Tracey Barnett And The Birth Of The Blues
Interview by Bob Gordon
With a batch of new songs and a refreshed outlook on her musicality, WA musician Tracey Barnett is more motivated than ever to follow her singer/songwriter destiny.
“I have to,” she affirms, “and not for anyone else’s reasons. As cliche as it sounds, it feels like a calling, and I don’t feel that I’m completely living my life truthfully if I’m not creating what I’m hearing and continuing to share it with people.”
Music has always meant the stuff of life to Tracey, who has recorded and released two EPS, two albums plus numerous singles and played hundreds of headlines and festival shows over the last 14 years.
Born and raised in Bridgetown, an idyllic setting for childhood if ever there was, Barnett’s early musical life was that of piano lessons and her mother’s beloved Slim Dusty records. Then in 1993, a musical renaissance occurred when the inaugural Blues at Bridgetown festival was staged. Inspired by the musicians that came to town, there was soon plenty of budding young musicians and a local school that recognised that and supported it in their curriculum.
“I remember my first exposure to this new sound – or new to me – when the festival first came to town,” Tracey recalls. “I felt at home with it, it connected with me a lot more.
“There was just so much in there through the schools and going to workshops. I put down my style of guitar being exposed to John Butler, Ash Grunwald, and Bob Brosnan. A workshop with Bob Brosnan was the reason why I tried slide guitar because not only did I go to the workshop and think, ‘wow, that sounds really cool, and he makes it seem so fun’, but he also encouraged people to just have a go. And it felt accessible that I could experiment with these fantastic sounds on the instrument like these people had.
“And my first exposure to performing was through Blues at Bridgetown as well through the high school music program. So that’s where it all started for sure.”
By the time she was in Senior High School in Manjimup, Tracey had been playing in a band with friends that sadly wasn’t going to last. However, her creative spark had been lit and Tracey began recording songs on her own. Word got out on the small-town grapevine, and she was soon being booked for solo gig appearances around the South West, as well as busking then stage performances at Blues at Bridgetown.
“It was a kind of slow evolution,” Tracey recalls. “I was set this challenge – ‘how can I fill a band sound on my own and make this sound like good full-sounding music with what I can do myself?’ These opportunities just kept coming and the more I did it, the more people were like, ‘your voice is incredible. It’s so unique Trace. Why haven’t you sung more?’ and I’m like ‘oh, no, I’m not a singer. I’m just doing it until I find it a band’.
“It was a slow process, but I just realised that for some reason, people connected with me and what I was doing on my own and maybe being on my own could be enough to create and share music rather than trying to push this band element that didn’t seem to be happening authentically or organically.”
Tracey’s debut EP was released in 2010 and the title, The First Of Many, was an indication of her intent. An album release was a big goal, but working full-time and gigging all weekend was proving incredibly demanding. It took a near life-changing experience for music to become her exclusive pursuit. Following a horse-riding accident in 2012, Tracey was lying in emergency at Bunbury Hospital unable to feel her legs due to nerve damage.
“The fear was that I’d never walk again and all I kept thinking was, ‘oh my god, I didn’t even give my music a chance. I didn’t even get to give that a go’. So when I was out of there and started my recovery, I literally sold the business that I was running and just went, ‘I’m gonna throw everything I have at music and just see what happens’. I had to do it; it was scarier to live my life wondering ‘what if?’, than it was to give my music a go and potentially fail.”
Tracey used that money to fund her next EP, 2013’s The Blooming, and embarked on her first North West tour. “I’ve just kind of kept steamrolling from there,” she notes. Tracey went on to release her debut album, Heart, Soul, Feeling, in 2017, a document of her ever-maturing songwriting path.
The years that followed were accompanied by consistent touring until the pandemic interruption, but in 2021 Tracey emerged from the quieter times with her second album, Eyes Forward. It featured four successful WAM Song Of The Year Award-nominated singles – Gotta Get Out, Eyes Forward, Darkness In The Light and Haunted – and marked her first work with producer James Newhouse, whom Tracey credits with giving her a sense of encouragement and freedom in the studio.
“I became more comfortable with being outside of a particular genre,” she says. “That’s one key element. I started off trying to box myself in the first couple of projects, and then I felt it, ‘it just isn’t working, so I’m just gonna create music, how I hear it should be and just let it find its own audience that way’. I just started finding my voice. It’s just a natural evolution that’s a bit hard to describe.”
“Finding James Newhouse was a massive growth for me, because he gave me confidence to just give stuff a go.”
Looking into 2024, Tracey finds herself in a similar situation as she did when she decided to go full-time into music following her horse-riding accident. At the end of 2021 she sustained a mild traumatic brain injury, but just as before she pressed on with renewed vigour. Her new single, Everything Is Changing, is testament to that.
“The song’s got a positive message of, ‘Yeah, I’m down but you just watch me, I can claw my way back. It’s not going to take hold’. I’ve certainly clung onto that.”
Everything Is Changing was again produced by James Newhouse, the pair have so far completed four new songs and will work towards a series of single releases culminating in her third album.
As ever Tracey’s songwriting and her performances are fuelled by her openness and the unique bond she has created with her audience.
“As a solo artist, I find that what people value the most is that connection, where they feel like they’re literally just sitting down chatting with you over a cup of tea,” she says. “I don’t know if there’s ever comfort in being so vulnerable but realising the value in just being genuine with people and the healing and the connection, and the therapy that that can offer to an audience is just beautiful. So I find myself more and more just being like, ‘just let go Trace, it’s alright to be a mess and show people that because the rest of the world is bloody struggling as well’.
“We’re all in it together and I just love that. The connection and unity and bond that it brings by allowing an audience to see who you are.”