Queenslander Casey Barnes is having a very good, and very busy, year – and, as is usually the case, it’s the culmination of years of working consistently and always seeking to learn more. It was a pleasure to talk to Casey recently about how his music is made and what’s ahead for him.

What is the best part of your job?
That is a really good question … it’s probably the moment you get to bring a song to life from conception, and that can be the very first time you hear the final mix of a song – there’s nothing that beats that, when you write a song, you record it and you get the mix back, and you listen to it for the very first time. There’s only been a very few times when I’ve heard a mix and said, ‘That’s perfect, I wouldn’t change a thing.’ And I think that’s one of my ultimate things, when you take it from start to finish and it turns out exactly the way you envisaged it. Probably equally [great] is the first time you get to perform it live – that’s pretty awesome as well.
For both of those things it’s so hard to control the conditions – the idea of a song that you have in your head, it’s impossible to describe that any other way than by playing it or hearing it mixed, and the same with playing it live: the conception of what that song is in your head requires lots of elements to come together to make it manifest. So in some ways being a musician, being a songwriter, must be a frustrating job in that there is only that one language you can use to express what’s in your mind.
That’s exactly right. And it’s also up to how the listener interprets it. Part of the fun is that you become so close to your songs when you write them and then when you release them it’s a really exciting experience to get the feedback from punters, your fan base and your family, people who are hearing it for the first time. I always use my two little girls as really interesting barometer with my songs because they’re just super honest – there’s no filter, they’ll say exactly what they think. And if they’re bopping around or they ask me to play certain songs in the car when I’m taking them to school, I find that’s a good sign.
Little kids won’t just listen to any music – they can be tough customers.
They are, and they’re brutal. My nine-year-old, there have been a couple of songs I’ve released in the past where she’s said, ‘Dad, I’m not real sure about that bit – I don’t know if I like it.’ She’s pretty brutal. But thankfully all of these new ones I’ve been recording lately, and especially the ones I’ve released this year, they’ve been by far the most popular with the girls, so I’m happy with that.
You’ve had a lot going on in your career, particularly in the last few months – what has been the most unexpected thing to happen to you this year?
I’ve always, for some reason, built up in my head that you really need a record label and a high-profile manager to get you to where you want to be with your career, and that’s always been a perception that I’ve had. The biggest thing I’ve realised this year is that you can actually achieve a heck of a lot on your own. That’s probably been one of the things I’m most proud of – things have been ticking on well this year and we’ve been able to do some amazing gigs, and this week we’ve got our third number one with the single on the country charts. We’re getting lots of support on radio, we’re getting some great festivals, and there’s a bit of stuff opening up in America at the moment which is looking good for next year, and it’s all been done without any label, no manager, just hard work and persistence and probably a good ten years of building relationships with a lot of people, and it’s starting to pay off this year.
I talk to a few independent artists in Australia, and it’s really interesting how successful you all are and also the quality of the product. These albums that are coming out are really high quality. There are great producers around and great musicians who can play on them. But also marketing, promotion, distribution is all something you can handle yourselves – to the point where I’m wondering if the major labels are going to find themselves out of a job when it comes to country music. You and other independent artist are showing that you can reach your audience, you can get your music out there, even beyond Australia if you want to.
I think the other fantastic example of someone doing it exceptionally well is Fanny Lumsden. Fanny and I were both signed to the same label and we have both moved on from that label and not looked back in any way, shape or form. So I’m probably doing better on my own, to be honest, and Fanny’s kicking massive goals. She’s about to release another album. She and her partner work together exceptionally well – they put in the hard yards. It’s a heck of a lot of work but if you can do it yourself I think the rewards are far greater as well.
The perception might be that if you don’t have a label, how can you guarantee the quality – except I think with country music, where it functions so well is that you have that audience that’s huge and knowledgeable and passionate, and you guys all seem to really understand your audience and you’re creating music for them. So that is the quality check, in a way.
I think so. The landscape overall is changing massively and really, really quickly, and there’s a lot of radio stations out there that are willing to take a risk now on artists that aren’t necessarily signed to the big labels. There’s definitely still pretty big hurdles that you have to try to get over with some opportunities that are made a little bit more difficult if you aren’t signed to a major. But I guess this new single that I’ve just released, ‘Keep Me Coming Back’, I’ve been lucky to get some great support at country radio and community radio, but we’re crossing over into commercial radio – stations like KISS FM in Sydney. They don’t play country music [but] they’ve given the new one a spin. They’re playing guys like Morgan Evans and Sam Hunt from America. So there’s a bit of a transition now where that modern country sound, especially, is getting a bit more support across  few different platforms, which is great.
You’re all producing great sounds so you’re giving radio that to work with. It seems self-evident but I know there’s a lot of hard work and networking goes into it. But I’ll move on to your music. ‘Keep Me Coming Back’ is not on your latest album – will it be on the next one or are you looking at creating singles or EPs in between album releases?
There’s a bit of a plan in place. One of the hurdles when you’re not signed to a major label … I guess the public’s attention span now is becoming less and less and less with things like Spotify and music getting turned over so quickly now that when you’re an independent artist and you spend anywhere from thirty to fifty grand on an album, it’s sometimes tough when you only get two or three singles off that album that might see the light of day or go onto radio. So I’m planning a staggered release this time. I’ve already had two singles out this year and I’m looking at an EP, at least, coming out in the new year. There’s a few things that are up in the air at the moment that I’m waiting on some answers, but there’s at least going to be an EP and, if not, I’ll look at a full album.
