Local singer-songwriter Phil Barnes wrote his first single when he was a sophomore in high school – he finished up the lyrics in his chemistry class. Over the past four years, he’s played over 600 gigs and is just about to release a second major body of work. His earnest work ethic is touched with eccentricity – Barnes generates lyrics while driving, writing down ideas at red lights and sticking them to his dashboard – and his efforts are grounded in a sense of purpose. He speaks passionately about his work with the non-profit Musicians on Call and his inspiration from his late brother. Far from a pipe dream, music is his life. There’s no plan B. Even at 21, he’s never been more sure.
FLMag: You’re from Fort Lauderdale?
PB: Born and raised – right over on the Northwest side. I guess it would be Coconut Creek.
FLMag: Where’d you go to high school?
PB: I went to Monarch High School in Coconut Creek. It’s relatively new. I think they built it in 2004.
FLMag: How old are you?
PB: I’m 21.
FLMag: When did you start getting into music?
PB: I started playing guitar at 13 and started singing a couple years after. Then after that I got the courage to walk into a Starbucks and talk to someone there and be like ‘Oh I want to play a show.” I think it was on my 17th birthday. I did a show there and played a whole bunch of Starbucks and coffee shops around Broward County for a while and from there it grew into more of the bar and club scene. That’s where I’m at right now and going past. I started within the county and it’s kind of grown to Palm Beach and Miami.
FLMag: I didn’t know Starbucks let you do that.
PB: They don’t. It was a really nice manager that ran that store and she drew up a whole harmless (agreement) and said “Go ahead and do your thing. Don’t worry about it. “ With that framework, I went to another Starbucks. It brought them in more business on a Thursday or Friday night and it worked out for me.
FLMag: You play guitar right? Did you teach yourself?
PB: I do and yes I did. I had an old guitar that was sitting in my closet from my grandfather that literally had three strings on it and I figured out how to pluck single notes a little bit. Then my parents bought me my first guitar right at 13 and I taught myself from that point by just learning by ear and watching YouTube videos. With that it just grew. That’s the only way I could learn – to be self-taught and delve my way into it.
FLMag: Who did you listen to growing up?
PB: I’d say consistently I’ve been a John Mayer fan since I was 13. I love his playing style, I love his singing style, so as close of a mark that I could get to that when I was younger – that was my thing. After that I grew into other folk artists like Damien Rice and most recently Ed Sheeran.
FLMag: Would you agree that John Mayer’s style has changed in the past few years?
PB: It has – yea. I think it’s a natural growth. You know, he hasn’t tried to put up the same record twice and obviously everyone’s going to have their favorite record but it’s kind of nice seeing someone growing older and making what they believe in.
FLMag: Who do you think you identify with – the current John Mayer or the older version?
PB: I think where my mind is at right now, probably the younger. I like just being with an acoustic guitar [but] I also like filling in with bands and having a couple other artists join me. Maybe when I get to that level ten years from now, I can identify with where he is at.
FLMag: What’s your favorite John Mayer album?
PB: Continuum – by far. It’s just a masterpiece.
FLMag: At what point did you know you wanted to do this for a living?
PB: It’s been about a year now. I had been playing shows pretty frequently through the beginning of college. While I was up at FAU I played some shows up there. I was playing shows pretty frequently but still holding my job and still going to school. But about a year ago my brother passed away. About a week after that happened I kind of just slapped myself in the head and said, “You know you really gotta do what you want to do or you’re never going to do it.” And with that I turned in my withdrawal slip to FAU and decided I wasn’t going to study business and psychology anymore and put literally every minute of my day into what I’m doing now. A lot of people have been gracious enough to give me opportunities, like C&I Studios has been a huge proponent of anything that I’ve been trying to do. People have taken a little bit more notice than they did before.
FLMag: Have you ever thought about giving up?
PB: No. There is no plan B. I realized that if you either create a plan B or have an idea of a plan B, you’ll never end up doing it. So this is it and I’ll do anything it takes to make it work.
FLMag: The first song you ever wrote – do you remember what it was?
PB: Yes. It’s a song called “Letter” that I put out in 2011 but wrote in mid 2010.
FLMag: Where did you get your inspiration?
PB: I didn’t have too much experience dating in high school but I observed the people around me date and there’s that teenage angst and melodrama that comes out. So I tried to pull from my friends’ experiences and create a song that was very melancholy. I think I finished up the last verse of it in my chemistry class in sophomore year of high school. It was one of those things where he’s talking about some sort of compound and I’m like “Oh yea this is great.” I probably failed the test after that but I got a song out of it.
FLMag: How would you describe your sound?
PB: That’s tough. I think it’s something that could fit in a coffeehouse but could be something you could go to a club and hear. Not necessarily a dance club but more of a music hall. Songs that you can take with you whatever your day is. If you’re in the car, it’s great driving music. If you’re going to sleep at night, it’s great bed music. I think these songs can fit in someone’s day pretty easily.
FLMag: Do you listen to your own songs in the car?
