Your twenties can be an exceptionally confusing point in your life. After two decades of the educational system giving you goals to achieve while laying out a clear and consistent path to success you are suddenly thrust into the world and told to make a life for yourself, despite the trigonometry and Latin that you had been taught not seeming to be too applicable to the life you now hope to lead. People move from home, some find success for themselves and some suffer defeat due to no fault of their own, and we’re all stuck trying to just understand the world around us, let alone succeed in it. On his new album, The Price of Comfort (available on vinyl), James Barret confronts that sense of confusion with where his universe is moving and the problems life has thrown his way. He asks a lot of tough questions that don’t necessarily have straightforward answers: why do so many die so goddamn young? Are the sacrifices we make to live a comfortable life worth the toll capitalism takes on us? And will it all be worth it in the end?
James Barret explores these questions and more over the course of eleven heavy tracks. The production quality is outstanding and is a definite step forward from his previous records. The album sonically takes inspiration from the quietly thriving punk and emo scene going on in his native Scranton, PA, and while James is a solo artist the album definitely benefits from a full band sound. As you move through the record it is clear that the process of talking about these issues has been cathartic for James, as problems that initially seemed insurmountable seem, well, surmountable by the close of the album. He is at times angry, upset, vulnerable, confused, and jaded, and yet the album ultimately has an optimistic tone. What James seems to conclude is that while life can be difficult, giving yourself unneeded anxiety about your situation won’t make things any less difficult. While life will never be as simple as it was as a child, we have no choice but to play the hand we’re dealt. Often times the hell that we perceive to be all around us is really only in our heads, and the most important step in becoming justifiably excited about your life is giving yourself permission to be excited about your life. We were lucky enough to talk with James about the album, his inspirations, the recording process, and where he is going from here.
GRANDMA SOPHIA: In “First Days of July” you repeat “I will not be defined by everything that’s absent from my life.” Could you expand on that?
JAMES BARRETT: I am like most other people in the sense that a great source of our stress comes from comparing ourselves to different people, who we were in the past, and we focus on what we lack in the present moment. It is easy to get trapped in that mental hole once you start with the comparisons. That line is a reminder to myself that no matter what or who my life is lacking, I am still whole even if I feel like I am not. It is me telling myself the things I cannot control will not define that way I view myself.
GS: Anxiety looms heavy over this album. Did you learn anything about your anxious soul through this recording process? Do you feel like you have a better or worse handle over your anxiety than when you started?
JB: I absolutely feel better. I wrote this album during three difficult and life altering years. The early 20’s are just kinda weird. Everyone goes through the bizarreness of it. I know there is way more to come too. I was incredibly naive when I released my last album “Twenty” and I know in a few years I’ll say the same thing about myself now, but I feel like a different person than who I was when I started writing this record. Now the album is out and my life is totally different in both beautiful and terrifying ways. A few years ago, the terrifying aspects of change would hinder me, but I have gotten better at dealing with everything as it comes an trying not to become consumed by it. I feel proud to be where I am now.
GS: The album title is referenced to and reflected on in the track “On Comfort”. What is it that people give up in order to be comfortable? Is the payoff ever worth it?
JB: I think comfort is ambiguous in a way. We all long for moments where we feel comfortable with our position in the world. We feel overwhelmed with what we are going through and long for moments of peace. Then sometimes life calms down and you find that peace but being too comfortable for too long is just as dangerous as being overwhelmed with too much to do. It is easy to forget how to grow and becoming stagnant for too long just creates more anxiety with less ambition. We need the obstacles that life provides to allow growth to take place within us. I think the answer to most things in life is finding balance and that applies to comfort. Without it, you are faced with the same anxiety in different context.
GS: This album feels like a step forward from your 2016 album One More with The Price of Comfort definitely feeling like a heavier release. What has changed since then in your life that’s lead to that progression? Is the world of One More the world you talk about on “The World Back Then”?
