Just as Irma Thomas was dubbed the “Soul Queen of New Orleans,” Robin Barnes has been dubbed the “Songbird of New Orleans.” And it’s a title she carries with pride.
“I was always called ‘Pretty Bird,’” Barnes said. “The Mayor of New Orleans said, ‘You’re more of a songbird.’ I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go with it.’ I’m way younger than a lot of people given a title.”
To say Barnes was raised in a musical home is an understatement. All of her seven older siblings are musicians, her father is a bassist and her cousin is Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dave Bartholomew.
“I grew up rehearsing. I was the little sister wanting to join in.”
Barnes got her start singing in her church choir at the age of 6. She’s been gigging ever since.
Tutored by a professional opera singer for 8 years, Barnes touts a voice range from alto 2 to soprano 1, which means her range is from an Etta James low to a Mariah Carey high.
“I always start (my songs) low and end high,” Barnes said. “Thank God Ella Fitzgerald came first. I idolize Ella Fitzgerald for being able to hone in to that and prepare ears (to hear a vocal range within one song.)”
Shy of 30 (how shy she wouldn’t reveal), Barnes has accomplished a a great deal. Her latest album, Songbird Sessions, ranked No. 5 on the Traditional Jazz Billboard Charts. Barnes was also named 2016 Favorite New Orleans Musician by New Orleans Magazine.
Barnes expressed her deep love for her hometown and how she takes her role of representing the Big Easy seriously.
“Representing my home is so important to me. Having your town believe in you as much as you believe in yourself is wonderful.”
Cousin Bartholomew taught Barnes about music licensing and contracts. She recalls growing up looking at the BMI plaques and certificates in gold hung on his wall.
“New Orleans critics are tough. They know what they want and you have to give it to them – and give them something new.”
Barnes said her goal as a musician is to entertain people and transform their moods. When she sees someone in the crowd frowning during her set, she will often take her wireless mic and go up to them. “I want them to know I see them. What can I do to improve your day?”
Often these transformed mopes become Barnes’ biggest fans.
Barnes said on of her biggest inspirations is Allen Toussaint. “He would say, ‘You need to give the people what they want, but you also need to show them what they should want.’”
Another of Barnes’ inspirations is her husband and collaborator, Pat Casey. He plays the bass in her band and has his own band, Pat Casey and the New Sound. She credits Casey with elevating her music and translating her hand gestures into cohesive sound.
In addition to Louis Armstrong, who is cherished in New Orleans, and Ella Fitzgerald, Barnes said her surprise inspiration is Otis Redding. “Otis Redding is my all-time favorite music vocalist on the planet. Not until I was 9 did I realize I didn’t sound like an old, black man.”
Barnes grew up in the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, the area most damaged after Hurricane Katrina.
“If I didn’t have music, I don’t know how I’d cope with starting over. We lost everything. I listened to ‘What a Wonderful World’ over and over. … I still cry whenever I sing it.”
Barnes will perform at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 11, at the Salida SteamPlant Event Center. Tickets are available online at EventBrite.com or from the SteamPlant box office, $12 in advance and $15 at the door.
“I love Salida – those people can get down. It’s one of my favorite places to play. I’ve never seen such a well-diverse group of people who really love music. Colorado is my second favorite place in the world and it is completely due to the fans.”