Catastrophic as it was in other ways, 2020 was a banner year for new music, and that includes Quinton Barnes. The Montréal-based R&B and pop artist released Aarupa, his first full-length album on Grimalkin Records, with distinction–it was recognized as Bandcamp Daily’s album of the day on March 23 and later featured in their roundup of the best albums of Winter 2020.
He also spent stretches of the year composing the follow-up, As a Motherfucker, available now. Like Aarupa, it contains multitudes, soft and twinkling one minute, tense and glitchy the next. But it also stands out as a step forward for Barnes, going even harder at the boundaries between moods and states of mind. On “Switch,” he gives a gritty, rap-minimalist character study. On “Harmony,” he stretches out and gets vulnerable in between clanging breakdowns and synthesized harp. On every track, he packs in more quicksilver melodies and sheer ideas-per-square-inch than ever.
In the run-up to release, the new record prompted a similar enthusiasm among Barnes’ growing core of listeners–the first run of cassettes* sold out in pre-orders. Before the hotly-anticipated release, Barnes spoke to The All Scene Eye about the fortuitous failures that brought it to fruition and the potentially-exciting future of pop music. With another full-length album in the works and more singles on the docket soon, 2021 looks to be another big year.
*All tape proceeds benefit CACTUS Montréal, a community health organization dedicated to preventing blood-borne and sexually-transmitted infections.
As far as we are into the pandemic situation, how are you doing?
Really well, honestly. Thank you.
What has it been like for you as an artist?
I’ve just been recording a lot more and trying to use the downtime to be–not necessarily productive, because productivity is not really a goal for me, but just to focus more on creating. COVID has been disruptive to, you know, everyone, but also to artists in so many ways–with touring and all that, and even access to studios and recording–so I’m just very thankful that I’m still able to keep going.
It was around the start of the pandemic when your last album, Aarupa, was coming out. What was the release cycle like for that?
Yeah, I remember there was a very brief moment where it had been suggested to me maybe to postpone the release, but I just thought, “No,” because I didn’t know what the year was going to look like. [laughs] I mean, at that point, no one did. The few weeks before the release was when the pandemic stuff all hit, so I was just putting it out and hoping it worked out for me. I’d never really done a release like that before, so I just was like, “Let’s go forward with it.”
I also had new music I was working on, which is this album. And I was like, “I don’t wanna have this new stuff that I’m into and then have this old album.” And to push back a release when I don’t have an audience is like–it’s not like I’m releasing it for anyone, you know? I might as well just put it out when I’m gonna put it out. I had the sense too that the world was gonna keep moving forward, and just because whatever was happening was happening didn’t mean that I should just not do anything.
You said you already had this record, As a Motherfucker, in the works when you put out Aarupa. How did this record take shape?
It was after I had finished Aarupa. I didn’t know how it was going to be received or what would happen, but I thought maybe it could do well, so I started making the instrumentals for the next project because I didn’t want to get in the place where [Aarupa] did better than my past stuff and then I felt like I needed to live up to it. I was like, “It’s much better for me to move on sonically and just be in this new world, and not be influenced by how the past thing is received.”
I was actually working on a bunch of side projects, but basically, everyone I was working with flaked on me, so I was left with all this music left over. [laughs] That formed the bulk of this new album.
I was about to ask you about the side projects, but you don’t have to out anybody who flaked on you. [laughs]
They weren’t actually, like, established musicians. These were all people around me who were interested in doing music, and I was like, “I have enough production and songwriting capabilities that I could help them realize whatever it is they wanted to realize.” And I guess I’m very, like, “go, go,” so I’m like, “Are we doing this? ‘Cause I’m so into this right now, and if we don’t do this now, I’ll move on and then I’ll never push you to do it.” [laughs] And that’s kind of what happened. I was like, “Let’s go!” And everyone was like, “Yeah, we’re like, writing,” or, “we’re doing this,” and I would stay listening to the instrumentals I had made for them, right? And I would get a little melody idea [laughs] and then another idea, and it would be, like, a month later, and I’m like, “Okay, I have to take this now because I just have all these ideas.”
But honestly, I’m happy it fell through because so many of what I feel are the best songs on the album were for other people, and actually, that was one of my issues at some point when I was creating it. I had a decent album, but I was like, “Something’s missing.” And then, “Some of my best songs that I’ve made, I gave away.” So it worked out that all the projects that I was working on flaked.
I don’t know how familiar you are with the details of Prince’s career, but he did a lot of side projects and had his own sound, so I was like, “It’d be cool for me,” ’cause I feel like I have my own unique sound–you know, not to compare myself to Prince, but I was influenced, and I was like, “I could have similar people around doing a sound,” so you sort of force-create a scene [laughs] but, you know, it didn’t work. Maybe one day.
What are some of those songs that you’re most glad got to be on this record, given the circumstances?
