The trunk-rattling beats and impassioned vocals of R&B singer Quinton Barnes

“I have a fire inside me,” says the 23-year-old musician from Kitchener, Ontario

Quinton Barnes was born with ambition. Growing up in the medium-sized Ontario city of Kitchener, the 23-year-old musician began his earliest recording projects with whatever he could find in his family home, before eagerly mailing burned CDs to major labels as a teenager. Since then, Barnes has become the second Canadian artist signed to Grimalkin Records, a collective dedicated to mutual aid and a hub of international queer and trans BIPOC musicians of all genres. It was Grimalkin that helped introduce 2020 Polaris Music Prize-winner Backxwash to the world. 

This month sees the release of Barnes’ sophomore album, As a Motherfucker, a captivating juxtaposition of trunk-rattling beats and impassioned vocals that he describes as “industrial R&B.” Written, performed and produced completely on his own (with a few featured guests like fellow Grimalkin artist Don’t do it, Neil), Barnes’ accomplishments swagger with confidence, while the songs themselves reveal his vulnerability. Underneath a leather-clad exterior, Barnes’ lyrics touch on the risks of prioritizing creative projects over the people around him, struggling to maintain a tough persona and the empowering ways he can finally be himself in a loving relationship.         

In this conversation, the self-admitted “music nerd” who’s unafraid to wear surprising influences on his sleeve shares thoughts on Prince, Bjork, Taylor Swift and much more. 

What were your experiences getting started as a musician in Kitchener?

It was interesting. At first I stumbled my way into figuring out what I was doing in music. I always had ambitions but I guess I didn’t know how to actualize them. I only had knowledge of surface level pop music as a kid growing up. I would do things like record music on the voice recorder on my old Windows computer and burn that onto CDs. Then I would send it to Sony. Clearly it didn’t work out! [Laughs.]

Ambitious right from the start!

I didn’t really know what I was doing. When I was 13 I wanted to record an album, so I posted an ad online to try and find a producer. I think it was on Kijiji or one of those kinds of sites. We made an album and released it, but I hated it so I took it down later. It was just a long process of writing, finding myself and making little makeshift videos. I moved to Toronto when I was 18 and that’s when I got a bit more serious. I continued to self-release while writing and working with other people. It’s only when I started working with Grimalkin Records and put out my first project with them last year that I started to find my feet, in terms of taking music seriously as a career.

 

How did you find out about Grimalkin?

I found out about Grimalkin through Backxwash. I stumbled upon her music around the time of Deviancy, and then I found the label and I was in love. I was kind of floating around at that time, trying to find something that reflected my values, and I thought Grimalkin was right in line with that. Of course I loved Backxwash’s music, too. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have looked into it. I submitted a song I had done from my first album, Aarupa, and Grim [Grimalkin’s founder] said “just come back to us when you have the full album and we’ll tell you what we think.” Then I did and obviously it went well.

That’s very cool. They’re so supportive of new artists.

Yeah! It’s really great because there are a few of us who signed up to go through the submissions. I think that’s really unique. You don’t see it at other labels. It’s more of a collective and not hierarchical at all, which leads to more of a communal feel. Proceeds from the albums also go towards charity work, which I think is really important because it shows that we’re not just creating music and promoting ourselves. We’re also interested in putting resources into communities.

That mutual aid aspect really resonates with me as well. When I learned that Grimalkin has helped raise money for people’s rent, groceries and medical bills, I realized they were actually doing something quite different.

It’s really nice. We have frequent meetings, and there are always questions asked if anyone needs help. We’re always trying to help keep people afloat.

On the topic of community, I wanted to ask you a bit more about Kitchener. Are there places there to explore the kinds of music you make, or for queer people to come together?

