Barnwell’s Anthems Tackle the Emotional Wreckage of Leaving Behind Fundamentalist Christianity
By: Kyle Petersen- The Free Times- 4/20/16
When Tyler Gordon started playing shows under the Barnwell moniker in 2014, it had been a while since he felt a part of the Columbia music scene.
Although he started just a few years after Chaz Bundick (Toro Y Moi) and Aaron Graves (Those Lavender Whales) at Ridge View High School and achieved some local success during that time in groups like The Safe & Sound, he abruptly disappeared, despite attending the University of South Carolina.
“I got to college and I started doing a lot of campus ministry stuff,” he explains. “I was very — embarrassing as it is to admit it — very conservative Christian, evangelical-type thing for the first part of college. So I only played church music for a long time.”
According to Gordon, the Barnwell project emerged after he began rejecting the strictures of fundamentalist thinking and longed for the gritty DIY days of opening up for groups like Bundick’s The Heist and the Accomplice.
“I just hated writing church music,” he says a bit ruefully. “I still play with a church, and it’s a ton of fun, but I’m really bad at writing it and it’s not something I enjoy. That combined with the whole shift in belief structure made me realize that I needed to go back and do what I love to do. I don’t like the clean, pristine aspect of praise music. I started out playing in garages just like everyone else.”
The first Barnwell EP, The First Ghost, was recorded mostly by Gordon alone and pushed out quickly in 2014. A searching indie folk record with just a few players, Ben Cantrell and Tweito’s Seth Ely among them, its barebones aesthetic limited its appeal — despite the obvious songwriting talent.
Released last month, the group’s new record, Motel Art, is a different beast. Recorded with a solid band, the soaring rock hinted at by The First Ghost’s skeletal traces arrives fully realized, with big melodies and aching alt-rock choruses bolstering the jangly murk and existential musings that define Gordon’s songs.
“This record is kind of what I wanted to play from the beginning, I just didn’t have the resources or the people,” Gordon admits. He credits his bandmates — Ely, who engineered much of the record, along with guitarist Ross Swinson (Release the Dog) and bassist Nick Fogle. Swinson, in particular, is key on Motel Art, offering kinetic, often thundering leads that dominate and define the album’s more rocking efforts.
“He’s a very, very good guitar player,” Gordon effuses. “Some of the songs were kind of like, ‘This is how the song goes, what do you have?’ And Ross would turn it into something ridiculous, in a good way. It was just one of those things where I knew to just get out of the way.”
Lyrically, Motel Art stays in a similar space, and two songs from the first EP are reprised here. Gordon tends towards vague, often elliptical pronouncements, but with a deep sense of spiritual longing, not unlike the similarly minded former local Austin Crane (Valley Maker).
“The first EP was a lot of just trying to put into words my breakup with [fundamentalist] Christianity. The second is a bit more just can’t-get-out-of-my-head sort of stuff.” Gordon says. “I had a couple of major life shifts about two years ago that I had never really dealt with mentally.”
The result resembles a toothier Band of Horses, but with the palpable edge of someone who has wandered back from the brink, unsure of where to go next. Regardless of the destination, Barnwell’s journey is worth your attention.