Alyssa Barron hits all the notes
Ballads to blues, rock and cabaret
Tuning in to local singer-songwriter Alyssa Barron
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Alyssa Barron has been rolling out new songs in advance of an album that may, the singer-songwriter says, be released in the spring. But who is Alyssa Barron, and why should we care about her and her music? Well, let’s start at the beginning.
Originally from Tucson, Arizona, Barron “always knew I wanted to go into the arts, and in the winter of ‘99 we (she and her parents) moved to the South Bay. My dad was certain that we would move back, so he did the responsible thing and kept his job in Tucson. We had a life to go back to if we decided to, but we knew that we were coming out here for good. We wanted to avoid the Valley because it was too much like Tucson. We landed in Redondo Beach. It was gorgeous, going from the desert, with the ocean so close by.
“I had an agent when I first moved out,” Barron says, which led to some parts in theater and television. “I thought I was going to go to college, but I had the opportunity to audition for Julliard and the Guildford School of Acting in England. So I auditioned for both and got into GSA, which at the time was the third best theater school in the world.”Although she studied overseas for a total of six years, her sojourn was interrupted during her second year when she broke her rib. That necessitated going back to the States for eight months, after which she returned to England and got her degrees. Her fields of study were music and theater, a combination put to good use later on, and which we’ll get to as well.
Homeschooled in music
Barron is an only child, but both of her parents were music lovers, and particularly into the sounds of the 1960s and ‘70s. Reflecting that influence, Barron’s music floats through different styles, sometimes apparent within the context of a single song.
“I think it’s because my background is heavy in jazz,” she says. “When I was younger, it was jazz and blues, but it was musical theater first,” and she mentions “My Fair Lady” and “Cabaret” and stars like Ann-Margret. “So, artistically, that was really the strength of my childhood. In middle school I was part of a quartet of singers and we were doing lots of Andrews Sisters songs, stuff like that.” In high school she gravitated towards jazz, but then while in England became better acquainted with singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and The Beatles.
“Folk and blues were so loved over there,” Barron says, referring to her years abroad. “And for the first time ever I started trying to write folk music.” However, her earlier musical influences, not to be denied, crept into her songs as well, making them stand apart from those of other songwriters.
Of course, where it had all started was at home, and Barron reveals that her father was also a musician. “We were kind of like the Partridge family where everyone just grabs an instrument and sings. It’s so corny, but it’s wonderful.” Dad would sing and strum a guitar while his daughter provided backing vocals. “When I was young I couldn’t play any instruments but I would always sing harmonies,” which she learned to do by listening to “Meet The Beatles.”
One of her earliest memories goes back to when, at the age of two or three, Barron’s father was performing in public. She recognized the Warren Zevon song, “Gorilla, You’re A Desperado,” and, confident that she knew the words, “because it had an animal in it, I toddled onto the stage, reached for the microphone,” which her father handed to her, “and sang all the wrong lyrics.” The joy she had of seeing him play was, she adds, “just contagious.”
Influences and styles
“When I first came out to California,” Barron says, “this music producer wanted to pick me up, but he wanted me to just [write and perform] in a country vein — and I didn’t want to just pigeonhole myself in country. Maybe that was a huge mistake at the time,” she laughs, “considering he could have made my career.” Shrugging, she continues, “I was too indecisive for him and so he was, like, well, If you’re not gonna go down that one route then that’s it.”
Musical theater or folk music?
“I was always told that you have to choose between one or the other: you can’t combine the two.” But Barron realized otherwise and, she says, it was while working with drag queens that she fully understood the impact of theatrics in music. “It combines so many different things. You just throw it on the wall and let the audience take what they want. I was really inspired by that and I thought, If they can do it so can I.”
And maybe this is where it becomes interesting if one listens carefully to her songs.It seems that her pursuit of acting, on stage or in film, drifted away but not her affection and love for folk music, “which can be kind of melancholic, but that I find beautiful.” She mentions a few artists, such as Simon and Garfunkel, Laura Marley, and Virginia Spektor, who also seem to incorporate that folk aspect into their music (Simon and Garfunkel’s first album, “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.,” is a case in point, and more so than their later work as a duo). But again, in Barron’s case, she held onto the folk aspect and melded it with the flair of cabaret and musical theater.
