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Dave Barnes



Share This article To see the world through the eyes of Dave Barnes, first look out his bedroom window.

Not the one in his current place in Nashville, where he has built his base as an outstanding young songwriter and performer whose renown reaches greater national dimension with release of his latest album, What We Want, What We Get.

No, we’re going back to Kosciusko, Mississippi, where the pieces that would complete the picture of this singular artist started to come together. In this small town, opening as a landscape of homes within easy reach of Barnes’ front door, friendships formed easily across demographic lines – a simple fact of life that would nonetheless guide his growth, individually and artistically, as a songwriter, performer and even occasional standup comedian, sharing his insights either through lyrics and melody or humorous reflections on life’s absurdities.

Now, a more recent view, far from the American South: On this beautiful night, Barnes and his wife are sharing a tent in the Sudan, near another community that had come to mean a lot to them.

“We were in the middle of the desert,” he says. “My wife was falling asleep, hyenas are barking outside, and I’m looking through the open mesh into the sky and thinking, ‘How did I get here? How did my life get me to this amazing place?’”

The answer is in the music. What We Want, What We Get flows through a varied terrain, fed by multiple streams along the way, from Motown horns to bubbling reggae to impeccably crafted pop, all of it riding a current of irresistible groove. No borders separate the many sides of Barnes, for whom there is no real difference between conveying a message through music and bringing hope to people as far from home as Darfur.

But before inviting fans to join him in supporting African assistance through the efforts of Mocha Club (, Barnes’ work begins by growing and nurturing that base through the hushed and intimate “You Do the Same for Me,” the swampy crawl, soaring choruses, the gospel jolts that electrify the vocals on “What I Need,” the promise buoyed by churchy organ, soft steel guitar, and the slow congregational sway of “Amen.”

These tracks and all the others that grace his new album reflect the gifts and wisdom, the humanity and moments of humor, this young artist shares through song.

“This is by far the most vulnerable record I’ve ever done,” Barnes insists. “For instance, the first line of ‘My Love, My Enemy’ is ‘What do you say? Let’s give it up now and just be done.’ I would never have said that before, but after being married for four years I realize that my wife is my love even though we can sometimes feel like each other’s enemy when we’re standing in the way of what the other wants. I wrote this for her as my way of saying, ‘Hey, life can be hard, but that’s part of love too, so come and join me.’”

In contrast to the guitar-driven intensity of “My Love, My Enemy,” the Jamaican vibe of “Little Lies” evokes a laid-back day at the shore. But zoom in on the words: “I love the feel that it makes you want to sit on the beach and drink some margaritas,” Barnes says. “But the lyrics are about the struggle of marriage and why we put up with little lies. I love the ‘cloak and dagger’ of that.”

For all the variety within What We Want, What We Get, the album is unified by the theme implicit in the title cut. “I’ve never named an album after one of its songs, but I did it here because it sums up the past season of my life,” Barnes says. “I had huge expectations for my career, for my life, for a lot of situations. Some came through, some were better than I expected, and some of them miserably failed. Through them all, I learned a lot. The hook of this song is the takeaway for me: ‘Sometimes what we want isn’t what we get. Sometimes what we get isn’t what we want.’ Sometimes the blessing is hidden in what we don’t know.”

There’s an art to asking questions in ways that empower listeners to seek their own answers. For Barnes, the thirst for all that life offers does go back to Mississippi, where he realized that music can help wear down the barriers that separate us from those we see as different. As an artist, he continues to pose questions, through music varied enough to win praise from colleagues as diverse as Marc Cohn, Vince Gill, and Bonnie Raitt, to earn him opening slots on shows with John Mayer, OneRepublic, and Taylor Swift, and now to widen his reach even more.

As for that line from “Chameleon” – “What does it say if you’ve got nothing to say?” – it’s obvious that this is one question that doesn’t need an answer: Dave Barnes says plenty on What We Want, What We Get, and makes it a pleasure and privilege for those who hear.

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