Nashville-based singer Mandy Barnett has a long and eclectic resume leading up to this point. Starting on Music Row, she later channeled Patsy Cline in a theatrical musical. She was signed to Sire Records by Seymour Stein and worked with power pop-centric producer Andy Paley. Barnett is releasing her first new album in five years, titled ‘Strange Conversation,’ on the Thirty Tigers record label. The album was recorded in Muscle Shoals and features a duet with John Hiatt. Be sure to check “More Lovin’” from the release embedded below.
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Sara Catherine Lichon: Kicking it off with your home of Nashville, Tennessee, what really stands out and makes it special to you? Where would you send a first-time visitor to get a real sense of the surrounding area?
Mandy Barnett: I’ve been here for 25 years and Nashville has actually become a real city. When I first moved here, it was kind of like a large town, but Nashville has definitely become the “it” city. I would say if you’re coming to Nashville, you definitely want to hit the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame. People love to go down on Broadway to the honky-tonks, a great selection of meat and three’s, restaurant and barbecue restaurants.
SCL: Yeah, I’ve heard of those places, those sound really cool. I’ve personally never been, but I’d love to go sometime. What was your first real exposure to music? How did you get inspired to create your own and eventually pursue it as a career?
MB: It’s a great town! I started out in gospel music. I’m actually from a little town called Crossville, Tennessee, which is a couple of hours from Nashville. It’s where I was born and raised. Like many people in the South, I was in church every time the doors were open and that’s where I started singing. So, my love of music just grew from there. I then started getting into the country and doing different things. That’s kind of how it came about.
SCL: Do you find that Nashville, although it’s not where you grew up, has influenced your music at all?
MB: Yeah, it has. Because I was from a small town, there wasn’t really a whole lot going on. There wasn’t a lot of music there, so I had to go to Knoxville and Nashville to really get started. I went to Knoxville initially, because there was sort of a music scene there, and then ultimately Nashville. As a child I started coming here, coming to the Grand Ole Opry. There’s a long-time record shop and radio show that followed the Grand Ole Opry at midnight called the Earnest Tubb Midnight Jamboree. As a kid, I was booked on that show quite a bit. So, we would make the trip from Crossville to Nashville on the weekends and do that radio show.
SCL: To create music, and traveling to promote it, must be such a feeling. What’s the most impactful and meaningful part you cherish about it? Does the travel help inspirationally?
MB: It definitely can. You never really know. Some places you don’t really think that much about, but a lot of times, we might fly into a major city and then get in a car and drive for two or three hours [out]. So, you’re seeing all kinds of beautiful landscapes and countryside, places you wouldn’t necessarily go to unless you were having a concert or a reason to go. You get to discover all these cool things. Just driving along the road, you see a landmark or a restaurant that you wouldn’t discover otherwise.
SCL: That’s my favorite part about traveling too, getting to discover new things. To shift gears to your music a little bit, you are about to release your first album in five years, “Strange Conversation,” on September 21st. What was your overall vision or goal for the album?
MB: I wanted to do something a little different from what I’ve done in the past, and I think we accomplished that. My goal is to grow and do something different. The plan from here on out is just to continue to grow as an artist and explore different sides of myself.
SCL: That’s a good segue into my next question. You’ve talked before about how this latest album is different from what people may expect from you, but it’s still “all you.” What kind of emotions are you feeling about its release? Describe your excitement for the release and to play it live for your fans.
MB: I think the majority of my fans will like it even though I’ve done classic country in the past. But, it’s always been a retro kind of thing. That is still the same even though this is not a country album at all. There’s elements of soul, pop and folk. So, I think it’s going to be cool to get up there and show a different side of me that a lot of my longtime fans haven’t necessarily seen or heard in recordings or live. So, I’m really excited about it and I think it will be well-received.
SCL: I definitely picked up those hints of soul and folk in it, and I really enjoyed it, so I’m sure your fans will definitely love it too. Since this album was a new experience for you, what kind of challenges did you face while working on it, if any? Did you learn anything new about yourself?
MB: I learned a lot of things. I think anytime you do something new, different things emerge from you that you don’t really realize are there. So, when I was recording a lot of these songs, I would hear different textures and different sounds, because I’m working with musicians I’ve never worked with. I’m doing songs that I’ve never done before. It was interesting to just kind of see all these different parts of me that I guess you would say had been “untapped” emerge.
MB: I don’t know if I could say one particular song is my favorite. “Strange Conversation” was one that just unfolded very easily. But really, they were all a joy to work on.
SCL: Now, to shift back into travel a little bit more, what’s one stark difference between traveling as a band versus personal traveling?