PB: I do. The car test is like the most important thing of recording – at least for me. So when I’m in a writing stage a lot of times I’ll have a melody that I’ll have on an iPhone or voice memo. I’ll take that and when I get the majority of the construct of something I’ll take that with me and I’ll go on A1A and drive from Atlantic Boulevard in Pompano. By the time I get to Delray, I usually have about a dashboard full of Post-it notes of ideas. So the lyrics will be spread out all across the dashboard and then by the time I get back home, I stack them all up and finish the song.
FLMag: Do you do that regularly?
PB: Yea, that’s how I write the songs. There’s something weird about driving that does it for me. Red lights are a very strange phenomenon. But yea, I’ll take that and do the first initial recordings and when I have something I can put in a Dropbox file I’ll play that in the car and drive more.
FLMag: Your first live show – that was in a Starbucks right? What was that like?
PB: Nerve-racking. It’s kind of weird because you’re so used to playing inside your bedroom for yourself or your cat or dog. I had a lot of experience playing for my family, playing for my brother. But when I got the opportunity to play in front of somebody, it’s completely nerve-racking because you don’t know how [everyone is] going to take it. It’s like these are so personal to me that I don’t know if sharing is going to be weird or not. But people liked it. A lot of them were cover songs but people tended to like those John Mayer songs over the sound of a Frappuccino being made in the background. It was a good feeling afterwards.
FLMag: What’s your least favorite part about performing live?
PB: I think tearing down and taking everything out of the venue is always a least favorite thing. Because usually you want to spend more time talking with people or not carrying your gear out. It’s a lot of stuff.
FLMag: What was your best live show? Or most interesting – where something unusual happened?
PB: I played the Sheridan in Fort Lauderdale. This was maybe two and a half years ago. I brought all the gear from my car and went across the little skyway there and pulled my stuff inside and met with the guy who was going to be telling me where to set up. He [said] “You’re going to be inside the bar right after the mermaids are done.” And I was like “What are you talking about? Are you serious?” And so I had to see this for myself and brought my gear over to the side and I walked inside the bar and behind where they keep all the bottles, there were these portholes and these mermaids – literal women, actresses dressed up as mermaids – are swimming around in the tank. So I can say that mermaids opened for me. That was probably the weirdest.
FLMag: Have you had a lot of support from your family?
PB: I have. When I was initially starting out I said “Hey, I want to do music.” And they were like, “OK, well keep at it and keep doing your studies,” and stuff like that. Within the past year they’ve been able to see that it’s actually something fruitful. They like seeing that I get to do my passion everyday.
FLMag: Has your brother inspired you?
PB: Absolutely. Because he’s the first one that heard any of the songs I wrote. I think the experience of playing for him got me involved with the charity that I’m involved with called Musicians on Call.
FLMag: Tell me about that.
PB: It’s a national organization. I got involved with the Miami branch about four years ago. We take local musicians teamed up with a volunteer guide and we’ll go room by room and play for as many kids as we can within a two-hour time span.
FLMag: Do you go every week?
PB: Yea. I’m there just about every week. We have other musicians that come as well. I try to fill in slots when other musicians can’t be there because I love it.
FLMag: Just children’s hospitals?
PB: No, the national organization does veteran hospitals, children’s hospitals and just typical adult care. Down here, we do two children’s hospitals and one regular. We’re looking to get into a VA program.
Kids tend to be the most receptive because a lot of times you’ll go into a room where someone got the worst news of their life and typically the whole family is there and the mood is often pretty somber. But when we bring a musician in and they can kind of show a little light in the room – it changes the whole dynamic. That little three minute time period that you have with them can turn the whole day around.
FLMag: What’s your schedule like? Give me a typical week.
PB: A typical week. I’m up right around 5:30, 6 a.m. I go to the gym. The majority of the day from nine to five is working, getting gigs, doing press things. I also work for Musicians on Call. They hired me to start training musicians down here – so working with them. Yea, booking gigs, getting back to emails, everything I can do from a nine-to-five basis inside of my house or my office. Also doing booking for an event that I run in Pompano. The Pompano Beach CRA and I created an event just about a year ago called Happy Hour on the Beach. We put it on right on Atlantic and A1A, right where the shops are, where Frank’s Restaurant used to be, and we bring out local songwriters, local bands and local smaller duos to put on a show every Thursday from 5:30 to 7:30. The restaurants there put on like half-priced beer and wine and certain specials. It’s a good community event. I do a lot of booking for that as well as planning it. So between that and Musicians on Call and doing my own personal booking, it’s a busy day from that point. The evenings are usually shows. So I’ll get to the venue about an hour beforehand, load in all the gear, put on the show for about a two- or three-hour set and then I’m usually on my way home by about midnight. And then I start the whole thing over the next day.
FLMag: How many shows do you play a week would you say?
PB: Usually four to five. In the past four years I’ve done 600 shows.
FLMag: Do you ever travel outside the state?
PB: Working on it. I’ve done a couple of shows in North Carolina and South Carolina but later this summer there’s a tour and it will be through the south.
FLMag: You released the Phil Barnes EP in August of last year. What was that process like?
