In Conversation: James Barrett Talks Growing Up in Scranton, Playing with The Menzingers, and His Kick Ass New Album
Despite what many a mainstream publication may lead you to believe stadium rock isn’t dead, it’s just been in hiding in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Scranton singer-songwriter James Barrett just released his second album, A Series of… Mostly Nothing, a record equally inspired by the basement bashing emo bands he grew up idolizing in his hometown and by his desperate desire to break out of his hometown and play music like the late 90’s band who played massive stadiums all over the world. Released in September, A Series of… Mostly Nothing is a cathartic and chaotic exorcism of life’s frustrations, doubts, anxieties, desires, and shortcomings. Opening with “A Series Of…”, James rips a stadium ready guitar riff not far from his childhood inspiration Angels and Airwaves. In a deadpan vocal delivery that ultimately picks up in frenetic energy James lets the listener know, “I know we can’t start again / I just miss your love / I miss my friend” before admitting “I don’t get out of my head that much these days,”. Second track follow up “Oh My God” slows the album down akin to a Death Cab with Cutie influence. Built around something everyone has been proclaiming during the pandemic, “Oh my god the year it’s been / Oh my god a year it’s been? / Oh my god”.
James’ diversity in songwriter is prominent on “U-Haul”, built around a subdued piano riff evoking Sam’s Town era The Killers, with just a touch of synths to give enough bop and sway to the piano beat. The lyrical content here and throughout the album feels conversational and familiar. When James’ ask, “Why does everything go south?” it feels like we already know: life is pain. However, James has discovered what he needs to do to survive it. On “The Art of Letting Go” the vivacity of James’ guitar work returns. James knows “letting go” would save him the trouble of the pain he feels, but like most young people who engage with toxic scenarios there’s a sense of not wanting to “miss out on my youth”.
A Series of… Mostly Nothing harkens to the glory days of NEPA emo he grew up with with an intentional focus on more poetic lyricism. Although James sings, “I know I’m intense at times / I just speak what’s on my mind”, it’s in the catchy and relatableness of his music that the pop made instrumentals feel comforting and universal. Part of that growing up process is the universal acceptance and facing dealing with loss. On “I Thought You Had Died” he confronts mortality and the panic we feel when faced with the potential loss of someone close to us. When James sings “Instead of you / It was I who died that day in vain” I remember my little brother who tragically lost his life in 2020. Oh my god the year it’s been.
James grew up going to shows all over Scranton and the greater area, and getting to see bands like Tigers Jaw and Petal play down the street from him had a massive impact on him. It made making kick ass music seem like a tangible thing, and lit a fire in his belly that never went out. He’s played shows in every bar and basement in Scranton for the better part of the last decade, and while he was a cynic about his hometown for the longest time, he’s grown to appreciate how good it’s been to him. He grew up dreaming of playing the NEPA holiday showcase The Menzingers put on annually at the Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple, finally achieving that dream in 2017. James’ talked about how the Menzingers were not only his favorite band growing up but a true inspiration; living proof you could make it out of Scranton and tour the country making the kind of music he wanted to listen to. He feels particularly blessed and honored to be heading back to the Cultural Arts Center to play with The Menzingers once again this Black Friday, for which tickets are now on sale.
EIC Hang Ten and I had the opportunity to chop it up with James on his family musical history, what makes Scranton such a special music city, and the process of putting together his fantastic new record.
GSC: What is your name and how do you identify?
JB: James Barrett, he and him.
GSC: What are your earliest musical memories? Who was playing music around the house?
JB: My dad always played guitar, still does. When YouTube came out he asked us if we could help make YouTube videos. So we literally would video tape it on like the old super shitty ass picture cameras that we’d have and take a video on it. I think my dad still has a “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” cover on YouTube from 2006. My brother Ty is four years older than I am, and he drums in my live band. He started playing drums really, really young. By the time I was in third grade I started playing bass. But up until then, I always just had music at the house. My sisters were really into pop punk back then too. That was like when Good Charlotte and Simple Plan and Blink 182, and all those bands were huge. I grew up listening to a lot of that just from my sisters. And I had the classical stuff from my Dad. And then my brother was listening to Leftöver Crack, hilariously.
