Micah Barnes on signing with Alma Records, working in TV and more

Micah Barnes has been entertaining us for decades.

He began in the cabarets and jazz clubs of Toronto before he joined the legendary a cappella group The Nylons in 1989. Since then, Barnes has launched a successful solo career as a jazz vocalist. In 2020, he released the album Vegas Breeze, which went to No. 1 on the jazz charts.

Barnes joined us to talk about his early years in music, his recent signing with Alma Records, his perspective as a vocal coach and more — including a hint about an upcoming record.

You’ve been singing for most of your life. When did you discover that this is what you wanted to do?

I was pretty young. I think I heard a Billie Holiday record when I was 13 years old and I immediately started to learn the jazz standards. I became obsessed with Bessie Smith, Nat King Cole and Fats Waller. I started to perform when I was really young. By 14 or 15, I was out in the coffee houses. I think by then I knew this was going to be my life.

When you’re discovering those artists in your mid-teens, does that put you out of favour with your peer group, or does it make you the cool kid?

You make a really good point that teenagers are so given to needing to be accepted. I’ll say this: I was lucky in that I had very artistic parents and I went to schools with some pretty hip kids who thought I was doing something interesting. But it definitely put me out of step with popular music. I didn’t know how I would ever make a career in jazz. There was no roadmap for me, I will tell you that.

To that point, you just signed a new deal with Alma Records. What does that mean to you as an artist?

I think back in the day, we used to think that the label solved all the problems and you got carted away on a magic carpet ride. These days, having a label is a lot more like having a collaborator or a partner. For a jazz guy like me, there couldn’t be a better partner. [Alma Records president] Peter Cardinali [has a] stellar reputation in the business and [an] international reputation as a label, plus we have the support of Universal Music Canada on this signing. I’ve worked hard all my career, and this is a big red-cherry-on-top-of-the-sundae moment. It feels really good.

Sometimes people get signed early on in their career, and they’re not ready for it or they don’t understand the implications of it all. For someone who’s seasoned and who sees the business in the right balance, that almost seems like a better time to get that leg up.

I couldn’t agree with you more. I think about some of the brand new [artists] who get touted, and suddenly their label is pouring marketing money in and they don’t get the sales. People disappear in this business. As an artist who’s always thought about the long road — my heroes are Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin — I’m always thinking about the long-term health of a career. I think the good thing now is that I really know myself. I know where I excel and what my weaknesses are. When I’m working with somebody like Peter, we get to join forces rather than me worrying about being overwhelmed or not knowing how to steer myself through the waters.

Performance and connecting with an audience is a big part of what you do and who you are, isn’t it?

When we made New York Stories, I wanted the album to feel like a late-night jazz club in New York. I was living in New York at the time and really inspired by the music of the city. And then for my last record [Vegas Breeze], I just kept thinking about the size of the old showroom, an orchestra with a real personality up front singing to the crowd. I realized that in my life, I tend to be an entertainer. I love that part of what a singer can give an audience. It’s always been a hallmark of my performances. It’s what led me to the Nylons and allowed me to go around the world entertaining audiences. I feel proud of that tradition. So with Vegas Breeze, I wanted to fashion an album that’s the size that I am.

Speaking of entertaining, you’ve also just landed a gig that’s going to raise your profile, too. Tell us about that.

I’ve been coaching ever since I was in my twenties. Last year, one of my young clients JP Saxe got nominated for a Grammy. Suddenly, my coaching world went through the roof. The people at Canada’s Got Talent noticed and they asked me to come in and work with the contestants. So, something magical is happening for me and the team at Canada’s Got Talent. We’re really digging in and I’m finding a place for myself in this international franchise. It’s basically what we have left in terms of family variety shows on TV. I’m really enjoying the work. I like the pace of TV. My mom wrote Mr. Dressup when I was a kid, so I was a kid in the studio asking, “What does that guy do? What does that guy do?” She would take me if I promised to be quiet, and I never knew how to sit still. I wanted to know everybody’s job. So, working in TV has been really magical for me.

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You mentioned that you had a Grammy-winning student and then suddenly an influx of work. Is that how it happens? When you have a student who breaks out, do people line up at your door?

Yeah, it does. You know, it’s such a crapshoot. How do you find the right coach? How do you navigate through this crazy business? JP Saxe was already an incredibly talented young guy when he came to my studio. One of the things that I was able to do in mentoring him was stay out of the way and make sure I helped him navigate some of the murkier waters of the business. When a manager or a label has a young artist that they really want to see taken care of, they see my track record with someone else. That’s how a coach gets a special star. How do you prove that you’ve got the goods unless you have clients that are doing really well? It’s just a fact of life. It’s lovely also to see JP’s incredible success both in Canada and internationally. Amazingly, it carried me with him.

Asking someone who teaches people to sing: Can anyone sing? For someone who says they can’t hold a note or they can’t carry a tune, what would you say to that person?

Here’s my answer, and I’ve really thought about it because I’ve had to work with some tone-deaf people: Everybody can improve, but you have to be willing to put the work in. At some point, if we’re not improving enough, we get tired of trying. You have to have some aptitude in order to really nail it. But I will say that people who are naturally musical, but they maybe don’t have great technique, there are a million ways that we can improve a voice. The musicality has to be there. You have to feel the music and be able to express and live in the music. Then the singing part gets easy.

The Alma deal has been locked down. Is there a timeline you can give us on when we might see some new music?

I’d love to be able to nail that down. Peter and I are just starting the musical discussions about which direction we’re going to go in for our first album, so it would be unfair to the process to announce anything too soon. But I’ll put it to you this way: We know that fans of the Nylons are going to be happy with what we’re cooking up. We’re thinking about jazz arrangements for pop standards from the ’50s and ’60s. We’re not 100% nailed down on the direction, but that’s the general gist.

This interview has been edited and condensed.