Get to Know Barney Bones [Interview]

Kieran Kohorst

Barney Bones isn’t one for taking a moment to look around. More often than not, his shade-covered eyes are fixated on what’s to come. When I speak with him virtually, just days after the release of his debut EP, he’s having a hard time stopping to smell the flowers. “I'm not really huge on celebrating myself,” he tells me, half-guiltily. “I just want to dive in and get to work. And people get on me about that. Like, you got to celebrate life and this and that. But I don't know. Sometimes I'm just not about it. I just want to just get back into the studio.” He had a quiet weekend, he says, not attending any special events or celebrations. But what about a video he had shared on his Instagram, where he’s performing one of the EP’s tracks on stage at a college show, I ask. “Oh, yeah. Actually, that was Saturday,” he admits in a moment of unscripted irony. “That felt like weeks ago.”

Weeks ago, Barney Bones was just beginning to foster his identity as a solo artist. He had shared 3 singles from his upcoming project, all varying in sound and tempo, and was mostly known as a songwriter responsible for Grammy-nominated tracks and pop anthems alike. Though accomplished, Bones felt he had reached his ceiling in the role he was operating in. He grew bored and annoyed of the space he occupied. “You ever seen the movie Ratatouille?” he asks me, a question so obvious it may as well have been rhetorical. I have, yeah.“ Being a songwriter is being the rat under the hat. You doing the spices, but then the credit goes to the chef. You are the chef but you can't be seen,” he explains, quite perceptively at that. Even as his profile grew, his character was no closer to being seen. Today, Bones has no hesitations about who he wants to be. “I don't want to be the rat under the hat. I'm over that."

Even with his internal desire pushing him towards stepping into the spotlight, he needed the encouragement of a reputable figure to put things in motion. When Terrace Martin is on a record, people listen. When he pulls you aside to bet on yourself, you follow his orders. Previously collaborating with Martin on his Grammy-nominated LP Drones, Bones had a familiar relationship with Martin when he walked into a joint session as a songwriter. After teasing Bones about the heart-shaped glasses he entered the room with, Martin met with Bones outside the studio. He questioned Bones about what he was up to, his goals and aspirations. The inquisition exposed Bones’ uncertainty and hesitancy to begin work as a lead artist. In response, “he pretty much just told me, ‘you can continue to give it away all the time, but I think if you're going to get where you need to be, you have to dive into yourself a little bit.’ And that showed me that, you know, I was pouring more out of my cup than I was keeping in.” The conversation lit the fuse for Bones to embrace his own direction, to lead instead of support. He took a trip to Cabo with some friends, musing over what a solo project would look like for him. He battled an identity crisis and imposter syndrome, obstacles that only strengthened his image of self once overcome. As his once-blurry vision started to gain definition, he traveled to Paris, where he filmed the music video for the EP’s closing track, “Lifeline.” As he broadened his boundaries, artistically through his solo project and physically by exercising his passport, Bones steadily assembled a project reflective of all the experiences he’d collected. Appropriately, he named it Escapism, an ode to the theme that has provided Barney Bones with the freedom to make his own name.

Much like its creator, Escapism is a multi-dimensional project that knows which strings to pull at necessary moments. Opening track “Shining Through My Woes” sees Bones kicking the door in to make a boisterous entrance, rapping as if the booth is on fire and the flames are closing in on him quickly. His tone and delivery suggests sincerity in his urgency: “Now you looking at a star / Can you see me shining through my woes?” he raps with a growl. The scene fades as “Westside Story” queues, a melodic daydream of a track that flows like water as Bones flexes his chemistry with fellow LA product Duckwrth. From here, we diverge into the dance-inflected escapades of “Broadcast,” “Praise,” and “Fashion Week,” the latter featuring Bones’ personal friend and frequent collaborator Channel Tres. We are eased into this hypnotic tempo by “Broadcast,” a track that falls somewhere between haunting and thrilling in the most infectious fashion possible. Bones floats above the tormented instrumental, operating on a wavelength only identifiable to his “dearly departed” he’s keeping a watch over. From here, we descend into one of Bones’ lucid memories; as he recounts the events of a fateful night, the sonics of “Praise” tell the parts of the story Bones couldn’t possibly express through his words. “Fashion Week” is tonally in the same vein as “Praise” but possesses a much different ethos. Best described as a funk-house adrenaline rush, Bones is in his element: “I told Channel we’ll put the East on the map / We different as fuck, matter of fact,” he brags, not saying anything that isn’t apparent after one listen of the track. To close, “Lifeline” conveys an internal tension that appears in varying degrees across Escapism. In its perpetuity, it offers an acceptable amount of closure to the EP: “At that moment, you realize nothing is real,” Bones narrates on the track. “Everything and everyone turned out to be empty. You sort of run from the idea for a while, afraid to realize the emptiness lives inside you, too. The only way out is, well, escapism.”

Taking ownership of his work has offered clarity to Bones, something he never quite felt he had before. “I've been a solo artist before, but it was like musical chairs. Sometimes I am, sometimes not,” he says. His definitive position on this project helped flush out his vision. “Everyone looks to me for the direction because I'm like the guide. I don't want nobody creating anything for me. If I'm not involved, I don't want to do it,” he says, self-assured. Intentionality became his number one priority. From music video to artwork and everything in between, Bones led the conversation.