GSC: How do you as your dad feel about your musical journey?
JB: My dad and my parents support everything. They’ve been supportive of me since day one, which is awesome, because I know that’s not always the case. There’s definitely points in my life where after high school I told them I didn’t want to go to college. Like, I want to do this. They didn’t tell me not to do it. They were just like, “just so you know, like, this shit is fucking hard. Like, you have to really do it, you know?” So they’ve always supported anything I’ve done. I feel now especially over the last year that everything’s going well they’re very supportive of everything. In fact because I started playing out in 2010, that convinced my Dad to do the same. So my dad now plays covers at bars locally. So it’s all in the family now.
GSC: Have you guys played together?
JB: We used to do shows at bars together for years. I didn’t work a job for a long time, because I would just play at bars. And then, after high school, I realized that I needed to save my weekends for actual shows that were like for my original music. So I started working a full time job, which blew. But I used to play at bars in Scranton for at least the last 10 years. I think the first bar I ever played I was 14 playing a three hour set. I was always going into bars and being like these people were all at least like seven years older than me, like everybody around me is at least like 23 and I’m fuggin 14 years old. But yeah, so we used to play together all the time.
GSC: We have a question written here, when do you know that you wanted to create music yourself, but it sounds like you kind of always knew?
JB: I really started writing my own music in sixth grade. I started playing music in third grade. About three years later is when I started trying to write. I really started trying to write things like immediately, I was terrible for many years. I always used to listen to my CD players. And like, this is really funny. I remember my first CD I ever bought was Reel Big Fish’s Cheer Up. I remember listening to that album and pretending, as a child listening to it, that like me and all my friends were playing it in the elementary school talent show. I’d be like “Dan is someone who could easily play bass,” and these are kids who don’t do fucking music. I get in my head like Matthews is playing drums in my mind just so I could listen and visualize me playing a set. That was from even before I started playing music.
GSC: So it was always in the brain.
JB: Really, it started ever since I was born. I actually took piano lessons when I was in kindergarten, I always forget that. But I was in kindergarten so I gave up.
GSC: Your hometown of lovely Scranton, Pennsylvania looms heavy over the record, mostly good, sometimes a little melancholy. How did growing up in Scranton shape your musical sensibilities and what’s something about the Electric City you love that people wouldn’t know about it?
JB: I feel like growing up, everybody hates where they grew up. They’re like “I want to get out of this town, just gotta get out of this town” and I had that mindset for so long. It wasn’t until the past two years where I have really started to come around on it. Scranton has come a long way. When I first started playing music about 10 years ago, that was when it was peak depression and it got really bad for a long time, Scranton was really, really broke. However, when I first started playing shows that was when the Menzingers were taking off and Tigers Jaw took off so growing up and seeing them was what made Scranton so cool to grow up in. My favorite band growing up for years was The Menzingers and I’d literally be like I’m gonna go five minutes down the road and see them which was so cool. I mean then we had Petal and Captain We’re Sinking and Three Man Cannon, so I was just spoiled growing up. Playing the annual Northeastern PA Holiday Show in 2017 for example was a major dream come true for me, cuz I used to go see all those bands play it every year dreaming of doing so myself. It’s almost funny with Scranton because everyone talks about Nashville, or Seattle, or Portland and all these big music scenes. Part of me feels like it’s only a matter of time until people speak about Scranton as a music hub. Between all the bands before and Title Flight. I mean, even with like Breaking Benjamin, they’re cock rock but still a huge fucking band. There has been much more coming out of this neck of the woods than some people realize.