This musical evolution was occurring during the early days of COVID when Barron and others had to reassess their priorities. Also, her mother became ill around this time and for a while Barron became her caretaker, or, as she puts it, “Life kind of happens and interrupts our goals. It took the pandemic for me to wake up and say, Okay, what do I actually want to be doing?” And I think this is when a determined tilt towards stressing the theatrical in her music, or at least her live shows, settled in.
Barron plays acoustic guitar and on occasion performs solo, “but I love having a band backing me” because that allows her the freedom to grab the cordless mic and get down to working the stage, the audience, and anyone else who happens to be peeking in or walking by.
“Janis Joplin and Bette Midler are huge influences on me,” Barron says, “the fact that they didn’t just sing the songs — they embodied them, they lived them, right? The joy, the elation, the torture, all of it was just so prominent in what they gave, and to me that’s the most joyful way of creating and sharing with a crowd.”
Janis Joplin? Simon and Garfunkel? One might be forgiven for thinking that Alyssa Barron was a bona fide child of the 1960s — and not of the ‘90s.
“I know,” she laughs. “My friend likes to say that I was born a little old woman.
“My parents filled the house with music. They were hippies (and into) 1960s, ‘70s music, but I glommed right onto it. I loved all the musicals from back in the day and I loved 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s jazz. When I was in high school — and I will be dating myself now — when all the boy bands and girl bands were all happening, I had no interest. I was listening to Paul Simon and Janis Joplin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Etta James. I loved that whole world. It’s only lately that I’ve started to get into what’s modern music — and now it’s retro. The music from the ‘90s, I’m like, Oh, that was actually pretty good. But at the time I was myopically focused on the oldies.”
Swatting at fame, round one
Alyssa Barron released an EP, five songs, in 2016, but when we count on our fingers we realize that 2016 was already some time ago. And she hasn’t released anything since?
“No, this is the first one since then,” Barron replies, alluding to her roll-out of new material. “That was a wonderful experience. She was in a group, the Blind Lemon Peel All Stars. “Some of the musicians have played with James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Joss Stone, and Solomon Burke. I was mostly doing backup vocals, but they threw me a lot of solos, too. We performed at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, and the lead singer wanted me to open for the group. I had a nice 45-minute set at the time, which we ended up recording, and that became the EP.”
After which you went to Iceland, England, and Hungary? How were you received?
“It was really lovely,” Barron says. “In Iceland the folk music went over really well. In Hungary they loved the blues. I don’t know if I’ve had a more receptive audience than in Hungary.”Coming soon to a jukebox near you
Even before the COVID pandemic applied the brakes and closed doors, Barron and her musicians had been working together at Studio 637 in Hermosa Beach. We’re going to look at the two songs she’s recently released for our delight and which should bolster her reputation as a voice and a songwriter to be reckoned with. The first one’s called “Down The Rabbit Hole” and she wrote it sometime back while visiting family in Tucson. It wasn’t conceived while sitting on a front porch fingering guitar chords, but rather came about when Barron was wandering around outside, and at risk of getting lost and perhaps eaten by coyotes.
“There’s a gorgeous place called Sabino Canyon,” she says, “and it’s pretty much a nature preserve with all these saguaro cacti.” She’d hiked up to one hilltop, and sat down to meditate. “I opened my eyes and there was a roadrunner standing right in front of me. It was staring right at me and it was gorgeous.”
After it darted away, Barron continues, “I decided to take a different path than I took on the way up, because” and she grins “it’s boring to go the way you came.”
Well and good, except the new, unknown path ended in thorns. Furthermore, she fell and got a little scuffed up. Meanwhile, “the sun was sinking lower and lower — and it’s not my territory. So my heart was starting to pound a little bit. By the time I reached the path back to civilization I was elated and relieved, and I wrote six songs on the way back to my car. This was the only good one, ‘Down The Rabbit Hole.’”
The song doesn’t have anything to do with being chased by carnivores and not really a great deal to do with “Alice in Wonderland,” although Guildford, where Barron lived when she was in England, had been the home of Lewis Carroll.
“I wasn’t thinking about [the book] at all when I wrote the song. Honestly, it’s about facing that inner part of you that wants to wander, that is searching, and that might make foolish mistakes out of bravery or just pure foolishness, but honoring that part of us. It’s kind of an allegorical love story between this man and this woman, but it’s also speaking to my inner Alice, all of our inner Alices,” and the travails we stumble through.
The song works on many levels, but one prominent instrument that gives it an introspective touch is the cello, which essentially dominates the beginning, middle, and end of the composition.
