Interview: Mandy Barnett Shows Her Soul on ‘Strange Conversation’
When Mandy Barnett arrived at the Nutthouse Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., to record Strange Conversation -- her first album in five years -- she didn't know what to expect. "It really unfolded on the floor at the recording session in the studio," she tells The Boot. "I didn't know what it was going to sound like. I didn't know what I was going to sound like."
Barnett was recording Strange Conversation in a new location, with new musicians and under the auspices of Marco Giovino and Doug Lancio, two producers whom she was just getting to know, yes. But the album is also sharp left turn away from the classic country sound that Barnett's listeners have grown accustomed to hearing from her over the course of her career, via projects such as her Don Gibson tribute album and her starring role in the Patsy Cline tribute musical, Always ... Patsy Cline.
"I purposely wanted to do something different," Barnett explains. "I've done classic country for the last 20 years. So I didn't want to work in that world. I wanted to work with some different people that had a different point of view, different background, that sort of thing."
Those two decades' worth of songs that follow a specifically country style are true to Barnett as a musician, she clarifies, but they don't tell the whole story. "I wanted to do something a little more soulful or bluesy -- songs that had a little bit more folk or pop or rock," she continues. "I haven't shown those sides of me -- maybe glimpses here and there, but not to this degree."
The first song to be added to the album, "It's Alright (You're Just in Love)," is a faithful cover of the Atlanta group the Tams' 1964 hit, showcasing Barnett's voice at its most '60s soulful. While she declines to name a favorite track on Strange Conversation, Barnett says that selecting that song set the tone for the rest of the project: "[All the songs] are important. They fit together. There's no filler on the album," she says. "But ["It's Alright"] was the first song on the album that we picked, so everything beyond that point was a complement to that song."
Other styles found their places in the constellation of the record, too, such as the swampier, bluesier "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done," a duet with John Hiatt. "I've always looked up to John Hiatt, so to do a collab with him was really a dream come true," Barnett says with a smile. "When I was a teenager, I was on Capitol Records, and I recorded quite a few of his songs at that time. So to be able to do a duet with him was really great."
Barnett says that entering into a different style was an important personal move, allowing her to reinvent herself and explore other aspects of her voice and style. The singer is enjoying spending some time with the songs on Strange Conversation for the moment, but she admits that there are still new styles to explore on the horizon.
"I think it helps you grow," she says. "You discover new things about yourself. It's important for your future, and the longevity of your career."
Strange Conversation was released on Friday (Sept. 21). For more details, head over to Barnett's website.
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