The mayor is also really cool and encouraging of the arts. Her name is Paige Cognetti. I knew I knew her for years through my old job. She came to my last record release show three days before the election which was so cool, so we tried to help rock out the vote and she won! She was the first woman and first independent mayor in Scranton history, and she ran while she was pregnant, and had her baby a month later. Crazy. She just won her second term, and she’s fucking sick. She’s doing a great job, and feels like she is in tune with the community and arts scene especially in a way that previous mayors haven’t been.
GSC: You mentioned that you really feel Scranton’s come up in the past two years, and it’s been about two years since you and I first talked around The Price of Comfort. In what ways do you think you’ve changed as a person since then?
JB: Oh, man, oh my god. I think I was so naive. I still am. But I was so naive, with my last record, I was like this is it, this is records gonna come out and shits just gonna work and everything’s gonna take off and everything’s gonna work out. And I was so wrong. I just learned so much from the last record, just how much work truly goes into trying to make an album successful. Like commercial success, not just sentimentally successful, so I learned to hustle and set reasonable expectations.
GSC: How do you think you’ve developed sonically?
JB: That record was my first full band album, which I wanted to do for many years. I used to have a band called Embera. For many years after I graduated high school, it was James Barrett music, which was more acoustic solo stuff, and then Embera, the band which is essentially what I’m doing now. Every time I released something under Embera, no one listened to it. But if I put the same song out under my own name, people would listen to it. I was nervous about putting out full massive stadium rock under my name until my friend Quinn Foley, he’s one of the best people ever, I was bitching about this whole dilemma and he was like “James, who gives a fuck? It does not matter. You could do whatever you want.” And I was like Quinn, you are right, I can do what I want. So I started recording The Price of Comfort and a lot of those songs on my last record were old. I wrote some of them when I was like, fuckin 17. Old old songs, I had to get them out for me to even do anything else, you know. There’s a lot of songs on there that I still really like, but there’s lyrics I wish I could change, just because I have grown up in certain senses. It definitely set the foundation for this album. The one biggest difference is I bought a new synth last summer, and that thing changed my life, and I also started playing piano again. So after my last record came out, I fell into a massive depression. And I was like, how am I going to write a new record? How I gonna do this? I went alright, well, I’ll start playing piano again. I wrote “U-Haul” and I remember writing that and being like shit, I could write songs on piano, this is crazy. So I really spent the last year of my life working on piano and then that allowed me to write “Yellow Paint”. And teaching myself piano just made doing everything else so much easier, like we just sped up the process on this record
GSC: You’re becoming more efficient as a musician?
JB: Yeah, I think Jake Checkoway and I just have it down to science man.
GSC: On your social media watching the glee you had recording at the mini house, like it felt like you were on your own island.
JB: Jen, my sister. She moved to a suburb below Scranton with her boyfriend Nick. I remember I went to her house and I was in the backyard, and I saw the mini house. I was like what the hell’s that? And she’s like, Oh, it’s the mini house. And I was like yea, again, what the hell is that? And she’s like it’s just this tiny house that Nick used to rent out to people for like $300 a month. So I walked in, and it was just one room and a bathroom with a shower and a toilet and a sink. Literally the second I walked in I was like this is it, because music studios were done, I couldn’t do anything with studios. I just drove to Massachusetts to record “Oh My God” with Jake, in February and now it’s May and all the studios are closed. So I asked Jen if we could record in the mini-house, which was the biggest godsend. All the drums were already being recorded in LA. I would demo the song, send it to Billy Garrity, who’s my drummer on the album. He lives in Los Angeles and is originally from Scranton. Then he sent it back to me and I recorded everything else at first in the studio with Jake. So now I could just do the same thing in the mini-house. I convinced Jake to come in twice last summer. It was crazy because I lost my job like the week before he was supposed to come in. And I remember being like, now I can just do this. In fact I’m getting paid by the government to just do this. So Jake came in twice last summer, recorded a bunch and I just remember, like, I just felt like something. You ever have those moments that happen in life where you just know you’re not forgetting it, where in that moment itself, it’s almost feeling like you’re remembering it, even though it’s happening right now? We did that all summer. We then hit a wall for a couple months until we put out “Love Song in 2020”. I had been joking with him for weeks that he should move into the mini house, and in October and he hit me up and was like, maybe living in the mini house for like two months doesn’t seem that bad. Now he’s been there since November.
