By Brian Tucker
Singer-songwriter Hank Barbee has stayed busy playing shows locally, especially the month of January. Each one is different – Barbee may play solo, be joined by family members, or he’ll bring out a version of his band The Dust Parade accompanied by Jim Durham on saxophone. Barbee welcomes it either way, enjoying the freedom to try new things while performing, go in varied directions, or embrace what the musicians bring on any particular night.
“You go places musically you didn’t know you were going,” Barbee said of his self-described alt-Americana music. “Jim and I will do other things – guitar, sax and vocals. It’s really interesting. We make some interesting sounds.”
The Richlands, N.C. native moved to Atlanta following high school graduation, played in a string of bands and worked as a side musician on other people’s records before finally moving to Wilmington in 2018. He also wrote material for musicians and it was during a side project with friends they encouraged him to sing his own songs. He’d written material following a turbulent 2008, which culminated in Barbee becoming a singer-songwriter.
“I had something to say. I had enough material and one of my really good friends said, if you need money I’ll pay for it. This is really good stuff, you got to record this.”
He recorded his first solo record as well as a folky side project with twin sisters called Belle Vici. For recent album Son Royale he took his time, nearly two years recording songs off and on at North Star Post and Sound in Wilmington with Brandon Hackler. Making the album pieces at a time (and without a band) it’s surprising the album’s atmosphere ended up being so coherent.
“When I get in the studio I feel like the writing part is a gift. I don’t know where it comes from,” Barbee said. “We would work three or four days a month. I know it’s important to do it when I feel inspired, to work on ideas.”
Barbee created a mood that drives much of the record and guided by mostly low-key music (like elegant lap steel guitar) and ocean deep vocals that recall the scarred terrain of Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees). It has a low-key, indie rock vibe, music that combines rural ambiance, heartfelt subject matter, and Barbee’s deep voice. Barbee doesn’t wallow in it, singing affectionately on some songs (see “Banjolina” or “Fall”).
Plus, the songs are politely overpowered by its arm-around-the-shoulder, warm vibe, and one nearly painting a lengthy sonic statement. He opens with the excellent “Let it Breathe” whose guitar work feels like a cool sunrise and whose vocals carefully draw you in. On paper his lyrics look like poetry or vivid diary entries and as songs they foster a sense of longing.
“I love to write, it’s always about doing that song justice. How do I paint this picture? How do I tell this story? If there’s longing, things of that nature, maybe it’s of some of that. I don’t want to say regret, but the bittersweet-ness of life.”
Barbee says he’s put together a band that has magic – “the most special guys I’ve ever played with,” and that they’ve been hashing out new songs playing shows. He expects to record a new album live, bringing some of their show’s persona to the recording.
“I like to talk people, meet people, to go out and play. People come up and say, you got your own thing going on. We’re always looking for own thing but you never know if you got it or not. I’m doing what I know to do. Maybe it will resonate with people.”
How long have you been in Wilmington?
Barbee: I’ve been here about a year, moved here last January. I lived in Atlanta for a few years. I grew up around Richlands, N.C., graduated high school and moved to Atlanta where I played in a bunch of bands. I’ve been wanting to get close to home again. I missed the beach, the water. My wife, we got married three months ago, she was living here before. She moved here a few years before me. I’d been coming here, playing shows, I’ve got friends and family here. We got married a month after (hurricane Florence), the weather turned out to be incredible, the fall.
Do you spend a lot of time out of town playing?
I definitely spend time on the go. I’m sort of in a building phase. I have this band, The Dust Parade, really the most special guys I’ve ever played with. There’s some magic there. We’re making an album in 2019. But, Son Royale, I knew I was transitioning over to a band so I added the band name (to that album).
When you come across a group that’s special, that has the chemistry, the magic is usually only there a little while. It’s rare to come across something awesome. There’s a time frame on that stuff, I guess I’ve seen in years past. I’ve been part of some groups that had that magic and burned out quick or didn’t do anything with it. We have a good sound, a good energy, a good message, and it feels like the right thing.
The new record, will it be created in a shorter period of time? Making it fast, you get to know it later on, you live with songs differently.
