Beston has been playing music and singing his whole life. Raised in Nashville, he had two music teachers: the local culture of songwriters and his parents’ esoteric record collection. The result: “Absolutely I picked up something from Leadbelly and Townes Van Zandt, but I was also working hard on Monk and Trane, on old soul and Caribbean stuff.” This musical vocabulary won him gigs playing guitar, bass, piano, drums, and singing in groups from New Orleans to LA.
Since 2004, Beston has been playing with gypsy swing favorites, the Zzymzzy Quartet in San Diego, while at the same time stretching his voice in a variety of directions in the studio. Here’s an overview of his solo recordings over the last fifteen years:
- At the Sligo Fair (2014) is a collection of Irish poet laureate William Butler Yeats’ poems made into songs. Recorded in Nashville with producer Daniel Tashian, Irish tin whistle and fiddle blend with pedal steel, high-strung guitar, drum kit, and flights of melody.
- The Noise of Wings (2011) draws on Beston’s Tennessee roots to explore a classic set of hundred-year-old gospel songs, finding them haunted by rhythms and melodies from all over the African dispora.
- loneliness and freedom waltz together through the night (2007) pares Beston’s songwriting down to a bare minimum: guitar, voice, melody, story. In an intimate hush, Beston traces a relationship arc from break-up to forgetting.
- Curious Melodies from the Lost Travel Diaries of Sir Albus Manchild (2006) exhibits Beston on acoustic guitar in his first modern jazz setting, accompanied by Patrick Marion (upright bass) and Dave Pschaida (kit drums), and featuring “Schwee” Michael Schwartz, bandleader of Critical Brass, on soprano sax. The Beston Barnett Quartet plays creative interpretations of the late period work of Sir Albus Manchild, eccentric Victorian composer. Using his strange melodies and the structures of high-period hard bop, the musicians tell the story of Manchild’s last days with wit and pathos.
- So Very Near (2004) has Beston downshifting into singer/songwriter mode with a simple acoustic production and melodic lullabies of love and loss. Recorded in a large wooden box in the garage, Beston seems to be whispering in your ear with an honest nostalgic voice and a story to tell.
- Beston and The Kitchen (2003) showcases his live (though now defunct) San Diego-based band, The Kitchen, creating an original fluid soul sound in a musical stew of funk, hip-hop, samba, and son.
- On & Up (2002) pairs Beston’s musicianship and songwriting with the electronic wizardry of producer Rafi Benjamin: a combination both raw and floor-shakingly hype. This is real pop music, done right, and the kind of successful collaboration that most artists can only dream of: songs from On & Up are still appearing on television shows like Roswell, Barbershop, Kevin Hill, and more.
- How To Pass Wonder On (2001) explores the many musics he encountered traveling in Brazil, Europe, and Africa, while deepening his lyrical concept into something between spoken word poetry and rap.
- Chrysalis (1999), Beston’s first solo album, brought together his love for the West Coast sound with his roots in the blues, jazz, and songwriting traditions.
SAN DIEGO TROUBADOUR – June 2007
Beston Barnett: Art Hurts Even in the Age of Communication
written by Raul Sandelin
“You have to start with one good channel,” Beston Barnett explains, a goal that seems easier said than done as we hang halfway in and halfway out of his crowded North Park garage. It’s apparent that this guy could use some bigger production budgets so that the crowded one-car enclosure doesn’t have to quadruple as a sound booth, control room, photo studio, and record company archive-slash-storage space.
Welcome to the nerve center of Art Hurts Records.
Yet, despite the cramped conditions, everything is actually neat and tidy. Everything is in its right spot. And, I can tell that Barnett is a fastidious organizer as well as producer. As he speaks, I notice that nothing there is clutter (everything has a purpose!), and that that “one good channel” is something akin to an antique piece of crystal. It’s something Barnett stores away for safekeeping to be pulled out only for the perfect occasion.