PB: That was recorded in my brother’s old room in my house actually. I recorded it a couple weeks after he passed and it was a really simple EP meaning that I just had two microphones – one to sing the vocals and another one for the guitar. The whole EP is really simple – just straight acoustic guitar and vocals. It took maybe three weeks to record, between writing a couple new songs and then recording the parts.
FLMag: How did you do that so quickly after your brother’s death?
PB: It was therapeutic and I knew I had to get moving and I still have that same mentality right now where it’s like get busy going after it because you don’t know how much time you have. That sounds really morbid – it’s not meant to sound that way but I had to go back to doing music. There was a lot of support. The day we had his memorial – I think that night I played in Delray Beach and all the people that had been at the memorial really came out and supported. So you knew that there was something consistent between the bad things that happen and the good things and people wanted to be there for that. And I knew I had to put out some kind of body of work soon and I wasn’t going to let my mood affect that. I wanted it to kind of motivate it.
FLMag: You said it took about three weeks to record. Write and record as well?
PB: There was a song on there called “Shoulders” and another one called “Blind and Invincible” that I wrote during that three week time period. “A Needle and a Thread” was written before that and a couple of the other songs were written before that as well. So putting it together from the point of recording it and writing those two songs and mixing it was maybe three weeks. It’s a lot different than the work that I’ve been doing now.
FLMag: What was the inspiration behind the album?
PB: At the time there wasn’t really any concept behind the actual album. There were just songs that I felt that I wanted to put out. I think the time that it came out was a really good reflection of where I was at. Now, the recordings that are coming out – there’s a lot more instrumentation going on. There’s a lot more thought into each note of it. Recording capabilities have kind of expanded since then. With more shows, I had a little bit more funds to get a keyboard and teach myself how to play piano. Now there’s going to be drums on this next thing that’s coming out. There’s going to be drum work, piano work and mandolin work.
FLMag: All by you?
FLMag: Kind of like Ed Sheeran.
PB: I went up with my girlfriend to Nashville, Tennessee – this was last July and Ed Sheeran was doing an event for Musicians on Call. We were going to volunteer for the event. Ed played a charity show for them and I got to see Ed doing his looping. And I had been a fan of his for a little while. It’s really cool what he does as far as building a song. He creates all the elements just with his guitar and other instruments on stage and it’s something really cool and unique. I’ve tried to get a loop pedal and try it live and it’s not the way Ed does it. He’s done it for a while.
FLMag: Is looping something difficult to master?
PB: The timing is really difficult to get right because as far as layering and looping, it’s hard to backtrack if you get something wrong. He’s really good about building the beat that he has in his head and then he can layer on the melody on top and then build, build, build, build, build. Then it all makes sense.
FLMag: If your Phil Barnes EP was a color what would it be?
PB: I’m a big fan of the color blue so I want to say it’s blue but I feel the same way about this record too so I’d say that it’s more of a dimmer blue than what this next one is going to be. This next work is more of a neon blue. Like a bar sign neon blue. Whereas the other one was more of a Crayola 64-color pack shade.
FLMag: What’s the hardest song you’ve ever written?
PB: In the sense of musicality or…?
FLMag: Both musicality and lyrically.
PB: It’s tough to say because I don’t think I’ve released a song that was too difficult because the ones I put on the record are songs that came out pretty quickly. I want to say that the single that I just put out was really quick – like a matter of 30 minutes of just sitting in my kitchen with my keyboard. Then the lyrics came out of driving to go record that at the studio.
Probably the hardest song was a song called “Shoulders” that I put out and that was written about my brother. So I think emotionally that was the most difficult song to write. But lyrically the things that come quicker tend to be something that sticks. It’s a different kind of satisfaction that comes from something quick and something that comes very slowly.
FLMag: Your new stuff – tell me about that and when we can expect to see it.
PB: You’re going to hear the record in August. I’m planning on putting it out the beginning of then. I put out the next single this month. It’s got a lot more production on it – in the sense of different instrumentation, more instrumentation but it’s a really good framework of where I’m at right now.
FLMag: How many songs?
PB: There’s going to be 10.
FLMag: Any idea of what it’s going to be called?
PB: No idea. I think I will decide that probably at the end of July. But I think there are still a couple more songs that need to be written. So by the time the end of this month hits, I think I’ll have those two songs that I feel confident about to finish off the record. It’ll be there. The good thing about being an independent artist is that I have the ability to put two more songs on a record two months before it comes out. For a lot of major label artists sometimes production ended six months ago or eight months ago. The beauty of the community that’s come out of independent artists is that you can submit something to iTunes or Spotify literally three days before you want to put it out. It’s really awesome and interesting and you get to feel like the world gets to see something you created really recently. That’s important to me. I want people to see something that was thought of not too long ago.
FLMag: So an album name – is that something that is typically done when everything is recorded?
PB: I think so. I don’t think I could write the title of a book until I had it written. It’s kind of the good endnote. I’ve never really gone into a project or even a song with a title. It’s just been this is the way that I’m feeling and then at the end I’ll write the title.
You can listen to Phil Barnes’ new single here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQx0Ys3_m-A. For details on his upcoming tour and album, visit philbarnesmusic.com.