In a playing field renowned for gravitating to the next ‘hip young thing’, it’s both surprising and inspiring to chance upon an artist whose entry into the realm of recorded music only commenced upon entering his fifth decade. But retired local Greg Barnett is living proof of the adage “you’re never too old”, having recorded his first song at age fifty, and having just released a 30-song opus (equivalent to a triple album’s worth of songs!) ‘The Flat White Album’, at the age of sixty eight.
The album was conceptually inspired by both the minimalist white artwork and track length of the Beatles ‘White Album’, the diverse and trailblazing sounds of which left an indelible impression upon Greg in his youth. And in case you’re wondering, the album’s title also doubles as a reflection of Greg’s preferred choice of caffeinated beverage.
Greg wrote most of the 30 songs that constitute ‘The Flat White Album’ on his acoustic 12 string guitar (he’s also proficient on the piano) as well as producing the album himself in his home studio, where he was able to embellish numbers with additional instrumentation and orchestral flourishes.
To gain an insight into the man and his music, we fired him off a bunch of questions.
You wrote your first song in 2001 at the age of 50. What was the catalyst for you start creating music at that point in your life?
I’ve never had a problem actually writing per se, but songs had always eluded me until I started writing the eulogy for a friend of the same age. While a sad time, the line ‘a rock in a turbulent world’ broke the dam wall (that damn wall!) and other ideas started flowing. I also now appreciated how even simple metaphors have their own internal rhythm. This one phrase kickstarted my first-ever song ‘Fields and Sunny Skies’ (co-written with Mike Levy).
I read on your Bio that you play guitar and piano. How did the remaining instrumentation come to fruition on the record? It’s quite orchestral and layered in parts!
My acoustic 12-string guitar was the core element throughout and there is just one true piano song (Track 27 ‘Let Go’), but my keyboard ability helped hugely elsewhere to add the other instruments. We are all heavily influenced by what we hear as teenagers. In my case in the UK, this was largely radio, and the BBC was basically just one station that played EVERYTHING … classical, music hall, the great American songbook, crooners, Big Band, comedy, quirky, folk, and early pop/rock. This wide exposure helped provide many ‘colouring-in’ options for the new songs, while modern production methods and products can generate excellent sounds like orchestral instruments, choirs, sound effects, lead guitars, drums, bass etc But with my relatively simplistic production skills and a zero-dollar budget, ambition often crumbled under the weight of critical listening and arrangements and instrumentation had to change course many times.
A triple album as your first solo release is quite an ambitious undertaking! Did you plan it like this, off the back of a large stockpile of material, or did it evolve as a result of a creatively fertile period of song writing?
Ambitious? No, because it started small. My previous album ‘Prescient’ (2015, co-written and co-produced with fellow Gold Coaster Martin Hale) had left me mentally drained … I didn’t touch an instrument for another six months. But the music bubbled back up – and you just need to be able to recognise that it is happening and grab hold when it happens. With half a dozen new songs done I thought I’d be able to reach an album’s worth, 12 tracks, simply by resurrecting and developing a few old unreleased pieces. And while that was happening, more new songs kept coming along while noodling at the kitchen table (my altar of inspiration for this album). So then I thought “double-album?” because, at my age, if I don’t record ALL these songs NOW, the opportunity may never arise again. When the potential track count got to the mid-20s, I had to actively find a strong reason to stop writing because I was not going to record any final versions until the song-writing phase was done. The Beatles ‘White Album’, a key album in my teenage years, provided a finishing target of 30 tracks. This also suited me as much for technology and time-management reasons as it was for psychological goal setting.
Tracks such as ‘Bubble Boy’ and ‘Sunrise’ convey a certain sense of English pastoral-folk whimsy. Have the classic song writers of the 60’s and 70’s (or any artists in particular?) strongly shaped your musical direction?
Yep, there’s no escaping one’s upbringing. Folk music was the simplest to learn and play on an acoustic guitar. Singer-songwriters were just part of the evolution of modern music at the time (i.e. they were not yet held out to be particularly different), but my maturing tastes honed in on the modern folk-inflected ‘adult contemporary’ music, lyrics and playing of Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, James Taylor and Paul Simon. I was also drawn strongly to the sound of traditional instruments being used in rock/pop settings, pioneered by the Beatles but pushed increasingly further by ELO, Jethro Tull, Chicago and many others.
I guess the evolution of the music industry, with the rise of the DIY model for aspiring musicians (i.e. you don’t need a record label or a big budget to put out music these days) may have played a big role in putting your musical aspirations within reach? And further to this, are you content in putting it out there without necessarily pushing or promoting it heavily – are you happy for it to exist, artistically, as a standalone statement?
