Ben Barnes has decided to interject his acting career with a little music of his own. Barnes’ new album, Songs For You, features five soulful reminiscent songs that are sure to draw a solid fan base. Barnes’ love for storytelling, which is shown in his TV shows, has translated beautifully to his music.
mxdwn: What pushed you to start to do music?
Ben Barnes: I was always into music when I was very young. My dad was always blasting ’70s rock bands through the house: the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, the Eagles and everything. I would rummage around in the back of his vinyls for the Stevie Wonder and the Doobie Brothers and the Bonnie Raitt and the Donny Hathaway kind of stuff. I was always drawn to that kind of cool Motown stuff, and I would do Stevie Wonder soul nights and Rat Pack Sinatra tribute concerts when I was a teenager at school. Then I tried to start music when I was about 19 and had a manager and was songwriting with producers and things, and then it just sort of slipped through my fingers a little bit. I just was gravitated towards the storytelling side of acting, and I played a lot of musicians in films and stuff, but it took me up through the pandemic to kind of fall back in love with songwriting and to feel like I’d found my voice and what I wanted to say. To feel like the time was now to never regret not doing it, you know? So, it feels pretty good to have put my own music and own songs out there because no one can ever take away from me that I did it now.
mxdwn: Do you think that acting has shaped the musician that you are?
BB: I think it probably has shaped my skillset as a storyteller, and I think that I didn’t necessarily know that my songs would be as storytelling as they are. I think when I’m acting, I’m always focused on language. I love words, and when you’re acting, you’re focused on which words are important. I think when you’re writing lyrics, finding the right word that means exactly what you want it to say, express what you want to say, and feel like the right word for whatever feeling the lyric is about. For the last however many years, I’ve often gone to directors or show winners and said “I like this line, but this word doesn’t feel quite right,” and I think that’s what I was doing with my own song lyrics. They are kind of like crosswords of love, basically, I feel that’s what writing poetry is like. Then when you add the music, like trying to find the chords and the melodies that feel the most like the emotions that were the catalyst for the lyrics.
mxdwn: Did you always know what style of music you wanted to create?
BB: Well, I didn’t know because I was always doing these impressions of other people and trying so much to sound like the people that I admired so I didn’t really know, but I knew I wanted it to be soulful. I knew I wanted to sound as much like Donny Hathaway or Ray Charles as I possibly could, but I knew that I probably wouldn’t. I think if you sprinkle all the influences into the cauldron when you’re writing the songs, you know, there are moments of Queen-like guitars and there’s a Beatles “Penny Lane” trumpet flair and there’s sort of like Ray Charles’ version of “Georgia” strings, you know. I sort of said to the string arranger that I want it to feel like that so I think that you can’t help but to be influenced by all the things that you love in life. I think that’s how we become the people we become, let alone the musicians and songwriters that we are. You can’t help but be influenced, but I think it took 40 years of being influenced to eventually figure out what I sound like on my own.
mxdwn: In Shadow and Bone you’re somewhat of a hero. How did preparing for this role differ from the more gray area you occupied in both Westworld and The Punisher?
BB: Well, I would disagree with the question. I think I am the most archetypal villain in “Shadow and Bone.” I think that’s sort of quite clear from the show and the books that he’s the villain. He literally summons shadows and can kill and manipulate our heroine, who is the son. In terms of the preparation for it, the sorts of gray areas that we all occupy I think are the most important areas of humanity to scratch away. The reason that I think we continue to watch characters is because of tension within themselves to make the right choices or the wrong choices, or battle their demons or whatever it might be, or to find out why they’re acting out and why they’re expressing that kind of villainy. I think my job is to see the duality of people. If he’s seemingly cold and villainous, where is he warm and human, and if he’s strong and courageous, where is he sort of vulnerable. So, I think I’m always looking for the other side of the coin.
mxdwn: Speaking of The Punisher, will you ever return to the world of Marvel or the comic book genre now that it’s taken on a larger scale in the culture?
BB: I don’t know about larger scale again. I think when we did The Punisher the Marvel films were at their absolute height in terms of being part of the Eastern sort of cultural references. Sadly my character was killed in that show. So I don’t know how they would feel about resurrecting him, but if there was another character that they felt suited me I would be interested. I’ve always loved my Marvel Top Trump cards when I was about seven and I’m a big fan of all of that stuff, so I would always be interested to be involved with it.
mxdwn: Even though your character Billy Russo had died in the final season of The Punisher, if there was some reason Marvel wanted to revisit that character, or The Punisher storyline would you be open to return to the franchise?
BB: Of course. I mean, if they wanted to do a film with The Punisher or something and resurrect the character to do it, I would love that. I found him really interesting, and I love that they gave me so much kind of rope to make him what I was interested in and exploring with that character about how scarred and broken his mind was and why it was difficult being him. I think that was really interesting to me and the fact that they gave me the scope to do that within the context of a superhero story made me feel really good about what I was doing. So of course I would love to, I loved playing that character.
mxdwn: What can we expect in season two of Shadow and Bone? Are things still in early development?
