Confronting Religion, Grief & Anti-Gay Bigotry in Seán Barna’s Brilliant “Cissy”
Seán Barna sits across from me looking off into the distance as he contemplates a question I’ve asked him about the importance of his new EP, Cissy, which I have just finished telling him is a wholly provocative, mesmerizingly intense and unerringly brave collection of five songs that turned me sideways just a few weeks before. A tall, sinewy, dark presence, distinctly accentuated by gray pants and a black tee shirt, the 33-year-old singer-songwriter runs his long fingers through his lengthy, ebony hair that is ever so slightly streaked with gray, and finally sighs, “I had nothing, no songs, no idea for a record. I’d just moved up to Brooklyn from Washington D.C. after the presidential election, where my team didn’t do so well, and all of a sudden I was into this really interesting scene, where I figured I’d go out and try and find the rage in the streets being expressed in music and art and I found that people just aren’t fucking doing it.”
Eschewing irony, Barna suddenly becomes disturbed by the memory, looking back at me to intone, “Songwriters are really dropping the ball right now, in my opinion. It’s like, ‘What are you doing? What’re you saying?’ It’s as if everyone is suddenly doing an impression of a songwriter, instead of being a songwriter.”
Seán Barna did not want to be that songwriter. Not now. Not ever. His first two records, the stirringly autobiographical, 2014 EP, Cutter Street and Pictures of an Exhibition (2017) and the recent single release of “Straight Motherfuckers and Their Famous Friends” more than hint at his determined outlook on the craft. But it is within the stories that Cissy tells — of this time, this place and the revelation of his subjects; inspecting, even dissecting, and eventually unfurling their sexuality, their fears and shameless fury in the face of societal headwinds that make it an important musical and spiritual document, a cut above what he had failed to hear on stages across New York City.
Barna channels these visions when he sings in the opening track, “Serious Child”, a wonderfully crafted sonic homage to Phil Spector-era pop rhythms; “And if these mirrors are right, we’ve had our fair share/Killing ourselves under synthetic hair/We’d be the belles of the ball if Jesus were here/Single and queer in the bathrooms of Brooklyn.” It is a song that at once evokes religion, culture, identity, sexuality and duality within and without the gay community, his community; feeling marginalized, vilified, even hunted. “It’s all in there for me,” he says. “The drag queens, drug abuse, the absolute utter hypocrisy of religion and how fucking disgusted we all are with it.”
All roads — his family, his career, his lifestyle and beliefs and loves and hates, and the untimely death of his younger brother in 2003 — have led to Cissy for Barna; these remarkably poignant songs that stare unblinkingly at dread, lust, defiance, liberation and youthful alienation. It is a confessional of the deepest grief and this relentless passion to reflect a culture eviscerated by bigotry, ignorance and oppression. Confronted with power cords and drum fills and the twittering emotion of vocals so exceedingly raw they lay bare the concussive nature of the music they adorn, Barna has indeed created something “important”. Like all true art and seminal rock ‘n’ roll, Cissy comes from a place of desperation — in the best sense of the word — desperate to express and share.
“I am very interested in how people deal with pain… because it’s ravaged my life,” he says.
“So, in the face of all that, do you think it’s important?” I ask again.
This time he doesn’t hesitate. “I would like to think that it is important,” he says, letting a knowing smile crease his face. “It’s certainly important to me. For me, it was as if before it I didn’t know I was that good… if that makes any sense.” He laughs at his impertinence and concludes; “That’s a very brash thing to say.”
This brashness is not coincidental. Turns out there were places in New York that shared Barna’s urgency to express anger and defiance that made a lasting impression on him and would eventually inform the songs he would write for Cissy. “I was going to these drag bars and finding people who were fearless,” he says, getting animated. “They didn’t get to this point because they’re scared of you anymore. And I could hear them saying, ‘If you feel unsafe tonight, you come tell us and that motherfucker will be out, whoever it is.’ I’ve kicked people out of these bars myself. There’s an anxiety that exists in these communities and we’re sticking together, basically, is the way that it feels.”
Barna sings on the record’s second track, “Danger Baby”, “These are desperate times, we are wandering away/Did you hear? There was another shooting today/The straight motherfuckers are getting their way/Tonight we’re scared, but tomorrow we make them pay”.
