BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Born in 1982 in Sydney, Australia, rock and soul singer Mahalia Barnes was quite literally a generation and thousands of miles removed from fairly obscure – though widely influential – 70s genre-bending singer-model Betty Davis. Yet despite the decades and distance that separated the two tremendous talents, Barnes – the daughter of one of Australia’s premier rock singers – has bridged the era and area divide by bringing Davis’ music back from relative obscurity with the release of Ooh Yea! The Betty Davis Songbook, a 12-song set of stirring soul standards performed by Barnes’ band the Soul Mates and featuring American blues-rock guitar giant Joe Bonamassa.
With song titles such as “If I’m in Luck, I Might Get Picked Up,” “Your Mama Wants You Back,” “Game is My Middle Name,” “Nasty Girl,” “You Won’t See Me in the Morning” and “Anti-Love Song,” Barnes’ LP delivers a healthy dose of the original take-no-nonsense attitude found on Davis’ original tracks. In addition to her obvious influence on Barnes, Davis, who perhaps is best known for marrying and later remolding jazz icon Miles Davis’ music in the late 60s, helped shape the artistic direction of superstar artists including Prince, Rick James, Outkast, Erykah Badu, The Roots and Ludacris, among others. For those who’ve never cracked open Betty Davis’ songbook, Barnes’ new CD easily serves as a sonic CliffsNotes introduction to the diva’s funk-filled library.
Mahalia thank you for calling. You come from some great rock stock; for those who don’t know, tell everyone who your dad is.
Yeah, my dad is Jimmy Barnes, who, in my opinion; he’s the best rock singer in Australia.
I don’t think many will make much of an argument against that.
(Laughs) Oh yeah, he’s pretty awesome; and a good teacher.
I bet. Obviously in light of you growing up with music and your dad, let me ask you this; did you have a proverbial Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment when you thought, ‘yep, I wanna do this, too?’
To be honest, I think that, because music was so much around me from the word go, I think from the time I was born I was backstage at gigs. They tell me that when I was a newborn baby they would put me in a road case near the monitor desk at the side of the stage and I would sleep while the show was on. I think just being so surrounded by it forever I never really thought there was anything else. When I knew that I had to actually actively go out and be a musician and be a professional was probably when I was in my early to mid-teens where I knew that there was absolutely no question that I would do anything else. Everyone that I know pretty much plays music, so I don’t know if it was so much a moment but like, okay, now is the time.
For those who are just getting to know you over here stateside, you were on the Australian version of The Voice. What led to the decision to jump on that show and give that a go?
I’d been playing around Australia for probably about 10 years or so already; maybe more, actually. I think I’d put out my first album about eight years earlier and I’d been touring and doing a lot of stuff and they approached me, actually, and asked me to come on the show. At the time I just thought, ‘why not.’ You know, it’s a tough industry. I don’t know what it’s like or if it’s the same over there [in America] but over here it’s pretty tough. At the same time I would never complain about it because it’s also the best job in the world to get to make music. But it’s not all glory; it’s a lot of hard work and to get out there – especially when you make music that’s not really mainstream pop music – it’s very hard to get any radio play in Australia because there’s only a couple of stations. So, for what I do, I just saw it as an opportunity to be heard by a bunch of people. And they all turned, which is great, but I ended up getting out in the first round of eliminations and there was all this uproar around it because people thought I was robbed or something, but for me it was the best it could have been because I got to sing and be me and a couple of million people were watching. It’s given me the momentum to keep going and to do more shows and to make a couple of albums here in Australia. I got to sing, so I can’t complain.
Your new record is called Ooh Yea! The Betty Davis Songbook. For folks who are unfamiliar, introduce us to Betty and tell us why you wanted to open up her songbook.
Betty Davis is, for me, one of the most incredible female performers and singers. She was a force to be reckoned with. Betty was a wild woman; in the late 60s she was married to Miles Davis for about a year; she used to hang out with people like Jimi Hendrix. She wrote and recorded these four incredibly funky records that were very ahead of their time, very edgy and pretty much pushing the boundaries all the time. She was very outspoken and in your face and nasty and funky and dirty and raw. From the first time I heard it I just fell in love with her. Its music that I’ve always loved the sound of and thought I’d love to make something that sounds this nasty. I would say I’m probably a soul singer, but I’m also a rock singer; I love blues and I love stuff that’s just a bit, I don’t know, really, really in your face and real and honest and I think that’s really what she is. It was a real honor to get to make an album of her stuff. I’m hoping this will help pay tribute to someone who I think is an amazing artist and hopefully get her music back out there.
In the CD booklet you say: “I love soulful rock n’ roll music. I love music that is raw and honest. I love what I do. I am one of the luckiest people in the world to get to make music for a living.” Clearly this album is a labor of love, but there’s a lot of lust going on here, too, Mahalia. Talk about the track “Nasty Girl.”
I think that’s one of the most fantastic tracks. I loved singing it. It’s funny because in my original stuff, I’m probably not as sexually explicit and as in your face in that way. She’s really one of a kind in the way that she expresses herself in that way. So when we started to do this record there was a couple of the songs that I was like, ‘Oh, I’m a bit nervous about this, is this me, am I gonna do this justice?’ That song was one of the ones I was nervous about. As soon as we started singing it I was like, ‘I am right at home here, this is fantastic.’ Lyrically she’s really so strong, so in charge, so unapologetic – I think is a key word – and so nasty! It’s just so empowering to sing.