GSC: So that’s the Checkoway residence now.
JB: He’s got a PA license and everything. He came in November, and the cases were rising again, like really bad. So pretty much like he was the only person I had like any contact with. I would just go to the mini house every single day from like December through probably the end of February. Just was recording and recording. We finished recording at the end of January, and I would go almost every day in February and watch him mix. I don’t even need to be there, but I just it was the first time I ever got behind the scenes of the mixing because usually Jake was several states away sending me the file. It was just how I was able to like sit there and like really just like listen, and learn from Jake and give my two cents.
GSC: Jake almost sounds like a member of your family at this point.
JB: He pretty much is. He lives in my sister’s like in the backyard. He goes to all of our family parties. The best part too is there is an actual recording studio right down the road where people can record drums, and then come back to the mini-house for everything else. That is what we’re planning on doing for whatever I do next.
GSC: You talked about playing the piano, and “Yellow Paint” which is piano led is one of my favorite songs of yours ever. How did that come together?
JB: I started writing it in April last year. It was one of those songs were I wrote it… okay this happens to me a lot. This turns into a whole conversation of like science and like other dimensions, and the fourth dimension that is time. Because sometimes when I write a song, it’s like, have I heard the song before, like from another artist, or have I heard the song before from within myself, just not yet. Like, where I’ve always known I was gonna write the song, you know what I mean? That’s kind of how “Yellow Paint” came with the melody I remember writing it and being like, there’s no way I wrote this. I sent it to a bunch of my friends and asked like “Do you guys know the song?” And they were like, it sounds like I do, but I don’t know it. So I kind of rolled with it. It took a really really, really fucking long time to write. I was changing lyrics. I just remember writing during a very dreary day in April, then a couple weeks later, it was snowing in May. And I was like this fucking blows. So I think that is about me realizing there’s no way any type of love is ever going to work out in my life unless I actually find that for myself. I think I spent many years of my life getting too lost in other people. And then every time things don’t work out, which is often, I lose my sense of self, which is bullshit, because I should not lose my sense of self. I spent so many times writing songs about missing a person where I felt like I needed to write something about missing myself as a person.
GSC: Do you write lyrics or music first?
JB: Always music first. If I have a melody to base it off of it makes it like way easier to make lyrics fit. When I write lyrics first, I struggle to make them fit in a melody
GSC: It’s clear the lyrics are still a main focus though, I figured you’d have them written out in a little book.
JB: I used to write lyrics first all the time. There are always lines where I am like, I gotta put that on my phone real quick. But starting with the melody feels like I’m laying out the groundwork for the song itself.
GSC: Would you ever drop a book of poems?
JB: I’d love to, I’ve thought about writing a book in general. I feel like I have a lot of ridiculous stories, and music is good for telling stories but for me mostly sad stories, where in a book or stand up I could do funny stories. TBD on that front, I definitely enjoy other forms of creative expression outside of music like poetry or short stories or stand up but I don’t know how I’d go about any of them yet. My lyrics are definitely the most important part of my songs, but it’s also the part I am most conscious of, so I guess I save the best for last.
GSC: One fella who is featured on your album, Jimmy Montague, legend. You two crack me up with your back and forth tweets about the lives of James is and the struggles unique to Jim’s. What does it mean to be a Jim and who is on your Mount Rushmore of Jim’s?