You’re right, there are benefits of both. I guess where we’re at this time is that we have a great live band and we’ve been hashing out and playing most of these songs live. I think this time the recording process will be different from how I recorded my music in the past. I think we’ll go in and lay a lot of band tracks down live, just overdub a couple things. We’ll be able to go in and lay the band down live, which was not something I had on the last two albums; it was sort of pieced together. I didn’t have a band. I had session musicians on the first album.
While living in Atlanta I did a lot of side work, studio work, play steel and slide guitar for people. I got to see how a lot of people work and it brought me invaluable studio experience. I got to see how different engineers work and other artists work, how they approach what they do. Some have a real clear vision and some don’t, they count on the producer. There are advantages to both ways.
You’ve been playing a lot around town. Are the shows different, some solo, some with a band?
It kind of depends on who comes on any particular night. Two different cousins of mine come and play with me. Sometimes it’s just me, sometimes its other folks that sit in. I welcome it either way. I enjoy performing alone, there’s a lot of freedom in that to try new stuff and go in any direction I want to go. Playing with other people is great too, you get other people’s energy, go places musically you didn’t know you were going to go.
Jim Durham, the sax player in The Dust Parade, he and I will do other things from time to time – guitar and sax and vocals. It’s really interesting. He teaches a lot of music and is an incredible sax player. Being a great player is one thing, being somebody that’s musical with it is another thing. We make some interesting sounds.
I think that’s maybe one of the greatest comments we get of any incarnation of The Dust Parade. The trio is guitar, bass, and sax and vocals and its versatile, its almost folk fusion. It’s a lot of different influences. People come up and say, you got your own thing going on. We’re always looking for own thing but you never know if you got it or not. I’ve always been, I’m doing what I know to do. Maybe it will resonate with people.
Do you remember when you became comfortable with your voice, and what to make of it?
I feel sometimes like I’m still trying to comfortable singing. I was a side guy for so long when I started out. I would sing back-up but there’s a definitive point in life. In 2008 I went through some bad stuff, it was a heavy time, but in the ashes of all that everything culminated into a place where that’s when I became a real songwriter, that I had something to say.
I was a composer before that, helped people write stuff. I could contribute, but I didn’t have a voice and something to say. In 2010 I was working on a side project with friends and writing and they said you have to sing this song. I did, and it started out like that. I realized I had enough material and one of my really good friends said to go in the studio, said if you needed money I’ll pay for it. This really good stuff, you got to record this.
I went in and made that first Barbee record and started a side project, Belle Vici. It was some friends back home, twin sisters, and its real folky. They co-wrote some songs with me, some I wrote, and we sang some duets. Did it around the same time I did my record. I started like that. It was strange because the first time I sang a song I wrote in front of people I was really nervous, I could have thrown up. It was a strange place to be.
And your deep voice?
I think it lends a certain mellow-ness. I accepted that okay. Its funny, I worked with people in the past that are incredible singers, could sound like anybody, but we’d go in the studio and they didn’t know who they were supposed to sound like. They could sound like anybody, but who were they when they were supposed to be singing their songs? I didn’t have that problem because I can only sound like me. So it’s kind of a blessing in a way, this is what I sound like and be the best that I can.
Is longing a theme on Son Royale ?
When I get in the studio I feel like the writing part is a gift. I don’t know where it comes from. I know that it’s important to do it when I feel inspired, to work on ideas. I do enjoy that, it’s a solitary thing, but I love to write, it’s always about doing that song justice. How do I paint this picture, how do I tell this story?
My first album was right after a lot of rough stuff and bad stuff that happened in life. There’s some dark stuff on that one, there’s some wonderful stuff on there but it’s all really heavy. It’s even tough to listen to, there’s only a few from it that we play live anymore. But the second record was starting to come around, coming out of that. If there’s longing, and things of that nature, its maybe of some of that. I don’t want to say regret, but the bitter sweetness of life.
That’s the hope, that it will resonate with people, that somebody connects with it. That’s definitely a reward for doing your art, the human aspect of it. It feels nice, it feels rewarding, to get it out from a writer’s standpoint. Sometimes you just get infected with songs. When other people like it, it feels good.