In terms of your songwriting – and song creation, if you’re working with other writers – that turns it into an interesting process. Ordinarily you might want to get a brace of songs ready for an album but if you’re really looking to do singles or even EPs, I would imagine it’s a really focused process, as opposed to thinking, I can come up with twelve songs and maybe five of them will be great.
The guys that I’ve been working with since late last year are two incredible songwriters down in Melbourne – a guy called Michael Paynter who I think is one of the most gifted musicians, singers and songwriters in the country at the moment. His partner is Michael Delorenzis, and they run a production company called M Squared. We’ve been working on tracks ever since late last year. It’s like the perfect formula with the three of us, because they’re coming from a real fresh, modern country sort of sound, but they do a lot of pop stuff as well. Every time we sit down and write, we write with the intent of releasing it as a single – a single that’s going to do well, not just an album track. We have a plan: what do we want to do with this song, what’s the vibe. A lot of the stuff I’ve been writing this year, we’ve wanted it to be tracks that we can put in the live set where it’s really engaging and up-tempo. We want people to walk away from a show and be entertained. There’s been a lot of thought put into the stuff that I’ve been doing lately, anyway.
And it shows – and I don’t mean that to sound like it’s really obvious or that I can hear the wheels turning. Your songs are really tight, and I always mean that as a compliment, because when you’ve got something that is well produced, well written and the vocals are great, to me it indicates that the artist has been thinking of the audience – as you said, ‘How can I entertain people?’ The country music audience in Australia is really sophisticated. Even if they don’t listen to country all the time, the quality of the music here is so high that they know when they’re listening to something that is not good and they know when they’re listening to something that’s really good. When you’re putting out that high-quality music, it is a compliment to your audience.
Thank you. And it’s also been a deliberate move. I’m not trying in any way to sound like anyone else in Australia either, especially in the country genre. I’m trying to forge my own path and my own sound. It still definitely falls under that modern country umbrella and that’s exactly what we want to know, but I’m not necessarily trying to sound like Travis Collins or Adam Brand or Troy Cassar-Daley, because they’ve got their own sound and they’re doing really well. I’ve got a lot of respect and admiration for those guys but I’m trying to do my own thing as well. So far, so good.
The sort of music you play requires quite a lot of touring – you’re not sitting in the corner of a bar with your guitar, you’re putting on shows. Your recorded music is high-energy and so are the shows – how do you sustain that kind of energy and enthusiasm for your performance and for your work?
I think one of the reasons I’ve moved in this direction – not even consciously but maybe subconsciously – is that I’ve done my apprenticeship of being the guy with the guitar in the corner at bars for fifteen years and I tell you what, I’m done. I’ve had enough of that. I think especially working with Michael Paynter and the boys, he’s brought me out of my comfort zone and discovered a different range in my voice, and a whole different energy. And you’re right – this is the sort of thing that we want to make into a really big show where we’re playing hopefully main stage at festivals. We’ve been lucky enough to team up with the PBR [Professional Bull Riders] here in Australia. It’s like the Nitro Circus of bull riding here in Australia. I was able to sing my last single, ‘The Way We Ride’, up at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre. It was a packed house and being able to sing in front of that many people was pretty awesome. It looks as though I’m going to be doing all the major PBR events around Australia for the rest of this year and some into next year. I’m doing Townsville on the 18th of November and then Melbourne and Adelaide, which is going to be great fun.
Talking about going out of your comfort zone – it’s not easy to do that. You’ve been doing what you’ve been doing and that probably feels safe. So did it make you feel uncomfortable to go beyond that or did you think, This is what I want to be doing?
‘The Way We Ride’ was the track in particular – I had just dropped my daughter off at day care and I was about to leave when I got an email on my phone, and it was the mix of that track. I remember sitting in the car on my own and listening to that for the first time and thinking, This is awesome. Usually when I hear songs back I’ll go, ‘We need to tweak this or we need to change that’, or there’s a few bits and pieces that I’m not happy with. But they just nailed it. I remember recording the vocals for that song and Michael Paynter just has this ridiculous voice – I always say it’s like Rick Price and John Farnham had a baby. That’s how much I rate him. He’s so talented. I remember when we started recording the vocals for that track, and I said to Michael, ‘We’re going to have to change the key of this because it’s way too high for me in the chorus’, and he said, ‘Casey, you’ll hit those notes, trust me. You’ll hit them and you’ll be fine. I’m going to show you how to do it.’ And I did. He’s totally got me to believe in my own ability a bit more. He’s been fantastic and he’s an amazing guy too. I have a lot to thank him for.
Looking ahead to Tamworth, have you made your plans?
I have, and I’ll be announcing those dates very soon. I’m locked in definitely for one feature show and possibly a couple more.
You’ve joined the line-up of Crossroads in the Vines, which is a massive event. Does playing there mean you get to drink wine in between gigs?
[Laughs] I hope so. I’ve been lucky enough to do some Days on the Green and they’re always at wineries. I’ve done two with Bryan Adams and one with Mariah Carey. It’s just the best day out. I couldn’t think of anything better, if I was going to a concert – you can bring the picnic rug and the cheese and biscuits, and open a bottle of wine, and sit back and listen to your favourite music. It’s pretty awesome.