Chris Barron is best known as the lead singer of the band Spin Doctors. What you maybe didn’t know is that long before he was that goofy guy in the hat on MTV, he was an even goofier kid with an acoustic guitar. Chris plays nifty chords on an old Gibson to masterfully crafted songs that are poignant yet wistful and funny, all the while singing in a manner that’s sweet and somewhat different from what you would expect if you only knew his hits, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes”. Live, his stage patter is almost as entertaining as his singing. A powerful story teller, at once hilarious and thought provoking, Chris sets up his songs with anecdotes from a life on the road, from opening for and encountering legends like the Rolling Stones to Polar expeditions. Check out Barron’s latest work is his solo album “Angles And One-Armed Jugglers”, which just released October 20th.
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Sean Ritchie: First, I know you’ve lived in a bunch of places growing up, can you give an overview of your upbringing and how travel played a huge role?
Chris Barron: I live in New York City, but I was born in Honolulu, went to elementary school in Australia and went to middle school and high school in Princeton, New Jersey. After that, I moved to New York City with $100 and an acoustic guitar. I still live here now. By the time I was 10 I crossed the equator and the International Date Line. I had also been to four continents. I’ve sort of been a travel freak since I was a little kid.
SR: That’s amazing to hear such a worldly upbringing. So, starting with New York City, what makes it special to you? Where would you send a first-time visitor?
CB: NYC is a really remarkable place, because, first, it’s an island and I have a thing for islands being born in Hawaii. I lived on the largest island in the world, Australia. It’s something about the feng shui of a land mass that is surrounded by water. I don’t know what it is. It’s this unique amalgam of historical elements. Geologically, it’s this big lump of limestone. That’s why we can have these great, big, tall buildings. It’s unusual to have a little island with these big skyscrapers on it, actually.
When I have somebody coming here when the weather is good, my favorite thing to do is the Circle Line. They are these boats that circumnavigate Manhattan. It’s [a couple hours] long, but they serve beer and food. There’s a tour guide with a mic and they give you a tour of the island from the water. They explain the history of NY and the surrounding waters. It’s never the same twice. I always recommend that, because I think it’s such a cool way to get a feel for the history and geography of the city. After that you can kind of delve into some of the neighborhoods.
SR: I’ve actually been on those, and it does give you a great perspective of the city. What was your first, real exposure to music? How did it evolve into your career?
CB: My mom was like, “Chris, you’re going to take guitar lessons.” And, it sounded like more homework to me. I said, “What about trumpet?” She said, “You can’t have singalongs.” So, I said, “What about piano?” She’s like, “You can’t take a piano to the beach.” I then said, “What about drums?” And, she just looked at me like I was crazy. She started to kind of weedle with me saying, “Look, Chris, if you learn to play guitar the girls will love you.” I was nine and like, “Yuck!” So, sure enough, I started to take guitar lessons.
I really started to get serious about guitar when I was 13 or 14. I had this guitar teacher that showed me this Harry Belafonte song, a Fleetwood Mac tune and a Simon & Garfunkel song. So, I started to pull parts from those songs, put them together and playing them. He came in once and I thought I was going to be in trouble because I wasn’t practicing the stuff that I gave you. But, he wasn’t. He told me that what I was doing was how you make songs. So, that was it for me at 14 years old. I already had a passion for creative writing. I just combined my rudimentary guitar playing and started writing tunes. I’ve never looked back.
SR: Wow, that’s amazing. Mom’s always have a way of starting you off on your path. To create music, and traveling to promote it, must be such a feeling. What is the most impactful or meaningful part that you cherish about it?
CB: They sure do. As I said, growing up I traveled a lot. And, living in NYC for 30 years I do see myself as a New Yorker. But, my core identity I see myself as a traveler. As a singer, I was in the high school choir, and at 16 I had the chance to compete in the Vienna Youth & Music Festival in Vienna, Austria. It’s this international competition for high school choirs. We did all this fundraising to go. For me, that was eye-opening. The only reason I was there was because I could sing. I thought, “If I’m only 16, and I just finagled my way across the Atlantic Ocean on my singing merits, I must be on to something.”
But, travel and being a musician are very linked. You can’t just play the same town every night. No one will keep seeing you. That was a huge attraction to me. I wanted to play music and travel.