JB: My Dad’s a Jim. I’m James Barrett the fourth, so I am IV. It’s funny because I think stubbornness comes with being a Jim. It’s my way or not at all, which is very unfortunate. I feel like that’s how every Jim I’ve ever met is. It’s not that you’re not willing to compromise. I feel like this sounds really narcissistic, but most Jim’s figure it out. And then we’re like, it has to be this way, it’s not gonna work any other way. Every Jim I’ve ever met, they’re always just working, figuring it out, and they keep it moving. My Dad has to be the number one Jim, I’d be a shame to the family if I didn’t take him as number one. Then I feel obviously Montague was really made a name for himself in terms of being Jimmy. He’s doing a great job with that.
GSC: I love that album he put out man.
JB: Dude, it is fugging unreal. And I just met him. He followed me last March, and we just became buds through Twitter. Okay back to the Mount Rushmore… Jim Atkins from Jimmy World. He’s got to be another one. I’d be killing James Baumann. If I didn’t include him in this list. I’ll put James Bauman and Jimmy King in that list over Atkins.
GSC: Can you talk about the name of the record and how that came together?
JB: For a while I never knew what the hell I was going to call this record, I could not figure it out. Then the day I wrote “A Series of” I remember writing the phrase down “A Series of… Mostly Nothing”, having seen the phrase elsewhere in a previous life, which is a whole other story. The song just felt like such an opener and such like a beginning of something new. I just remember I was driving and I had that melody stuck in my head, and it hitting me like a ton of bricks. A Series of… Mostly Nothing. After all the negative stuff I had recently gone through, I just had to soldier on forward. You know when you see a friend for the first time in a while and they’re like how’s it going man how’ve you been? And all you can think is the mountain of shit that has been ruining your life lately and you are like “Ah I’ve been up to mostly nothing.” This record is about that mostly nothing, the gritting your teeth and learning to move forward. It was something I had difficulty doing at the time and something that writing and recording the album I think really helped me do.
GSC: What do you want people to take away from your album?
JB: Hopefully people can find something that helps them in any way. For me music is so much more than just a career because it’s therapeutic to me. I really made it when I say I feel that writing this album, felt like it gave my life purpose again, because I felt like I didn’t have any. I felt jaded after my last album. I felt so alone for so long, at one point, like I really didn’t want to be alive. I think to myself, if I could have just realized what was going to come out of it. So anyone telling me they resonate with anything, or that my music made them feel something makes me realize I’ve made the right decision. Whatever I went through was temporary and whatever you are going through is temporary, we’re all out here persevering together.
GSC: What are things outside of music that bring your life joy?
JB: So I love going for my walks at Lake Scranton. I am a big proponent of just walking and thinking because I need to think all the time, and it allows me to get my stupid thoughts out of my head and not let them interfere with anybody else. I love doing yoga. So big yoga. I do yoga with Adrian on YouTube. I unfortunately like the Dallas Cowboys, which sucks. And then I’m also a vegetarian. That’s something that no one ever knows about. I haven’t eaten meat since 2008. I gave up meat a long time ago and practically most dairy too but pizza is my weakness. “Masterplan” is about my spiritual awakening with mushrooms. I wrote that song about a time I took mushrooms in the woods, which might be a fun fact to end on. I am very pro-legalization of mushrooms, I think they can help a lot with anxiety and trauma when used the right way.
GSC: Finally, with your concert with The Menzingers coming up on Black Friday, how excited are you to be playing with them again and what does that band mean to the city of Scranton?
JB: Growing up in Scranton allowed me to watch local bands explode into the national acts that they are today. The first time I ever saw The Menzingers was in 2009 when I was 11 years old and somebody picked me up to crowd surf and I went through the ceiling of The Vintage Theater. (rip vintage) Since 2009 I watched bands like The Menzingers grow into not only national acts but my favorite bands. It wasn’t until the 2017 holiday show that I finally opened for The Menzingers when I was 20. Now four years later it feels surreal to finally have established my sound and myself as an artist that gets to open this show again. The Menzingers are hero’s to the people of Scranton and me especially. They were the realization that bands can make it out of this area after being told for my whole life that I need to move elsewhere.
Thanks to Dom Kożuch for the picture at the top of this piece!