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New Orleans songbird Robin Barnes had a whirlwind 2016. With the release of her newest album Songbird Sessions, she made made multiple Billboard charts: Current Traditional Jazz Albums (No. 5), Top Current Jazz Albums (No. 8), and Album Core Genre Jazz (No. 12). A self-proclaimed underdog, she credits her national success to a combination of dreaming and hard work. Growing up in the 9th Ward, Barnes started singing in church; her talent quickly captivated local — and now national — audiences.
Barnes pulls inspiration from even the smallest things around her: the rhythm of her windshield wipers pumping away while driving around on a recent rainy afternoon was her most recent inspiration when we talked. It’s obvious that her surroundings play a big role, not just in her music, but also in her work ethic. She emphasizes how inspiring it was as a child to see her neighbors take on extra jobs to help better their community. It’s evident that she carries that lesson in entrepreneurship into her work as a musician – focused, passionate, and resourceful. “All I can do is keep dreaming,” she says as she looks towards the future.
Barnes is part of a younger generation of New Orleans musicians that is incorporating the city’s rich musical legacy into their new works: her latest album, for example, takes classic standards (“Ruler of My Heart,” for example, first sung by Irma Thomas), and makes them her own while still maintaining the spirit of the originals. It’s a unique time to be a local artist, Barnes explains, as almost every genre of New Orleans music has been gaining national attention lately. With so much new interest our city’s music, she feels it’s a perfect time for younger artists to show off their talents to a larger audience and ensure local musicians “still stand out as our own” on a national stage.
Barnes is a familiar face around town, as she has weekly gigs at the Hotel Monteleone and the Windsor Court Polo Lounge; her Instagram also doubles as a guide to her favorite haunts in New Orleans (and beyond). Barnes is a staple during festival season, so be sure to scan the cubes to catch her live in the coming months.
With a commitment to “keep soaring” in 2017, Barnes shares how New Orleans inspires her to go above and beyond:
20 Questions with Robin Barnes
1. Who is your favorite New Orleanian, dead or alive, real or imagined?
2. What first brought you to New Orleans?
I was born here so it [was] meant to be.
3. In your opinion — what’s the best neighborhood in New Orleans?
9th Ward. It’s where I grew up. Some see the negative, but I remember the blocks of families and everyone knowing your name. My first lessons were in entrepreneurship: our neighbor was a mailman that had a mom-and-pop barber shop next door; my after-school care driver sold frozen cups, candy, and nachos from her house across the street. We had a civil servant who also sold honey from his bees in his yard. It was friendly, it was home, it was my New Orleans. Unfortunately, that area of town hasn’t come back yet since Katrina. Nevertheless, those memories I will cherish always.
4. If it’s a beautiful day, where are you going to spend it?
5. Describe the best meal you’ve eaten in New Orleans.
My grandma’s cooking and also anything Leah Chase or John Besh makes.
6. Where’s your favorite brunch spot?
Atchafalaya: live music, amazing food. I don’t drink, but I adore their Bloody Mary bar. I make a delicious Bloody Mary with just tomato juice, hot sauce, and all the fixings.
7. What’s your favorite type of po-boy or sandwich? Where do you get it?
Fried shrimp on bun, dressed with hot sauce. Gone are the days when I can finish an entire po-boy, so I go for the next best thing. Any po-boy shop can do it on bun.
8. You’ve got friends visiting, and it’s their first time in New Orleans — where are you taking them?
Café Du Monde, Jacques-Imo’s to eat alligator cheesecake, Criollo for the (in my opinion) the best gumbo in the city — tell Chef Jose “hello”!
9. What’s your favorite neighborhood bar?
Thursday: Le Bon Temps — see the Soul Rebels. Or Sunday. Yes, we party Sundays! Especially if you’re a musician that gigs on Friday and Saturdays like me. Spotted Cat — see Pat Casey and the New Sound. Great local music, good drinks and you party like a real local.
10. What is your favorite New Orleans cocktail, and where do you go to get it?
I don’t drink, but there are a few places that make some amazing “mocktails” for me and great cocktails for my friends. Windsor Court Polo lounge, it’s a hidden gem.
11. What’s your favorite dessert or sweet treat in the city?
Mango Freeze! It’s only available during and at Jazz Fest! It’s my favorite thing in the world. Try it!
Ed. note: You can actually grab a mango freeze year-round at Morning Call in City Park.
12. Best spot to see live music?
See Question 9.
13. Favorite New Orleans musician or band?
David Shaw of The Revivalists. [I’m] loving their new single, “Wish I Knew You.” Pat Casey of Pat Casey and the New Sound.
14. Favorite New Orleans festival?
15. What’s your ideal New Orleans date night?
Have drinks riding the Carousel at Hotel Monteleone, walk the Quarter, see the city lights on the Riverfront, dinner, then listen to some great music at one of the clubs.
16. What are your favorite local shops?
Southern Candy makes the best pralines!
17. What is your favorite New Orleans museum?
18. Where do you go to watch The Saints play?
If I’m not at the game, then a Saints watch party with my family.
19. Describe New Orleans in one word.
20. When was the last time you fell in love with New Orleans, and why?
Every time I sing. I feel that New Orleans, its love, its resilience, and my ancestors — and their passion — flows through me when I sing.