“These characters are based on real people, with, of course, with the exaggeration you’re allowed as a writer,” he says. “But none of them are that far removed from things I’ve seen in drug scenes. I’m basically describing a scene and making it seem like I’m making up these great lyrics, but really, I’m telling you something that actually happened.”
Although the characters’ conflicts and redemptions found in these songs needed to be written and eventually recorded, it wasn’t until Barna called his friend and fellow musician, Dave Drago that the seeds of Cissy were sown. He playfully describes his calling Drago up to complain that he was overwhelmed with inspiration with no tangible material to show for it. “He told me to ‘Shut the fuck up and get up here and let’s make a record!’”
A producer/arranger/manager, Drago’s 1809 recording studio housed inside a re-purposed 19th century Erie Canal-side Tavern located in the little hamlet of Macedon, New York offered Barna just what its web site exclaims; “Relaxing surroundings, sleeping accommodations” where musicians “can easily remove yourself from daily life to focus on making the best recording of your career”.
“I sat in his ‘guitar-isolation room’ and started to go through these voice notes and 20-second clips of ideas (you can hear one of them whispered at the opening of “Danger Baby”) just trying to pick out melodies and put things together and figure something out,” Barna remembers. “Then Dave and I basically chose the forms of the songs, meaning that I decided on how many verses there were going to be before I even had them.” After a hearty night of drinking, Barna woke up and recorded “Serious Child”, first laying down the drums (Barna is a studied and accomplished percussionist of 22 years) singing lyrics he’d only conjured the day before. “I knew I was in a sprint,” he laughs now. “I had to do my best work very quickly.”
The furious spontaneity in which the guerilla-like writing and subsequent recording of the songs that make up Cissy duly reflects its ignoring of artifice. There was for Barna no time to think it out, edit himself, or consider the consequences of such honest expression.
“It was hard for Dave and me to not acknowledge what was happening, because we both knew there was something going on here with this record,” says Barna. “From the time that he literally woke up from a drunken sleep and said, ‘Cissy!’ and then went back to sleep and remembered it in the morning, hungover, and told me, I was like. ‘Oh man, this is good.’”
Two of the EP’s songs were already formed before Barna teamed up with Drago in upstate New York, although he acknowledges the duo transformed them into more accessible compositions — the heart-wrenching elegy to how his mother survived the death of his brother, “Routines” and its stirring coda, the brilliantly sparse and emotional “Queer Mad Blues”. The former moved Counting Crows’ lead singer and main songwriter, Adam Duritz to want to sing on it and the latter conjured the spirit of the Beat Generation poetry so vividly I could not help but gush about it on our Underwater Sunshine podcast when Adam first played it for me. “I was trying to stay in this place that artists get into, the writing zone,” Barna recounted when I marveled at the speed and purpose of the work. “I’m sure you’ve felt this too, the zone where nothing can deflect you or get in the way of your confidence. I knew there were stories to tell.”
“Routines” is written in the guise of Barna’s mother, whose grief is so overwhelming she must stick to the everyday mundane to maintain her equilibrium, creating structure to shelter her against the sheer madness of losing a child, who was struck by a car at the tender age of 13. “I asked myself, ‘How as a writer can you get in somebody else’s head… somebody else’s perspective?’” he explains, reminding me that through expressing his mother’s loss, he was translating the pain of the entire family, including himself. “I just had this vision of my mom on her porch, where she sits all the time smoking a cigarette and drinking her Coors Light. Here is somebody who isn’t speaking for herself, she’s just existing until it’s over, and there’s a profound sadness in that to me.
“I know that if I’m about to cry, I’m where I need to be for that kind of song. When Adam heard it, he said, ‘I gotta sing on this.’ And, of course, that meant everything. Adam is the reason I started writing songs in the first place. I saw Counting Crows for the first time in 2007 and this fucking man, this modern man — that’s why he’s mentioned in that song, by the way — was on the end of the stage with his heart ripped right open and laying on the goddamn stage and I was like, ‘Woah! We didn’t do that in my Catholic-Irish-Italian family!’”
