It’s time to shine a light on Barnaby Bright, one of the year’s best and brightest indie folk-pop duos to emerge from America’s heartland. And the fine folks behind the band are raring to go again after 10 years of blood, sweat and fears to reach this stage of their lives.
Releasing their deliciously diverse, self-titled album on 21 June, the name Barnaby Bright should be impossible to forget as their valiant journey continues after periods of hard work and imagination followed by self-doubt, frustration and recalibration.
It’s probably no coincidence that the release date coincides with the summer solstice, which signifies the longest day of the year. Nathan and Becky Bliss, the husband-and-wife singer-songwriter couple behind Barnaby Bright, seem like a rare — and exceptionally clever — pair who welcome the chance to symbolize their existence through word association and believe-it-or-not true stories.
Their 11 original songs (six written by Mr. Bliss; five by Mrs. Bliss) take listeners on an around-the-globe musical exploration with hints of Sarah McLachlan (“Break Me in Half”) and Annie Lennox (“Fight or Fly”) in Becky’s divine voice, and exquisite harmonies comparable to current Darlingside (“All My Fault”) or the Civil Wars’ glory days (“Wave Your Flag”).
Nathan, who brings vocal elements of Peter Gabriel to “Going Up High,” has adopted the term folktronica to describe Barnaby Bright’s brand of innovative music, which is based primarily on acoustic instruments (he plays guitar and banjo; she plays harmonium, keyboard and ukulele).
Nathan Cook became Nathan Bliss by taking Becky’s surname when they were married in October 2007. He has a thirst for knowledge that goes way beyond the dual bachelor’s degree in jazz composition and saxophone performance he received from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music.
So it’s not hard to believe him when he says he was working on algebraic equations (“He’s special, my guy Nathan,” Becky confirms) in their Kansas City-area home on a bright, sunshiny day in June before they got on the phone for a joint interview.
‘The longest day and the shortest night’
Nor is it inconceivable to imagine that Nathan came upon the name for their act while “flipping through this dictionary of medieval fables and phrases” in an old bookstore. It was there where he first discovered Barnaby Bright, a term associated with the summer solstice and the feast of St. Barnabas, a religious holiday celebrated during those times on June 11 for being “the longest day and the shortest night.”
As fascinating as he made it sound, Becky initially rejected Barnaby Bright as a band name (“I’m the lead singer and I’m a girl, I don’t sound like a Barnaby; I think it will confuse people,” he said she said).
That’s when Nathan’s compelling story during our interview took a wildly, unpredictable turn. So much so, that he preceded it with this sincere proclamation: “I swear this is true. I’m not making this up.”
After telling Becky she was “totally right” about his “terrible idea,” they went to bed that night and Nathan had the “most vivid dream of my life. I saw Bob Marley hovering over our bed like in a cloud of smoke and he was smoking a big fatty and he took a big, you know, inhaled, and he said, ‘Nathan: Barnaby Bright. That’s a good name.’ “
If there ever was a time to question their life in Wedded Bliss, this might have been it. But Becky put her faith in Nathan, and Barnaby Bright’s name has stayed with them from that day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.
Unlike many duos who are professionally/romantically involved in virtually a 24/7 relationship, Barnaby Bright rely on Rainer Maria Rilke, one of their favorite poets, to speak for them through his quote:
“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”
Photo courtesy of the artist
“We’ve always found that to be the key — to give each other space,” Nathan said. “Give each other that alone time to charge internally so that we can come back and bring the best of ourselves to the unified project.”
Added Becky: “There’s also a lot of parts that are not hard, that are just fantastic, the memories you make. I tell people, like we packed 20 years of marriage into our first five, you know. The things that we did and experienced, the highest highs
and the lowest lows. …
“We’re both actually very introverted people, so we recharge by ourselves. … We have to make time to go hang out and do something that isn’t music-related or gig-related, and even make a rule: We’re not gonna talk about business when we’re out taking a hike or going to get coffee or whatever.”
Other than Becky briefly taking exception to Nathan’s Bright idea for a group name, they have mostly stayed in perfect harmony as musical partners.