Yeah, the first track [“Kolibri”] was supposed to be for another friend of mine. I wrote the first verse, and I had her in mind, but she really couldn’t sing, and we both knew that [laughs] but she really wanted to try it out. Then we both got in the studio and had her sing a verse, and we both looked at each other, and we were just like, [laughs] “This is not gonna happen.” So I’m happy about that one. “How I Feel,” too, was supposed to be for someone else. “Switch,” “Heartbeat,” yeah, I was really doing myself a disservice, so I’m happy that I got those back. I feel like they tie everything together.
“How I Feel” feels like a centerpiece, and it was the first song that came out from this record. How did that track come together?
That one, I just had the instrumental, and then–I don’t know, I must have had a melodic idea or something. Obviously, I was inspired by events in my life, and it was just building and building. I think I even have some voice notes on my phone of when I first had the initial idea. I had the first idea for the first chorus, and then, like, a day later, I had the hook, and then the later part, and it all just popped into my head.
There’s also an element of improvisation. When I’m recording, the songs change a lot because I’ll add a bunch of different ideas, so it’s all very fluid.
There’s a twist in it, lyrically. It’s kind of upbeat and euphoric about this relationship, but also, you’re losing your patience, and your standards, and things like that–It sort of unwinds as the song goes on.
I think it was a bit like–how do I describe it? You’re in a relationship situation, but not fully, and one person’s more invested than the other. That’s the perspective I was coming from. You’re gung ho, and you’re all the way, but there’s the subtle frustration because you’re not on the same page. I was trying to play with not just–it wasn’t really love, because I don’t think that’s really a loving relationship, but it’s like a more juvenile obsession sort of thing.
Kind of an infatuation.
Yeah, it’s not a deep sort of love that I was talking about. I was trying to convey that infatuation and the frustrations with having these ideals about something.
You did a video for “How I Feel,” where you did some–it looked like remotely-coordinated shooting. How did that come together?
Yeah, so this is actually stock footage. I have to put an end to this because I feel like I didn’t elaborate enough [laughs] and I made people think it was a real video, but it was just like, I was in quarantine, I couldn’t afford to do a proper video, so I found a bunch of stock footage on this site, and I thought it would be cool to have something that related to the theme of it. I really liked to put it to the one guy dancing, and I also liked the women, so I thought, “Yeah, let’s make something sorta cool out of it.”
I should have elaborated because when the song came out, we had a premiere [laughs] and the news mag, they were like, “This video that was shot on an iPhone.” And I was like, “No…” I should have said something.
Well, it’s artfully done, and it’s hard to tell when something is stock footage, especially nowadays–I feel like so many more people are able to produce it.
Thank you, and I feel excited about this century in art because there’s a whole sea of bedroom producers doing this, and a lot of people are–like, I was thinking about loops. People talk about using loops in their own projects, royalty free stuff, blah blah blah, and a lot of people have this idea with art where it’s like, “Oh, I want it to be fully mine.” But I’m like, “Is anything really fully yours?” Art is a conversation. We’re all in communication with each other. I think it’s cool to see you have these royalty free loops, and then all these bedroom producers are chopping it up and using it however they want. I don’t see how that’s different from everyone sampling a James Brown song.
Yeah, “Funky Drummer,” or the “Amen” break, or whatever.
Exactly. It’s kind of elitist, the way people look at it. “Oh, this was made for you to use, so this is embarrassing, but you can use ‘Funky Drummer’ for, like, the thousandth time.” [laughs]
And it’s way too individualistic. I feel like it ties into great man theory, you know what I mean? Like, you have to be self-assured, creating your own stuff with absolutely no input from anyone. A solid example of that is Prince, who was a genius, but also, he took a lot from other people. Like, literally just stole from friends and [laughs] put his name on it. He still wrote his own stuff, but like–I just think we’re deluding ourselves so we can have these idols instead of really appreciating art for what it is, which is a huge, mass conversation.
I never thought of it in those terms, but it is isolating to think of originality that way, right? To imagine that people just come up with things out of nowhere.
Yeah, it’s like we’re all working, not necessarily to push forward, but to evolve music into newer forms for the current era. It’s never one person. Even one person who’s doing it themselves, they have a whole bunch of references for whatever they’re doing. We have a lot of cult of individual. I think this culture really likes that, but I don’t think it’s best for us to truly understand how our world works–in my opinion. In my opinion. [laughs]
In terms of production, you wrote a really interesting blurb recently for The Predatory Wasp where you talk about creating music as an exercise in restraint. When you’re working on a track, how do you know when you’re doing too much or not enough?
I feel like that comes with time, honestly. I don’t think you can explain it. Your instincts just get better. You’re always full of ideas, but when you’re younger, you’re not too aware of the technical elements, so you just kind of load everything on. You’re less analytical about music in general because your ear’s not as refined, I feel like, so you’re doing things to emulate the greats, but you don’t have the years of–it’s just accumulated knowledge and skill.