I would say that it’s definitely not inclusive. I don’t mean to say that the people aren’t accepting, because you can find lots of accepting people around here. I don’t want to get too stereotypical, but there is a feeling that cities are more progressive than rural areas. Kitchener is sort of a blend between the two. I found it quite scary growing up queer, but I never felt like there wasn’t a place for me. I was born here so no one can tell me that. They’re going to have to deal with it! I found my place but only because I was able to be myself so vocally. Even if people have reservations or aren’t as accepting, I find they usually admire that. Of course there are still quite a few backwards attitudes, and things are never where they should be.

I’ve been to a few record stores in Kitchener like X-Disc-C and Orange Monkey that are both nice little hubs of music.

Yeah! There was another record store called Encore Records that I remember going to as a kid. Those were prime years for music discovery, so I remember trying to find classic albums and broaden my horizons. The first CD I bought with my own money was Christina Aguilera’s Back to Basics because I really liked that song “Ain’t No Other Man.” [Laughs.] I was always more ambitious, though, so I needed to branch out from Christina pretty quickly.

Then you moved to Montreal. What has that been like?

I was there just for a little bit and then the second lockdown happened. I don’t think I’ve really been able to get my feet planted yet and really find my community, but I was already affected by the change of atmosphere. It’s one of those things you can’t describe but it just feels different. I was inspired and feeling like I was on the verge of something new. Maybe you can hear that in the music I’m making now. It’s a contrast from how I feel when I’m in Kitchener. It’s a lot calmer but also feels less developed. I think there are more questions in the air about what the city could become.

Kitchener has those tech company think tanks as well. It seems like a place for very smart people.

I think it is. My dad was an actuary and worked at Manulife. I always thought that kind of thing was boring as hell, but it takes all kinds! [Laughs.] I know Montreal is a different culture, but it really feels like it. It really feels like you’ve landed somewhere else compared to when I was living in Toronto or growing up in Kitchener.

Let’s talk about your new album. I’ve heard you describe your sound in a few places as industrial R&B.” What does that idea mean to you?

When I tweeted that I was being a bit edgy. I’m not sure if they’re typically considered to be industrial, but I was listening to a lot of Autechre, specifically their late 2010s stuff. The harshness of the textures and the sounds they choose inspired me. I like the contrast of the sweetness of R&B and then the cold electronic synths and textures. I don’t know how to do it yet, but I’ve been wondering how aggressive you can go with the instrumentation and combine that with the vocals before it becomes displeasing. I’d like to take that to its logical conclusion and make something really harsh that’s still rooted in R&B.

I’ve never heard of anyone else creating that fusion. You’ve also described your music as “Autechre producing Prince’s 1999,” and now that’s a fantasy sound in my head.

Yeah! I’m not sure if I did that right, but I’m still wondering what it would sound like for Autechre to come down to earth and make an album mortals can understand. [Laughs.] 

I was happy to hear you say that some of the production and minimal arrangements on your album were inspired by Bjork’s Vespertine. What do you like about that album?

I don’t know what to say about her that hasn’t been said already, but that album in particular is really great. It’s intimate and sounds very sparse, but also feels huge because of everything going on in the background with the classical instrumentation. It’s kind of mindblowing how she was able to create something so quiet that’s also so dense. She was just in full control of her craft at that point. It’s like a world created by a movie that you can step into.

Do you have any other unlikely influences that people might not pick up on?

I really like Parliament-Funkadelic and George Clinton. Not sure if that would be so obvious. I also really like Taylor Swift. I know it’s so standard and vanilla, but there’s something admirable about her commitment to make monolithic pop jams that define culture. It’s like Coca Cola. We all hate it but we all drink it.

Taylor Swift is a truly surprising answer to that question!

There are some songs that came right from Swift. “This Moment” on Aarupa was me trying to do 1989. [Laughs.] I also love Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell. I was just listening to Court and Spark recently. I like a lot of classical music, from Stockhausen to Beethoven. I love Debussy, especially his “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.” I love Fela Kuti. It’s like a fuckin’ workout when you put his music on. You just want to move around the house. 

