Interview: Jesse Barnett on Wish You Were Here

Posted: by The Editor

Photo by Andrew Michael Rose

Stick To Your Guns frontman, Jesse Barnett, has surprised many with the release of his newest atmospheric project, Wish You Were Here. Their debut LP, I’m Afraid Of Everything, was released late last month, and took nearly five years to create. While on the surface this may seem completely out of Barnett’s musical realm, it’s actually much closer to his roots than most would believe. Growing up listening to musicians like James Taylor and Paul Simon, Wish You Were Here takes a nose dive into what originally influenced Barnett to create. “This is what I’ve been doing since I was a little kid. As far as the songwriting goes, Stick to Your Guns is a side project; because that world didn’t happen to me until I was 14.” Barnett continued, “Music like I’m playing now with Wish You Were Here has been my whole life.” 

Written and recorded with the help of friend and producer, Derek Hoffman, in Montreal throughout 2016 and 2017, the album served as a source of solace for Barnett. As he struggled to find reserve in the loss of loved ones, strained family ties, existential loneliness, and a quickly deteriorating relationship with the music industry, Wish You Were Here was born. The album explores all these topics and more with airy guitars and stripped down vocals. 

Inspired by the grime and grind of Montreal and its inhabitants, Barnett began to regain his love for music, the kind that isn’t necessarily marketed to a large audience, rather a means of escapism, and solitude. Listeners can feel that very sentiment throughout the record. It is an album fueled by love and loss, a genuine reflection of mining through fields of pain, and deciphering the process of healing.

Stream I’m Afraid Of Everything below and read our interview with Barnett about the story behind the project, how he finds balance when creating, what it’s like to dive into different genres, and so much more.

You’ve had these songs recorded for awhile now- the Wish You Were Here stuff. Do you ever get cold feet when it comes to putting them out?

Jesse Barnett: I didn’t get cold feet as far as not having faith in the songs. I knew I liked them and I have a very strenuous process of songwriting where I come up with an idea. I will demo it, and then I’ll listen to the demo to death. If after a while of listening to it, and tweaking it, and things like that, I still think it’s a good idea, then I move forward with actually recording it. 

So back to your question. I didn’t really get cold feet as far as releasing them, but I did get cold feet as to whether or not they were actually going to come out. Chiefly because I was like, ‘Is it the path I want to go down?’ As a person who has been doing music for quite some time now, I feel corny when I write a song and then I’m like, ‘Why does this need to be sold to anybody?’ You know what I mean? Why can’t I just write a song and just have it be a song for me and my friends or whoever wants to hear it. Why does everything have to be a constant commodity?

It’s more, I guess, a political issue, than it was an issue of not having faith in the songs or anything like that. Obviously I go through the same shit that every songwriter does. Like, ‘Is this good enough?’ But like I said, I’ve been doing it for so long that I’ve built my own system of dealing with those kinds of insecurities where I just go, fuck it and I just jump, you know?


Yeah, definitely. So you were thinking about releasing it for a while. What made you finally pull the trigger and say, “Okay, I am going to release this, I want to share this?”

So the buddy who recorded me is Derek [Hoffman], who’s like the other half of the project. He’s from Toronto and I was living in Montreal. I had lived in Montreal for about five years. He’s a guy I met through some people and I kind of flew him out. I was like, ‘Hey, I actually want to record these. Would you mind bringing a mobile studio?’ You know, because he’s got all the things that are necessary and needed to do that. And he flew out from Toronto to Montreal, and we recorded them. He was kind of like, ‘Whoa, I wasn’t expecting this kind of thing. I think this is really cool. We should do it for real.’

I was just kind of like, sure. That was kind of the end of the conversation. I didn’t take it seriously because I just thought that he said that to everybody you worked with. You know? Everyone tends to blow smoke sometimes. So although I am appreciative of people’s kind words, sometimes there’s only those few people that will give you the actual truth about some of your songs.

But you know, he kept on hounding me. Like, ‘Dude, we got to do this, we got to do this, we got to do this.’ And so we did. I would give him pretty much full credit of it actually seeing the light of day. 


Are you happy with the decision and the reaction so far to it?

