A FEW MINUTES WITH… Richard Barone
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Photograph by Kirsten Ferguson
Singer-songwriter Richard Barone who is in the process of recording an album titled Sorrows and Promises: Greenwich Village in the 1960s, holds a CD release party Saturday night (June 6) at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. The “sorrows” in that title are a reference to folk artists Richard and Mimi Farina’s “Pack Up Your Sorrows” and the “promises” come from Greenwich Village’s under-rated avatar Tim Hardin’s “Don’t Make Promises,” but if you’re expecting a “Kumbaya” folk-scare revival, you need to reset your way-back machine.
First of all, Barone’s repertoire includes ‘50s rockers like Dion, who grew up in Brooklyn, and Buddy Holly, who may have lived in the Village but was a native of Texas. Throw in “Sunday Morning” by Lou Reed, who was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the second time, and such chart topping singer-songwriters as Paul Simon and James Taylor, and the Greenwich Village thread becomes a stretch. Not that this is a bad thing. Throwing Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It with Mine” into the same bag as the Blues Project’s “Fly Away” is an interesting exercise in breaking down the genre barriers that the record industry loves to raise in categorizing all artists.
“I think the thread in all of this is self-expression,” says Barone, who was the founder the ’80s rock band the Bongos. “I was working the other day on the Janis Ian song ‘Sweet Misery.’ She was only 15 or 16 when she recorded that. It’s like there is so much angst in it. A lot of it is self-expression, and I’m not sure because of how songs are made now by committee how much that really happens anymore. How pure is the message? These are really pure. There is a thread here. These are like pure emotional human expressions, all of the songs, even Buddy Holly’s ‘Learning the Game,’ which is gonna be the first song on the album.
“I’ll have to read the list again, but I think I can safely say that the songs are all based on real experiences and real emotions and reality, unlike so much of the music today that is not, and that to me is the thread. The emotional thread is there. It’s an emotional journey, and I think when we pace the album, we’ll put them in an order that maybe will tell a story in some way, but right now when I go in the studio and sing these songs, I know I’m singing something that is real.”
Many of the songs were chosen for this project by Mitchell Cohen who ironically has been a Columbia and Arista Records A&R (artist & repertoire) man, the function most commonly associated with the pigeon-holing of artists into genre boxes. Cohen is responsible for compiling and annotating reissues by artists as disparate as Gene Pitney, the Shirelles, Lee Dorsey and the Monkees.
“I’ve worked with record companies my whole life, but I’ve never had quite the A&R person involved in a project the way I have with Mitchell Cohen, who came to me with this project a little less than a year ago. I was performing here in the Village. Again it was songs from the ’60s, which I love, and it was a very special show here at City Winery that was sort of garage rock songs.
“I did a few songs, and when I came off the stage, (there was) Mitchell Cohen, who I always known about as a journalist for a lot of different magazines and newspapers, but also as a really good A&R person who was able to connect with me. He pulled me aside and said, ‘I have a project for you,’ and it was this, Sorrows and Promises, and he actually had a lot of ideas for the writers to pay tribute to.
“I invited him to come over to my apartment here on Waverly Place, and we spent days going through song choices, and I with my guitar and sort of picking songs by the writers which he had on the list, and it became a really great process. Some of it I discovered.
“I try not to put walls between musical styles. Starting with (my band) the Bongos and as a solo artist, I think I have covered a lot of different types of music, and I want to continue to do that. This one is a really good spot for me to be in now to do an album of these songs because it can only help me on my next album of original material. It can only help me feel stronger as a writer.”
A 35-year veteran of the music industry with 16 solo albums both solo and with the Bongos, Barone is a true renaissance man. He’s produced an all-star tribute to Peggy Lee at Carnegie Hall and was executive producer of “The Nomi Song,” a documentary film on the life of new wave countertenor Klaus Nomi. He’s performed with childhood inspiration Donovan at New York’s Joe’s Pub and is currently producing an album by jazz vocalist Hilary Kole covering Judy Garland songs.
His resume goes on for three pages of amazingly disparate credits, but perhaps his most interesting credential is his memoir “Frontman: Surviving the Rock Star Myth,” described on Amazon.com as a “defiantly up and coming musical memoir and how-to book (that) collides to form a fascinating new hybrid.” Published by Backbeat, it got him a gig as a professor of musical performance at New York University.
“They had read it and were using it and asked me if I could form a course based on some of the ideas in it,” he explains. “It talks about musical genres, age, sex, sexual orientation, all of these aspects are really important. It’s about feeling. It’s about emotion. It’s about motivation and finally a collaboration. ‘Frontman: Surviving the Rock Star Myth’ is talking about a young fellow, me, who went through a lot of drug issues, hospitalizations.
“I’m working on my second book for Backbeat/Hal Leonard Books right now. I’m very excited about it. I had a great time writing ‘Frontman.’ It was a meditation for me because I had to sort of re-evaluate where I was. I wrote that in 2007 or so, and I was at a time where I wanted to look at where I was and that book helped me. It was great to re-evaluate.”
The common thread in Barone’s selection of songs is self-expression and a feeling for music that is written from the singer’s heart. “I love to research the songs. I can tell you that the Dion song (“The Road I’m On”) is from a real experience. The song I did by John Sebastian was “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind” is from a true experience about a very famous folksinger’s two sisters. He was dating one, but then met the other and couldn’t decide which one he wanted to date. Did you ever have to make up your mind? It’s true. I love the realness. This is realness, and I’m trying to deliver these songs with that kind of realness.”
“Caffe Lena has Saturday’s show listed as a CD release party,” says Barone, “and I haven’t asked Sarah Craig [Caffe Lena’s director] to change it because I like that we call it that although the CD is not finished yet. It’s still a work in progress. We thought we might be finished by now, but my goal is to have some of the performers who wrote the songs that we’re doing here come and guest on the album. So I’m trying to leave some extra time for them to come by when they can and maybe sing with me and play harmonica or guitar on the album.
“I love that we’re doing a Pledge Music Campaign for this album. Another reason I love it is the people who are the potential listeners of it are contributing by offering suggestions of song titles. I think we’ve actually made a few changes on songs because of the people writing in and suggesting tunes to the Pledge Music page. That’s kind of cool for me to be able to share the project with the future listener of the album who pre-ordered. I love it.”