Locals: Ghost Shirt’s Branden Barnett no longer haunted by his past

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From the March 27, 2014 edition

For many, having a child introduces an element of chaos to life. Schedules are drastically rearranged, priorities shift and sleep, whatever that is, goes largely forsaken.

For others, like Ghost Shirt singer/songwriter Branden Barnett, parenthood can become a reason to finally hit pause and take stock of things.

“Becoming a father made me realize I needed to take a break. Not just to focus on being a dad — I mean, obviously that’s part of it — but I really think I was so caught up in the momentum of making music that there wasn’t much intention behind it anymore,” said Barnett, 32, reached by phone at his home in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the longtime Columbus resident has lived since December 2012 (several band members still maintain local roots). “I sort of gave myself a break to figure out why I spend all my time writing songs. Is it enjoyable? Is it something that helps me grow? Or is it something I use to help beef up my self-importance and ego? Am I using it for the light side or the dark side of the force?”

It’s not surprising Barnett would subject himself to such intensive self-analysis. In his 9-to-5 guise, the musician works as a psychotherapist, applying meditation and mindfulness-based therapies to his interactions with youths living in foster care settings. What did surprise, however, were some of the truths he discovered about himself when he set music aside for the better part of 2013 after allowing it to define much of his adult existence.

“Most dudes write about sadness and chicks — I’m no exception to that — but it turned into something where I would screw up my life intentionally and screw up relationships in order to write a really big record about it,” he said. “I legitimized myself by being Branden Barnett, songwriter in Ghost Shirt, and when I moved and that was taken away I felt miserable because I didn’t know what was underneath. [The music] was how I was propping my identity up, and I was using it as a way to make myself feel good about myself more than is healthy.”

These days, Barnett said his contentment comes from his family life (he’s happily married with a 14-month-old son), his work (he recently opened his own practice and has started consulting with a large company on a wellness program for employees) and a sense of inner-calm he’s uncovered in the two years he’s lived as a practicing Buddhist. So what better time to revisit Daniel, the long-lost Ghost Shirt album the band recorded (but never released) in 2010, a period in Barnett’s life defined by near-constant turmoil.

“I felt so crazy, and [Daniel] was a really raw way to express how crazy I felt,” said Barnett, who joins his Ghost Shirt bandmates for shows on Friday and Saturday to celebrate the album’s long-awaited vinyl release. “It’s definitely troubled, emotional Branden you’re hearing.”

The music reflects this agitated mindstate, swinging from shaggy acoustic laments (the title track) to indie-rock epics awash in orchestral flourishes (the grandiose, Arcade Fire-like “Devils”). Throughout, Barnett sings of swarming angels and demons, though there’s a gnawing sense the latter is winning the battle for supremacy. “Oh, what devils we’ll make with our fiery wings,” the band sings triumphantly on one number.

“Listening to it now with fresh ears, it kind of said some stuff I needed to hear, which is hilarious because the dude who wrote [those songs] was a wreck,” Barnett said. “I think the main thing I pulled away from it was to not take myself so damned seriously all the time. The guy who wrote [Daniel] is really sort of buried in his own beliefs and conceptions about the world, and as a result is having a very hard time connecting with anyone. Hearing the pain in that is, like, ‘Whoa, I’m so happy that’s no longer a thing.’”

That’s not to say music no longer plays a therapeutic role in Barnett’s existence. The process of recording the next, still-untitled Ghost Shirt album, which could be released digitally in time for this weekend’s shows, doubled as an experiment in letting go (Barnett, a notorious control freak, allowed others to handle everything from the mixing process to the cover art to deciding on the album’s title), and an in-progress solo project has found the singer delving into his past with more honesty than ever before.

“It’s kind of turned into this home recording project about my childhood, and how all that stuff changes and troubles a person if they have a rough one,” said Barnett, who’s recording the LP on a handheld eight-track using his son’s toy instruments. “It’s kind of about child abuse, so it’s probably the most personal thing I’ve ever written. It’s sort of a cleaning of the closest so that I can be a better father.”

Photo by Meghan Ralston