Buskin & Batteau
First of all, this is me writing this, so you can be pretty sure the good stuff is left out – hey, I might need it for my memoirs or to blackmail someone. I was born and grew up in the Bronx. I went to PS 28 (like Artie Traum ), Horace Mann ( like Eliot Spitzer ), Brown University (like E. Howard Hunt ) and the U.S. Army (like Ulysses S. Grant). I’ve been doing music of one form or another as long as I can remember. So that’s for a least half an hour.
My father was a sea captain. We didn’t know each other too well, but he had a good sense of humor, and my love of silliness is a gift from him. My mother wanted to be a doctor, but she had a congenital hearing loss, and her zoology professor at Barnard spoke too softly for her to hear, so she ended up studying botany. She taught dance at Russell Sage in Troy, NY, where they dedicated the yearbook to her. She was incredibly sweet, gentle and loving, and she wanted the world to be high-minded and well-mannered. I get my gullibility from her. Music from both of them. One of my fondest memories is singing at Carnegie Hall around 1971 with my parents beaming up at me from the third row. I remember thinking, “For a Jewish kid from the Bronx, it don’t get too much better than this.”
I think this is already too long. I’ve made several albums, the first of which was recorded on an Edison cylinder. I’ve had songs recorded by Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Peter, Paul & Mary, Johnny Mathis, Astrud Gilberto, Tracy Nelson, Jane Olivor, Dixie Carter, Pat Benatar, Roberta Flack, the drummer from Kiss, some guys from Toto, and some others I’m not remembering at the moment. My darkest moment as a songwriter was having Frank Sinatra cut one of my songs, not like his vocal and never re-record it. Jingles recorded by everybody. My faves are a Burger King spot by Mel Tormé with a big band –little slice of heaven for Davy getting to meet and work with Mel – and – aside from Robin singing his little heart out on my Post Office song, “We Deliver For You” – maybe Richie Havens’ work on the Amtrak campaign I did, “All Aboard, America.” Oh, and Jonatha Brooke singing “Serious Freedom” for Goodyear, which has about nothing to do with tires and gives you a pretty good idea of the Alice In Wonderland qualities of the ad biz. This is an industry that hired Dr. John to do a voiceover (!), and then the woman asked him, 1) Could he put a little more smile into it, and 2) Did he have to do it in a Southern accent…. But the money was cute.
But I digress, as Rob Carlson ( one of my two, ah, supporting players in Modern Man ) would say. The best part about the rock and roll purgatory that was the late, unlamented band Pierce Arrow was meeting the aforementioned Batteau person. We certainly have had a lot of fun. For example: Singing the Everly Brothers’ classic, “Bird Dog” at a benefit with Paul Newman speaking the “He’s a bird” lines. Paul Newman! Hearing about the Peekskill riots from Pete Seeger himself. Pete Seeger! Starting to sing my verse to “Amazing Grace” at one of the Newport Folk Festivals – big finale with all your serious folk royalty onstage – and having Bonnie Raitt goose me, causing the lyrics to mutate into French or something. Bonnie Raitt! Grabbing my…attention! It’s a full life.
Last few years I’m getting my kicks writing plays and sketches and the like. The first one, my putative director James Naughton says lacks a second act. I suggest we do it as a one-act, thus saving everyone a lot of time and trouble. He does not respond. But I’m happily at work on a musical with one of my jingle mentors, the prodigious and very Protestant Jake Holmes. We have high hopes. One act. No intermission. Home in time for Law and Order. What more could anyone need?
Robin Batteau is a Grammy-winning, Emmy-winning, Clio-winning, and Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter-soloist and music producer. Six months out of Harvard, after earning a degree in biochemistry, he was signed to his first record deal with Columbia Records. A dozen CDs later, he’s played his personal style of improvisational violin with everyone from Yo-Yo Ma to Benny Goodman to Bruce Springsteen and has had his songs sung by Whitney Houston, Judy Collins, and Paul Newman, to name a few.