You get to a point where you know what will work and what won’t, but you have to train your ear that way, so with “How I Feel”–and even then, I was still worried ’cause there’s a lot of glitchy effects going on in the song, and I felt like if I had added anything more, it would have been overloaded. It would have been so busy, but you hit that point where you just know, “Okay, this is where it needs to end.”
What will catch me off guard in a track–like, I think “Harmony” was one–is a lot of times, those glitchy things will come in the form of a breakdown, and it’ll sound, for a moment, almost like a completely different song, but the vocals will be continuous into it. Other elements of the track drop out, and you’ll have this new weird sound.
I get bored, honestly, when I’m [laughs] making an instrumental and it’s in one place the whole time. Maybe it’s my attention span, but there are a lot of songs I love, especially older songs, and they have just one idea they just sort of go with. They’ll be, like, a three or four minute song, and it’s just the same instrumental. And I’m kinda like, “This is so cool, but it also would have been cooler if it was cut in half.”
I have lots of different ideas when I’m producing, and I like to see where something can go instead of sticking to a defined template. I also think that’s more true to how emotions work–or maybe just mine. You know, maybe I’m crazy and unstable [laughs] but I kind of feel like emotions are more fluid, and it expresses that more than a rigid verse-chorus. No knock to that, ’cause it obviously works, and it’s been influential, but I’m like, “What could the possibility be if we allowed for more freedom in terms of structure and people were open to that?” Especially on pop radio. It could be so cool if you still have a pop format, but you can take it anywhere.
On your last album, you also had a song with Xtina Jewell, who shows up here on “True and You.” How did you start this collaborative relationship, and what was it like writing together for this record?
We met through a mutual friend. My best friend’s a model, and so is Christina–I guess she’s more into music now. My friend was like, “Hey, we’re gonna go to the studio just to check in with my one friend for ten minutes,” blah blah blah. “Okay, cool.” And it was Christina, and that’s how we met. I really liked her voice; I think she has a very adaptable voice. I like her hooks and some of the melodies she’d come up with, and she also just had a genuine love for music. I reached out to her and suggested we do a collab for Aarupa, I sent her the instrumental for “This Moment,” and she was on board.
For this album, I was thinking about the continuity from the last record, so I was like, “We should have a story arc as collaborators.” So the one on the last album was about love, and I’m like, “This’ll be the evolution of our fictional, on-record relationship.” I’m kind of nerdy, but [laughs] I was like, “It’s intertextual and all that.”
You also worked with Mabel Harper, who’s a member of the Grimalkin collective. Was it your first time working with someone else in the group?
Yeah, actually–no, because Grim, they remixed a song on the Aarupa remix album, but this is my first time doing an actual, original thing. I think Mabel is so talented and so brilliant, and I love her work. I loved her last album, and I think we’re sort of in line a lot. We’ve talked quite a bit, and we’re quite in line musically and in terms of our philosophy, so–yeah, I just sent her the song. I had most of it done, and I was like, “This is where I feel like you could shine,” and like, she wrote it, and did, and it was great. We’re also working on a collab album, which hopefully comes out this year.
Where did you record As a Motherfucker?
In the basement in my dad’s house. [laughs] I recorded most of Aarupa at my mom’s house in Toronto–something about home, you know? Something about where I’ve grown up is like, it’s easier to go back there. Also, you know, my parents have houses, because they’ve been alive and they have more than I do. I’m just a poor early 20’s–I could only live in an apartment with other people. Regardless of how good you are, I don’t think most people want their roommate to be recording albums. Maybe, but you gotta find those types of people, and that’s hard to find.
And something about being home is just inspirational to me. Specifically with this album, because it was done in Kitchener. It feels like that’s where my sound originated, you know what I mean? That’s where I was inspired to start in the direction of being where I am now. Something about it just triggers those memories. It just feels right.
How much influence did your parents have on the kind of music that you ended up making?
My dad really liked Michael Jackson growing up, so that was my first big influence. I’ve branched out since, but I think because I was so entrenched in that and for so many years, I’ll never really be able to lose that influence. [laughs] Not that I’d want to, but I’ve just evolved since then–I really started out when I was young trying to be a carbon copy of, basically, Michael Jackson. I’ve moved on from that, but I still think you can hear that influence.
What’s your production setup like?
It’s literally just the laptop, the mic, and whatever DAW I have.
Yeah, you can get good sound with a very simple setup, so I don’t obsess over gear. I’m really all about just trying to get the best possible sound for the music. Because I’ve been doing it for so long, I’m good enough at mixing and mastering that I can hack it like someone who is really into that, but in terms of investing in gear and stuff, I will get by with exactly what I need, you know? I’d much rather spend money on, like, a cool book than a new microphone.