He points to the mic hanging alone in its compact acoustic closet. “That mic cost $1,500 on eBay.” Then, like a landscape painter, he leads my eye from the mic to the cabling to the analog pre-amp, which itself leads, via more cabling, to more boxes that I don’t quite understand before finally patching into the home computer where the final mix-down is done.
Barnett discusses that “one good channel” as if it’s some precious gift, a fragile butterfly that could easily fly away, a last gaze shared by dying lovers, something so ephemeral that it must be honored with an almost religious piety. If that one good channel, that one analog channel is established, then the tracks that are recorded on that one good channel can be overdubbed digitally while retaining the warmth and clear lines that so define analog recording. It isn’t that digital recording is inherently cold and overdriven. It’s that the time isn’t taken to establish that analog-type of sound for each track before they are mixed together.
Ironically, if Barnett’s initial quest is the creation of that one, perfect analog channel, he becomes very much a part of the digital age soon thereafter. Besides doing much of his final mixing digitally, his whole philosophy seems driven by an era in which computers have interlinked the entire planet.
“I store all my music on Napster. Then, when I listen to it like any other paying subscriber, I actually am paying myself royalties.” Barnett laughs, knowing that it’s no way to get rich. The point is that he’s not afraid to embrace technology even if he starts with that one, good analog channel.
As his story unfolds, it makes even more sense to call Barnett a musician belonging to the Age of Communication.
Beston Barnett was born in 1973 in Toronto but moved soon thereafter to his mother’s hometown of Nashville. To think, however, that country music would be a major influence is presumptuous. Growing up in the 1980s, Barnett was actually discouraged by that decade’s contributions to country music. So, except for some early flirtations with bluegrass, Barnett steered clear of the musical genre that put his boyhood town on the map.
“My big heroes were from R&B and jazz : Stevie Wonder, James Brown, James Jamerson, the unsung hero of Motown, Horace Silver, and Thelonious Monk.” His real influences were heard by way of older records while the live music all around him in the country music capital went mostly unheeded.
Then, when he was 13, he went to a world music concert in Toronto with his father. From there on out, he was hooked on the rhythms and guitar work coming from West Africa. Soon he was playing West African guitar among the small, overshadowed group of cognoscenti in Nashville.
While in his early twenties, he made his way to San Diego, where he has lived ever since. But, even if the break from Nashville is now complete, Barnett does credit his childhood home for teaching him the value of songwriting. The lifelong “Nashville-ish” lesson he learned was that songwriting is a “serious craft that takes dedication! and even then it takes a miracle to write a good song.”
In San Diego, another city hardly known for its world music scene, Barnett developed into a word-class, and internationally recognized, guitarist and proponent of West African music. “Again, we live in an Age of Communication,” he reminds me. It doesn’t matter where one lives now that the planet is virtually hard wired.
And, this is where Barnett teaches me a valuable lesson, dispelling some of the notions I had held about world music. Many people think of world music as some sort of fusion of various folk musics. According to Barnett, that’s not altogether true.
“When Bob Marley first recorded, even before the Wailers, he was basically singing like Otis Redding, an American R&B singer. The music from Ghana, known as High Life, is as much a product of swing jazz and the post-war Latin dance craze as it is African `folk` music.”
Barnett’s point is that there’s an assumption that reggae, High Life, and the many forms of indigenous music were created locally and reflect the local cultures in some pristine, primal state. The truth is that in this Age of Communication, nothing develops in isolation. And, many musical genres that we dub `folk` are just as much a product of the industrial, post-industrial world that frames them.
In 1999, this eclectic musician with his eclectic view of the world started Art Hurts Records. “The phrase comes from a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, which reads, `Art hurts! Art urges voyages – and it is easier to stay home.`” So far, Art Hurts Records has produced 10 CDs, each originating from that “one good channel” that is Barnett’s quest, yet each reflecting the cross-cultural pollination that could only occur in this Age of Communication.