The cornerstone compositions that hold together the desperate themes of sexuality, duality, revolt and youthful rage in Cissy are found in the bouncing rock of “Modern Man” and the record’s final statement, “Queer Mad Blues”. Both could be summed up in the lines, “I’ll paint my nails when it suits me/Breathtaking, isn’t it?/Masculinity/I’m a modern man”. Its understated growl of the ghostly apparition of Lou Reed’s best 1970s recklessness of intuition reeks of New York and the Velvet Underground, the urban centers, pitch black bars and the spilling out of the demimonde and the playing with gender definitions. When it all gets too much, Barna beseeches, “Sing the good songs/Do the good drugs/Turn the news off, and love, love, love/I’m a modern man,” as if echoing a lost psyche scrambling to find its own sense of the real, beyond apologies and explanations, just a man who needs to tell you about it.
The lynchpin of “Modern Man” that prompts me to give it a standing ovation every time I hear it is the verse that name-checks the legendary McDougal Street Gaslight Café, which is still huddled in the heart of the bohemian soul of Greenwich Village, bearing the scar of the underground poets and musicians and outsiders with a singular voice that has been drowned out, according to Barna, by the din of apathy. “I heard there is a protest today…” he sings with the strained relish of a damaged prophet scrambling along the corridors of our American refuge. “But the Gaslight is already closed/Yeah, the Gaslight is already closed/So let’s keep it numb/Let’s keep it reckless/Cuz the Gaslight is already closed.”
“Places like the Gaslight don’t exist for me,” expounds Barna. “I go over there, and I look at it sometimes, but I won’t go in… I just look at the stairwell and think, ‘Wow, I used to be able to walk in there and have meaning as a songwriter and have a voice’, but nobody is listening so I’m going to do drugs instead. The Gaslight is closed and there’s no change to be had. It’s kind of like giving up a little bit…but not really.”
“Queer Mad Blues” is far different but no less signifying of this search for the authentic cry in the wilderness. Delicately picked on an acoustic guitar and sung as if an audacious confessional, it stands alone, naked to all of the anger-speak and sedition of Cissy to walk the thinnest line of all, sanity. Its final lines toll the mission bell as a call to arms for a generation adrift and perhaps not aware of the dangers that come with expressing such anger: “Took what I wanted/The queens and the jokes/I burned all my belongings but not this leather coat/You found your disease, tried and true/You meant what you said, now spread the news.”
As if channeling Jack Kerouac’s famous stanza from On the Road, a book that had taken the young Seán Barna by storm like so many before and after him “Queer Mad Blues” completes the lineage. Saint Jack writes in the book, “[…]the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center-light pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
Barna sings, “Blues are blues, even queer ones/The sad ones, the scared ones, the mad ones…and even the queer ones.” Six decades since Kerouac’s ode to the displaced thrill-seekers adrift along the inter-generational byways, Cissy ends with a repeated, “The sad ones, the scared ones, the mad ones, And even the queer ones.”
When I recite these lines back to Barna, he straightens from his comfortably slouched mid-interview stance and becomes animated. “I am trying to express anxiety in people through my life. I use my life as a metaphor to explain how fucked up the world is and the world as a metaphor for how fucked up I am! And I try to interchange those so you can’t figure out what’s going on necessarily with me. ‘Queer Mad Blues’ in a general sense, captures this sadness I felt in my life and I’m obviously talking about queer people, that there’s a gay sadness that exists, just an inherent sadness to a lot of queer people and that’s derived from society, but I need to say that you cannot let it get you down. You have to stand up and you have to demand your rights because no one is going to give them to you for free. You have to speak loudly to be brutally, viciously honest, in art and that’s why I have no goddamn tolerance for the singer-songwriter ‘impression’ or whatever else it is. That’s why I was drawn to drag. I’ve never done drag, I’m never going to do drag, but watching these people be fearless in their art is the best thing that I think we can do as artists right now; continue to speak for ourselves.”
Listen to the five songs in Cissy and decide. It is, if nothing else, music for its time, with or without the Gaslight Café.
“The record itself is a “Fuck you! We’re still here and we’re still going to speak!’”, Barna says before we part for a beer at the White Horse Tavern, where Kerouac used to drink, where the Village Voice, which recently went belly up, was conjured, where the Clancy Brothers and Bob Dylan crossed paths, where Dylan Thomas fell into ignominy. Hesitating again, Barna looks up at the ceiling and exhales one last time to conclude; “I’m just going to be louder. I’m going to become more art, bigger art, better art, because we are the resistance to this thing and artists always have been, whatever little part you play in that.”