Totally. I mean, you know, being as I play in a hardcore band, I’m peddling this music to those kinds of fans. I mean, I know that most, especially nowadays, most people are fans of all kinds of music. I rarely run into a person who only likes one kind of music. So everyone has been super nice. It’s streaming a lot better than I thought it was. People are buying it. The record release we did in LA was really cool. I started to see that maybe I could turn this into a new career. Because you know, there’s only so long I can do a hardcore band for.


What’s your favorite aspect of creating the more atmospheric songs like these as opposed to what you write with Stick to Your Guns?

I use a completely part of my brain. That is the whole upside of the entire thing. I tend to be a pretty emotional person, and sometimes I need to get those things out. So I can think about things or sing in a certain way with Wish You Were Here that I… I wouldn’t say I can’t with Stick to Your Guns, but just that it wouldn’t be appropriate. If the next Stick to Your Guns record was a Wish You Were Here record, it probably wouldn’t go very well for Stick to Your Guns.


I love Stick to Your Guns, and I love hardcore with my whole heart, but when I go into the studio with Stick To Your Guns, there’s a ceiling on what you’re allowed to do. With Wish You Were Here, if I want to pull out a fucking saxophone and hit it with a drum stick, while playing a kick drum and doing the harmonica all at the same time, Derek is like, “Fuck yeah, let’s go. Let’s do it.” You know what I mean?

It’s like there’s no rules. There’s no rules on what can be done or what can’t be done. Now, granted, at the end of the day, you still want it to be good, but at least we can try, you know? Whereas, I know I’m not going to bust out a bassoon with Stick to Your Guns. 


So kind of along the same lines then, what’s the biggest learning curve that you’ve had so far since recording it?

Performing. That’s probably been the biggest learning curve. With Stick to Your Guns, it’s just from the beginning of the set to the end of the set, we put everything on 10 and you just fucking go. It’s supposed to be as aggro as humanly possible. But with Wish You Were Here, when I was playing, I found myself wanting to push based on muscle memory of every time I’m on stage. Normally it’s with Stick to Your Guns, so I’m screaming or kicking somebody or doing something crazy. The needing to show restraint and the needing to show unbelievable patience because the music is slower, it’s softer, it’s quiet, and that’s the vibe. 

But as far as recording or writing new songs, this is what I’ve been doing since I was a little kid. As far as the songwriting goes, Stick to Your Guns is a side project; because that world didn’t happen to me until I was 14. Whereas, music like I’m playing now with Wish You Were Here has been my whole life. 


A lot of artists stray away from using the term side project because it implies that one is more important or takes more precedence over the other. So you wouldn’t consider this a side project. Do you want it to be something that has its completely own life kind of detached from your other work?

Yeah, of course I want it to stand on its own legs regardless. There’s no way to avoid this whatsoever, just being as how Stick to Your Guns has been around for so long and majority of people know me from that. So there’s no way that’s going to be avoided, but I don’t want someone going into Wish You Were Here with a preset judgment already in their head. And I know that’s going to be impossible. But either way, whether it’s, ‘I love Stick to Your Guns, so I’m going to love this.’ I don’t want that just as much as I don’t want, ‘I hate Stick to Your Guns, so I’m not even going to fucking bother checking it out.’ 

I try to avoid calling it a side project. But you know, like I said, there’s just certain things that you’re not able to avoid no matter how hard you try. People kind of just look at it that way. But I think so long as I keep on going with it and not just like, ‘Hey, here’s a record.’ And then no one hears anything from it for the next two years until I put out a new record. Once people see, ‘Oh, he’s actually doing it’ Then, I think that’ll kind of change.

So I read a little bit of the story behind the first track, which is “Christmas Creek”. That’s actually my favorite song on the record. Was that one of the first songs that you wrote or how did writing go?

That was actually in the second batch. So when I was living in Montreal, when Derek first came, I was living with my girlfriend at the time in the winter of 2016. That was kind of towards the end of mine and that girl’s relationship, things got kind of rocky. And then December 2017, I moved into my own apartment in Montreal because I love that city so much. I was just like, ‘I’m staying here.’

I was kind of living on my own, which was in Montreal, a city that I’m not from, a city where they speak French. I went from feeling very, ‘this is my home’, to feeling kind of like, ‘Oh shit, everything I’ve done in the city I did with her.’ So there was always this kind of weird and alienating feeling. Then around Christmas, I got a call from my mom telling me that my cousin had overdosed, and it all kind of reached this tipping point of putting a lot of things into perspective for me. When fucked up things like that happen to you, people tend to get pretty existential.

