11 Oct JAMES BARRETT EXPOSES HIS SCARS WITH THE PRICE OF COMFORT
Albums tend to be treasured most for either their lyrics, sound, or they way they make us feel. On rare occasion, an album emerges that manages to make its mark by impressing us with all three. If this musical trifecta is met, it alters things. (Your playlists. Your demeanor. Hell, even the YOU at your deepest core.) And at that point, you kind of have an obligation to your fellow music lovers to post about it. So, here we are…
From first listen, indie singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist James Barrett’s just-released album The Price of Comfort not only reached this trifecta, but soared above it. Here’s why:
Lyrically, it’s clear that James isn’t spinning tales to entertain. In each of the album’s eleven, intricately penned tracks—many of which were several years in the making—he’s sharing his truest emotions. The inconvenient ones, the painful ones, his struggles. And he manages to hit on a number of heavy-handed themes, including co-dependency, bitterness, hitting rock bottom, and grief, all while wearing the scars of someone who’s survived them. There’s also hints of understanding, love, and hope stitched throughout even the album’s darkest moments, allowing the lyrics to flow like a literary epic. Here’s one of my favorite lyrics from “The First Days of July”: I will not be defined by anything that’s absent from my life.
The sonic footprint of this album is immense. With a harder alternative sound, it’s a beautifully constructed chaos that will force you onto your feet but never offends. The drums, in particular, will at once steal your thoughts and then feel like your lifeline. And James’s voice, even at its strongest and most defiant octave, is laced with a lingering intimacy that breaks the barrier between artist and listener. This purity of experience is also achieved, in part, by the synergy among James and the album’s tight team of musicians—all of whom are more than mere professional acquaintances. (You’ll learn more about this later.) Listen while you read.
The feeling part is personal. For me, this album hit my inbox at a most trying time. I was preparing myself for my third and thankfully final ankle surgery as a result of a rock-climbing injury I sustained a year and a half ago. (These past eighteen months have easily been the most grueling of my life.) The perseverance permeating throughout The Price of Comfort not only helped me feel fierce enough to face the accident in my past—and undergo another surgery—but it also helped me reclaim my long-lost elasticity and stamina required to endure hardships. And it felt pretty triumphant to get back in the gym yesterday for the first time in a long time with this musical trifecta in my headphones.
In this extensive interview, you’ll learn: what James Barrett loves best about his Massachusetts-based label, Honest Face Records; which musicians, engineers, and studios brought this mighty album to life; how The Price of Comfort’s sound compares to the sound of James’s previous releases; ALL about each of the album’s eleven full-bodied tracks (including some gritty retrospection); what on-the-road advice James has for fellow artists prepping to record; which albums and bands he holds in highest esteem; why he believes everything in life is about balance; and where and when James will be hosting his Halloween Record Release Show (YES, you’re invited AND encouraged to come in costume!)
The conversation from our interview is chronicled below in a pure Q + A format.
Q + A:
Which artist, person, concept, or event acted as the greatest influence in the making of The Price of Comfort album?
James: I had so many influences for this record. I think the biggest influence would be a band called Gang of Youths. They’re an Australian rock band I discovered in 2017; they completely changed my life and became my favorite band. Their lyrics and music gave me a new perspective for writing my own songs. I recommend them to every person I meet.
Another big influence would be the Scranton-native band The Menzingers. Growing up in NEPA allowed me to watch that band grow into what they are today. I think the first time I saw them live I was 11 years old, so they were always my icons growing up. And it’s crazier now to have been able to share a stage with them in Scranton. They will forever influence my music and my life.
What do you like best about your album’s Massachusetts-based label, Honest Face Records?
James: Honest Face Records is co-owned by Jake Checkoway. Jake tracked, produced, mixed, and mastered the entire record. We met each other in 2017 and have worked together ever since. Jake is very much like a brother to me, and there’s nobody else I would rather work with. His production quality is incredible. Releasing the album through his label only felt right, and working together is something I plan to do for a long time.
How do you feel when you engage in song-writing? We’d love to learn *anything* about your process—no matter how serious or silly it might seem.
James: My songwriting process is super scattered and sometimes makes it hard to get anything done, but I always remind myself that it’ll work out the way it should. There’s never a set time for when I am writing, it usually just hits me. For this record, a lot of it came from me just playing guitar in my basement for hours upon hours. Over the course of about three years I had a ton of material, and I began to shape it into the album that it is today.
My brother Tyler drums on the record and in my live band, so it was so easy to put pieces together. I had a lot of help from my friends Doug Griffiths, who plays some guitar and all the horn parts on the album, and my friend Angelo Maruzzelli who is also in my live band. For the majority of songs, I had all the structures written; then, practicing them with other people helped solidify them.
