Neal Barnard Of The Band, CARBONWORKS Discusses The Group’s Formation, Latest Music and More!
Posted On 28 Mar 2017
The band CarbonWorks was created by Neal Barnard. He’s a guitarist/composer who also happens to be a world-renowned medical doctor and NY Times best-selling author. He also has appeared on Dr. Oz and Ellen.
CarbonWorks released their debut album last December. Their music is a unique combo of rock, jazz, blues and contemporary instrumental music. Even has some traditional Vietnamese instruments thrown in.
For more about CarbonWorks and Neal Barnard: http://www.carbonworksmusic.com/
Check out more CarbonWorks video here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCCCpiRXwLdqadyuuUpRM7og
Here’s what Neal had to say about his song, “Love and Illusion”:
“Love and Illusion” is a simple, pretty song. At least it starts out that way, with a quiet duet between violin and guitar. Then it blossoms into Asian themes before exploding with drums, bass, and dissonant sax on top. Thematically, the song speaks of the illusion of love and harmony in life, whose foundation is shaken as a bigger reality presents itself.
Learn more about CarbonWorks and Neal in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! What are some words you would use to describe 2016? What were some of the highlights for you and your music? What are you most excited about for 2017?
What a wild year! It was great for music, with the completion of our album and 11 videos. But it was also a very rocky political year. On December 1, we released the CarbonWorks album at a party in New York, with Alec Baldwin and Maggie Q as our hosts. At the end of the evening we showed our video for God Save the King. The song was inspired by Kristallnacht, the violent night in Berlin in 1938, when neighbor turned against neighbor, and the video included scenes of young people being drawn into extremism. Everyone took it to be a commentary on the election, although the song was actually written two years earlier.
In 2017, we will be releasing another eight videos, and I can’t wait to go back into the studio.
Growing up, did you always want to be a musician? Can you recall your first musical memory?
NB: When I was six or seven, my parents got the idea that an educated person has to study music, so I practiced piano and cello for years, but at that age classical music did not really speak to me. One day, I started improvising on the cello, breaking away from my lessons and playing whatever I wanted to. And my mother stopped me and made me get back to my lesson, which I think is the wrong move. Then rock and roll came, and offered complete freedom. I started working in bands, and even in medical school and residency, we played at clubs and recorded.
How did you decide to form CarbonWorks? Where did the name come from? Where did you meet the other musicians in the band?
The name? Well, “The Beatles” and “The Rolling Stones” were already taken. And at the base of it all, we are carbon, and these are our works.
About the musicians, I worked with Martha (our singer) and Mike (our drummer) on our last CD, called Verdun. Allegra, Jeff, Stacey, and Chris all play with the Virginia Symphony, and they were just fantastic to work with. You should catch Allegra with her Led Zep tour. She plugs in her electric violin and lets it fly.
And then one day I was listening to a Belgian radio station and happened to hear Naif singing, and I really couldn’t believe her voice. So I asked her to come to the U.S. By the way, if you are new to Naif, check out her songs Aspettando Aurora (Waiting for Dawn) and Anarosa. Really beautiful; you’ll see them on CarbonWorks’ Facebook page.
And then, Chris Thomas King was playing at Blues Alley in Washington. He was in the Coen Brothers’ Oh Brother Where Art Thou, and also in Ray, and in my book, Chris is THE blues guitarist, and we really needed that element. So I asked Chris to join us, and he is just the greatest.
Your music is a unique combo of rock, jazz, blues and contemporary instrumental music. Can you talk about where you came up with the inspiration for this blended sound?
One night, I was playing with Pop Maru at Washington’s 9:30 club, and although I loved our guitar sound with all its testosterone and dissonance, we really needed a measure of restraint. So I found myself imagining a baroque string quartet playing over the top. And that’s where The End of the World Suite came from. It’s Chris Thomas King and me bringing in the rock and blues in 7/4 time, with the strings adding a layer of delicacy. Then the second section mixes Asian pentatonic music with the quartet. And the third part is straight-ahead jazz colliding with classical music.