Sure, although I gave up on the ‘aspiring’ tag along time ago as I don’t have the youth, good looks, strutting attitude, focus and marketability to be popular. But in terms of being able to realise your creative ideas, DIY music production has SO many positives. Once you have the gear, it costs nothing to record as much as you want, whatever and whenever you want. There is no tyranny of time and money paying for studios/people by the hour, or the tyranny of creative control wielded by producers or labels. However, DIY has serious downsides … unlimited time can mean there’s no imperative to get things done, or the music itself can become self-indulgent and unfocused, or (my greatest bugbear) you spend more time fiddling with and fixing the technology rather than creating the music itself. Perhaps the biggest downside of DIY is that there are now MILLIONS of releases globally every year … how will your droplet stand out from the ocean … how do you get heard? The old days of Payola are reportedly creeping back in with paid promotions on Spotify, which of course favours those with influence and money (ie. established artists and labels).
Is this album (or is your music in general) purely a studio project for you, or is playing music live to an audience also an outlet?
Ha! I gave up performing years ago. Live music is a wonderful thing, but it’s not me … the practice, travel, sweat, damage/theft … and most of the time I could not even hear myself above the ambient noise. By contrast, the home ‘studio’ is sheer enjoyment, and I don’t even have to turn up if I’m not in the mood! Now with three albums released, I have a legacy that hopefully gets a few extra listens each year – a musical digital headstone (as long as civilisation continues, which is another story!).
I understand that you’re also making a bunch of music videos for some of the songs. How are you going about this? It seems that the album is very much a multi- faceted creative project for you!
Instead of me ‘performing’, and it’s generally impossible to find people who will ‘act’ well for free in front of a camera, the videos are story-based and use third-party imagery. There is enough out there to do a reasonable job although the finding and selection of appropriate material is 98% of the task. Half the videos are now done, on YouTube.
In terms of a multi- faceted creative project, as well as the album and videos there’s also the website, Facebook page, a free songbook, a ‘making of’ story of the album process, and separate karaoke versions for singers, guitarists and drummers. All can be found at clancys.com.au/The-Flat-White-Album
The opening track on the album puts the spotlight on the folly of those in power who would appear to not have the best interests of the planet at heart. What’s your take on where things are heading for our future generations?
Well, to be brutally honest and based on a reasonable background in science, I think humanity is well and truly fucked! There are four album tracks that deal directly with the environment: ‘The C-Bomb’, ‘Oy Vey Maria’, ‘Earthrise’ and ‘Frogs in a Pan’. Is my music going to fix anything? No. Are the current political and economic systems remotely capable of fixing anything? No. Would I enter politics? No. It’s our own collective fault for both electing politicians skilled in Law and self-preservation rather than an understanding of natural systems and numbers, and also for not being able to identify and suppress our own hindbrain motivations that evolved to simply want more of everything.
I read on your Bio that this is your first ‘singer-songwriter’ album, following on from two other releases, in 2002 and 2015. Can you tell us a bit about these previous releases/projects?
Almost every other person I meet is also a singer-songwriter, so I am careful how I describe my work. This is my debut SOLO outing as opposed to two previous singer-songwriter collaborations. ‘Not All It Seems’ (2002) was the result of a chance discovery that a work colleague, Mike Levy at Bond Uni, sang and played similar music. ‘Prescient’ (2015) resulted from Martin Hale (Sanctuary Cove) reaching out via the Bandmix site. Both albums are examples of ultra-rare serendipity … in each case it just happened, we recognised it was happening, and took advantage of the opportunity.
Were you in England in the musical explosion of the 60’s? And if so, can you describe what it was like – I can only imagine it must have been incredibly vibrant and exciting!
I know it is often regarded as a pivotal era. But I think it’s only through the benefit of hindsight. From inside the times it just seemed to me like a constant ‘isn’t THAT a great song’. Over the decades I’m sure that any hormone-driven teenager in a cohort on the brink of adulthood is sure to think their latest music stars are something special and pushing music to new levels … Sinatra, skiffle, Elvis/Holly, Beatles/Stones, prog, disco, punk, glam, techno, rap … right up to Taylor Swift and Kanye West.
To wrap your ears around Greg Barnett’s ‘The Flat White Album’, together with a bunch of creative extras, (including sheet music, karaoke versions, the ‘making of’ story and music videos), head on over to: clancys.com.au/The-Flat-White-Album/ The album is also available on the majority of digital streaming platforms, including Spotify, iTunes and Google Play.