You spent every weekend for nearly a year traveling to Philly to record. Do you have any on-the-road advice for other artists set on recording in a studio that’s not-so-close-to home?
James: Biggest piece of advice I could give is: don’t get discouraged and save your money as best as you can while you are home. No matter what, being independent is going to make you lose money. I have invested so much of my time and money into creating this album; but at the end of the day, if you are passionate about what you are creating, then keep going until it’s done.
This album was something that took years to write—nearly a year of recording, a month and a half of mixing/mastering, and then several more months for the production of the vinyl and CD’s. There were countless times I felt discouraged or felt like what I was doing was going to be impossible, but I can honestly say working on this record was the best decision I have ever made. If you believe in it, don’t worry about anything else and make it happen.
Tell us about your time in studio + the team you built/utilized to bring this album to life.
James: The recording process for this album was really awesome and I think it’ll surprise some people. All the drums were tracked at The Boom Room, which is a studio in Philadelphia. Everything else was tracked in Jake’s bedroom, which was a pretty small space. We would start by having my brother track drums for a few songs, and I would spend the next month or so working on everything else until they were done. Then we’d start over again and have Ty do a few more tracks, and so on. In the end we had three drum sessions at the studio and everything else was tracked in Jake’s room.
My friend Doug that I mentioned earlier was a big help, too. He came down on two weeks and helped track some guitar leads and the scattered trombone parts on the record. Working with Doug and my brother was incredible because it was so easy. We all have a great chemistry and just work well together. Working with Jake rules because he makes recording stressful parts simple and it always feels like we are just hanging out. Finding someone who is incredibly fun to work with makes the process entirely better. I think when people hear the album, it’ll be proof that anyone can make a professional sounding record in their home without spending thousands of dollars to work in a studio.
What instrument(s) do you play on the album?
James: I play almost everything on the record aside from the drums. I did all of the bass tracks, vocals, keys, synth and the majority of the guitar tracks. Doug played guitar on “Something New,” “My Anxious Soul,” and “The World Back Then,” as well as all of the horn sections.
As a whole, how would you describe the sound of The Price of Comfort + how does this new album compare to the sound of your previous releases?
James: I kind of describe it as unpredictable. The album is somewhat chaotic in the sense that every song is different than the one before and some songs explode out of nowhere. I feel as though that is how I describe myself in times of stress. I think everyone is kind of like that too. I think this record will be a shocker to a lot of people. It is entirely different than all of my previous releases because of the full band sound. I think there a lot of similarities, though. It has a lot of the same sounds, just a little heavier and with drums.
I enjoyed this a lot more because I am able to channel a lot of emotion through the music itself. I feel like being able to use the music in that way also allowed me to focus on writing better lyrics. I didn’t have to force anything. It all kind of came so easily. My hopes are that even though it was such a big change, it’ll attract a bigger audience and still keep my older fans interested. Whatever happens, I’ll be okay with—because I am so happy and proud of this album.
Let’s talk about the songs themselves. Can you reveal something about each of the 11 tracks?
James: The first single and the first song on the album, “The First Days of July” will always hold some sentimental meaning to me. It’s been an idea of mine since 2016 and finally came to life two years later. The title is an allusion to the unbelievable album The First Days of Spring by Noah and The Blue Whale, another record that has influenced my life. I think it’s the perfect opener for the album.
I love the way “The First Days of July” transitions into “Something New”. I always liked this being the second track, because it quickly foreshadows a dichotomy between the songs on the record. All of the songs are personal, but this one came from rock bottom in my life. It’s about the initial impact of a relationship ending and trying to figure out what to do next.
It’s always difficult for me to choose a favorite song, but “My Anxious Soul” is one of them. I wrote this track in 2017, and it’s been incredible watching it grow into what it is today. This song deals with some heavy themes. Most importantly it shows how harmful co-dependencies in relationships can be for both of the people involved. The thing I love about writing lyrics is that they are just thoughts frozen in time, and you can always look back on them with a different perspective. When I wrote “My Anxious Soul,” I felt entirely dependent on my past relationship. These tendencies lead to extreme feelings of self-doubt and insecurities about yourself as an individual. You begin to wonder what your existence means to the other person when you should be focusing on what it means to yourself. Looking back, I wrote that song from that kind of emotional state. I feel joy in surviving it and seeing how much I have grown since.
“Subsides” is the only instrumental track on the record. I like to think of this as the first turning point into the darker side of the album. I like the subtleness of the interlude leading into the hard-hitting track “Silver Lining.”