The two agreed with Nathan’s statement: “We never really fight over things about the music.”
After a minute to think about that, though, there was some give and take:
Becky: “My biggest complaint is that I just want to sing harmonies more.” (laughs)
Nathan: “And I want her to write more.” (both laugh)
Music in the making
Seemingly so much in tune, it’s almost like fate was destined to bring them together and keep them together, through music that had little to do with his college education in jazz or her frustrating attempt to study opera at the University of Kansas.
Though Nathan grew up in Philadelphia, he moved to K.C. before he was a teenager, then went to Shawnee Mission North High School, playing alto saxophone in the orchestra. Becky was in choir for four years at Shawnee Mission East, but their paths didn’t cross until much later.
Actually, it was booking agent Tim Sweeney who introduced Rebecca Bliss to Nathan Cook in January 2005 at O’Dowd’s, an Irish pub on Country Club Plaza in Kansas City.
Becky, who had been singing since the age of 5, when she recorded a solo vocal for a children’s album, wanted to branch out musically after growing up in a family where her mother and brother were opera singers.
“The second I started singing in bars, my parents we’re thrilled,” she said, punctuating the facetiousness with a laugh.
At O’Dowd’s, she got a chance to sing onstage with the Jeff Jenkins Band, which included Nathan. On bass and saxophone, he had abandoned jazz for a guitar to learn how to write and record songs.
For her tryout, Becky sang Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” which proved to be her lucky break.
“And it was so fun,” she said. “I remember Nathan turned to me, like at the end of the song, and goes, “Girl, you can really sing!” (laughs)
Added Nathan: “We all, our eyes all popped, like, ‘Oh my God!’ Just from the first note out of her mouth, it was like, ‘This is a magical instrument.’ “
The cover band experience brought them together as a pre-Barnaby Bright duo that was strictly professional while they dated other people. “So there was no chance for romance,” Becky said. “But we were both really into each other; we just didn’t know it.”
That dual designation changed a year after they met as Becky began pursuing a solo music career in New York, a recent college graduate with a degree in vocal performance writing “angsty” songs while “living on a mattress of a tiny New York apartment by myself, missing Nathan.” She released an EP (including material mostly about him) in October 2006. He released a five-song EP as Nathan Cook in 2007.
By the time Nathan visited Becky in January 2007, two years after they were introduced, their previous relationships had ended, and “It was Game On!” she said excitedly.
Photo courtesy of the artist
Wrong turn signals
Touring took them on backpacking trips through Europe and resulted in as many as 200 shows annually. But after six years of hauling around their gear back and forth from a Brooklyn apartment — including harmoniums, several guitars, loopers, other electronics and their keyboard — in a Honda CR-V, sometimes as late as 3 a.m., they decided to join what Nathan called “the great migration as indie folk artists,” and headed to Nashville in 2014.
Despite having “amazing experiences” and good friends among “a great community of people there,” Becky said Nashville “wasn’t quite the right fit for us.”
“It was a little more country … and, I don’t know. We had kind of reached a low point where we were really sick of touring,” she added. “It was zapping us creatively, we were on the road constantly. Nathan’s mom got sick in Kansas City. So we were sort of at this precipice, like, ‘Are we gonna stay or are we gonna go?’ Ultimately, even about our career a little bit. We were like, ‘We can’t keep going like this. This is just a hard rhythm to keep up.’ “
Working in a highly competitive marketplace where even the bellhops and waitresses play guitars and/or sing didn’t exactly suit their nature, either.
“Nathan and me, we’re not schmoozers, we’re not really game players,” Becky said. “We just, I don’t know, we just want to play music, man.”
A PledgeMusic campaign for their next album, released digitally as This Is Life in 2015, didn’t gain much traction (Becky said about 700 people received the recording).
With their music career at a crossroads, the Blisses took a break to decide which way to turn.
“Because we were so burned out from touring, we weren’t touring, and that’s how we made our livelihood,” Nathan said. “So we were broke. It was just a really tough time.”
