Sean Barna began his musical career as a drummer, after finding his father’s drum set languishing in the attic, playing in rough Southwest Florida bars, with his friend, Chris Walker, to an eclectic audience that would at times include members of the Hell’s Angels.
He took to it right away, becoming obsessed.
After high school, Barna, who is based in Washington, D.C., where he is currently working for a direct mail company helping get progressive candidates elected in the South, as well as New York City, enrolled at Florida State University as a double major in music and political science.
In his freshman year of college, he was faced with tragedy, when his brother was hit by a car and killed. His reaction was primarily to lose himself in making music.
He wouldn’t properly deal with his grief, he told NewNowNext, until two and a half years later, while in Aspen, Colorado, for a music festival.
“I was surrounded by so much natural beauty that I just started to feel things again, and I could not continue down the path I was going,” he said he realized. “I was having physical manifestations of panic and anxiety. I was shaking, and I couldn’t control my hands and stuff. My teacher recognized it, luckily.”
He began to deal with his emotions, and shortly after he also made a discovery that would lead to him making the switch to guitar, and begin his journey as a songwriter.
“When I came back from that Aspen, Colorado thing my senior year of college, I somehow came across this album Across A Wire, which is a live Counting Crows album, which included their VH1 Storytellers set and their MTV 10 Spot set, which is a louder set.”
“And I listened to that obsessively, because I really loved it,” he remembered. “And I saw them that next summer live and decided to start writing my own words, because I was really impressed with what [Counting Crows frontman] Adam [Duritz] was doing lyrically. Just being vulnerable onstage. It’s not something that men are encouraged to do.”
He would tell that story to the booking agent of The Outlaw Roadshow, a festival that Duritz used to run with friend Ryan Spaulding, which ended up landing him a performing spot at the shows in Austin and in New York City.
The Outlaw Roadshow is now solely headed up by Spaulding, and Duritz has another festival, called the Underwater Sunshine Fest, where Barna will perform this year, taking place at Bowery Electric in New York City, October 12 and 13.
It was also through The Outlaw Roadshow that Barna met producer Dave Drago, of 1809 Studios, in Rochester, New York, who was at the time managing the band Tallahassee, who were also invited to perform at the festival.
In 2016, Drago and Barna were hanging out in New York City for the festival, which ended up being cancelled that year, and found themselves hanging out at Duritz’s house with some friends. Barna and Duritz hit it off and have been close ever since.
Drago produced Barna’s new EP, Cissy, upon which Duritz sings backup vocals on the track “Routines,” a meditation on how his mother handled her grief at losing her son. The feature came about because Duritz, after hearing the song, told Barna he had to let him sing on it.
Barna called hearing Duritz’s voice on one of his songs “surreal.”
Duritz was always impressed with Barna’s songwriting abilities, calling his song “Cutter Street,” from 2014, “just incredible.” But he described Barna’s latest album as “a giant step as a songwriter,” and “iconic.”
He compared Barna’s album to Coney Island Baby era Lou Reed, the David Bowie connected rock band Mott the Hoople, and Bowie himself.
“We get so caught up in what’s less and what’s more about this gender or that gender, but there are people who have written that weren’t about being less male, or more male–Lou Reed was looking for everything, David Bowie was looking at everything,” Duritz said.
“They were just thinking to themselves, as more. Just more than. More than anything else they were just more than other people. Because they weren’t looking at being a male and just getting females, or being female, they were just looking at people, and what it’s like to have relationships with all of them. They were so much more, that’s the only word I can think of to describe those types of writers and those types of people.”
He also credited Drago with doing a “great job finding the sound and producing it.”
Counting Crows, who hit the scene hard in 1993 with the massive hit album August and Everything After, are currently on tour celebrating 25 years together as a band. As a result, Duritz has been doing a lot of press, and has dropped Barna’s name in a staggering number of interviews.
Most notably, he devoted one of his highlighted moments in a recent Forbes interview, part of a series meant to reveal more about celebrities than heretofore revealed.
Among praise for Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, legendary rock band Big Star, and hip-hop groups Run-DMC and De La Soul, Duritz listed Barna’s album as meaningful.
He reflected on his friendship with Barna and said Cissy “floored” him.
Barna said he feels like he has only now really begun to find his voice and point of view, stressing the importance of emotional honesty, a lesson he learned not only from listening to Duritz’s lyrics, but also from one of his other main influences, Bob Dylan.
One of the other tracks on the EP, “Serious Child,” examines the community around drag queens, gay bars, and living the nightlife, which comes with pros and cons.
The music video, directed by Jon Lewis, includes the themes of mortality, through the main character of a skeleton, as well as performance and nightlife culture.
Barna cites lyrics from the song, “I’ll paint my nails if it suits me/Breathtaking, isn’t it, masculinity?,” and reflects, “Masculinity and femininity, it’s just fucking arbitrary.”
“I hope people really check it out, because he’s a voice that you need to hear,” Duritz said of Cissy. “He’s saying things about maleness, and love, and sexuality, and the unnecessary habit of gender breakdown. But he’s also painting this world that reminds me of like Lou Reed and the Velvets, and the world he was creating in the ‘70s.”
“I wish he was huge right now so it was certain everyone would hear this,” he added, before predicting that soon he will be.
“The guy is a rock star that just hasn’t happened yet. He’s gonna be great at it. I can’t wait to watch it, honestly.”
Listen to the full album below.
Barna will perform an album release show at Comet Ping Pong in D.C., 5037 Connecticut Ave NW, starting at 9pm.