JB: I was so young when I wrote “One More.” I think I started most of those songs from ages 16-18. My view of the world was filtered. I had no real perception of life out of public school and just had lot to learn as I still do now. My whole life is different from the time when I wrote “One More.” Different people, different stories, a different world entirely. “One More” was released before America elected Trump too. The world then actually did feel more kind. Funny thing is I wrote the melody to that song when I was young, maybe 17. I forgot about it entirely until last winter and finally made it into the song it is now. Writing the song, I was thinking of when I was younger and things were simpler. Today when I hear that line I think of something entirely different. Songs tend to take different meanings as time continues.
GS: The sequencing on the album seems deliberate, especially ending with “Everything Will Be Beautiful In The End”. What we’re you hoping to communicate with that?
JB: The sequencing is my favorite aspect of the whole album. A lot of these songs were written at totally different times and the album doesn’t go in chronological order of the way they were written. It took me a bit to figure out how to sequence them, but it was mainly meant to represent the chaotic thought patterns and emotional changes that we feel when shit hits the fan. The last song ends on a note of hope and acceptance that the only place we can go is forward. Accepting the past for what it is and focusing on now and what happens next. That is my favorite song on the album.
GS: The cover of the album is very interesting, with a decadent dining room table outdoors with chairs askew, and I believe you blurry in the background. What was the inspiration for this image?
JB: I love the artwork. It was done by my girlfriend Julissa Quezada. She is an incredibly talented architect major. I knew I wanted her to be the one to do the art for a long time. We had an idea of something obscure and I kinda just let her do her thing. She took the photo of me blurry in the background when we were trying something for the original artwork concept. It changed a lot over time, but eventually we finished with what we have now and I couldn’t ask for anything more.
GS: I know you spent a lot of time working on this with Jake Checkoway down in Philly. How has it been working with Honest Face and how have they contributed to this project?
JB: Jake is the greatest. I can never say that enough. I love working with him and the label is the same way. We have been making music together since 2017 and I plan on doing a lot more in the future with him. He has co-owned the label for a long time and we both felt like this is a release that could hopefully be something big. We both wanted to do vinyl for it. Overall it is just super relaxing being able to work with Jake and Stevie.
GS: Scranton has a strong recent musical history with bands like Tigers Jaw and the Mezingers coming from the Electric City. Did the local scene influence this album at all?
JB: Absolutely. The first time I saw The Menzingers was in 2009. I was 11 and they were playing this tiny room called The Vintage Theater. They became one of my favorite bands that day and now it is almost 2020 and they are one of the biggest punk bands in the world right now. It was so inspiring growing up as this band’s success continued to build. In 2017 and 2018 I was lucky enough to open for them at the annual NEPA Holiday Show. It was a dream of mine since I was little, so it was pretty surreal to watch it come to life. Tigers Jaw was a big influence on me as well. Charmer is still one of my favorite albums of all time.
GS: Who are your favorite local acts around Scranton you play with or listen to?
JB: Aside from the big names of Tigers Jaw and The Menzingers, there were and still are so many incredible bands. Captain We’re Sinking, Three Man Cannon, University Drive, Esta Coda, Alma Mater, Old Charades, Sweetnest, the list goes on. Scranton has some of the best music right now and it is crazy how so much of it doesn’t get heard. I want that to change so badly.
GS: Where are your favorite spots around town to play?
JB: Right now, the best place is Stage West. That is where my record release show will be. I am a little spoiled because of the holiday show but playing the Scranton Cultural Center was unbelievable. That place is magnificent, and I will never forget both of those shows.
GS: I know you’re having a Halloween themed release party at Scranton’s Stage West on 11/2. Do you have your Halloween costume ready? Can you reveal or are you saving it for the show?
JB: I am actually slacking off pretty bad. I need to find a costume still. Last year I went as Jesus Christ, so this year I may be Satan. A lot can change in a few weeks so we shall see.