Let me cite a couple of others here that I think are more examples of the lust over love subject matter: “Anti-Love Song,” “You Won’t See Me in the Morning” and “If I’m Lucky I Might Get Picked Up.”
(Laughs) Yeah, there’s quite a bit of it in there, isn’t there? (Laughs) I think that’s one of the things that’s fantastic about her; in the early 70s, this beautiful, young black woman that empowered, that was outspoken; I think it’s really fantastic and really great.
Let me pick up on a line in the last song I mentioned, “If I’m Lucky I Might Get Picked Up.” Well, I’ll just ask it this way, Mahalia; what does “wiggling my fanny” mean in Australia?
(Laughs) Well, I believe that a fanny is your bum (butt) in America; it’s the back half. The fanny in Australia is the front half. It has sort of slightly different implications and I get a bit of a giggle out of people in the audience when I sing it. It’s pretty funny.
Ah, I got it. Okay, so can you tell me a little more about “Anti-Love Song?”
It’s just such a cool groove; it’s such a fantastic song and it’s so sassy. That was probably one of the first songs of Betty’s that I was introduced to. Singing that song was actually a challenge for me because she sort of stays at this really calm, cool, relaxed sort of vocal delivery but it’s still really intense. When I get excited onstage and really getting into the music, I’m a bit of a screamer – that’s my thing – whereas this song really requires a real intensity but actually it’s really calm and that’s sort of a different thing for me. It’s almost speaking the words and really delivering it with some punch was a challenge for me, but I really enjoyed it.
I want to ask you about a couple of highly accomplished cohorts that help you out on the album, starting with guitar great Joe Bonamassa, and the prolific producer, Kevin Shirley. How did you three decide to make this record and get into the studio?
It kind of came about in a strange way; a bit of a roundabout way, but basically a couple of years ago now I met Kevin and Joe. They were working on a track for my dad and I played them a [Betty Davis] song while we were in the studio and they were both blown away. It actually surprised me; I assumed that they would have known about Betty because they know everything; they know so much music, they’re like encyclopedias of music. A couple of weeks later I got a message from Kevin saying, ‘Oh, I just checked out this song; what about that one,’ and I think he and Joe started listening to all of Betty’s back catalog. Then a couple of months later, Kevin wrote me a message that said, ‘This is so cool. I think we should make a record of these songs. Would you be up for it? Do you mind if Joe plays on it?’ And I was like, ‘Are you kidding? Do I mind? Ah, let me think about it for a minute. Okay, sure.’ We did it all live in three days. We had 10 days booked for the studio but we didn’t need it.
Joe is a phenomenal player. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with him many times.
He’s amazing. But you know what else; I was so thrilled to get to work with him. I mean, he didn’t know any of us. I know he works with Kevin all the time and obviously they have a great relationship, and I know Kevin would vouch for us, but Joe came from the other side of the world to come and play on a record with us. And he’s so humble and so generous with his time. He’s an incredible player; he’s an amazing guy and he just loves music and I think that’s where we all get along because it’s the same for us; it’s all about the passion.
Betty Davis aside, who are some of the other classic acts that were around the house and that you look up to and were influenced by?
Ah, so many, so many. I was named after Mahalia Jackson so there was always a bit of gospel music around. Dad always played me incredible music from the time I was young; Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Ann Peebles, Wilson Pickett. There are so many great singers from that era, but also a lot of rock stuff as well; Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Free, Bad Company; singers like Steve Marriott – I love the way that he sings. The British rockers are particularly soulful, I think. Paul Rodgers is such a soulful singer. I think I’ve been really lucky to be exposed to such great music for my whole life. For me, it’s all about soul and rock and roll.
What about the current crop of artists; is there somebody you think is the real deal? Today’s Betty Davis?
I don’t know that there will ever be another Betty Davis. She’s a pretty unique character. I think there are a lot of great artists out there. It’s very hard to know because there’s just so much out there and there are so many tricks in the studio and all that sort of stuff. For me, when I’m impressed is when I get to go to a gig and see a live band and a performance and see them put their heart and soul into it and leave it all on the stage. That’s when I know that I love an artist these days. For me, that’s where you see the true strength of an artist.
Before we wrap, we must give Pops some props. Your dad helps out on the track “Walking Up the Road.” Did it take much convincing for him to join you?
Not at all! Just so you know, the studio we recorded in is actually in his house. We were downstairs tracking in his living room and he would walk past every day and we got to doing “Walking Up the Road” and we were like, ‘Ah, something’s missing; it needs some shrieking that’s not me, and he was there, like, ‘Ah, I’m here, um, hello!’ And I asked if he wanted to come sing on it and he said, ‘I’d love to.’ So he jumped in; did one pass and it was great. It was a lot of fun. As long as he is there singing on the record, that’s how long he was in the studio for.
Mahalia thank you for your time. Again, the record is Ooh Yea! The Betty Davis Songbook and it’s full of some great stuff.
Thank you. Take care; we’ll see you soon.
**To hear some audio of my conversation with Mahalia and the song “Anti-Love Song” off Ooh Yea! The Betty Davis Songbook, check out Episode 20 of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.