Chris Barron Gets Personal with 'Angels & One-Armed Jugglers'
Long known and loved as the front man for 90's rock band the Spin Doctors, Chris Barron flexes his musical muscles with his new solo project, Angels & One-Armed Jugglers which was released on October 20th. The eclectic, yet cohesive, eleven song set dynamically blends genres while eschewing typical lyrical themes, relaying stories that are personal, accessible, and ear-grabbing. Recently, Barron graciously took the time to speak about the album, the impact of losing his voice for the second time, and more.
Being that you’ve made numerous records with the Spin Doctors, as well as your previous solo record [Pancho and the Kid], did you approach this project any differently? And if so, how?
Over time, you create a process that is consistent, yet I think every record you make is different because you’re at a different point in your life. When the Spin Doctors make records, Aaron [Comess] is in charge of the drums, Eric [Schenkman] the guitar, Mark [White] the bass and I have the vocals. On this one, even though other people were playing instruments, if something went wrong, that reflected on me. But during the process of making the record, I found out that I actually knew more about things than I thought I did, which is similar to when my daughter was born. I didn’t know how I was supposed to take care of a baby, but when she cried, I picked her up, held her gently against my chest, and took deep breaths; she stopped crying and I wasn’t scared anymore. I don’t know how I did it, but I did, which is how making this record was.
Seems like it was very intuitive.
Was this the first time that you had done a crowdfunding for an album?
I had never done a crowdfunding before and it was a great experience. At first, I could not see asking people for money to make a record, because I come from the 20th century where if you were good, you got a record deal and the record company gave you the money. But the other side of that is that with a record company, you’re not only trying to make a record that’s commercial, but you’re also trying to make something that fits in with the record company’s product line. Crowdfunding is a different animal. It’s like a pre-order, but with the fans not knowing the type of record you’re going to make, yet saying, ‘Alright, cool, make your record way you want, and we’ll support it.’ That’s super gratifying and very rewarding because they're helping me make the record I want to make.
I was reading that the album morphed from an acoustic one to the full band final product. Did your producer, Roman Klun have a hand in that?
Roman had a hand in that in quiet and mysterious ways. My intention was to tour just me and a guitar, so initially, with this record, I wanted to strip it down acoustically. Roman agreed, but with a funny smile that indicated he had something on his mind.
I wanted to record the songs and frame them the best I could in that manner, but Roman guided me to do what was right for the song rather than what was right for me when I'm on stage with them. He’s a terrific producer who gave me a lot of confidence and was very much there with good ideas when I didn’t necessarily know what to do.
You know, what's cool is that I wrote these songs with just me and my guitar. And now, on record, they get this big, beautiful production, but when someone sees me live, it’s a totally different interpretation with the songs broken down to their basic elements. I think people will find it very interesting.
Absolutely, it’s always cool to hear a song played differently live than from what it’s like on record. Speaking of the songs, were they all written since you lost your voice, or did you have some in your pocket?
The only song I wrote during the time my voice was gone was “Gonna (Need Someone).” Others I had written fairly recently and others were around eight or ten years old.
Out of every five or so songs I write, one is a Spin Doctor’s tune, but every song is a Chris Barron song. And while I have no intention of quitting the Spin Doctors - I love playing with those guys, we’re friends who have a musical rapport that's only grown more interesting and richer with time - having this huge backlog of material, which I realized may never see the light of day, was driving me crazy. The fact that I was sitting on so many tunes definitely played a part in my decision to make this solo record.
The title of the album is also the opening track of the album. How did that come about?
I wrote the title track about a year before I lost my voice and gradually, it became the title of the album. It’s funny because it’s a weird title that took me awhile to commit to. My wife and friends were all saying I couldn’t call a record Angels and One-Armed Jugglers, so I kept trying to come up with another, but couldn't. Then one morning my wife told me that she did think it really was a cool title - and I went with it. And after I lost my voice, I realized that in that song, I was the one-armed juggler...and that was a wow moment
There are quite a few more things about this record that are magical. For example, the album ended up being tracked in alphabetical order, which wasn’t planned. When we finished mixing, we listened to the songs in the Dropbox folder which, since they weren’t yet numbered, were alphabetized. I asked Roman to listen and afterward he said, ‘That’s the f-ing order of record. It sounds f -ing amazing.’ And it did. I mean, what does that say about the songs if we can put them in alphabetical order and it works? It’s badass. In addition to that, the two sides of the vinyl are exactly the same length, which is really crazy. Ted Jansen, who has mastered so many platinum albums, was making sure the sides were commensurate in length and after he timed them he said, ‘Oh f-.’ I thought he erased the record, but he shows me the time and each side is the same and my hair stood on my arms. That just doesn’t happen. And another magical thing is the back cover, which is a circus scene with spotlights and an empty ring with a hazy audience. Originally, we thought the image was a public one, but it was copyrighted and we didn’t have enough time to cut through the red tape to use it, so these guys made another image that was a composite of other public images including those spotlights which are from Petty’s last tour. So, there’s a lot of little things on this record that definitely makes you feel like the magic of rock and roll was at work.
You mentioned “Gonna (Need Someone)”, which is my favorite track on the album. Is there a particular story behind that song?
Losing my voice was a dark and difficult time for me. I’m a person who processes emotion through music; it’s a major synthesizer of emotion for me where I take things that happened and let them out by playing and singing. So, when I lost my voice I kinda lost my mind because a major emotional outlet went away. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I had a moment where I was feeling super low and didn’t have that emotional outlet to use when I realized how f-ed I was. But then I realized even how more f-ed I would be if I didn’t have my wife or my daughter to share my life with. So, I started playing that riff in that key - which, thinking about it right now, that song has every idiosyncratic musical crutch I am comfortable with and use in my music (laughing) -and had the song. That’s the long version. The short version is I felt like shit and I wrote the tune (laughing).
Maybe that’s part of the appeal of the song, your comfort level with every aspect of the tune.
This was the second time you lost your voice due to a paralyzed vocal cord. Did it happening a second time make you less nervous or was it more like an "oh shit not again" moment?
It was more like an "oh shit" moment. Having it happen a second time was really rough because this is not a chronic condition or one that you are predisposed to getting again if you had it once. There was no reason why it happened a second time, but then I also knew that if things were random, there was no reason that just because my voice came back the first time, it would come back this time, which was scary.
It was a tough time, but one thing I learned from it all, was that it’s okay to be weak and lick your wounds a bit. I live in NYC where you walk fast, and there was a moment where I just couldn’t do it. Walking down the sidewalk, I felt like an 80-year-old man and I had a moment where I realized it was okay to feel that way and that if I needed to walk like someone who feels shitty and weak, then that’s okay - and all of a sudden I felt better about feeling worse. I realized that I didn’t need to feel like shit about feeling like shit. In that year, I grew and allowed myself to be vulnerable and in the end, it made me stronger because I took stock in things and allowed myself to need what, and who, I needed. That year was a burden financially and personally, but thanks to my wife and my daughter, I got through it.