Entertainment, New Orleanians

‘I got a lot of ‘no’s at first’: How New Orleans’ songbird Robin Barnes soared above the odds

Despite growing up around jazz royalty, Barnes’ road to music wasn’t easy.

Robin Barnes, known to some as the Songbird of New Orleans, tries to manifest a lot in her life. She says she gets laughed at when she tells people this, but the joke’s on them — it’s clearly working.

With two solid EPs under her belt, a hot new single to tease the full-length album she’s got in the works, a successful fitness organization strengthening bodies and souls all around New Orleans, and a baby due in December, it’s safe to say this dreamer has a knack for transforming her visions into reality.

Growing Up In NOLA

Robin is a native of the Lower Ninth Ward, where she grew up around New Orleans music royalty such as Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew, a fact whose significance didn’t become fully clear to her until she was in her late teens.

“You don’t realize the type of legacy that you’re a part of until you’re older and you understand it,” she said. “You see these legends walking around and you’re not going to be like, ‘That’s Dave Bartholomew! That’s Fats Domino!’ You’re just like, ‘Oh it’s Cousin Dave! Oh, it’s Cousin Fats!’ You don’t think about it.”

Her family was musical as well, and she enjoyed singing in the church choir and playing tambourine in her father’s band from a young age. But when it came time for college, Robin’s parents encouraged her to consider a different path from the musical one her six older siblings had pursued and to study business instead. She followed their advice all the way up to earning an MBA from the University of New Orleans, but after six studious years, she had to accept that she was a musician at heart and could defer her dream no longer. It was time to dive into music as a career.

Building Her Career

However, while she’d developed some business acumen that would come in handy in the wheelings and dealings of the music industry, in other ways she felt she was behind the curve after being out of the scene for so long. She was confident in her talent and her worth, but found it difficult to get her foot in the door for the gigs she wanted.

“I got a lot of ‘no’s at first,” she said. “A LOT of ‘no’s.” But she learned a little trick: venues seemed to be more responsive to emails they got from her manager Mark, and before she knew it she was landing the type of paid gig she desired. Except “Mark” was just Robin herself behind a dummy email address. “People would try calling for Mark and it would be like, ‘Oh, Mark’s not here!’ It was always amazing how Mark wouldn’t be around to take a call, but he could email you back five minutes later!”

“I got a lot of ‘no’s at first … A LOT of ‘no’s.”

Fast forward to 2019: seven years’ worth of Jazz Fest appearances, residencies at the Hotel Monteleone and Windsor Court, and a slew of other local and international performances later (to include another dream manifested in the form of a performance at the Royal Opera House of London last month). It’s an impressive résumé for an artist without a full-length album, a fact that Robin intends to change within the next year or two. She recently released the single “You Give Me,” which she wrote as a way to show fans the artist she’s evolved into: the unique and complex composite of so many musical influences from her native New Orleans, with a stunning alto-to-first-soprano range to back it all up (not to mention her inimitable band, the Fiya Birds).

Behind Her Music

“I literally tried to think of everything that inspired me over the years and put all of those elements into the song,” she said. “Someone could hear it and say, ‘Oh I hear Earth, Wind & Fire.’ Someone could hear it and say, ‘I hear a little bit of the Nevilles.’”

But more importantly, she says, “Anyone who hears ‘You Give Me,’ will finally get a sense of who is Robin on stage at a festival. You can envision me wearing my headdresses, with my full horn section. And it’s just really cool to think that I finally put out a product that exemplifies who I am currently, and how much I’ve grown since the first and the second EP.”

She describes her 2013 debut EP Me as an act of rebellion — a way to avoid what she thought of as an inevitable and potentially dangerous ‘jazz singer’ pigeonhole that can come with being a New Orleans musician. Three years later, when it came time to record the Songbird Sessions EP, she was more willing to embrace her roots and “pay homage to the greats” by covering a few standards and featuring musicians such as Shannon Powell and Herlin Riley (“THE jazz drummers of our time!”, as she describes them). But she was still adamant to do things her way and to put her own stamp on old favorites such as “Ruler of My Heart,” which she performs in a “more danceable, pocky-way” style.

Despite misgivings on the part of someone she was considering to be her manager at the time, who condescendingly dismissed her hopes of the EP charting as a “cute dream” that was out of reach for a “sweet girl from the Ninth Ward,” she was rewarded for her daring take on local tradition. Songbird Sessions debuted at #5 on Billboard’s Traditional Jazz Albums chart, and reached #8 on the Current Jazz Albums chart.

What Lies Ahead

Music is clearly Robin’s lifeblood, but life on the road can be exhausting. She returned from a 2013 tour with a rare kidney infection and, on doctor’s orders, was forced to take a break and develop a healthier lifestyle. She found the fitness options in New Orleans at the time to be quite limited — too expensive, intense, or otherwise exclusive to make her feel truly comfortable or give her a sense of belonging. So Robin had another vision: to find a way to make fitness fun and accessible for all New Orleanians. She took to Facebook to put her intention into the universe, and what started as a casual running/walking group has blossomed into Move Ya Brass, a robust workout organization with free classes nearly every night of the week in various corners of the city. As the name suggests, local music serves as the pulse for each class. An expectant mother herself, she’s particularly excited about the newest addition to the Move Ya Brass lineup: a Baby Bounce class held at the newly reopened Storyland in City Park that is perfect for parents, caregivers, and children alike. And while the majority of Move Ya Brass classes are free and open to the public, the organization is also happy to team up with small groups for private events such as bachelorette parties.

So what dreams is Robin currently in the process of manifesting? She says she’d love to collaborate with Irma Thomas (the Songbird of New Orleans with the Soul Queen of New Orleans?! We are here for it!), play at Red Rocks in Colorado, and that like any musician, she fantasizes about winning that Grammy one day. More immediately, she’s looking forward to welcoming her daughter with husband/bassist Pat Casey. In a few years’ time, maybe we can expect a tiny new Fiya Bird on stage, tambourine in hand, as the New Orleans musical tradition takes root in a new generation.