Musician, actor Ben Barnes talks debut extended play, musical influences
November 12, 2021
Actor Ben Barnes, known for his latest performance in “Shadow and Bone” on Netflix and his role as Prince Caspian in the 2008 Narnia film “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” released his first extended play titled “Song For You” on Oct. 15. As a celebration to his 40th birthday and after posting covers on his social media, Barnes decided it was finally time to put out music of his own. The EP contains five songs, and two music videos were released as well.
Buzz had a chance to sit down with Barnes to discuss his first and latest music release.
buzz: First of all, I just want to say congratulations on the EP, “Songs For You.” It’s so great. Each song just feels so personal and inspiring. It’s really, really incredible.
Ben Barnes: Thank you. The point of it was to do something entirely intimate.
For me, after 20 years of pretending to be other people, reading from scripts and being edited and directed, I think it was time for something to come bursting out that was just essential in nature.
buzz: It just really feels like such a personal piece, which I really love. A lot of fans know you from your acting career, playing infamous roles in “Narnia,” “Westworld,” “Punisher” and now “Shadow and Bone.” Many were surprised to see the musical side of yourself that you’ve shown on your social media platforms. You seem to have been involved with music for pretty much your whole life, so tell me more about your background in the art.
BB: I think music actually came first for me. When I was a teenager, I would sing in choirs and play percussion in jazz orchestras and concert bands. I was involved with a company that I would audition for every year called the National Youth Music Theatre. It was a company that Jude Law, Matt Lucas, Sheridan Smith and Jonny Lee Miller were all in, so incredible alumni from that company. That was how I sewed the music together into the acting side of things.
Then I really wanted to give the music thing a go when I was about 19, and I signed with an extraordinary music manager. I was recording big band jazz, writing songs and working with producers. But then it kind of just slipped through my fingers a bit, and I ended up going back to university to study literature and drama. I went into the storytelling part of acting, and I’ve been very, very happy doing that for the last 15 years.
But in the last year or two leading up to the pandemic and then during the pandemic, something was sort of calling out to me. I knew that I would regret it if I didn’t prioritize putting out something of my own and making some music. That pull was quite strong for me.
buzz: How did you know that now was the right time to release an EP? What was that creative process like?
BB: I wasn’t entirely sure whether it would be a song or an album, but I knew it would be something. I’ve played so many characters that were even involved with music, but it wasn’t my voice. I would play an Americana, train-hopping folk singer or a wannabe ‘80s glam rock star, but it wasn’t me. I think something about the pandemic and that search for identity when you strip away all the structure from your life makes you question what your voice is and what you have to say.
When I finished the song “Rise Up,” I was like, “I want to release this. I want to do something with it. I don’t quite know what, but I want to put it online or something.” And then I was like, “Well, why would I stop there? Why would I not just go back and look at all the other lyrics I’ve got and try to finish a collection of songs and do something proper with it.” So that’s what I did. And then these five songs just sort of felt like they went together as a collection.
buzz: When you listen to the EP, it does feel cohesive even though there are different sounds from each song. There’s this overall theme within it that brings people together through hope and perseverance.
BB: I think I just realized that hope is one of my defining qualities as a man, as well as empathy, seeing things from another perspective. I was raised by a relationship psychotherapist and a psychiatrist. I think that the automatic process of trying to see things from another’s point of view is something that I do quite readily with people that I care about. I’m also sort of hopeful. I think that those two things, those two qualities, that sort of loving hopefulness, is something that when I’m an old man, who is now not going to regret not releasing music, that is what people say that I was.
buzz: When you listen to “Songs For You,” it feels so personal and unique to you. At the same time, there’s this universal feeling of relatability that comes with listening to it. There is an element in each song that so many people can connect with on their own personal level.
BB: I always say when I’m making a film or something that it is just a collection of scenes until it is released, and when it means something to someone and they react emotionally to it, then it becomes a film. I don’t think it’s quite the same with songs. I think they can be completely just for you, between you and your piano, and it can have catharsis to it.
Even just by itself, when you release it. And that is what you do with music. You release it. Once it’s shared, it’s not fully mine anymore. Like if people want to scrape up a little piece of it for themselves one line here or word here, a chord here something that resonates with them. That makes it about their life and their relationships and their family and their people, their heart, whatever it is, then that to me is like the whole point because that’s what I’ve got from those those are the gifts that I’ve been given from The Beatles and from Queen and from Ray Charles and from all those people. I feel like I understand their songs better than anyone because I understand my connection to those songs better than any.
buzz: Were there any other influences outside of music that you incorporated into the songs?