He has created songs for charities and causes from World Hunger Year to Save the Whales to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign to Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for kids with such things as cancer, sickle-cell, AIDS and thalassemia. He’s heard nice words from the Boston Globe (”Acoustic heaven…”), Time Magazine, People Magazine, the New York Times, The Washington Post, Entertainment Tonight, Mary Hart, Oprah Winfrey, Bonnie Raitt (”Here comes the Love God”), and helped advertising campaigns win nearly 1,000 awards with jingles like “I’m Lovin’ It” for McDonalds, “This is Beer” for Budweiser and “The Heartbeat of America” for Chevrolet.
Virginia native Janie Barnett cut her teeth on bluegrass festivals, church coffeehouses, and the American Folklife Festival. When she met iconic Americana barnstormer and Newgrass pioneer John Hartford at Folklife, so began her love affair with the alternate roots movement. “I couldn’t commit to being a 100mph flat-picker. But I fell in love with those sounds. And behind every great song was a renegade twist to be had. That renegade twist is really part of my DNA.” The seeds were planted for a lifelong quest for a hybrid style that favored roots-music instruments, the whimsical storytelling of her favorite author John Steinbeck, and the social passions of one who grew up in the backyard of Washington D.C.
One can see the roots of this renegade impulse throughout Barnett’s growing up. Socialist grandparents on one side, a newsman father, and a labor advocate mother. Barnett defected from the local high school for boarding school, where, ironically, she found her tribe of outside-the-box musicians. She then defected from the Ivy League to play in a roots and reggae band in New Hampshire and Cambridge, then ultimately defecting from the New England music scene to New York City.
“New York was a mecca for me, as it is for so many. I knew the early folk scene had dissipated, but I figured there was something in the air – or the water – that would drive me towards the music and the tribe I was searching for.“ And then another unlikely turn. Barnett rose in the freelance world, making a name for herself as a smart, precise, and professional chameleon musician, singing on countless film, tv and commercial projects, as well as singing backup for iconic stars like Linda Ronstadt, Celine Dion, and Rickie Lee Jones. Appearances on SNL, The Today Show, membership in an elite session musician supergroup – these were the bookings of that time. “Success in this world has been very important to me, because I value craft so much. It was gratifying to have that validated. I was asked to sing every style convincingly – pop, blues, rock, jazz. Sound like Linda, they would demand, or Bonnie, or Lucinda, these were singers I had backed up on live gigs. It was an oddly satisfying challenge. It also came at a time when I had to turn down tours, because I was raising a daughter. Disappearing for weeks at a time was not an option I was willing to take.”
Barnett rose to become one of the top 20 session singer calls, while continuing her search for her own essential expression. The essential songs, the essential timbre, the core family of musicians. “I was also going through the long process of my marriage ending. My partner and I needed to set each other free in order to be ourselves. I recognized I had to own that process in the music.” Several collections of music were released through those years, but none Barnett felt had fully captured her authentic voice as a writer or musician.
“You See This River” is the culmination of Barnett’s years of searching and exploring, and living a life that many of us find ourselves living: “By trial and error we find ourselves, we retrieve ourselves from our own fires and folly. We poke and prod and with luck we find our authentic selves and stop looking over our shoulders. The renegade is part of my DNA in a good way, but it also played a role in running from myself. This record, these songs, reflect a period where I stopped running. So the stories reflect the process, and the sound reflects the result. “
Praise for the record include Performing Songwriter Magazine’s founder, Lydia Hutchinson: “I have been playing [You See This River] in my kitchen now all day today. I. Love. It. It’s so beautiful…the melodies, arrangements, the voice…the whole vibe. It’s so consistently good, one of those rare recordings you can listen to all the way through, every track.” Barnett notes that many fans report they love listening in their cars. “I love that comment, because it ties in to the idea that this collection is about travelling and navigating.” Barnett’s live shows, with and without the fuller Blue Room, reveal a strong community connection to these themes of self-knowledge, as well as civic engagement, gun culture, spirituality, and parenting.
The stories here also reflect the primal instinct for nostalgia, the beautiful and terrible journey up and down the river. The persistence, romanticism, and pig-headedness of humans. We navigate the twists and turns of the river, feeling watched by those on the banks. All we know for sure is that we will float another day.