“It’s an instrument with so much depth,” Barron says, “and I just love it. Whenever I hear it played it gives me chills because it’s got such a rich voice of its own. The cello was the very first instrument I could hear in this song.”
Often, the idea for a song comes to her while she’s driving. However, unlike most of us, she’s prepared to snag it out of the air. “The way I write,” Barron explains, “I’ll have my phone with me and the tune and the lyrics just kind of arrive all at once.” If the initial spark seems promising she won’t let it slip away and lose the momentum. “I’ll stick with the song until it’s done in that one recording session on my phone and then I’ll go home and pick it out on guitar.”
“Down The Rabbit Hole,” the genesis of which came to her as she left Sabino Canyon, is a lovely song, but how would one describe it?
“I think it’s kind of a dreamscape ballad,” Barron says. “Those backing harmonies lend themselves to what could have been a string section. So it creates this nice, dreamlike ambience, which kind of hopes inspires that wanderer.”
Reflecting on her previous work, Barron pauses and adds, “I think a lot of my songs have kind of a melancholic feel to them — probably because it’s my way of processing a lot of things. I find those melancholy songs really beautiful, really touching and moving, in a way that we don’t normally express or maybe we avoid expressing.”Love without shackles
This brings us to “We Fucked Up,” which Barron says is one of her edgier songs and describes it as being in a light punk or folk-punk vein. That, and the straightforward title, shouldn’t keep anyone away, because if anything there’s a heartfelt insistence to it that draws in the listener. And it certainly shows Alyssa Barron in top form.
Online, she notes that “We Fucked Up” was written on “the backlash of a sudden divorce,” but it was a little more than that, in fact a double-whammy as it were. Her marital breakup and the death of her mother occurred in close proximity to one another. “A lot of things happened all at once,” she says, “and it took me extra time to grieve both her loss and the divorce.”
The song was written a couple of weeks later, the lyrics skirting around the too-obvious, but with the resonance from her emotional car crash still very present.
“What I love about the song are the layers,” Barron says. “It kind of tells a story. The first verse is from an individual point of view and it’s about the consequences if love comes second. It’s what happens to our psyches and to us, on an individual level, social level, and global level.” The opening lyrics go like this: “I don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky/ These hazy days keep chasing me/ I can’t go on if our love is truly gone/ And all we had is just a memory.” And in the next verse she sings, “If what we had was really love/ God, we sure fucked up.”
But it’s the middle part of this song that’s most important to her, and so personal, in fact, that Barron seems hesitant to reveal the background to the background of it. This is what she sings: “I knew a boy once, used to cut his skin and cry/ He liked to wear makeup. Don’t know if he’s still alive/ If all we want is just to love/ God, we sure fucked up.”
What Barron has brought to the surface are some guarded memories from almost 30 years ago. After talking about this verse a couple of times but never clearly explaining what it really means for her, she gathered her thoughts and later put them in an email.
“We were in high school in the mid-late ‘90s and it was a time when talking about sexual identity or orientation wasn’t done. It was too threatening to discuss such things because it [meant] instant rejection or severe bullying. So he and I never discussed it and I never even thought to. But I think we found each other because we were queer and hiding it.
“We only knew each other briefly, but he made a mark. He was vibrant. He wore nail polish, eyeliner, tinted chapstick; and beneath that he was hurting. He showed me the cuts on his arms with a sense of pride that I tried to understand. He moved away and we lost touch. It wasn’t until years later, when writing this song, that I remembered him.”
And so, in a way, those few brief lines are a paean to those who are outside of the norm, sexually or otherwise, and who are forced to endure and suffer in silence.
“The song is an answer, or even protest, to how we judge each other on our differences instead of accepting and honoring our similarities.” As the lyric says, “If all we want is just to love/ God, we sure fucked up.”
The final verse alludes to the fires that were, at the time, consuming Australia and parts of the Pacific northwest, as if nature herself was mirroring our inner turmoils.
“And so,” Barron concludes, “this song is an expression of anxiety and anger. It even screams ‘Why?!’ — and the guitar solo just rips. A lot of my songs are very slow and melancholic and ballady, but selfishly [this one’s] an opportunity for me to just let those feelings wail. Sometimes we need that.”
To learn more about Alyssa Barron and to hear or acquire her music, there are several links, but going to alyssabarron.com should lead you to all of them. ER