“Silver Lining” is another song I like to look back at and reflect on the emotional state I was in when I wrote it. When mourning the death of loved ones, we feel a wide variety of things. There are moments of bitterness in the sense that you focus on how unfair life can be. You begin to question everything—especially your beliefs. This song is about that bitterness. In the end, there is nothing you can do to change the past. All you can do is release the energy and move forward. And, for me, this song is about releasing that energy.
The first song we started tracking last September is “On Comfort”—another album favorite! The opening noise always makes me think of the moment we started, because it was the first thing tracked. I was on the floor holding a pedal down and remember feeling that that moment would be something I’d never forget. I remember thinking, here we go.
Another song that hits home for me is “A Place Devoted”. I had an idea for it for a long time. I like to think of it as “On Comfort, Part II.” This song in particular is one of my most personal songs on the record. It’s about trying to win your inner battles, especially when they begin to manifest in your outside reality. Some of my favorite lyrics from the album are in the bridge in this track, starting with “this hell only exists inside our heads.” That is something that I try to remind myself when I am feeling like I cannot escape my head. A lot of our problems in life start within our own minds. Until you start to realize that, they will leave the made-up world in our heads where they began and find their way into your actual life—your real life. This song serves as a reminder that we hold the power to change our life. It leaves me with hope.
I wrote the guitar melody to “The World Back Then” when I was in high school, and I totally forgot about it until last winter. Once I remembered, I knew it was meant to be. This song is another one of my favorites. When I started remaking it, I couldn’t decide if I wanted it to be clean and pretty OR loud and powerful. I decided an easy compromise would be to do both. The music in the end of this song is some of the best I have ever made, and I cannot wait for people to hear this one in particular.
Like “On Comfort” and “A Place Devoted”, “Sometimes They Collide” is really part 1 of “Do It Better.” I like this track because of its calmness. Both of these songs deal in large part with self-reflection. These lyrics started as a small poem I wrote a while ago, and I’m relieved to know it’s finally being put to use.
“Do It Better” is the for sure the heaviest song I have ever written. It was a work in progress for a long time once I wrote the melody to ‘Sometimes They Collide.” This track is a good example of being able to use the music itself as a way to convey emotion. I like to think of “Do It Better” as the final punch before the finale.
“Everything Will Be Beautiful in the End” is my actual favorite on the album. This song means the world to me. I began writing the melody to this one at the end of 2017, and—to hear it in its final form as the grand finale—makes me feel a lot. Lyrically this song recaps all of the material I wrote about on this album, but with a different perspective. Writing this album took years AND took place during the most difficult times of my life. This track is about me recognizing how the last few years turned out, and instead of looking at it negatively, looking at it with hope. It’s about being able to look back at some of the most challenging days of your life and actually believing that it will get better if you allow it. I look back today on this song and on this album and can rejoice at the thought of where I am now. We all have the ability to change and work on ourselves, but it is a lifelong journey that will forever require self-work—and that is okay with me.
What do you want your fans to know about you?
James: I think the biggest thing I would like people to know about me is that we are all the same. We all deal with the same sh!t, we just have a different story. I hope that this album helps anyone that is experiencing hardships in life. At the end of the day, my goal in life is to be kind to others and always offer help in whatever way I can. That is what music lets me do. I want to help others and hopefully do that through this record.
Do you aim to strike a balance between crafting your art and experiencing other aspects of life OR do prefer to live inside the music as much as possible?
James: I think everything in life is about balance. You have to be able to live a little bit without trying to think of the way each moment can impact your art. I think it is very possible to burn yourself out trying to constantly make new art. I haven’t written much at all since I finished writing this record. I want to give myself time to process and release these songs before I move on to the next. I think taking breaks like that or not rushing your art will benefit you much more in the long run.
Which artist and/or album would be difficult for you to part with?
James: Gang of Youths’ Go Farther in Lightness. I mentioned them before. They are my favorite band in the world right now. If I had to choose a second album, it would be The National’s latest record, I Am Easy To Find. That album is the first record I have heard since the Gang of Youths discovery that actually blew me away. I never got into The National until midway through tracking my album, and they blow my mind. Lyrically and musically brilliant.
James: I try to take everything one day at time, though I fail a lot at that. Right now I’m focused on releasing and promoting the record and trying to tour and play as many shows as I can. I want as many people to hear my album as possible, and that will be my goal until I figure out what to do next.
Want to attend James Barrett’s Halloween Record Release Show at Stage West in Scranton, PA on Saturday, November 2nd? RSVP + more info here! (Attendees encouraged to come in costume.)
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Photo by Jennifer Barrett