East London’s Barney Artist is sat in upstairs in a bar which has been temporarily transformed into the bustling backstage area of Leeds’ World Island festival. He’s wearing a Game Boy Advance strapped across his chest, and is excitedly discussing the songs he hopes to hear at the afterparty.
Despite the talk, it’s still being very early in the day, and there are a bunch of people outside having similar conversations about which tracks they’re hoping to hear from his ‘Bespoke’ and ‘Painting Sounds’ mixtapes.
However, the 26-year-old Forest Gate rapper is planning a more forward-thinking set than that. ‘Painting Sounds’ is almost two years old now, which by rap terms is almost vintage, and he recently completed his debut album, ‘Home Is Where The Art Is’, which he wants to start filtering into his live set.
It’s a good place to start testing the LP, which features a trio of names that join him on today’s line-up, Tom Misch, Jordan Rakei and Alfa Mist, as well as Dornik, Emmavie and George The Poet. The sunny afternoon is ideal for bright, dancefloor-ready jams like ‘Something True’ and ‘Rose Thorn’, but - if Barney has executed his vision successfully - ‘Home Is Where The Art Is’ has a lot more to offer than that.
With half an hour left until stage time, we sat down with Barney to discuss the looming career goal that he’s been building towards his whole life…
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You’re calling ‘Home Is Where The Art Is’ your debut album, but you already have two full- length projects to your name. How did this one differ for you?
It’s conceptual, which is a first for me. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job right, you can listen to the album multiple times and pick up different things. It’s way more personal and there’s a lot of time and thought that’s gone into this one. Not saying I didn’t care about my other ones, but I’m 26 and I was scared of the word ‘album’ for ages. So now I was like, “You know what? Fuck it! Let me just do it.”
I think the word ‘album’ is like a definitive thing - you can’t underplay it. You’ve got to go, “This is all of me. This is my best music.” With that there’s no going back. Once you say this is your album, that’s you saying, “This is my best thing that I’ve done.” You can’t go back from that, and so I think that’s why a lot of people are scared of the word.
Do you think the importance attached to that word might change beyond our generation?
Well they’re not really listening to albums really, they’re listening to playlists, and songs, and making their own. So we’re in a very weird climate where music is really disposable. I remember Joey Bada$$ dropped his album and a month later someone Tweeted him like, “When’s your new music dropping?” And he was like, “Fuck, I just gave you an album?” And that’s it. You work so hard on something for a couple of years, and the minute you put it out people are asking what’s next.
I struggle with this idea of being an artist, it’s like you’re better than other people or you’re acting like you’re cooler than other people. I find that weird and it’s not relatable. In making my music I take time to break that, and just talk about me and what I’m going through. I write music for me and then hopefully people connect with it, and I think that, especially with this album, its very personal. It’s a real insight into me kind of having to dig and face some not very nice things.
How did you come up with the concept for this album?
It’s about women, and I just came out of a long relationship with a girl that I met when I was 12 in Sunday School. I was with her, marriage would have been the next step, and then we split up and I was like, “Oh my God, my life! What the hell?” Everything turned upside down.
I have two little sisters, and I looked at them and looked at the way I treat women. I feel like a lot of men have a tendency to treat their mums, their daughters and their sisters differently to the level of respect they have for another girl. And I had to look at that, and how would I feel if somebody treated [my sisters] the way I did the girl that I was with. And so the album tackles that quite head on.
Why do you think now is an important time for this album to come out?
One of the things I always find interesting is when rappers make songs and they’re saying mad things about women, all of this horrific stuff, and it makes me think, how is it not awkward when their mum plays it? I think with me making this album especially, I wanted to make something that my sisters can be proud of. They’re young, they’re five and eleven - but eleven is an interesting age, she’s listening to music now. She likes artists, but she’s also dealing with self-worth and who she is. So for me this album is something they can unwrap later, and be like, “Oh, my brother was a good man, and he wasn’t deluded in his goodness.”