This isn’t to say Bones worked alone. In our conversation, he was adamant that the project wouldn’t have been possible without his community. “The support systems within the music industry is probably the most important aspect for me, because the music industry can be very cutthroat and it can be very opportunistic,” Bones says, speaking from experience. When it comes down to who is in the studio, a certain level of trust is required to get in the door. He’s known Channel Tres since the two were in high school; he would ditch class to go on tour with Duckwrth, who he’s directed videos for; with other collaborators like Josef Lamercier, Bones says “it felt like we met each other in church” when explaining the authentic bonds he has with those around him. Most of them have been around from the beginning, when Bones was a frequent contributor to the 88rising camp, serving as a DJ and opener on tours. It was on tour with the likes of AUGUST 08, Joji, and Rich Brian that Bones solved the riddle of songwriting, at least for his purposes at the time. “Seeing every night, the songs translating to the crowd. When I got into the studio, I started thinking, ‘how would the crowd respond to this part?’” he remembers, searching for a formula he knew he had the ingredients for. He cooked up a song called “Midsummer Madness” for the 88rising collective of artists, an RIAA-certified Gold single the group would perform on tour. “When I saw the songs performed in person for the first time, and the beat was cutting out and people are saying the lines back, I was like, ‘there it is, there. That's how you marry the world of rap.’” At the time, Bones was catering to an audience that “wants the raps without the lifestyle.” As he builds his own following with the music of Escapism, Bones makes no such concessions: the lifestyle is his own, and you can take it or leave it.

To describe Barney Bones as a multi-hyphenate is to include a lot of hyphens. The South Central-raised songwriter-DJ-director-producer-rapper-actor is an all-encompassing creative, an artist unrelenting in his vision and willing to take on whatever role necessary to fulfill his self-expression. Acting is of particular interest to Bones because of what it requires from its host. “You have to tune out the things around you,” he says of the challenge, noting that while you have to have a narrow focus, you must also be acutely aware of the character’s position in a scene or film at large. “How can you phrase it in a way to inject feeling rather than just more words?” he explains. “Acting shows you a lot. You have to tap into, like, your facial expressions, or you have to take a moment, take a beat to let a line hit you, and respond to it physically or verbally.” It is for this reason, among others, that Escapism embodies certain cinematic qualities that make a 20-minute listen feel like a well-structured short film. It’s the way that Bones’ timbre can disintegrate into melody at a moment’s notice, or the HD-quality raps that pull you through the headphones and into the scene, as well as the well-casted guests of the project who’s shine reflects off of Bones like tinsel.

The apparent film-like qualities of Escapism come in the project’s music videos, for which this privilege is bestowed upon single “Lifeline” and the charismatic “Westside Story.” The latter was directed by Jack Dalton, who has served the same role for the likes of Young Thug, Nav, and Future. Their connection came by way of a mutual friend and the video materialized in most part due to their mutual philosophy. Bones was having a hard time finding a director who would take on the task with the given budget. “People were telling me for the budget you have, it's impossible. And I don't like that word,” Bones tell me, as stern as he has been throughout our entire call. They collaborated in real time, piecing together different shots on the day of the shoot. “I really think he has a very special eye, a very neo-realist (style) that is super cool. I love his run and gun sort of style because some of these videos people spend such large budgets, rent monitors out and extra batteries and walkie talkies and all these things. It just all cost so much money and we did it with so little and it came out great. I'm really appreciative of Jack and his abilities, he's dope.” Doing more with less has come to define Barney Bones in a sense. Sure, he takes on plenty of roles and projects, but only when the timing and purpose is right. Escapism isn’t an over-saturated collection of bits and pieces with a wide spray; it’s a calculated first impression, a concisely elaborate introduction that doesn’t out-stay its welcome. Bones has become more of the artist he aims to be by giving away less of himself to others. It’s not always pragmatic or ideal, but the minimum certainly doesn’t scare Barney Bones. If anything, it brings out his best.

As mentioned before, the “Lifeline” video was filmed on-location in Paris, France, a trip that poetically symbolizes Escapism as a project and a concept. The trip was inspired by the testimony of jazz legend Miles Davis, who talked about the profound impact the city had on his perspective on life. Jimi Hendrix echoed a similar sentiment during his travels to Paris, as well as other reputable Black American artists. In the wake of the George Floyd murder and surrounding instances of police brutality, Bones felt it was time for an escape. He describes his time in Paris and cites that he felt a spark, just as he had mentioned feeling after his conversation with Terrace Martin. “I felt, I imagine, what Miles Davis felt…There's art all around. I'm going up to the Rodin Museum. I'm going to these incredible large gardens throughout the city, the Louvre, and seeing in real time that this is a place of art. This is a place of culture. It is inspiring to me. And London the same way. I look at things surrounding (me) and I'm super inspired. So I feel like I can bring that energy back home and make something incredible from that.” Escapism reflects a well-traveled perspective, but the music still sounds close to home. To see the art in his immediate surroundings required Bones to undergo a change of scenery. What he brought back with him can’t be explained here or on a Zoom call; you’ll have to listen for yourself.

Knowing Barney Bones, there’s a good chance he’s already moved on from the triumph of Escapism. By compressing his identity to allow for a better sense of self, more avenues for artistic expression have revealed themselves. A sense of direction presents a better understanding of the possibilities at hand. There’s no telling where Bones goes from here, but don’t be surprised if you catch him on the big screen pulling on heartstrings and falling for the wrong person. “I want to be in a rom-com,” he confesses to me, with a genuine ambition that excites the two of us. “But like in the style of 500 Days of Summer. I want to be in some cool shit. Like, even better: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Something like, very cerebral but still, like, rom-com-y. That would be cool.” And don’t try and tell him it’s impossible, either.

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