SR: To bring it into your new work, your solo album “Angles And One-Armed Jugglers” just came out October 20th. Talk about your thought process behind that release? How excited are you to finally get it out there and have your fans listen to it?
CB: I’m really excited and gratified from the feedback I’m getting. I’m getting some really, really nice reviews. A lot of reviewers are mentioning that they’ve listened multiple times. Which, to me, is a real compliment. These people have to listen to records for a living and they are replaying it. I haven’t put a solo record out since 2004. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I was working with the Spin Doctors. The Spin Doctors are still together. We have no intention of breaking up. We’re the best of friends. It’s still the original lineup. But, for me, the solo stuff is an additional creative outlet. I write a lot of songs, and about one-of-five are Spin Doctors tunes.
I started working on this record about two years ago. In the middle of that I lost my voice with paralyzed vocal chords for a year. When my voice came back, I was just hell bent on making this music. I wanted them to be fully realized in a studio environment. Roman Klun, who produced the record with me, was really amazing. I wanted to tour solo acoustic, because I already have a rock and roll band. I love playing that way, just getting songs across with me and a guitar. Klun from the beginning had a sense that some of the songs were larger than that perception.
So, we approached Shawn Pelton, the drummer for the Saturday Night Live house band. He’s a genius. I’m a huge drummer snob, because I play Aaron Comess and he’s one of the best in the world. And, if I wasn’t going to play with him, I was going to play with someone that was at a really high level. Shawn was the guy. We got Jesse Murphy, an amazing bass player. We just ended up with this whole group of talented guys – amazing musicians. The production just kind of grew into the songs and it’s really remarkable. It really came out beautifully. The songs are really varied from song-to-song, but they’re all tied together and united by my personality as a writer.
SR: Switching back into travel, focused more on your personal preferences, when you do have some downtime, and are looking to get away, are you more of a beach guy? Up in the mountains? Or, in a city somewhere?
CB: All of the above. One of my big things is food. I’m a big foodie. I love to eat, so I love Spain and Italy. It’s funny you should ask that, because my wife and I just went on vacation to Greece. We hadn’t been able to take a really extended vacation in a long time — years. So, our conception of the vacation was a third of it will be nerd-sightseeing stuff. We did this five-day tour on a bus. A third of it was relaxing on the beach. And, the final third was just us exploring. So, yeah, I’m all of the above. I love something about each of those.
Through some of my friends I met Børge Ousland, who is the greatest living polar explorer. With him, we’ve been up to Svalbard, which is an archipelago of islands off the coast of the North Pole. I’ve done some really cool deep-winter stuff like watching the arura borealis. We’ve done a lot of hiking together. But, yeah, I really do love everything. Don’t get me started about travel, I really could just go on and on and on.
SR: I’m the same way! One of our core objectives at SCP is to bring people together while traveling, not only to influence people to see and appreciate our beautiful world, but to also minimize cross-cultural divides. What effect does traveling, specifically surrounding music, have on humans in this regard?
CB: First of all, I’ve got to commend you. That’s such a great objective. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think it couldn’t be more right. The thing about being in a band, everywhere you go people are coming to hear you, so it’s really easy to make friends. Music is this really culturally-leveling factor. Throughout my career, I’ve met people from being in a band. A lot of the socio-economic problems going on in the United States and throughout the world really stems from people not knowing each other. I think traveling really exposes you to other people’s way of life. It really gives you and understanding of the world that you can’t get staying in one place.
SR: I couldn’t agree with that more. People just having an understanding of someone helps everything. Lastly, to wrap this up, I love asking well-traveled people if they have three destinations that they haven’t been to, but want to hit. What are three on your list?
CB: I’ve never been to Venice. People always say I’m so well-traveled, and I replay, “No, I’m not. I haven’t been to Venice.” I also want to go to Antarctica. It’s the last continent I haven’t visited. I want to be able to say I’ve been to every continent. I really want to see that. People have told me it’s just stunning. I’d love to explore the Adriatic Sea some more. I really want to see more of Asia too. I want to visit Vietnam, Japan, Korea and Cambodia more. I’ve never been to Thailand either. I want to see it all.