It was Thursday of Mardi Gras weekend back in 2016 as I walked through the back entrance of the Contemporary Arts Center in the Central Business District and into a sea of bright-pink Muses clad in candy-themed costumes and headpieces that spanned from wall to wall. Robin Barnes waved me up the small path constituting backstage where we affixed her own feather headdress—she has officially been named the “Songbird of New Orleans” after all—and Barnes jumped on stage to belt “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow.
It was our first time working together but it wouldn’t be our last. The following year, Barnes formed her behind-the-scenes girl gang (as we called ourselves) that included her manager, her stylist, and myself creating visuals. This collaboration would begin our personal and professional relationship.
Born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans and growing up with many of the city’s beloved musicians, Barnes pays homage to her musical ancestors every step of the way while also showcasing a distinct sound of her own. Her latest single, “You Give Me”, discusses the ebbs and flows of relationships as well as the meaning of love from her perspective. The single is the first song to showcase a shift in Barnes’ sound – working with New Orleans based Afro-Latin jazz percussionist Bill Summers and Cuban percussionist Alexey Martí, Barnes takes her well-known Jazz melodies and infuses them with elements of African and Caribbean beats to produce a fresh take on her music. We sat down with Robin to get an inside look at her life as the songbird of New Orleans.
Katie Sikora: When did you start playing music? Why do you play the music do you? Do you draw inspiration from other genres as well as if so, which ones?
Robin Barnes: I started at church when I was six years old and then I joined my family’s jazz band not long after that. The music I play is inspired by the mix of genres I grew up listening to, from my mom loving The Beatles and Elton John to my dad listening to R&B and artists like Otis Redding. And then of course being from New Orleans, those elements of jazz and gospel can be heard in everything I sing as well.
KS: Describe your music.
RB: Energetic and passionate.
KS: What has been your favorite performance experience in New Orleans thus far?
RB: Jazz Fest of 2019. I felt like myself, along with my incredible band The Fiyabirds, put on the show that I’ve been aspiring to and growing towards for years.
KS: Which New Orleans musicians most inspire you?
RB: Irma Thomas for being the Soul Queen of New Orleans and a role model for the younger generation of women musicians in New Orleans. Nicholas Payton for constantly pushing and redefining what Jazz means today. And of course my cousin, the late Dave Bartholomew, for always encouraging me and teaching me the ins and outs of the music industry.
KS: Favorite place to catch live music in NOLA?
RB: The Spotted Cat on Frenchman Street.
KS: What do you love most about this city?
RB: The energy of New Orleans is unlike any other and is a constant source of inspiration to me. It’s home.
KS: What is your favorite non-musical activity to do in New Orleans?
RB: Running or dancing through City Park with my fitness krewe Move Ya Brass.
KS: Favorite food to eat in NOLA?
RB: WWOZ’s Mango Freeze and my mom’s smothered cabbage with pickled meat.
KS: How has your sound evolved over the years?
RB: With my first EP “Me,” I was trying to rebel against the cliche of being a “jazz singer from New Orleans” and establish myself and my sound separate from my background. My second EP “Songbird Sessions” came after I had done some growing up and realized that my upbringing and hometown are the reason for my sound, my inspiration, and really who I am as a person. That EP was about paying tribute to jazz standards and New Orleans greats that I grew up listening to – like “Ruler of my Heart” written by New Orleans treasure Allen Toussaint and performed by my role model, Irma Thomas. I wanted to take these songs that were special to me but strip them down to showcase the growth and range in my voice. With my latest single “You Give Me” and my band The Fiyabirds, I’m taking those building blocks of history and influence in “Songbird Sessions” and really putting my stamp on the New Orleans sound of today.
KS: Where would you like to see your music career going in the next few years?
RB: I definitely want to put out a full length album soon – especially with this band that backed me for “You Give Me.” We’re so lucky to live in New Orleans with so many talented musicians, and I feel even luckier to have some of the best in my band. And then continuing to do what I love – sing and perform, showcasing not only my voice and music but also the city of New Orleans to the world.
KS: What are your next performances?
RB: NOLA Mac N’ Cheese Fest on Saturday, Oct. 12. You can also find me weekly at The Windsor Court Polo Lounge on Friday and Saturday nights from 9 p.m. to midnight and Sundays with The Fiyabirds at The Spotted Cat from 7-10 p.m..
KS: Is there anything else you would like to add about yourself in regards to your music?
RB: I feel blessed to be from New Orleans and that I’m able to establish my career as a musician in my hometown. Being from here and growing up with the sounds and influences of the city have created a unique path for me that I think is special to this place. I’m proud to be the Songbird of New Orleans and be a part of the musical history here.