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Exclusive Shannon Barnett Interview

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Trombonist, singer and composer Shannon Barnett’s talents have taken her a long way from home. 

By Jake Stone

The Victorian College of The Arts graduate seems comfortable caught between worlds.

Whether appearing alongside modernists like The Vampires, Gian Slater, and The Bamboos, or with Australian giants of jazz like Barney McAll, the Paul Grabowsky Sextet or US guitarist and visionary composer Kurt Rosenwinkel, this 38 year old jazz musician is a restless talent.

After writing and performing with Circus Oz, Barnett released her debut album ‘Country’ in 2010 – a rollicking yet mournful blues and swing album that teased trombone to the fore as a driving improvisational instrument.

Her record was well-received, lauded by taste-making outlets like ABC Radio National, yet Barnett’s sophomore album ‘Hype’ took another seven years to make.

You might imagine it was writers block, but Barnett waited to be inspired by change, renewal and new challenges. Her need to shake things up saw her move countries twice to pursue work and further study.

‘Hype’ sprang up from a collaboration across the world in Cologne, Germany, where Barnett had relocated to perform with The WDR Big Band in 2014.

With Stefan Karl Schmid on tenor saxophone, David Helm double bass and Fabian Arends on drums, Barnett envisages title track ‘Hype’ as an anxious call and response between players that turns athletic; a high-paced, angular kind of modern jazz.

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Barnett, in her own words, is ‘…a bit of a perfectionist, and it often takes her ‘… years of procrastination before I get it together to record and release something.’

‘At the same time I don’t mind that…’ she says. ‘I’d rather have two albums out that I’m really proud of, instead of just churning out stuff that’s half-baked.

Barnett’s beginnings are far from Cologne, Germany. She grew up in Taralgon, Victoria as a country kid playing trombone in the school music program, ‘…in part because there were no clarinets available.’

My first teacher was/is really into improvising and composing, so that was a nice introduction to music-making.’

‘For the last two years of high school my family moved to Melbourne, and I went to a music-focused high school. I became a small fish and learned a lot, especially from my peers.’

Barnett’s lithe, precise playing and warm tone, her invention as an improviser and easy ear for melody mark her out. To make light work of such a difficult instrument as the trombone is no mean feat.

‘I think the trombone will always be my primary instrument/mode of expression, but I really like composing for other people, including for groups that I’m not playing in.’

Barnett caught a severe case of wanderlust, working in the USA from 2010 after attending Dave Douglas’ workshop in Banff, Canada. She travelled to New York to complete a masters degree, where she regularly appeared with the Birdland Big Band, The Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra of New York, and many more.

Relocating again to Germany in 2014, Barnett made an effort to acclimatise herself, and has since developed a philosophical approach to expat life.

‘Living in another country is a privilege and it doesn’t matter where you go – if it’s not home, it will function as a mirror showing you a different side of yourself.’

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‘Living in Germany has had it’s own set of challenges. Learning the language has been hard enough, but I’ve found understanding the culture and the people has been more difficult than I imagined it would be.’

Still, her work is compelling enough to draw Barnett across continents to complete it.

‘There’s something about designing something for someone else that I really enjoy. Singing is also fun.’

Her versatility is on display during a surprise appearance as lead singer for Cologne’s WDR Big Band arrangement of Paul Simon’s ‘Boy In The Bubble’ for International Women’s Day in 2019.

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‘The arrangement of the song was inspired by Peter Gabriel’s version’

’We performed as part of a program featuring music with a political message, or at least a message for society, and I’d like to be involved in more projects that enact change, so that was at least a starting point.’

On Twitter (@shannonkbarnett) Barnett likes memes featuring comedian David O’Doherty, and applauds American funk act Vulfpeck, and hypnotic Australian jazz band The Necks.

She laughs when I ask if that reflects her personality.

‘I wouldn’t infer too much from my Twitter activities. I think I followed Vulfpeck because they scammed Spotify… Actually, that’s a pretty good cross-section of artists: wit, anarchy, commitment.’

She laughs when I ask if that reflects her personality.

‘I wouldn’t infer too much from my Twitter activities. I think I followed Vulfpeck because they scammed Spotify… Actually, that’s a pretty good cross-section of artists: wit, anarchy, commitment.’

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Shannon Barnett appears with Andrea Keller (piano) and Sam Anning (bass) for SIMA’s International Women’s Day Double Bill, featuring Featherstone.

March 8th at The Newsagency in Camperdown.