BB: There were so many. Even musically, there’s all sorts of things that we would reference, but outside of that, lots of poems that I love and some that are very slightly quoted in the lyrics, some Easter eggs to go and find. There’s Shakespeare references and there’s references to films like “Notting Hill” or various other things that I love. I’m also quoting a lot of moments that I’ve shared with people, just things they’ve said that have chimed with me over time. Obviously, I quote the famous John Lennon quote that says, “Everything will be OK in the end and if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.” I think that runs through the whole album.
Art has this way of reaching people even if you don’t ever meet that person. I wanted this to be my version of reaching out a hand and saying, “Hey, if you’re feeling anything on this, I feel it too. I see it. I’m here.” Just like holding someone’s hand a bit like that’s what I want it to feel like when you listen to some of the songs.
buzz: There’s a very deep intimacy to it. It can touch so many different people for so many different reasons.
BB: I think there’s this thing during the pandemic of people just wanting to be themselves as much as they can and find themselves. And I think that’s obviously a sort of semi-unrequited love song. I put a thing on Instagram this morning where somebody got a tattoo of one of the lyrics from “Not the End,” and it was the bridge, which is the part of the album that is specifically reaching out and saying, “Hey, I see you, I’m here.” I was really proud of that little lyric when I wrote it. And somebody got it tattooed.
I said to everyone else, “What’s your favorite lyric?” and the one that comes up the most is from “Ordinary Day,” which is, “Tell me ‘I’m enough’ in your way.” People just want those around them to tell them they’re enough. I think that’s quite a universal set of feelings. It could be about all sorts of things. It doesn’t have to be romantic, it could be to do with people at school, colleagues, family, long lost siblings, anything. It could be you telling yourself. It could be all sorts of things. Songs that chime with me are ones that are very specific, but then when you really think about them, they’re quite macro.
buzz: You’ve released two music videos, “Rise Up” and “11:11,” in addition to the EP. They’re very different. “11:11” is very glamorous, old Hollywood while “Rise Up” is more intimate and stripped away. What was it like to come up with both of those different ideas creatively? And what inspiration did you draw for both of those videos?
BB: They’re almost companion pieces, like Yin and Yang. I have thoughts about the fact that they almost could almost be a sequel. It’s not a mistake that in “Rise Up” my beard and hair are longer. He’s in a state that maybe he lost the hope that you are seeing at the end of “11:11.” “11:11” has this very glamorous, bouncy energy and then as a melancholy ending and then you know, there’s a pathos to “Rise Up,” but then it has this hope at the end.
“11:11” was completely my idea from my brain. I wanted something informative, but I also didn’t just want to do a performance video. I wanted stories, I wanted acting, I wanted something that sort of tied my career together. Then I had this image of a singular audience member that I would keep seeing everywhere on my way to the stage. I knew I wanted it to sort of feel Hollywood, and I knew I wanted a tuxedo. I immediately knew what I wanted from that one.
For “Rise Up,” I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted, but I knew I wanted it to feel the opposite of that. My friend Georgia King, who is a director and an actor, then pitched me this idea about effort. The idea was helping someone to feel like they have the strength to rise up or be the sun, let alone know that it will rise again tomorrow. That is effort. It costs something.
We came up with this idea of building this sort of TV sun wall, trying to build the sun, which is like an impossible task. Sometimes I think pulling someone up can feel like it’s impossible and almost as if you have to convince yourself that you know it is possible. It’s about belief. There was something that started to feel a bit sacred. It’s not religious I don’t think, but it started to feel a bit hymnal. I liked the idea of that effort. Then we just sort of tweaked it together so that it would feel honest because one thing I wanted was all the lyrics, all the chords, all the instrumentation and all the shots in the videos to feel like they came from my life. I think even if people don’t know the metaphors or won’t connect to them, people can tell if something’s real or not. I just wanted it to be real.
buzz: How has it felt to know that “Songs For You” is out in the world for anyone to listen to? Even seeing people getting tattoos of your lyrics must be really unreal. Has a weight been lifted off your shoulders knowing that you can finally let yourself be open to everyone through your music?
BB: I feel a bit like I’m releasing a candle lantern on the water. I feel like I made this fragile thing, put this heart type candle in it, lit it, set it on the water and just let it go. It looks beautiful to me floating away, but then it goes around the corner and I don’t know what will happen to it. But if someone saw it at night sometime, maybe it made them feel it was special.
“Songs for You” is now on all streaming platforms. Check out Barnes’ Youtube channel for additional content. For more music and upcoming projects from Barnes, stay updated with his Instagram @benbarnes.