“Bluesy, soulful modern jazz with a voice that can whisper as easily as it can scream.” – Where Y’at Magazine. Robin Barnes (the Songbird of New Orleans) has been a performer for most of her life, starting at age six. Barnes’ voice delights as much as it surprises. On stage, Robin is dynamic, able to switch effortlessly between soft, soulful crooning, to a fiery bellow that has made her city and the world take notice.
Especially of late, as Robin was voted "Favorite New Orleans Musician" by New Orleans Magazine in 2016 and chosen by Gambit as one of their 2014 Artists to Watch. WGNO has exclaimed, “Some people were born to sing! That couldn’t be more true for Robin Barnes. There is a reason why she’s called ‘The Songbird of New Orleans.’ With her career taking off, the world is her stage."
How Music has Impacted Robin's Life
Describe your music in three words.
Jazz. Soul. Funk.
I like it. Straight to the point. So what song reminds you of home? Where is home?
Home is New Orleans. I grew up in the lower ninth ward. I would have to say the music that reminds me of home would be any type of Mardi Gras Indian, second line type music because that is pretty much the sound of the culture I lived in as a child and to this day.
We read that you grew up in a family of musicians and y’all had your very own jazz band….
What was that like?
It was interesting. Being the baby and the only girl, I definitely got to learn how lack of communication works. It was a really good learning experience because I learned the essentials of being a successful musician. I got to see firsthand how negotiations work, how contracts go, let alone how to react to the audience. That is sometimes the hardest thing to do because you have to change your music according to the behavior of your audience. If your audience looks like they are kind of mellow, play something a little bit more full of love and for slow dancing. If your audience looks like they are bouncing and just ready to jump, do some more New Orleans tunes, get them moving, you know? I definitely learned how to be a better entertainer from my family’s band.
On a side note, you mentioned you are the only girl in your family…how many brothers do you have?
I have 6 brothers.
Oh wow! And you are the baby of them all?
Yep, by 13 years.
Woah! What a sibling layout that is. We also read that as a young girl, you believed you were meant to be a singer once you did your first solo in a choir singing Ave Maria. Tell us about that.
I was a little girl at the time, and initially, I did not want to be in the choir. I did not want to sing because I was very shy, but my mom forced me to join the choir. With that, I had to reluctantly sing the Ave Maria. Honestly, it was so cool! When I was nearing the end of singing it, I hit this high note. People were so moved by it. I looked around, and many of them were in tears. I thought, “You know what, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I decided I wanted to make people feel something when they hear my music.
That is really lovely. How old were you when this happened?
I believe I was 6 years old.
So impressive for such a young age. From that little shy six year old to now being titled ‘The Songbird of New Orleans,’ what does this title mean to you?
It is an honor. First of all, being a Robin, it is kind of cool because my mom always told me I was destined to be a singer because a robin is the first songbird of spring. I mean I even had my own theme song before I was born [laughing], you know ‘Rockin’ Robin.’ Also when I perform, I usually have some type of feather in my hair representing the tradition or the culture of New Orleans because everything to me is about the Mardi Gras Indians, everything is about the movement here, and being from New Orleans, it is always a little piece of home I take with me whenever I tour. So being titled the ‘Songbird of New Orleans’ is pretty much like a badge of honor. Wherever I go, people assume I can sing, but more importantly, people intuitively think she better know how to sing with New Orleans attached to that title. [Laughing]
That is really cool. So who are some other songbirds who have influenced you over the course of your life thus far?
Oh man, there are so many. Etta James. Tina Turner. Amy Winehouse has actually been a big influence. Definitely the Sarah Vaughans as well as the Chaka Khans of the world. I love a range of music, and I have a really big voice so I relate to them. I will also say, for a songbird in regards to a male, I think it was up until I was about sixteen years old that I thought my voice sounded like an older black man’s voice [laughing]. Because of this, I always thought I could sound like Otis Redding because I idolized him. So definitely Otis Redding too, he is a songbird who has inspired me for sure.
Why do you think music is so important to the people and culture of New Orleans?
Oh my gosh, I mean music is everything. I know it sounds like such a cliché, but it’s because it is true. Music makes people feel. If you think about it, if you are having a bad day and then you hear a song that you are familiar with and it gives you a memory of something that made you happy, you’ll start feeling a bit okay. Music is one of those weird things that, first all, it transcends through different languages, nationalities, disabilities even…you know anyone who can hear music can have some kind of feeling from it. I think the coolest thing about New Orleans music is the fact that we are very energetic about it. All of our music, when you hear it, you know you just have to move whether it is a swing or a bounce feel, it’s that beat that we alone have. The overarching big thing about music is the fact that it can do so much for so many people and they all have their own personal reason for what they take from it.
Well said. That thought reminds me exactly of something Dave Grohl said, “That is one of the great things about music. You can sing a song to 85,000 people, and they will sing it back to you for 85,000 different reasons.”
Aw, I love that. Can I use a version of that in my answer? [Laughing]
Allen Toussaint once stated, “Music is everything to me short of breathing. Music also has a role to lift you up-not to be escapist-but to take you out of misery.” With that being said, how has music gotten you through tough times in your life?
In recent years, I have had kidney issues. I had a severe kidney infection which I found out could have killed me, but I found this out well after I recovered from it. It was because of the positive doctor I had treating me who assured me I was going to beat this thing, and I thought, “Oh yeah, of course I am!” While recovering, my mom would play for me ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ which is my all-time favorite song and also ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me.’ I would be lying in bed listening to those songs nonstop, and it just lifted me up added to the fact that I could always sing them myself. Knowing that I had to get better in order to do what I love motivated me more. When I ended up finding out I could have died within two days of the infection and upon first seeing a “negative Nancy” type doctor that made me sick to my stomach with negativity, I realized it was the positive doctor coupled with the music that helped me get through that tough time. This is why I always tell everyone I want my music to be positive because, my God, it can save lives. Music can definitely save lives. Positivity can save lives.
I couldn’t agree more. How moving... Thank you for sharing that with us. Believing in this positive aspect of music, we know you started your very own fitness company called Move Ya Brass. What was the motivation behind this company, and how did music play a part?
Well I’m not going to lie, in the beginning it was a way to motivate myself. I like to be motivated by music and positive quotes if you will. I started writing different little things and phrases on shirts. I designed the designs, too, because I wanted to make something as I said that not only motivated me but which related to my life which is music and something I would wear proudly. So with the Move Ya Brass shirt, I designed it with stick figures, and a friend of mine thereafter designed the final image perfectly. People started liking it. People started asking where it came from. People started following me. My personal journey became something which inspired other people and later on made me think about doing something to give it back to those very people. Move Ya Brass is not a fitness line, it is motivational wear because it’s about getting people up, moving, and enjoying life.
That is awesome, and the title is clever and fun flair fitting for New Orleans. It is definitely something New Orleans could use a little bit more of amongst all the delicious food and nonstop festivities for sure.
[Laughing] Most definitely.
Lastly, so we can get you on your way to singing for the night…if you could jam right now to one song, any song, what would that song be?
You know, right now, I’ve been jamming out to Nigel Hall’s ‘Give Me a Sign.’ That would have to be it. And I am ready to jam to it shortly in tonight’s show with him.