North Carolina-based guitarist and singer-songwriter Alan Barnosky sits nestled within the realms of bluegrass, folk, and country blues, writing songs and flatpicking melodies with admiration and respect for the American roots traditions of years past. On November 10th, he released his debut full-length solo album, Old Freight, a stripped down outing that balances nuanced and subtle acoustic instrumentation with genuine songwriting to deliver ten songs that are raw and real. Here, Barnosky answers his Essential 8 and touches on his album's title, songwriting, and much more.
What’s the story behind your album’s title?
The title track Old Freight is a melancholy reflection of times that have long since passed, or maybe never existed at all. It is an idealists’ search for something pure, something real, spoken through the imagery of the traditional American train song. Themes of struggle and longing are common in traditional folk and bluegrass music and also in many of the songs I write as well, so titling the album after this song just seemed to make sense.
Where do you draw inspiration from when writing?
I take a lot of time to learn songs. For me these are often traditional folk songs or songs from the writers I admire. I work up solo arrangements where I’ll change the keys, try different chord voicings, mess with vocal phrasing, and play around with tunings to mold them to fit my style and abilities. Sometimes I play them at live shows, though usually not. By becoming well versed in these songs and making them my own, I absorb tons of ideas to bring to my own material. When it does come time to write, I usually can’t tell specifically where new ideas come from, but I do know that I become more creative after I learn a handful of new tunes.
When/where do you do your best writing?
At home and late at night with nobody close by to hear all the bad ideas that need to run their course before something decent can come along.
Do you write about personal experience, the experience of others, observations, made-up stories, something else or a combination?
It’s a combination of all of these, and always through the lense of personal experience.
With "I Heart Mountains," what was the “a-ha” moment when you knew the song was completed and perfect?
"I Heart Mountains" is one of those narrated story songs where, while the words of chorus don’t change, each time the chorus comes around its meaning does change a bit. I’ll spare describing the song because it’s pretty self-explanatory when you listen to it (all you need to know is that there is a bumper sticker out there that says “I Heart Mountains”), but it was a blast to write. The song came together pretty much from start to finish, beginning with the first verse, then the chorus, then the second verse. The last verse needed a twist in the story to keep up the momentum, but after a bit of tinkering everything just fell into place. The “a-ha” moment came once the third verse took shape and I realized it slightly altered the meaning of the last chorus in the best possible way.
What’s the best advice you have ever gotten from another musician?
When playing live make sure to pause, listen to, and just enjoy the music you are creating. Practice is your time to perfect the craft. Performance is your time to relax.
What’s your favorite venue and why?
Gypsy Sally’s in Washington, DC is an unassuming Americana club on the Georgetown waterfront named after the bar in Townes Van Zandt’s Tecumseh Valley. It’s also the venue where I got my start as a songwriter. I lived in the DC area for about a year, and the first day I moved in I learned that some friends were playing a show at a place called Gypsy Sally’s and went to go check it out. I loved it and came back a few days later for the weekly open mic where I immediately met great people, listened to good songwriters, and played a few songs through a stellar sound system to a receptive crowd. I returned often and became good friends with many of the regulars. In fact, the last track on the record is titled Gypsy Sally’s and is a dedication to my time there. I return once or twice a year to play in the venue’s side room, the Vinyl Lounge.
Recent release you cannot stop listening to?
Dori Freeman’s new release Letters Never Read is fantastic. The whole album is awesome, and the catchy melody, vivid imagery, and simple story of Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog will get lodged in your brain for days.
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