The word “quit” never came up in this conversation, but Nathan — who years ago completed an audio engineering program at the Conservatory for the Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe, Arizona — took a college computer coding course, thinking, “I might just completely change direction.”
When they were finished “second-guessing” themselves and nursing their wounds during a period of about six months, the Blisses ultimately decided to stay the course but leave the Music City and return to Kansas City.
“We said, ‘You know what? This is who we are. This is what we love.’ And we felt recharged and renewed and decided that we’re gonna keep going with this, what we feel we’re supposed to be doing,” Nathan offered.
They took proactive steps regarding the ill-fated release and the eye-opening two-year stay in Nashville. New songs were written, and about half the ones from the PledgeMusic record were thrown out while the others were completely reworked, including “This Is Life.”
Nathan returned to producing again, with some song-reconfiguring help from manager Hugo Vereker, and assists from Portland, Oregon-based producer Gus Berry and Nashville’s Cason Cooley, who was involved in the previous project.
“Often I spend a lot of time in the studio before I have this realization: No, this song isn’t gonna make it,” Nathan said. “Like, oh, OK, there’s a week in my life that’s gone. It’s sort of a self-evident thing. Like you can just tell when a song works and when songs work together as part of a collection.”
Becky, who gets a producing credit on her edgy song “Who I Am,” said, “It was just like me and my laptop in GarageBand (laughing), like looping my voice and making it sound weird. And every song kind of has a different story.”
That’s for sure, and from a smart, engaging couple who know how to bring a song to life, their revival of Nathan’s “This Is Life” is the most intriguing example of them all.
War and peace of mind
Describing his first attempt as a look at “sort of a dark dystopian future world” that lacked a central theme other than some “creepy imagery,” he found inspiration in a documentary he saw on HBO about the struggles of U.S. military veterans called Wartorn: 1861-2010.
Since he never served in the military, Nathan said, “I felt my only way to do that with honor and integrity was to use their words,” adapting online material, letters and personal statements from veterans to work into a song narrative. Filled with handclaps, vibrant melodies and Becky’s rapid-fire, spoken-word segment, it’s quite a riveting departure from the usual ways such stern subject matter is often delivered.
I can’t believe it, look at my life. Been a living hell, man I’m barely alive / Not the way I used to be. I got war torn, battle born wounds that nobody can see / Thought I was getting better, now I know I was wrong.
Bringing a poppy, upbeat approach to a very serious theme was a gutsy, conscious decision, yet it arrives at the same emotional place as Nashville singer-songwriter Becky Warren did with War Surplus, her incredibly moving 2016 concept album.
“So much of the superficial pleasure of our society is underscored by a lot of darkness,” Nathan said. “And a lot of things we don’t talk about. So that was intentional to have, in that happy frame, this very disturbing picture.”
(Proceeds from the sales, downloads and streams of the “This Is Life” single will go to Warriors’ Ascent, a K.C. organization created by two Iraq combat veterans, and donations are also being accepted.)
With such a refreshing take and two-for-one perseverance embedded in their personalities, the Blisses should be Can’t Misses among the talented crop of dueling duos out there. After all, they’ve been through a lot and accomplished even more since officially giving birth to Barnaby Bright 10 years ago.
Yet a versatile and inventive indie band that arranges most of its tour dates (including a number of house concerts) with the help of its manager needs more than that (pay attention, booking agents) to survive. Along with a loyal but still-developing fan base and an improved social media presence, this devoted couple still must be able to see the light at the end of their tunnel of love.
“We’re in a good spot,” said Becky, obviously pleased with their progress. Nathan reinforced her positivity.
“We’ve gotten back to the East Coast and done some touring and reconnecting with friends and fans, and it felt just amazing, like a piece of our heart was put back in place,” he said. “There was a period when we were sort of making the record and not touring, we were really concerned that we just kind of disappeared and everyone would forget about us. But when we got back out there, there’s so much love and everyone was still there and they were so supportive, and really liking the new material. It was just a very healing and encouraging experience.”
So take a look on the Barnaby Bright side. It should be every music lover’s life-affirming goal.