These are the artists who challenge our standards of taste. It’s not like I hate criticism because I read it all the time, but I also like having a direct experience with art that doesn’t involve labeling. Artists like that force us to experience something different because they’re so far away from our standards of decency, if you want to call it that. It’s profound.

This is going to sound weird because I write about music for a living, but I personally like to experience music for the first time without reading anything about it.

I agree, but I also love the exchange that happens when someone writes something, we read it, and maybe even fight about it. Some good examples of that are when the behemoths do it, like Pitchfork giving Fiona Apple a 10 and the discourse around that. There are fights in culture to find out what it means.

Let’s get back to your music. One of the lyrical themes of this album is the contradiction that occurs between presenting yourself as tough and confident while feeling soft and vulnerable on the inside. Is that based on personal experience?

I think it is, but not to extremes. I don’t consider myself a boisterous person that talks really loud but is really sad on the inside. That’s not true at all. I think I’m a confident person but also own my vulnerabilities. In my best moments I think there’s a lot of good things about myself. In my worst moments I feel quite shit, but I think that’s the same for a lot of people. The difference is that not everyone is willing to open up about that, but I’m comfortable wearing it. I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not. That’s definitely a theme but I want to make sure people aren’t taking it like a hyper-masculine bravado thing. I want to come across like a person who’s confident and aware of myself but also open about my struggles.

That goes back to what you said about being in Kitchener when you arrived on the scene with confidence in yourself.

Absolutely. Maybe other people have more peace than me, but I’ve noticed them going about their day, just strolling and existing. I have a fire inside me, this rev of an engine that keeps me going. That’s not to pass judgement, and of course when I see people I have no idea what’s going on inside them. But they just seem like they’re peacefully existing, while I can never slow down my engine. It might come down to where I grew up and feeling underestimated when I was kid. When you’re ambitious but your skills aren’t there yet, people might overlook you. That makes sense because they want to see results, but when you have ambitions it feels like you’re being crushed. I think all that led to all of this bigness in my expression of individuality.

Is that what As a Motherfucker means to you? To just go for it in a big way?

Yeah! I was also reading the Miles Davis autobiography and he says the word “motherfucker” so much. It just seemed like a cool album title that embodied the boldness I wanted to express.

“Switch” is one of the hardest sounding songs on the album, with lyrics about how your family and friends have left you behind.  

I was actually trying to go from a different angle, and I’m not sure if I captured it. That song was written from the perspective of someone with a lot of ambition who prioritizes that over other people. It’s not that people have really done them wrong, but more so that they’re looking for perfection and feeling scorned by people around them. It’s a bottomless pit that needs to be fed. I wasn’t expressing that those people were gone, but more writing about a self-pitying person asking for their needs to be met without caring about others. 

The song that comes right after it, “True and You,” has some pretty romantic lyrics about finding your true self when you’re in a relationship, but even then feeling conflicted and worried about rejection. Is that something you’ve experienced?

I hate to say it but for that one I wanted to just write a song. But the point you just touched upon is accurate. I do feel that way, more so in the beginning stages of a relationship when you’re establishing that bond but things are still rocky. You’re sort of making a transition and there’s the excitement of the moment mixed with uncertainty. You worry about being yourself too much and coming across as inadequate. That’s true for me when you’re in an uncertain situation to begin with that’s not as reciprocal. If you’re putting more investment into it than the other person that creates more anxiety. But if you are in a reciprocal relationship with open communication, you should be able to talk it out.

Jesse Locke

Jesse Locke (he/him) is a writer and musician based in the traditional, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, also known as Vancouver. He has contributed to outlets such as Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily, SPIN, The Wire, CBC Music, Xtra, Musicworks and Aquarium Drunkard. Jesse is the co-founder of the We Are Time record label, and has played drums with the bands Tough Age, Big Rig and CHANDRA. Follow him on social media!

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