In 1999, the new record label debuted with Chrysalis, which Barnett had originally released as a series of MP3s at MP3.com. In fact, Barnett was voted best MP3 Hip Hop Artist of 1999. Ironically, this hip hop album, released by this very unconventional hip hop artist, would receive widespread airplay and be sampled on an array of commercials and TV programs.
Since 1999, Barnett and Art Hurts Records have gone on to release four more collections of Barnett’s solo work, either as a solo singer/songwriter or as an overdubbed one-man band. These CDs include How to Pass Wonder On, On & Up, So Very Near, and the newly released loneliness and freedom waltz together through the night. For someone hardly influenced by Nashville, the singer-songwriter moniker fits him quite well, and his ever-expanding talents allow him to cover the gamut of popular song from folk and folk-rock to funk and Latin.
Last year, Barnett’s jazz combo, the Beston Barnett Quartet, also released a concept album called Curious Melodies form the Lost Travel Diaries of Sir Albus Manchild, an album that packs a worldly punch, fitting in influences from a number of continents while executing the songwriting within a semi-improvisational jazz format.
In addition, Art Hurts Records has released albums by other artists, most notably The Old Highlife (2001), featuring Ghanaian musicians Roadmaster and Agyemang, Bolga Zohdoomah (2005), the name of a San Diego band dedicated to both the modern and traditional sounds of western Africa, and Da Rua Dos Ossos (2006) by Brazilian artist Juju Duarte. In a format typical of Barnett’s Age of Communication, this last CD was recorded in Brazil with almost all the instruments overdubbed later by Barnett in his North Park garage.
It should also be mentioned that the cover art for these CDs is exquisite. In fact, I was very much sold by the look of these CDs long before I had the chance to actually listen to the music inside. This brings us full-circle to one of the functions of the North Park garage mentioned earlier. Barnett produces the cover art by creating large mixed media paintings-cum-collages that he then photographs there in the garage. The result is a pleasant and warm, yet surreal signature style that gives the Art Hurts catalog a definite distinction on the CD rack.
Everything mentioned about Beston Barnett so far would be enough to instill awe. He has covered territory only hoped for in multiple artistic life times. He is equally comfortable as a singer and songwriter, leader of a jazz band, hip hop artist, impresario of western African music, record producer, visual artist, and photographer. (Have I covered them all?) Yet, Barnett is probably best known around town for heading up the Speak Easy Quartet (newly named the Zzymzzy Quartet), one of San Diego’s few guitar-based groups dedicated to the Gypsy jazz sound of Django Reinhardt as well as swing jazz that enjoyed its heyday between the two world wars. The Zzymzzy Quartet features Patrick Marion (upright bass), Matt Gill (clarinet), Pete Miesner (guitar), and of course Beston Barnett on Selmer-Maccaferri style guitar. The quartet can be frequently found gigging at People’s Food in Ocean Beach, Claire de Lune in North Park, and a number of popular cafes and clubs around town.
Barnett’s latest recording project is playing bass with local singer-songwriter Annie Dru. Currently in the rehearsal stage, the duo plans to enter Barnett’s North Park garage soon and add another CD to the Art Hurts roster. [Note: Annie Dru and her band The Flimz are releasing this record themselves, and it was recorded by Chris Hoffee at Chaos Recording Studios – not at ART HURTS.]
TV / Movie Placements
Thanks to the tireless work of Tyler Bacon at Position Music, Beston’s music – especially songs from the more pop-friendly albums Chrysalis and On & Up – has made its way into quite a few TV shows and movies. Here’s a partial list of soundtracks:
Ace Ventura 3 – Universal Studios
Alias – ABC
Next – MTV
Roswell – Fox
What About Brian – Disney
Barbershop – Showtime
Kevin Hill – Disney
Playmakers – Disney
Tough Enough – MTV
Meet My Folks – NBC
Resurrection Blvd. – Showtime
Devious Beings – Red Bear Films
Beautiful People – Sony Pictures
Joan of Arkadia – Sony Pictures
Larva – Sci-Fi Channel
Tricky Business – Nine Network