When I first started making the album it was very self-righteous, it was like, “Look how amazing I am. I love women, look how good I am with my sisters.” But then it does get darker in the second half of the album, where I really had to ask myself some real questions. I’m trying to be honest as I can without being preachy, I feel like sometimes in hip-hop there’s a real fine line between preaching and not giving a shit. I feel like you can find that balance in being human, and I think that balance is an important thing when it comes to music.
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Given that you struggle with being an artist, is it comforting that it’s possible, now more than ever before, to have a rap career without having to become majorly famous?
Yeah, it is. I think the tough part with rap is the shelf life of it. You’ve got a year, and if you last longer than a year at the top then you’re a veteran. There’s artists that were scorching hot last year, that we’d be like “Ah yeah, they fell off now.” Imagine how the human brain has to now process that? It’s like ‘X-Factor’, the minute you win it’s a countdown to when you lose: which is a horrible thing to have to go through man.
Hip-hop is a difficult thing, because literally it’s a countdown. That’s why I feel like this album is especially important, because I’m slowly building a fan base that care. I feel like they know me and they want to get to know me, I’ve got a responsibility to that and I take that really seriously. The more I grow and the more I chase things and learn, I’ve got to also reflect that.
What do you see your contribution to culture being?
I’m black and British, and I remember growing up in East London. I didn’t have a lot of money and I was a teenager when grime culture popped off. It was in my ends, so I really felt it and felt a part of it. I was surrounded by these idols and they were stars in my eyes - it was incredible. But one thing that I never quite saw [violence], I’m not a bad person I don’t want to stab someone. My God- parents are white middle class from the suburbs, so I grew up in a kind of, mum’s in the ends, God- parents are in the suburbs - and I didn’t see anyone that I really connected to in that capacity [in grime].
I think the main thing about me is that I want to be able to impact people, where they can be like, “He’s just being himself. He’s just a normal guy, he gets it wrong sometimes but he’s trying.” I want that to be cool. I want being yourself and not having to fool or impress people, to be cool. Just being your own thing, being a nerd, I’ve got my Game Boy Advance with me, I’m playing ‘Wario Land 4’. I’m doing this for a 16-year-old Barney to be able to be like, “I know this guy, and he’s learning. He’s teaching us as he goes along and he’s giving us all every time.”
So you’re showing your process?
Yeah, and that giving people the confidence boost to be able to be like, “I can do what I want to do and I don’t have to fit this mould. It doesn’t define my blackness if I don’t do this.” I feel like because of a lot of social constructs that are in place, I’m seeing a lot of systemic racial problems in the country; a lot of people, black men especially, feel like they have to do certain things to prove their blackness.
I want to be able to be like, “Nah, you can listen to whoever you want and still be a black man.” There’s a lot of negative things on being a black man; being angry or being strong or tough. But there’s strength in being open and vulnerable, there’s a lot of strength in saying “I need help.” And having friends that you love, telling them that, “I love you, your my best friend.” Luckily for me I have a friendship group likes that, that I can say that to, and we’ve kept each other sane. That’s the message that I think I bring, that’s what’s important to me.
What do you think is the most difficult thing you’ve had to overcome in your career so far?
The battle of success, and the time limit. [The feeling that you have to reach success] by 25, and I’m 26 now. That was tough, that last ditch, thinking this is it! I’m grateful to have some of my best friends, like Alfa Mist who I’ve known since I was three years old, and we often just sit and remind each other like, “Let’s remember when we would’ve loved for 50 people, or 100 people to listen to our music. Now 1000 people listen to it. Be grateful for that.” I feel like that’s a constant battle, because you constantly [question,] “Am I good enough?” If you’re not being asked to do certain things, or being put in certain places. And that’s the battle I had to fight.
I’m still working on it, but I’m really happy with this album that I’ve made. If one person listens to it, cool. If two people listen to it, great. If loads listen to it, then that’s amazing. But I know that I can stand by this, and that’s the big thing to overcome - your own self-evaluation.
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Words: Grant Brydon
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