Ben Barnes is known to many for portraying fantasy heroes and comic-book villains, characters from history and classic novels and the occasional romantic street busker or wannabe rock-star. His own fantasies, stories and dreams have until now been eclipsed by these roles.
With Songs For You, Barnes is baring his soul through his music for the first time; hopeful, joyful, passionate, nostalgic, vulnerable and loving. The lyrics to most of the songs, he explains, came from “poetry written for a loved one or just for myself, a long-forgotten phrase I jotted down in a notebook years ago, inspired by a photograph, a moment, a quotation, or in the case of one song, a story I read about a female pirate!”
After years of being directed, written for and edited in movies, this is his moment to shine the light on the five songs on Songs For You, lovingly crafted at his piano at home and presented unedited and straight from the heart.
He sent his songs to veteran producers John Alagia (Paul Simon, Dave Matthews, John Mayer, Herbie Hancock) and Jesse Siebenberg (Ke$ha, Miranda Lambert, Neil Young, Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald), who are proud to have helped orchestrate the ‘70s-style, rich, entirely organic instrumentation on the record. As evidenced by the lush strings of Oliver Krauss to the throwback brass and raw bass and drums (played by Paul Hamilton, a musician friend of Barnes’ who appeared as a band member in the musical film Killing Bono in which he starred in ten years ago!).
The single, “11:11,” is a track that could not be contained to one genre. The soul-pop vocal soars over a jazzy piano, sacred-feeling organ, Queen-inspired guitars and a bursting “Penny Lane” piccolo trumpet fanfare. As Barnes reflects, “I’m fascinated in acting by the duality of people, and that we all have the capacity to feel everything and more than one emotion at a time. I feel that way too about my songs. Even if they seem to be about one thing, I’m interested in conflicting emotion and transitional feelings… the in-between. ‘11:11’ is about real love; the kind of love where you would give up all your wishes for the one you love to feel whole… even if it costs you, even if they can’t ‘be yours.’”
The second focus track of the EP, “Rise Up,” is a hymnal, gospel-inspired song about unconditional support and unwavering love. The tenderness and passion of the vocal marrying with the deep, richness of the strings and the gentle but inevitable build, insisting that the sun will rise up again, no matter what. It’s the first song Barnes knew he had to share with the world. “It came out of quite a dark moment for me, that I experienced alone, but the surge of compassion that I felt when I would play it made me feel that it was time to finally share something of my own,” he explains. “I built up a level of musical support through covering songs I love from artists like Donny Hathaway to David Bowie, but playing this song, I felt an overwhelming plea from my 80-year-old self of ‘if not now…when?!’ I hope it brings comfort. I hope all the songs on Songs For You encourage the search for feelings of warmth, nostalgia and soulful joy even in the gray-feeling or in-between moments in life.”
“Pirate Song” started life as a more traditional song about the push-and-pull of a relationship that never seems to take root, but as he read about a real-life pirate, “Back From The Dead Red,” Barnes re-crafted the song to imagine the lonely heart of a man left in every port by this swashbuckling pirate woman. He wanted this song to be the most fun on the record with a band of “Soul Pirates” singing the chorus in unison and the string and brass combining for a joyful, almost disco feel.
On the other hand, “Not The End” was inspired by Barnes’ father quoting him John Lennon’s famous words, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” This, he says, has stuck with him since he was a boy. “I wanted to affirm the life advice we all are given and dish out so often to make people feel better, and have the song serve as a reminder not to judge the support our loved ones offer just because it feels cliché. In the end, knowing that whatever it is, it will get better has always served me well as a hook on which to hang your hat…if you’ll excuse the cliché!” Again, the soulful background vocals, organ and brass arrangement help give the song a gentle, but celebratory ‘70s feel.
The final song, “Ordinary Day,” is in some ways the simplest song on the EP. He says, “It’s a love song, but perhaps one for someone who is not yet ready to hear it.” Barnes wanted to sing and play the piano on this and then add the lush strings to this very simple arrangement for a sense of pathos underlying the hopefulness in “holding on” for someone.
About the EP title, Barnes shared, “Songs For You comes from one of my favorite records, ‘A Song For You’ by Leon Russell (but the Donny Hathaway version, of course), from wanting the songs to speak intimately to anyone who listens to them, and because if a song is written for you, you know who you are.”
Ben Barnes has starred in films, TV shows and theater productions spanning the last 20 years:
Movies have included, The Chronicles of Narnia franchise (Disney), Seventh Son (Universal), Dorian Gray, Easy Virtue and musical films Killing Bono and Jackie & Ryan.
TV shows he has appeared in include Shadow & Bone currently streaming on Netflix, Westworld (HBO), Golddigger (BBC) and The Punisher (Netflix).
Stage productions include The History Boys (National Theatre) and Birdsong (West End).
Photo: Jay Gilbert