NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Mandy Barnett laughs when she’s asked “What took you so long?” to make Strange Conversation, her progressive take on the postmodern American songbook. Sure, she’s a classicist who’s channeled Patsy Cline in a theatrical musical, recorded classic country songs with legendary producer Owen Bradley, and transfixed known musicos Seymour Stein, Arif Mardin and Ahmet Ertegun with her timeless stylings. But Barnett, who signed her first major label deal at age 12, decided she needed a change.
“I needed to cleanse my palette,” explains the woman with a voice that’s all sultry velour. “I’m a torch singer, somebody who can do a little bit of everything. Pop, blues, gospel, country, soul — songs with emotion are what I do.” And so, she had to decide what to do next. While musical soul-searching, Barnett honed her symphony show (performing with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast) and even reached back to an old passion — visual art — to get her creative juices flowing in a fresh direction. In between touring performing art centers, historic theaters and concert halls, and making gallery-exhibited artwork, Barnett embraced thoughts of finding different material to record.
She pauses for a moment, weighing the jolt to longtime fans versus the reality of her new music. “But honestly, it’s all me,” says Barnett. “It’s all aspects of who I am.” Because for Barnett, a singer who’s captivated Owen Bradley, the idea of her musical future is as compelling as the idea of honoring classic country’s past.
“The truth is every album I’ve made has been Americana, even that first Asylum album with the Jim Lauderdale songs, but the arrangements were more timeless, more to the classic songbook. And Americana’s a broad genre that has elements of pop and retro, soul music. So this time, I leaned away from what people expect from me — and into things that made me reach, and stretch. “
Produced by Marco Giovino and Doug Lancio for Thirty Tigers and Barnett’s own label Dame Productions, and due out September 21, 2018, Strange Conversation places the vocalist between obscure vintage pop and modern progressive songwriting. Think Lee Hazlewood and the Tams meet Tom Waits and Greg Garing with a little Mable John thrown in. If it sounds too good to be true, Hazlewood’s “The Fool,” the Tams’ “It’s All Right (You’re Just in Love),” Waits’ “”Puttin’ on the Dog” and Garing’s “Dream Too Real to Hold” are all part of the conversation, a musky brew of desire, rapture, and discovery.
From the opening slink and slither of Mabel John’s “More Lovin’,” with its subdued track and smoky vocal, to the Farfisa gypsy carnival whirl of “All Night,” darkly seductive and slightly churning, this is a more mysterious Barnett. Even the slightly steamy horns rising on the Ted Hawkins-penned title track bring a true erotic simmer to a boil.
“We went to Muscle Shoals to make the record,” Barnett says. “Which was a big thing, because that environment, all the music that happened there, just seeps in. I was working with all new players, and we were going deeper into some things I’ve always touched on, but never really explored.”
It all started the way the best music-nerd friendships do: trading songs like baseball cards. “Marco sent me hundreds of songs, vintage CDs, tapes, and I poured through all of them. It was listening and listening, and drinking in all this amazing roots music. Some of the songs are pretty obscure, but that’s why I wanted someone else’s perspective.
“The idea of singing the Tom Waits song, that’s so far out the box for me. I had a ball cutting it. It’s wild, and a little sloppy and erratic. So I could sing with reckless abandon and put my soul into it.”
Barnett laughs again. In a world where people know she’s a world-class vocalist, Strange Conversation opened new avenues for her gifts — whether it was Neil Sedaka’s “My World Keeps Slipping Away,” which was pitched directly to her by the songwriting legend himself, or the McCrary Sisters-embellished version of Andre Williams’ “Put a Chain On It,” which offers a soul-gospel turn on the blues that’s part barrelhouse, part grindhouse, and part church house.
Equally intriguing is the carny Western take on Sonny & Cher’s “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done,” with the gravel-voiced John Hiatt. The quaver in Barnett’s voice moves from wide-open to resigned; Hiatt is tall in the saddle, equally wry and knowing.
“Marco brought that song in, and it was a natural fit to have John Hiatt on it,” says Barnett. “I’d always loved John. Back when I was signed to Jimmy Bowen, they were bringing me all these songs about quilts and grandmas, and I was like, ‘Please.’ I went over to Bug Music, and found John’s music, and was just so thrilled by the soul and the funkiness.
“This isn’t one of his own songs, but it’s so much what he does. And it’s a wacky arrangement, which John just got right into the spirit of. Talk about a moment!”
Pausing briefly, Barnett smiles. “Doug Lancio has produced John, Patty Griffin, and some of those great Gretchen Peters records; he understands music that blurs the lines, but works because of the soul. That’s what I wanted, what I was ready for.” Add Doug’s incredible guitar parts and Marco’s unique drumming to the mix, along with the contributions of other great musicians, and Strange Conversation takes shape as a blend of imaginative arrangements and Barnett’s inimitable vocals.
“I’ve come to a place were I didn’t want to be as polished and as lush as before. I’ve always felt like a rebel, because I never did all the flavor-of-the-month stuff, but you can get stuck in that, too.
“This time, I discovered facets about me I didn’t know. I heard shadings, nuances to bring out. I can still belt, but you know, you don’t have to hit a high C every time.”
Indeed, it’s in the lower ranges that Barnett’s most sultry notes seem to exist. But that’s another conversation, one that’s seemingly just getting started.