Do you do a lot of reading, then?
I have a bunch of books I want to get at the moment, but the financial situation is saying slow down, so right now they’re just fantasies. [laughs] But yeah, I do read a lot.
What’s been the most impactful thing that you’ve read in the last year or so?
I’m reading Scenes of Subjection by Saidiya Hartman. It’s about self-making, slavery, and gender. It’s very dense, but it’s worth the read. I don’t know where her mind is coming from–like, I’d have to read her influences–but the way she puts things together, it’s just such an interesting level of analysis.
It really inspires a lot of questions for me in terms of my understanding of my own self, what it means to make a self, and how influenced your own self can be by constructs and the conditions placed on you. It’s sociological, so it’s more specifically how it relates to Black people and Black women, just because it’s, you know, looking more so at slavery, but I still think as an individual, you can read stuff like that and take away stuff about yourself. Not that it has to be about yourself.
How much does that kind of thinking about the self play into the way that you write?
A lot, honestly. I think it’s all over this album, especially in songs like “Harmony.” There’s a lot of songs where I say one thing and then I walk back on it later, and there’s a lot of contradictions in the moods, but I do that on purpose because I’m not trying to tie myself to anything. I’m trying to show how many different perspectives one person can have. I hate the way people are expected to fit in one category. I think it’s unnatural, you know what I mean? I deliberately try to portray that in this album specifically. I’m trying to show that you can be many different things. That’s in the lyrics, but that’s also in terms of the music and the genres.
I was reading a lot of those types of books and probably still reading Scenes of Subjection while I was working on this album, so that definitely influenced me to dig deeper, look at myself a bit more, and really portray the contradictions.
When did you finish this record?
I would say it was January, February when I started it, I think I finished recording in the beginning of July, and then mixing and mastering by August, early September.
In January 2021, what is it like hearing these songs? Has your relationship to them changed at all, or are you still identifying with where you were?
I like them more, and I understand more what I made, if that makes sense. When I first finished it, I didn’t know what I was trying to say, and that’s one of the things that frustrated me, is that at Grimalkin, Grim was like, “Oh, can you write a description for the album?” And I wasn’t mad at Grim, but I was like, “I have no idea what to say.” [laughs] Like, “I just made it.” The eventual description that I did write, I did it in ten minutes at the last possible time, and I was like, “I never want to see this again, I never want to read it again.”
But yeah, I’m loving them now. I like them now, and I’m actually kind of proud. I’m more impressed with it than I was then. It felt like it took a lot out of me, but in a good way. I’m now listening to it and contrasting it with the new stuff I’m working on, trying to understand it in context, and how I should grow from there.
You’re giving tape proceeds from this record to CACTUS Montréal. Why was it important to you to support that cause specifically?
Because they work with trans people, they work with drug users, and–I’m very sympathetic to addiction, and I’m very sympathetic to people with sexually transmitted diseases or infections. I just think there’s not enough support or care. I think people are very callous, and they throw stones about people they don’t know, and they think that they have authority over [laughs] what’s right and wrong in the world.
It’s good to have moral principles on things like standing up for people and accounting for people whose stories aren’t often told, so I think it’s best that we spend less time in judgement and more time understanding what it is about our world that makes people into drug users or, you know, how unprotected trans people are. Or the scrutiny that people with STIs or STDs are treated with. When really, it’s like, “Hello?” Most of us are intimate with other people–it could be any of us. Any of us could have been born trans. Any of us could have addiction.
But in other words, it shouldn’t be such an individualized conversation. We should talk about why people don’t have access to healthcare and stable housing and things like that.
Exactly, and we should talk more about gender, just in general–expanding our boundaries of everything. I’m in a lot of left wing spaces, so that’s kind of the world I’m surrounded in, but sometimes you’re pulled out, and you see how anti-that people are, or how rigidly people think. It’s all about exposure, and if we stop blaming each other and look more at societal issues, and if less-informed people are more exposed to things they don’t know, that’d be so much better.
Do you have any New Year’s Resolutions?
I don’t normally have New Year’s Resolutions. Normally, what happens for me is I enter a new year waiting for something to happen to set the emotional tone for the year. The first few days are always dry because it’s like a hangover from the last year, and then I started getting good coverage for my album, and then there was an attempted coup in the states earlier in the week, so it’s like, “Damn, we’re starting this off raw.”
With a bang.
Oh yeah. [laughs] And a part of me is like, “Where do we go from here?” I know everyone was like, “Okay, 2020’s over now. It’s gonna be good,” and I’m like, “We have a lot to deal with. We have a long way to go.” We have a lot to deal with this century, especially global warming, so like, let’s get it together, people. We don’t have much time to be wasting on storming capitols for fascists. We need to keep it moving.