Jumping Out, On Record

The making of “Dance with Me”

Joshua Barnhart
Dec 22, 2017 · 9 min read

In 2016, I released my first musical work under my own name, but this wasn’t the first project I’d had a hand in recording. For several years, starting in high school, I’d collaborated on several albums as a back-up singer and, primarily, as a drummer. I tasted larger success as the drummer of the Bay Area folk-rock band Port O’Brien, whose album All We Could Do Was Sing propelled me into the role of a full-time musician traveling the world. Later, I played regularly in many California bands, such as Sparrows Gate, Two Sheds, and Release the Sunbird. As a drummer, I became comfortable in studio settings as well as on stage, whether in front of eight people or eight-thousand.

Yet as much as I loved playing drums and collaborating on others’ songs, I always had the desire to do more, to be able to stand on my own as an artist. The main obstacle to my independence was an insecurity born from being surrounded by so many talented songwriters. How could I ever compare to these friends of mine? Despite this near-paralysis, I showed a few songs I’d written to my friend Paul Dutton (the lead-guitarist of Sparrows Gate). He liked what he heard, so we began working together on my songs. Through his shared enthusiasm, I slowly found my footing and decided to pursue songwriting more seriously than I previously had.

Any amount of experience or familiarity I’d gained from working as a drummer and vocalist didn’t quite prepare me for venturing out as a songwriter. When I first took the stage with Paul to perform songs I’d written myself, I felt physically ill from the overwhelming nerves. Now that I was playing guitar and singing lead vocals, I felt exposed: I no longer had the barrier of my drums to protect me, nor the security that came with singing words written by someone else. I remember one particular show where I was shaking so badly that my voice gained a vibrato quality that was wholly unintentional, making me sound more like Brian Ferry than myself. I kept at it, though, and eventually, through persistent struggle and diminishing degrees of humiliation, gained control over my nerves.

Paul and I armed ourselves with more players and assembled a full band for live shows consisting of drums, bass, Rhodes piano, and three-part vocals. Although the nerves were still there, I became able to enjoy performing with a self-assurance that wasn’t accessible before. Experimenting as a songwriter on the stage finally became fun.

This newfound confidence started filtering into my more recent songwriting, too. My first album, Turn Out the Light, had been more subtle and inward-looking in both its lyrical and its sonic content. The lyrical themes I employed were more abstract — shuffling from meditation to loneliness to experiences in Big Sur — and their tone was always a little bit shy and obscure. The emotional and nature-focused lyrics fit the musical accompaniment: soaring lead guitar that would dash up and down like a woozy bird, three-part harmonies drenched in cathedral-like reverb, soft drum parts played with hot-rods (not sticks), understated bass lines, droning tambura, and an undercurrent of somber cello. With this first album, I wasn’t blasting into the room like Kramer from Seinfeld, but rather slipping in the side door and doing my best to go unnoticed.

My new single, “Dance with Me,” was released in September 2017. It signals a shift in my approach as an artist, as I try to internalize and project a sense of confidence and honesty—to enter the room and more boldly announce my presence. When I first developed the chord structure for the song, I knew I wanted the overall sound to cut against a lyrical theme of hopelessness. I wanted my own contradictory feelings to be central, and so the first words I wrote for the song, which fall now in the second verse, were: despite the fact that I’m unhappy, everything’s fine. This is how I felt. This is how I still feel. This is my experience as an American citizen and artist in 2017.

Lyrically, “Dance with Me” aims to connect in some way with what I imagine a lot of people are feeling these days in this dystopian era of late-capitalism: frustration, anxiety, and fear coupled with intermittent moments of joy or elation. I tried for honesty, rather than emotional obscurity. I wanted to plainly address subjects like unhappiness, the underlying existential fear/threat of global climate change, and the rising tide of bigotry and hatred we’ve been facing. In many ways, it’s still a personal song about my own internal struggles, but I wanted the lens to shift in order to encompass a wider sense of societal dread. It’s my belief that you can’t fully confront the dismal realities at every moment: sometimes it’s necessary to try to have a good time even though everything seems so terrible.

We recorded the song at Paul’s home studio, surrounded by oak trees, just off of highway 41 in Morro Bay, California. The quiet natural environment provided us the space to experiment with different sounds — mic placement, guitar tones, vocal arrangements, amp settings — without distraction, as we constructed the recording. There was no strict schedule, so we took our time, laying each track down on Paul’s Tascam reel-to-reel tape machine. The analog recording process, which requires the use of very old equipment, was slightly more labor-intensive and troublesome than working in a purely digital form, but we accepted the challenge willingly and worked to get a rich sound, a fullness and warmth that is more difficult to produce in the cold digital realm. Though it is tricky at times, this is the kind of work that Paul and I both enjoy the most. Having now played together, either in Sparrows Gate or in my own band, for many years, we work well as a team, trying this-and-that while always striving to make the music sound as good as possible.

