“To me, what makes a great guitar player is knowing when to go full force and knowing when to back off. It’s all about those dynamics. It’s what gets people going. That’s what I strive for in my songwriting, too. Guitar ancestors provide the guidance,” says Andrea Genevieve Barkley, formerly of Queen Crescent and, before that, Purple Rhinestone Eagle.
“[With] bands I’ve been in, people are sometimes like ‘oh that’s cool, sounds like this particular area of music,’” she says. “It’s that linear kind of mindset, ‘this was a particular era, the golden era of music, and everything else that came after that is just derivative’ and it’s like, no, we’re not trying to be some 70s worship band, we are continuing a really beautiful tradition. That’s how I like to see it, you know, this is a tradition and everybody adds different things every generation.”
Barkley has been playing guitar for twenty years. She grew up in snowy Buffalo, NY and started playing guitar as a teenager. Influenced heavily by rock ‘n’ roll, blues, West African psych and 1970s Japanese progressive rock, she is a relentless songwriting force. When we met over a decade ago, it was summertime in Philadelphia, and I was just getting to know just how vast queer punk underground music was at the time. I happened to be in attendance at what was one of Purple Rhinestone Eagle’s first shows and, as a teenager, I remember watching them play and being inspired to continue playing my own music.
Photo by Astra Pentaxia
Barkley has diligently honed her craft between finishing grade school and being mentored by the likes of violinist India Cooke. She is insistent on following the lead of guitarists who, as she puts it, “don’t take up more space with the guitar than they should musically.” It is a fine balancing act to play with such intention, it’s all about the intimate relationship of guitar technique and songwriting that really sets her music apart. Both of these are paramount to, and have grown together harmoniously, in her music.
Under the name Dre Genevieve, Barkley is planning a 2017 tape release on Eye Vybe Records, a solo EP titled “Strangely Free.” Gratitude, presence of mind, and the finite quality of life are running themes within these songs. “Music is definitely something that has allowed me to transcend any sort of hurtful thing that I might do to myself, spiritually or mentally.” Barkley says.“[Guitar] just feels so good to play, it feels good to connect with that particular instrument.”
It’s appropriate to link her guitar playing to a lineage; a shared experience that Barkley says “transcends time and space” and builds onto itself. Within this large family, women, queer folks, and people of color have built pathways for players who seek to come after. For Barkley, paying homage to these trailblazers is important both in the evolution of guitar and in her songwriting. Beverly Guitar Watkins, Odetta, Selda, Albert King, Hideki Ishima, and Nancy Wilson are just some names that breathe life to her musical palette. “I love all of these people, not only for their respective guitar prowess but also they were/are all incredibly gifted songwriters. You can hear it in their music. They all think outside the box. They don’t wank off.” she says.
In regards to being a queer woman of color musician, she says, “when you are on stage and you’re owning it, when you’re unapologetic, it’s like you are really blowing people’s reality tunnels wide open. We just gotta keep doing it.”
Barkley recently spoke to She Shreds about “Strangely Free.” 100% of download proceeds will go to aiding the victims of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire on December 9th, 2016.
She Shreds: Growing up, did anyone play music around you? Were there any big influences in your young life?
Andrea Genevieve Barkley: I had an older cousin growing up who was a total hesher who would babysit us when I was about five or six. She’d bring over her metal and rock cassette tapes stuff like Lita Ford or Metallica. She’d play them really loud on my mom’s boombox and my brother and I would tear through the house screaming with delight. I would sometimes pick up a broom and start playing it like a guitar. I guess she has some pictures of me somewhere doing that. Musically my cousin was a big influence on me. She listened to all kinds of music and would tell me to check out this or that band as I got older. Once I started playing guitar for real she got really stoked for me. She’s been one of my biggest supporters my whole life.
Would you say the music you play is mostly in the veins of psych and progressive?
Yes definitely. Psych and progressive for sure. Specifically I think I draw from 70s West African psych and 70s Japanese prog. And I pull a lot of inspiration from late 60s blues. I love a lot of early krautrock bands like Amon Düül II. I also love certain acid folk stuff too, Turkish stuff like Selda and British and Welsh stuff like Forest and Bran. I think all of that influences my playing. I’m also super into early experimental synth stuff like Terry Reid. A Rainbow in Curved Air is one of my absolute favorite albums. No guitar in it as far as I can tell but lately it’s been influencing my writing and playing a lot. It’s so otherworldly.
What would you say are your main motivations for playing music and more specifically, refining your guitar craft?
I’m not sure what motivates me to play guitar. I absolutely love songwriting and performing. It’s just the most fun in the world to me. Maybe that’s it. I love learning new scales and techniques. I’m constantly teaching myself new things on it. I’ll listen to someone else’s song and I’ll be like “how the hell did they do that?” and noodle around until I figure it out. Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of piano, recorder, melodica and bass, too, but I always come back to guitar. It’s such a fun instrument. There’s always something new to learn. Having “beginner’s mind” and staying curious is my approach. It never gets old that way.
Being a queer woman of color, it’s important for me to keep doing what I do so I can help to dismantle the idea that rock n roll only doesn’t “belong” to people like me. I’m Black so in actuality, my people invented rock ‘n’ roll. The more of us out there doing our thing, the more we can chip away at these antiquated ideas. I want to do what I can to inspire other women, girls, queer folks, and whomever else to start playing music if they feel the calling. And for my male contemporaries, I’m doing this for you too. Maybe my presence will help to check your internalized misogyny that you have been socialized to believe.
Not to say all musicians are marginalized but, in a way, if you just look at, unfortunately, [the Ghost Ship warehouse fire], some communities of artists are marginalized. Speaking of queerness and any person who is on the outside, you have to find your family. I’ve always been obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll and, of course, the dominant culture wants to portray that as only these particular men, from these particular countries, and this particular background are values and important. I just never believed that to be true.
“Strangely Free” cover art
What is the meaning behind the title “Strangely Free?”
I named the EP “Strangely Free” because I have been letting go of so much in my life these past few years. Things that I used to be able to count on are no longer there. After going through an intense period of mourning, I realized that my deep internal happiness is not contingent on anything, any band, or any person outside of me. In that moment I feel really bizarrely free, like I could do anything because I could! Taking this to the larger social context, I believe that most of us can still find a lot happiness despite the fact that large social systems are totally breaking down as we speak. In fact it may actually be a good thing this is happening. We don’t know what the future holds so we really need to embrace now – right now – and do the things that make us happy. Speak our truths. Stand up. Get our lives. That’s the sentiment I wanted to express in this album. Don’t waste a moment.
Would you say music and your spirituality can be connected? And how would you define your spirituality?
Songs can travel. Music is probably the oldest form of artist human expression. Scientists have found instruments that are hundreds of thousands of years old. So when we play music, we are connecting to something very ancient within ourselves. I think when we play music with that sense of connection, it starts to dissolve fears, loneliness and whatever other harmful thoughts we may have. It gives us renewed purpose and reminds us of how extraordinary life can truly be.
In terms my own spirituality, I consider myself to be Buddhist. I’m a part of a really wonderful sangha in Oakland called the East Bay Meditation Center. With Buddhism, it’s more about the practice and less about holding this identity, so it often feels kind of strange to say “I’m a Buddhist” But being a Buddhist has really shifted my worldview. Approaching music making with loving kindness as opposed to ego makes for better songwriting and performance too.