MB: I don’t do a lot of personal traveling. I don’t go on vacation very much. It’s something that’s kind of a rare thing, because I am always traveling for work. I probably enjoy traveling for work more than I do vacation. I know that sounds kind of weird! I like the idea of going to places that I wouldn’t necessarily choose to go, because you go wherever you’re booked. Once I’m there, if I have a day or two to kill, I go out there and explore, try the local cuisine and that kind of thing. So, the bulk of my travel really is for work.
SCL: That’s still pretty awesome. It’s not weird at all to me that you enjoy traveling for work even more than pleasure, especially because I’m sure getting to share your music and art with other people is a really exciting part about getting to travel to different places for what you do.
MB: It really is. I got booked in [Belfast, Ireland] and that just sort of came out of the blue. The next thing I knew was I was going to Belfast. And, then I’m standing at the Giant’s Causeway looking at this beautiful scenery. I didn’t plan that, but that was one wonderful thing that just fell into my lap. I’m walking around this beautiful city and I’m playing with this world-class orchestra in another country, singing songs from Nashville that made Nashville famous. That just kind of fell into my lap. It was just a wonderful thing that ended up becoming one of the greatest memories of my life.
MB: I loved the people and the scenery. It was gorgeous! I was surprised at how chilly it was in April! It was kind of funny, because they said that it was actually warm for them. It was 53 degrees so they were walking around with short sleeves. They actually have the pedal taverns too, like we have in Nashville. It was 50 degrees and there were girls on the pedal tavern staff that were wearing sleeveless shirts and short sleeves, and of course, I was freezing! But, I love the culture, the music and just everything about it. Plus, I’m part Irish, so that was pretty cool to experience that.
SCL: That’s funny because I went to Scotland last summer and it was the same thing, I wasn’t expecting it to be as cold as it was, but to them it was warm.
SCL: 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? How has it broadened your perspective of the world?
MB: It’s definitely one thing that brings us all together. My background has been country music, so most of the traveling that I’ve done has been with country music, with the flavor of Nashville being a part of that.
I have gone to Japan and performed there several times. I’ve worked with Japanese musicians too. It’s interesting how we all come together as one on stage. It’s a totally different culture, but they love country music so much. They have learned the music and the songs. So, here I could be standing in Kyoto, Japan, singing a Patsy Cline song, and they’re playing it beautifully like we’re a band. So, it doesn’t really matter that we’re from different cultures and speak different languages. The audience might not be able to understand a word of English, but they know the songs. They love the music. So, during those performances we’re all very present and together.
SCL: That’s amazing! That’s one of my favorite things about music, how it brings people together from different cultures and backgrounds. What was your favorite part about Japan?
MB: Oh my gosh, the people are wonderful! The scenery – it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. The food – the first time that I went, I wasn’t as open-minded about the food, but I decided that the next time I was going to try all kinds of different things. I have no idea what I ate, but it was all really good! Southerners aren’t necessarily known for being that open-minded about sushi and things like that. They kind of stick to their bread, meat and potatoes, but I decided to just have an open mind.
SCL: Yeah, southern food is very different but definitely delicious!
MB: It is! It’s really heavy too. I’ve gone [to Japan] with a lot of country musicians who want to stick to chicken, pork and noodles, and not venture too far out there. But I find that you have a better experience if you keep an open mind.
SCL: I agree. I used to be a really picky eater, but after traveling a bit, I’ve become more of an open-minded person too and try new things.
MB: As long as it’s not something just gross! There are a lot of gross things that southerners eat that I don’t want to eat either.
SCL: Everyone has a list of places that they still have to hit. What are three destinations, either for work or pleasure that you need to see? Why?
MB: I do want to go to Italy. I want to see the whole country, so I would like to go and spend just a big chunk of time there. I’ve never been to Hawaii, so that’s definitely a place that I would like to hit. I would really like to spend more time in the Pacific Northwest like Oregon and Washington. There are so many beautiful places right here in the United States that I want to see that I haven’t seen. I recently went to southern Utah. That’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. Bryce Canyon is absolutely breathtaking.
SCL: Out West is somewhere I’ve been meaning to go to too. I’ve been to the Northwest like Seattle and Washington, but I haven’t been to Utah and places like that. From pictures I’ve seen, it’s so gorgeous.
MB: It is! Arizona, Utah, California – they’re just beautiful, beautiful places. I just did a cross-country road trip not too long ago. It was just breathtaking.
SCL: Doing a road trip is something that’s on my bucket list. Hitting places like that is up there on my list, as well.
MB: Yeah, we went to Santa Fe and spent a couple of days there. I was on a little bit of a time crunch, but that’s something that I would love to do slowly.
SCL: When you’re relaxing on a beach or just have some downtime are you listening to music? If you are, do you like to listen to the kind of music that you create or do you like to switch up the tunes?
MB: I like to switch it up. I like a little variety.