When Bernie Grundman mastered the disc—and Bernie is among the very best mastering engineers in the world—he listened intently to the third section and, when it finished, he turned to me and just said “Chaos!”—which I took to be reassuring—at least there’s nothing cliché here. But if you listen to it a couple of times, it does actually make sense—like an abstract painting you just have to spend a little time with.
One other element: In medical school I lived near many Vietnamese shops, and found that traditional Vietnamese music uses a pentatonic scale, just like blues. So I incorporated traditional Vietnamese songs into driving rock. At first, I was afraid that my Vietnamese friends would be upset about what I was doing with their music. But the reaction was just the opposite. One of our songs was featured at the end of the Library of Congress’ observances for the Vietnamese boat people in a performance on the National Mall. So that was encouraging. On the CarbonWorks album, we did a similar treatment of By the Window. Phi Khanh sings the vocal, and Chau Nguyen plays the Vietnamese instruments. So beautiful.
The CarbonWorks album covers a broad landscape, aiming to go where the music takes it, rather than being confined to a narrow genre.
Dr. Barnard, I understand that you also happen to be a doctor and a best-selling author. How do you balance it all?
Many people have “left brain” jobs and “right brain” artistic expression. The challenge is to be at the top of your game in both. These are not hobbies; you need to pack power into everything you do.
In medical school, the environment felt sterile. So I also worked at the Corcoran Gallery and the Phillips Collection, just to surround myself with creativity. The Phillips was a wonderful job. I was a guard, and they paid me something like $3 an hour to just sit in an easy chair and read my textbooks, surrounded by beautiful works of art. Every once in a while I had to stop someone from coming too close to the paintings. And when the gallery closed and no one was looking, I touched the Van Goghs and other paintings myself, to see what they felt like.
So music is an art form that is so visceral and emotional, and it allows you to say things that don’t work in any other medium.
In December, CarbonWorks released your debut album. Can you talk about this collection and what the process was like of putting it together?
CarbonWorks ended up being much more varied than my previous albums—Pop Maru and Verdun—just because our musicians had so much fire power. Naif singing in Italian is just killer, and Phi Khanh then comes in singing in Vietnamese—these things are not in pop radio rule book, but they work. Samurai is a hard-driving song in 15/8 time, and West Pier is a pretty vocal over a quartet. It’s not logical or contrived. The minute you step into logic, the music is dead. You have to let it go where it wants to go.
What artists have continued to inspire you and your music? Who would you absolutely love to work with in the future?
As a child, the British Invasion turned my black-and-white world into color, and then I drifted into guitar music—Eric Clapton, Hendrix, and John McLaughlin—and then punk and New Wave—with the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, and Laurie Anderson. And Beethoven was always there in the background. And before long, I got into French singers, like Patricia Kaas, and also Vietnamese musicians, especially Phi Nhung. You’ll see some of them on our Facebook page.
For the immediate future, I want to keep working with our group. We’ve only scratched the surface of what these musicians are capable of.
At the end of the day, what do you hope your fans take away from your music? What do you hope is the message of your songs?
Some of it is really music for music’s sake. But some of it has a deeper meaning, reflecting some real-world thoughts and emotions. In a nutshell, this is a crazy world, where there is such a deep-seated tendency for cruelty and aggression, and the only thing that makes sense is to try to contain it. So our videos often speak about compassion for animals and for people who need help. But they do this emotionally, not in a didactic way.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers about yourself and your music?
Many people have observed that music is a language, and that’s really true. And you don’t want to waste it. In my medical and advocacy work, we promote a more compassionate outlook—preventing disease so as to make medical treatment unnecessary, and shifting away from animal experiments toward more ethical research. And for that, we use a certain language, writing for medical journals or talking to newspaper or radio reporters. But the language of music can sometimes touch a person’s heart when words cannot.