it. You did it because you’re talented.”