Interview: Mandy Barnett on New Album, John Hiatt, the McCrary Sisters and Being Prepared


Nashville singer Mandy Barnett has a new release today: Strange Conversation (Thirty Tigers). The album features John Hiatt, Arnold McCuller, and the McCrary sisters, among others and was produced at the Nutt House in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We had the opportunity to chat with Barnett about the album against some of the interesting backdrops of her life.

As a teenager you performed in the musical “Always… Patsy Cline.” How did that come about?

It was pretty serendipitous. I had a record deal through my younger teenage years with Jimmy Bowen who ran MCA and then Capitol but as soon as I moved to Nashville I got dropped. I didn’t have any idea, initially, how to pick up the pieces. It was really shocking. But I had my mother as encouragement and support; she helped me get tryouts and opportunities. Feeling like I was not alone was great.

At 18, I was floundering trying to figure out what I was going to do, and someone called about the Patsy Cline show. I didn’t realize at first it was a musical, but then I found out what it was: Gaylord Entertainment had put 10 million dollars into the Ryman for renovations, and the musical was one of the first shows scheduled after the reopening, to help showcase the restorations. It ran for 67 performances. So I was really shocked and excited when I got that part.

It’s so important to have someone there for support – one person in your corner– like your mom, isn’t it?

It matters so much. It’s important to recognize your children’s talents and help them cultivate them. I mean, I enjoyed singing but I wouldn’t have practiced without my mom’s encouragement. She really helped push me and made me even more interested in it.

You’ve also performed with orchestras. How did that influence your performing style? It must be so structured playing in that setting!

It’s very different and I’m glad that I have experienced that. The first time I think my teeth chattered all the way through the first three songs. Everybody is relying on everyone else. There’s no ad libbing or skipping bars. Nobody is going to follow you, there’s no jamming when you’re in an orchestra.

And for all the intros and the outros, you really have to pay attention. So for the first one, I did three nights, and I was pretty scared but once I got into it, it was fine. And I haven’t feel that degree of nervousness since.

It seems to me that it wouldn’t even be possible to jam or ad lib in general, unless you already knew how to sing and perform, and unless you had already learned how to do it. Did playing with orchestras help you become a better all around performer?

Absolutely. You learn to be extremely prepared and then you can go out and it feels relaxed and natural and fun. Then the good things can start to happen   Because in an orchestra that is not something that you want to “wing.” It taught me to be prepared.

You also sang for the Sponge Bob album The Best Day Ever. How did that come about?

I know Tom Kenny who does the voice of Sponge Bob. He loves traditional country and rockabilly and he works with a friend of mine. We became friends and the next thing I knew I was on the project. It was fun!

About your new album, Strange Conversation, how was it working with John Hiatt on the song “Cowboy’s Work is Never Done”?

It was so fun, he added so much to that track. He’s wonderful.

The song “It’s All Right, You’re Just in Love” has a 60’s throwback vocals style, that recalls the Marvelettes. Who’s singing backups on that?

That’s the McCrary Sisters. They’re so powerful and their sound is so gritty and earthy and I just loved working with them. They are really good. We just listened to the song once through, and they knew exactly what to do.

Your song “More Lovin” says “I want more lovin’, baby from you.” If we could just make these requests in life, wouldn’t that be great?

(laughs) In real life you get those requests from the people you don’t want them from. That’s why we sing about it instead of doing it in reality because it wouldn’t work that way in actual life.

“Dream Too Real to Hold” has lines: “I know you’ve been hurt because I hear your silent cries” is very moving. What is your inspiration for these songs?

A lot of these songs are songs I can relate to just living life and navigating through love and life and loss.   The lyrics have to resonate with me and have to be something that I can relate to through my life experiences and can interpret them in meaningful ways. So if I sound yearning it’s probably because I have been.

How important is your sense of connection with the audience when you are performing?

I’ve sung a lot of mournful songs, and I notice a lot of people come to concerts to purge.   Even when I was doing more of the classic country, a lot of that stuff is really sad.   And there would be people sitting there and it seemed almost like it was therapy for them, they would sit and cry. I find this very profound.

You recorded this album at the Nutt House studio in Muscle Shoals.  What was that experience like?

That’s a neat place. It used to be a bank before they turned it into a recording studio. We’re from Nashville and it was nice to get out of town. Muscle Shoals is a small town southern music community, we wanted to experience that. It was nice to have no interruptions and be completely in another place.

Doug Lancio and Marco Giovino produced the album, it’s coming out on Thirty Tigers. Thirty Tigers has a great community feel and they are also very supportive.

Barnett is on tour now, you can check for tour dates and her new album here:

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