Josh, tracking guitar
Paul, tracking guitar

I wanted the song to be a bit more explosive than anything we’d done before. The drums, played by me, hit heavy, crashing and grooving along with the melodic bass lines, played by Paul, which lay the rhythmic scaffolding for the rest of the song. The lead guitar’s fuzz tone blasts into the chorus in a defiant act of elation. This time I didn’t obsessively record the three-part harmony vocals myself, but rather utilized the voices of my band. Paul’s coarse low-end understatement and Taylor Belmore’s energetic and sharp femininity swirl around my own leading voice. We three developed a vocal chemistry by regularly rehearsing and playing shows, becoming a unified force of different elements. The varied quality of their voices, blended with mine, gives the song a dimension that my first album never achieved. Beneath this rollicking sound collage struts the piano, played by Joel Tolbert, thumping steadily throughout the song and building in intensity towards the climactic instrumental ending, where all of the elements climb higher and higher to the final clashing chord.

Taylor, tracking vocals
Della and Paul, outside the studio

After several experiment-driven recording sessions in the small house among the oak trees, we finished, and I was probably the most satisfied I’d ever been upon completing a song. The energy and fullness of sound achieved through our collaboration made this song stand out to me as the best thing I had accomplished. I decided to release “Dance with Me” as a single so that it might serve as a stepping stone from my first album to the second.

Whereas I had mixed Turn Out the Light on my own, I decided to have this new song mixed professionally by Ian Pellicci, an Oakland engineer I had worked with on my friend Caleb’s album, Double Mantasy. Ian seemed to know just what to do to bring out the best qualities of the music and, taking my notes as a jumping off point, he brought the song to a whole new level. After it was mixed, my friend Steve Jenkins mastered the track, adding his expertise to the song’s overall production. When we heard the final mix of the song, we were ecstatic. “Dance with Me” was finished and, best of all, it sounded good.

Leading up to the release of the song, I received a few online reviews, which commented on the overall sound and influences of the music. Punknews.org wrote: “Dance with Me feels like dropping acid in a poppy field. He takes the warm, fuzzed out sound of the mid 60s garage rockers, adds just a bit of Their Satanic Majesties Request menace, and artfully polishes the twist off with a tinge of Beach Boys melody.”

Perhaps it’s the grittier pessimism of the Rolling Stones and the sunshine optimism of the Beach Boys that made that writer think of those two bands, specifically. I don’t disagree with this description and am actually quite humbled by the prospect of getting placed within the context of two of my favorite bands. In my writing, I usually try to draw on these older influences and make them current rather than fully absorb them in an act of shallow regurgitation or parody. It’s my goal to make music specific to my own personality and aesthetic tastes, and my increased desire to be more honest and confident is helping me continually develop a sound that expresses a sense of “me” while still incorporating my influences.

The trajectory of my artistic evolution has manifested in multiple ways, the most surprising being the visual. Whereas the artwork for Turn Out the Light was self-effacing, with my name printed in a tiny font, the “Dance with Me” cover art jumps out at the viewer, daring to be seen. The cover depicts a desert landscape with large letters hanging above and just beyond the horizon. My name is no longer placed timidly, delicately, but rather is set down in block letters over a stark black background, bordering the bottom of the cover. The strange thing is that I hadn’t really noticed the degree of this aesthetic shift until I saw the two different pieces of artwork next to one another. I’d been intentional about my writing, but hadn’t necessarily been conscious of my newfound comfort with existing a bit more loudly on the cover.

Turn Out the Light cover art (original illustration by Jeremiah Conte, layout by Crystal Labs)
“Dance with Me” cover art (original illustration by Evan apRoberts, layout by Colin Tucker)

And so, as a song that lyrically, sonically, and visually jumps out at the listener, “Dance with Me” marks my first intentionally loud and heavy step as a songwriter. I don’t want to tip-toe as I once might have done, and I now realize that I’m having a lot more fun as a performer because of this. Though not every song on my next album will be as fast or as loud as “Dance with Me” (I must always strive for variety!), I will try my best to make them work together to form a cohesive artistic vision: one concerned with the shared experience of being alive during these troubling times, while striving to connect with an audience in a real and enjoyable way. And although the future seems bleak, to say the least, I hope to maintain some element of the foolishly optimistic pessimism of the song. It seems that the negativity expressed is somehow transmuted when put into song form.

I have to remain optimistic in some way because I don’t really know what the alternative is. Please don’t say another word. Come dance with me. The world is ending, that’s what I heard. Come dance with me.

Joshua Barnhart

Written by

The Annex

The Annex

Cultural dispatches from UC Berkeley

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