BB: I think for people that are really curious obviously there’s all the books to comb through and find clues of what things might be the most cinematic in terms of bringing to the stories. We are kind of just waiting to see exactly when we’re going to shoot that and gearing up for the first shooting of the second season. I’m excited to see where they take the characters. I think my character in particular is quite representative of a certain kind of darkness in the story, so I’d be interested to see how human can we can make him.
mxdwn: Given your Westworld character has passed, could we expect to see a cameo perhaps in a flashback or as another form of virtual IA in the upcoming fourth season?
BB: I doubt it, but you never know what they have in mind. They can be very crafty, but I personally don’t see how they could bring him back. He seems to have been a bit of a cat with nine lives, but I think he’s probably gone for good I would have thought.
mxdwn: How was it reuniting with Evan Rachel Wood and Lee Toland Krieger for the “11:11” music video?
BB: Oh yeah, it was wonderful. I mean, I just was very keen to keep storytelling alive as part of my musical endeavors and wanting this woman in the story of the video that I conceived up to be everything and to play everyone. Having watched some of the extraordinary things that Evan did on the set of Westworld, I just knew she’d be perfect for it. Also, I knew she would be game to shoot that whole video in a day and she was just brilliant. And then Lee, who directed a lot of Shadow and Bone and the pilot episode as well, he’s just such a talented man and we both love that old Hollywood feel. Just getting his help on that was a real sort of cue for me.
mxdwn: Is there a particular time or memory that inspired the song “Rise Up”?
BB: My dad always wrote these poems at Christmas about celebrating the good things about the year and noting or commiserating the things that were difficult. It always makes me kind of emotional, but I was happy to be part of that family and I think I took a leaf out of his book. Even just in people’s birthday cards I try to write a little rhyme, or just be a bit more thoughtful in the way you engage with people. I think this was about somebody who was struggling and me wanting to tell them that not only will the sun rise tomorrow, but you are the sun, you are that light. I try not to forget that, and it started its life as a little poem I was writing and then the more I looked at it, the more it felt like a verse from a song actually. Then I thought, oh what if I had a chorus and another burst and some chords and so that was the first song on the CP that I finished and the one that I thought I needed to put in the world somehow.
mxdwn: Why did you decide to work with your The Punisher co-star, Floriana Lima, for the “Rise Up” music video?
BB: I think I wanted it to feel very intimate. It was a very intimate song to write and I wanted the video to have that easy intimate feel and because Floriana and I in The Punisher series had done love scenes and violent scenes and screaming arguing scenes, and crying scenes and all the things you could ever do. I think I just wanted it to be someone with whom I would have that ease of connection and she was perfect.
mxdwn: How has working with John Alagia and Jesse Seidenberg?
BB: They were terrific. They’re so experienced having worked with John Mayer and the Lukas Nelson band. They just brought a sort of experience that I didn’t have to helping me take the songs from the voice notes that I made at my piano of the songs to big numbers with strings and brass. They basically just helped me bring my dreams for what the songs could be to life, which I didn’t have any idea of how to do so. They were integral and wonderful.
mxdwn: How does it feel to have an “11:11” being featured on NOW! That’s What I Call Music Vol. 80?
BB: I’m so excited that the album is actually released Oct. 29, 2021. I always listened to those NOW! albums when I was a kid. I would buy the double CDs of them in the early ’90s when it was like Whitney Houston tracks and TLC and all of that kind of stuff. It was pretty exciting to get that call because they’ve got this what’s next section, and there’s Maroon Five, Billie Eilish, Imagine Dragons, Olivia Rodrigo and Dua Lipa on it, and we are going to put you as the very last song which was a very nice little treat.
mxdwn: When did you start playing the piano and at what age did you realize you could sing?
BB: I think the singing came first, I was always singing in choirs and things when I was 9 or 10. Then I would start doing these Sinatra tribute concerts and Stevie Wonder nights when I was about 16, whenever my broken voice settled in which was very late, but the piano stuff is more recent. I always wanted to play the piano. I was wanting it to be like Nat King Cole or Elton John or Ray Charles or whatever, but I really started properly trying to be better at it a few years ago, and I’m still rubbish, but I’m able to get to the point where I can sit at a piano and play a song and enjoy it, which was always the point for me.
mxdwn: How did you think of the concept behind writing “Pirate Song” and then decide to make it with a joyful, upbeat tempo?
BB: That’s a very well-phrased question because I did start the song not about pirates and also a much more sort of ballad song and it was just boring me. Then I was sort of reading about different fantasy stuff and thinking about a pirate with a woman in every port, and I was like well, what if we sort of switched it around. What if it was a female part with a man in every port and that she’s an elusive creature that can’t be pinned down and that metaphor became quite useful for me. Then I was listening to some St. Paul and The Broken Bones as a band and all sorts of different funky bands thinking that this song could work as a bit more of a bop that has a little bit of a fun feel to it. Which I like, because some of the songs on there are obviously quite melody and they don’t really work to nod your head to in the car, so at least I’ve got a couple of those on there.
mxdwn: What are your next plans for your music?
BB: Well I’m very lucky in that I’m not really tied to anything. I don’t have to be working on the typical second or first full album. I don’t have to be touring and all that stuff, but I think if opportunities come up to perform the songs, to write more songs, to collaborate with people or to figure out a way to do more music, I’m definitely going to be chasing those things. I just don’t know what they are yet.