“I don’t get people with big egos who are difficult to deal with and don’t treat people with respect.”
On the day that Casey Barnes releases his eagerly awaited new album Light It Up, the singer will be placing his trademark trucker hat on his head and venturing on stage at the Forth Pub in Tasmania.
But this is not just any old launch gig for the rising country star.
When Barnes released his last album, 2020’s Town Of A Million Dreams, Covid restrictions meant he was forced to do an online launch. So, he is relishing being able to get back out there and play for his growing fanbase. But the gig at the Forth is special for another reason. It was here that a tentative teenager stepped on stage for the very first time, playing Eric Clapton’s Tears In Heaven with his mother’s friend’s band when he was just 15.
“We talked a lot about where to kick the tour off,” Barnes says. “And I thought it would be pretty special to go back to literally where it all started for me, back in Tassie. It’s a real full-circle moment.”
A lot has happened since Barnes last played at the Forth, which is 11km out of Devonport. In the last few years, the artist – who’s now based on the Gold Coast – has set country radio alight. His streak of airplay chart-toppers continued with Light It Up’s first single Come Turn Me On, which became 2021’s most-played song on country radio.
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Long gone are the days when music fans believed that Barnes was Jimmy Barnes’ daughter.
The country singer laughs when recalling his big break, supporting Bryan Adams in 2005. The Day On The Green promoter Mick Newton announced him to the crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, opening today’s show will be a great new Aussie talent, Casey Barnes.”
In the crowd was Barnes’ wife, Michelle, who overheard a woman telling her friends, “Oh wow, that’s Jimmy Barnes’ daughter, she’s great.”
Barnes is yet to meet the music legend, though he has played with Jimmy’s son Jackie, “an absolute monster on the drums, an incredible player”.
“I literally sat two metres away from Jimmy at the APRA Awards last year and for the whole night I was like, ‘Do I go and say g’day to him?’ But I didn’t want to be that guy.”
The country star has shown that Australian music is big enough for more than one Barnes. Town Of A Million Dreams hit number 16 on the ARIA charts and was nominated for Best Country Album at the ARIA Awards. Barnes has also been embraced by Tamworth, with a swag of Golden Guitar nominations, including two at this year’s delayed awards: Male Artist of the Year and Single of the Year for Light It Up’s second single, God Took His Time On You.
Being accepted by Australia’s country community means a lot to Barnes. “I’m extremely grateful to have earnt my stripes in the country community and to have their support. To be up for a couple of Golden Guitars is really humbling.”
Barnes made Light It Up with the Melbourne-based songwriters and producers MSquared – Michael Paynter and Michael DeLorenzis.
Barnes recorded much of his early work with ’90s pop star Rick Price, who’s now based in Nashville. “I loved working with Rick,” he says. “The stuff we did was very organic and we recorded live, which was fantastic. But then I thought I’d try something a little different, something more produced and commercial.”
That search led to MSquared. “They come from a pop headspace, while I’m coming from a country headspace, and we’ve blended those two things,” Barnes explains. “This magic seems to happen when we work together.” Indeed, the first song they wrote together was called Just Like Magic, which ended up on Barnes’ 2016 album Live As One.
Barnes has forged a strong relationship with the duo, including Paynter, who had his own recording career on Sony, before appearing on The Voice and becoming the guitarist in Icehouse.
“Michael Paynter is probably the most talented person I’ve worked with,” Barnes says. “Incredible voice, multi-instrumentalist, amazing producer and a great songwriter. I love recording vocals with him because he’s pedantic about every single line in the song – it’s like having a vocal coach right next to you. He’s made me a better singer and a better performer.”
A chat with his producers during the making of Town Of A Million Dreams – “it was the pep talk that I needed” – led to Barnes contacting industry legend Michael Chugg. The singer realised that if his career was going to progress to the next level, he needed the right team around him.
After Chugg heard a couple of songs, he signed Barnes to a recording deal and became his manager.
“He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me and my career,” Barnes says simply. “He’s so passionate about Australian music, he’s great at what he does, and he loves country music as well.
“He’s like a second dad. I literally love the bloke.”
Affable, articulate and easy-going, Barnes is proof that nice guys don’t always finish last in the music business. He recounts Kasey Chambers’ speech when she was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2018 as words that resonated with him: “You can be strong and kind at the same time,” Chambers said. “The best advice my dad ever gave me was ‘just don’t be a dickhead’. I know it doesn’t sound very profound, but it actually has been the best advice to follow. Seriously, you don’t need to be a dickhead to get ahead in this business. You really don’t. You don’t have to drag other people down to get ahead in this business. Don’t even worry about what everyone else is doing. Just do your own thing and try not to be a dickhead about it.”
“Just being a decent person is very important to me,” Barnes says. “I don’t get people with big egos who are difficult to deal with and don’t treat people with respect.”
Before signing Barnes, Chugg had taken note of his live work – “It’s unbelievable how good his live show is,” he later told American trade publication Pollstar – and when they met, he was struck by how personable the singer was. “He gets on well with everybody,” Chugg said.
After a show, you’ll find Barnes chatting with his fans, many of whom are wearing the Casey Barnes trucker hat. While talking to The Music, Barnes shows off his spare room which is filled with caps. “I’ve got quite a big collection,” he laughs. “Since I was a kid, I’ve always worn a baseball cap.” His favourite hats come from the US company Goorin Bros. “I love them – I’ve got to hit them up for an endorsement!”
Soon after they started working together, Chugg organised a writing trip to the US, where Barnes connected with the songwriters Kaci Brown and Sam Gray.
Brown – who won the Little Miss Texas Grand Talent award when she was 10 and later toured with the Backstreet Boys – started the country duo Brown & Gray with English singer Sam Gray.
“I was in LA at the time,” Barnes says, before checking himself. “That sounds a little wanky. Anyway, Chuggi had set up a meeting at a label there. I was in the boardroom and we’d just finished our meeting when Sam walked in. The label guy introduced us and said, ‘You guys should connect and do some writing.’”
It was a serendipitous meeting. The first song the trio wrote was Sparks Fly, which became Barnes’ first number one on the Australian country charts.
For this album, Brown and Gray had a hand in five songs, including Come Turn Me On and the ballad God Took His Time On You, which became Barnes’ fourth country chart-topper. “They’re incredible songwriters and really lovely people. We have a pretty good track record so far, so I figure we’ll keep it going.”
Barnes knew that God Took His Time On You – which he dedicates to Michelle – was special as soon as it was written. “I’ve never had a feeling about a song as much as this one.”
Brown and Gray considered keeping the track for themselves, and then Barnes heard that American country star Blake Shelton was keen to cut the song. “But I ended up doing it myself and I’m very grateful.”
Barnes’ creative goal is simple: he wants to make music that connects with people, “whether it’s an emotional connection on record, or with the people who come along and see us live.
“It’s hard to put it into words,” he adds. “But if you look at the last two years, the thing we’ve missed the most is that connection. For me, it’s all about that energy you get from the crowds and the people who listen to my music. I’m always trying to put out songs that can make that happen.”
Light It Up is out now through Chugg Music. For tour dates, click here.