Strange Pilgrim | Interview | Exclusive Premiere of ‘Blue Light’
Strange Pilgrim is Joshua Barnhart’s new Oakland band. Joshua first became known as the drummer of the acclaimed Bay Area band Port O’Brien on the album ‘All We Could Do Was Sing’. His new single, ‘Blue Light,’ exists in the delicate space between beauty and terror, horror and hope, tension and release.
Masterfully mixed by Scott McDowell (Ty Segal, The Head and the Heart, Geographer) ‘Blue Light’ adds to Strange Pilgrim’s steadily developing hatful of California-infused pop, which the band playfully describes as “heavy mellow.” The single will be officially released on all digital platforms on February 5 2021.
“The beauty and the terror of life”
Interview with Joshua Barnhart
It all started with you joining Port O’Brien on ‘All We Could Do Was Sing’ album. You toured with them for about three years or so.
Joshua Barnhart: All of us grew up on the central coast of California, and we got to know each other playing in various local bands as teenagers. That area is pretty rural and the music community was very small and active, so we all became close friends early on. Our coming together in Port O’Brien felt very natural and obvious, and when we all landed in Oakland that’s when it really started to take off.
It was an exciting time: constant touring, my first experiences outside of the US, playing shows with bands we really admired, like Fleet Foxes, Modest Mouse, and Bright Eyes (to name a few), tons of studio work. I especially loved touring in Europe. I grew up working class, so if it weren’t for the band, I likely would’ve never had the opportunity to do that much traveling. Looking back, it feels like a different life altogether. But we’re all still in touch, and I’m glad to have the friends that were made during that time.
You were also active in several other projects, including Release the Sunbird, Two Sheds, Kelly McFarling, Vetiver, Sparrows Gate, and Zeb Zaitz. Would it be possible for you to choose a few collaborations that still warm your heart?
I’m a very nostalgic person, so just about everyone I’ve ever played with warms my heart to some degree. With each of these different projects, I think I’ve grown in some way, whether it’s a one-off performance or a long-term band. Both Port O’Brien and Sparrows Gate played shows with Vetiver over the years, and I’d always loved Andy’s music, so when I found myself rehearsing with them for a benefit show in SF, I was really excited. Even though it was brief, it’s something I’ll always remember fondly.
I still collaborate with other ex-Port O’Brien members, and I’d consider our continued friendships to be “heart warming.” Zeb and I poured ourselves into Sparrows Gate in the aftermath of that band, and we still play together in different forms. He’ll sometimes play drums with me live (well, when live shows were happening), and I played drums on some of his recently released ‘Who Cares‘ (which is very good!). Caleb, who now plays as Soft People, recently released a compilation that Strange Pilgrim contributed to called ‘Sounds of the Sandwich Kingdom Vol 2‘, which features songs and poems by artists connected to San Luis Obispo, CA. It’s a really fun listen, plus you get to hear Kyle Field (Little Wings) eat potato chips while reciting a poem! What more could you ask for?
“How to carry on in the midst of a rapidly changing political and environmental landscape”
Today we are premiering ‘Blue Light’, a mesmerizing song from your newly formed Strange Pilgrim. What’s the story behind this track?
‘Blue Light’ is a song about how bleak the future often looks, and the attempt to balance that with day-to-day living. This is a theme I’ve been grappling with for some time now, which is how to carry on in the midst of a rapidly changing (and often worsening) political and environmental landscape. Writing and music are two of my main sources of refuge from existential dread, and it’s that type of tension I was thinking about in the song. Everyone likely has their own way to transcend dread, whether it’s due to covid, climate change, or anything, really. Sometimes we read a book, or go on a walk, or scroll endlessly on our phone, or meditate, or alter our consciousness in other ways. This song attempts to walk the fine line between the beauty and the terror of life. Hopefully the beauty is enough to hold us over.
“It’s strange to be a person”
How did you decide to form Strange Pilgrim and what’s its concept?
Strange Pilgrim is a continuation of a project that originally started with myself and guitarist Paul Dutton, who also played with me in Sparrows Gate. The band grew and eventually included Adam Nash (Goodnight Texas), Pat Spurgeon (Rogue Wave), Sterling Schlegal (Camp Bud), Taylor Belmore (Arthur Watership), and Joel Tolbert (Sparrows Gate/Zeb Zaitz). My friend, Kelly McFarling, who’s an incredible songwriter, also sings on a good portion of our album, which I’m thrilled about. I’ve always been obsessed with wandering, searching, or being out of place, and our songs often center on those concepts. The idea of the band name itself comes from ‘Doce Cuentos Peregrinosa’, a collection of short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which are concerned with strangeness and dislocation. The name is a reflection of that, I think. It’s strange to be a person, to exist at all, and I think that a huge part of the human experience is that search for belonging, for familiarity, for comfort.
Your lyrics reflect the current social-political crisis. How are you coping with it?
At times, not very well! Haha, is anyone coping well these days? Layered crises have become the norm, and it’s hard to know which particular thing to worry about at any given moment. (Covid, climate change, fascism, capitalism – take your pick!) Songwriting is one form of coping for me. Writing poetry is another. I’ve also tried to keep up with different social and political activist efforts. There are times when everything overwhelms and paralysis wins, but my goal is to keep active, to keep moving forward, even if it sometimes feels hopeless.
As a musician, how are you dealing with the pandemic? What are some of your predictions? Do you think we will enjoy live music even more when things will “normalize” or will live streaming take over?
One way that I’ve been dealing with our inability to play live shows has been to work on finishing our record, which is nearly there! I’m also working on a poetry MFA through Oregon State University, with the goal of completing a manuscript of my first book.
Overall, the pandemic has been rough! I’ve done a few online “shows,” which have been pretty fun, but they are far from being a satisfactory replacement for live shows, especially since it’s just me.
I really miss the rest of the band! My only prediction is that I have no idea what’s in store. If there’s anything the past year has taught me it’s that I don’t know anything!
I don’t think that live streaming will take over live in-person shows, though. For me, and for most other artists I know, a huge part of making music is the ability to connect with others through performance. Personally, I can’t wait for lives shows to return. That said, I also agree that it’s just not something we can do safely, so until that day comes I’ll try to remain patient and cautiously optimistic.
Do you find yourself to be a perfectionist, in control, or do your ideas lead you, taking on a life of their own?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I’m a perfectionist in some ways, but I also embrace collaboration and like to lean into the unknown. When I start out writing a song, I sometimes have a very clear idea of what it’ll be, but sometimes it’s more of a hazy process. The most important thing is the music, the melody, and the overall vibe. Lyrics are definitely secondary. Usually, everyone in the band contributes some element of the song, and it wouldn’t be the same or nearly as good without them. I can’t overstate how much everyone’s input is valued. I’m grateful to be making this music with close friends who I can trust and who all have the same intention to make what we do as good as we possibly can.
Thank you. Last word is yours.
I hope you enjoy ‘Blue Light’! Please keep an eye out for our forthcoming album, which will be out sometime in the near future. Thank you for your questions and for sharing our song! I’m very grateful! Joshua Barnhart