Singer Aurora Barnes Sets Off to Improve the World, One Project at a Time
In the music world, there are two types of artists: those who simply decided one day to take up a new hobby and run with it, and the rarer kind, those who were nurtured throughout their lives with music. The latter has embraced a natural ability of melding lyrics and notes to create a spectacular craft, one which drives the core of their being. They work on this gift for most of their lives, changing and morphing with it as they grow from children to adolescents to adults. Whether they opt to utilize their years’ worth of honed talent purely for entertainment purposes or to plunge revolutionary ideas into the world is entirely their choice. If they — and, frankly, we — are lucky enough, these statements can reach the masses and open our eyes to notions we otherwise may have continued to be unexposed to.
Aurora Barnes is one of those performers setting out to make a difference, but not only through her stirring and frequently poignant music. To say that this warmly charismatic songbird is “just another singer” is to do her injustice as well as to overlook an essential part of who this artist truly is. Barnes is best described as an activist with an incalculable passion for music. It’s driven her nearly since birth and has served to provide her with enviable experiences, including a mentorship with Broadway goddess Bernadette Peters.
The seasoned vixen’s melodic adeptness isn’t limited to her powerful vocal chops. Her first toe-dip into the musical pool began with the lift of a violin and a harmonizing of a rosined bow drawing across the instrument. It was the mastery of this artful craft that led to her being featured in the film Small Wonders, a documentary focusing on the talents of youths in classical music. Today, she has embraced her “true love” for singing and has channeled this fervor in her maturely poppy debut EP, Fair Game. Barnes was aided by producers Rob Lewis and Om’Mas Keith, who have been credited with working alongside Patti LaBelle and Christina Aguilera. The collaboration resulted in an album that’s strikingly candid and often remarkably emotional: a debut which is worth a listen — or two, or three.
Yet, music isn’t the only passion that motivates this up-and-coming star. Realizing the potential she had to be a leader and a voice for others, the expressive songstress combined her innate talent with an intense drive to push for sociological change. Barnes has contributed to various efforts, from civil rights to women’s liberation to the anti-war movement. Most recently, she’s taken the initiative to establish a platform which drives the personal growth of teenagers. The GirlsTalk/GuysTalk program, centered in Harlem, New York has provided teens with an arena to comfortably air out their frustrations while simultaneously encouraging their advancement. Just look at the headlines sweeping today’s newspapers and you’ll see how necessary GirlsTalk/GuysTalk is in our world, with teens dealing with self-esteem and bullying — issues that often culminate in reaching unimaginable breaking points. Barnes aims to create “a haven for the kids…to help the kids understand the power in their voices and that they have choices to begin with.”
The singer’s folk-inspired artistry, however, will not be pushed aside by her altruistic aspirations. Barnes will soon be embarking on a string of shows in the NY area, while continuing to lead the development of the GirlsTalk/GuysTalk curriculum. GALO recently had the opportunity to speak to this awe-inspiring game-changer, whose debut EP was released to the world on April 1. With a strong-willed sense of drive and a visionary outlook, Barnes divulged on her widespread passions and explained how she’s managed to find an effective balance between them.
GALO: Your first EP, Fair Game, was released on April 1. However, you’ve been singing and performing since you were a child. You were even featured in the documentary Small Wonders, which was nominated for an Oscar. What made you decide to pursue a singing career as opposed to continuing as a classical instrumentalist?
Aurora Barnes: I loved playing violin as a child, but playing violin was work for me. Practicing was something that I really had to focus and do and be pushed by. I remember my mother pushing me a lot to practice and I’m grateful for that. I had wonderful experiences playing violin, but singing was something that never felt like work. It was always fun and I would practice all the time. I was singing everywhere, and to go to rehearsals and my lessons, it never felt like work. Even as I started to get older, it [sometimes feels like] being an athlete with the breath and everything, it felt like that good workout. I think that’s ultimately what made that decision for me. It was a matter of my true love.
GALO: You recorded Fair Game with Rob Lewis, who’s worked with Christina Aguilera and Patti LaBelle, and Om’Mas Keith, who’s worked with Erykah Badu and John Legend. What did you take away from working with producers who’ve worked alongside such luminaries?
AB: Well, first of all, I didn’t get enough time with them. It’s like that nourishment where I’m salivating for more. It was incredible to watch them in action. Both of them, independently, are geniuses. To watch them together, it was like they were speaking another language sometimes. I was just excited to be in the room, and excited to be taken seriously by people whose talents I so admire and who’ve really worked their way for years. I don’t think I’m being overly articulate about it, but I think it’s because they’re so incredible, it’s hard to. It was a tremendous experience and I hope to work with those guys again.
GALO: This EP is your introduction to the world and it seems like just a taste of what’s to come from your musical career. Why did you choose these specific songs for your debut?
AB: It was tough for me to choose; I had help. Rob Lewis, my producer, helped to do some songs. I think, ultimately, we were trying to think of songs that would be catchy and fun or beautiful to listen to, but also had something to say. I find that I’m increasingly passionate and interested in lyrical content more than anything. So it was really important to me that whatever songs I chose, they really made a statement — even if it was an abstract statement that needed to be interpreted. “We Fall with Grace” was the only song that was sort of a last-minute addition. I think I’d just written a verse and a chorus on a scratch demo and I sent it out to see what everyone said. Immediately, everyone knew it was supposed to go on the album. I wrote that song after hearing about the Newtown massacre. Each song has a great meaning to me.
Video courtesy of Aurora Barnes Music.
GALO: Each track on Fair Game seems to showcase a level of emotional depth to your voice that’s not often seen in other artists. I noticed it most in songs like “We Fall with Grace” and “Cover Me.” Where do you draw inspiration for your songs?
AB: I remember reading this article that Rosanne Cash wrote about songwriting and I’m not going to quote her specifically, but when you write a song, it can be anything. The words don’t even necessarily need to make sense. You can create a new meaning by putting two words together that wouldn’t normally follow each other. I really have been enjoying writing in that kind of abstract style. Even something like “We Fall with Grace,” which I initially sat down to write immediately after hearing the news about the Newtown massacre — and the second verse speaks a little more specifically to that because I mention, “Put the guns away, let the children play.” There are other lines in that song that speak to completely different things. The first verse kind of references being in love and the chorus says, “We fall with grace, we rise with strength, we break our backs,” because my sister got into this tragic accident where she shattered one of the vertebrae in her lower back and was nearly killed. With every song, there are moments that have nothing to do with another moment in the song, but it fits and I think that’s representative of our lives. Sometimes there can be this horrible tragedy that happens and we’re just upset because it’s like, “now who’s going to pay the bills?”
“Cover Me” is probably my most specific love story; it’s the story about an unrequited love and feeling this angst and lust and everything in the moment, and not being necessarily sure if the person is feeling the same way, but hoping you can at least get that energy and love returned in that moment. I’d like for people to be able to interpret it for themselves. And I love to talk about each line and where it comes from for me, but I really believe in the importance of interpretation of art, so I love to hear what other people think.
GALO: The music for the title track, “Fair Game,” showcases a vibrant soulfulness. Words like “It hurts when he don’t love you” convey a feeling I’m sure audiences can easily associate with, and the track wraps up the rest of the album beautifully. Was the song based on personal experiences?
AB: Some of my songs are very personal. Even if there might be one line that’s not directly related to me, it’s usually something that I feel connected to in some way. It’s hard out there to get a man to love you. A bunch of these songs, there’s this underlying theme of unrequited love and moments of frustration and loss. “It hurts when he don’t love you”– I know exactly who I was talking about when I wrote that. It was a very honest moment for me when I said that out loud.