Robin Barnes grew up in a family of New Orleans musicians, immersed in her hometown’s jazz, sacred and rhythm-and-blues music.
She studied classical violin and vocal music and, in high school, considered an opera career. Barnes changed gears when she realized that her extraordinary range — from Mariah Carey high notes to Etta James low notes — made her exceptional in the world of contemporary music.
Barnes typically sings jazz and standards at her weekly gigs at the Hotel Monteleone and the Windsor Court hotels. While she loves jazz, her musical ambition can’t be satisfied by jazz alone.
“I love music so much, and I’m so interested fusing what I love,” she said.
Barnes, whose cousin, Dave Bartholomew, is the producer, co-writer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who helped craft Fats Domino’s classic hits, wants to stretch the boundaries of what people think she should be doing.
“Right now in New Orleans a lot of people are doing the safe thing,” she said. “They’re not pushing the envelope as to what a New Orleans musician can be.”
She cites the world-touring Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews as a contrast: an example of a local musician who’s going places, artistically and geographically.
“Trombone Shorty left the door open for me, because he’s trying all sorts of things,” Barnes said. “He’s doing a mixture of rock and brass. He’s crossed over. Everyone loves it.
“So, I’m like, ‘OK, wait. Why can’t I do that?’ Not so much rock, but other genres, and I can still have my stake in New Orleans. I still do jazz, but everyone should be able to have a diverse palette.”
To that end, Barnes released a five-song EP of her non-jazz songs last month. It’s called “Me.”
For instance, opening track “Rescue Me” is a pop-rock number featuring a quiet verse and powerful chorus. Rock and R&B inform “What I Gotta Do.” And the laid-back and warm “In Your Arms” has the country-Southern soul sound of 1960s and ’70s-era Muscle Shoals.
“Each song is really different, which is what I love about it,” she said of the EP.
Unlike the EP, the full-length album that Barnes plans to follow “Me” with will include jazz.
“What I’m looking forward to with the album is it’s going to be more of my history,” she said.
Barnes turned to music as a career only after she earned business degrees from UNO. Her concerned parents asked their baby girl to take the practical path.
“They wanted me to follow my passion and gig as often as I wanted to with my siblings, but they also wanted me to know the business side of things,” she explained. “So I got my bachelor’s and my master’s in business and then I was like, ‘OK, guys, I’m done. I’m going do what I want to do now.’ Music was always that thing that makes me happy.”
Doing what makes her happy, in fact, is part of the advice that Barnes got from her famous cousin, Bartholomew.
“Dave pretty much told me to do what makes me happy and do it for the music,” she said. “And it’s not a matter of doing what people are expecting you to do. Dave said, ‘Just do Robin, and people are gonna love you.’
“Dave is the most inspirational person I have met in my life. I’ve never met someone so kind and humble. Sometimes you meet artists who know how amazing they are and almost boast it. That’s not Dave. He’d rather talk about you. I want to be like him when I grow up.”
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