That was that moment for me. Just kind of looking back at my whole relationship, and wondering where did it go wrong. Trying to figure out my relationship with my family and the amount of distance that I had put in between me and pretty much all of my closest loved ones. So that was kind of my way of reconciling.


So kind of going with that, you aren’t afraid to discuss heavier topics. Is writing the easiest outlet for you?

Definitely. Especially when it’s personal, because I have a hard time confronting people. Not a hard time confronting people in anger, I’m very good at that (laughs). But I have a hard time telling people how I feel, like telling them that I care about them. That had been a hard thing for me. Although, you know, through much work, it’s become a lot easier now. I get this from my mom, but I had a hard time telling people when they had hurt me because I didn’t want them to feel bad. Does that make sense?


Yeah, definitely.

So I let them know through a song or I would just get it out that way so that I wouldn’t have to be like, ‘Hey, you really hurt my feelings.’ And I think that’s fucked up because I don’t want them to feel bad about that. Maybe they just didn’t know. But that’s an important part of life. Everyone’s got to tell people when they fucked up or no one’s going to be able to learn from their behavior. Right? Since then, I’ve learned a lot about doing that, and confronting people, and that it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but quite the opposite. It’s kind of a healthy, appealing thing to be able to do that. But you know, that was always hard for me.

So yeah, I really don’t have a hard time getting into those kinds of topics. It’s weird because I’m kind of a private person and I only show people the parts of the things that I’m allowing them to see. But I try to keep a lot to myself, although my music contradicts that a lot because I do tend to get pretty personal. But we are in an age of oversharing. That’s what everybody does. So maybe I’ve just become accustomed to that.


How do you strike a balance of keeping the parts of you private that you want to remain private?

That’s a good question. If something happens to me that’s personal but I felt like I learned something from it, from the process of that happening to me, that’s more so what I want to share. It’s like, here’s what I learned. I think that’s what helps people kind of connect. If you tell them how you got to that point of learning. We tend to think that the things that happen to us are one of a kind. When you’re hurting and you’re just in that kind of deep pain. You start thinking things like, ‘no one knows what this feels like.’ When in reality, exactly what happened to you has probably also happened to most of the population. So I think it’s important to sing to that. The things that are happening to you, things that other people have dealt with. Not in a way of writing it off, but in a way of hopefully feeling a little bit more comforted as people live through this. There are ways to cope and there are things that you can learn from the thing that happened.

So kind of going back into the inspiration behind the album. You talked a little bit about “Christmas Creek”, but what about the first session? You said you started recording it in 2016.

Well, that was an interesting one too, because that was mostly about my relationship. I knew it wasn’t going to last. There’s that song, “Come Find Me”. If you listen to the lyrics of it, it’s pretty angry. Having a feeling of like, ‘nothing is ever going to be good enough. No matter how hard I try or what I do, it’s never going to be good enough. You’re always going to expect more.’

I had a lot of anger towards music and I almost gave it up just because I was like, I don’t know how to have a normal relationship with this person and have music. I became very resentful towards touring and towards music because she felt as if she was second, because I always loved this other thing more. With my partner I have now, she understands that that’s what I need in order to make me feel whole. She feels grateful that she can be a part of it and included in that. You kind of have to find those people who understand you and show you that kind of love, but who will also keep you accountable. My current girlfriend, she’s great at that. 


So you’ve regained your love for touring and music?

Oh yeah. It’s what keeps my heart beating.


That’s awesome. So you kind of mentioned that this is a project that really relates to your musical roots. I know that you explained that you were basically kind of pushed, but what made you actually sit down and record it? 

Friends. If you came over to my house, I was probably sitting on the couch and playing a guitar. And it was like, ‘Oh, what’s that song?’ And I say, ‘Oh, I wrote it.’ ‘When are you recording?’ It’s like, I’m not. It’s just a thing that I do to decompress. I had kind of got a lot of push from a lot of different people. But like I said, at that time, what actually made me want to record was that I felt like my relationship was falling apart. 

I always felt that distance between me and a lot of my friends, and me and my family members, because I’m from Southern California. That’s where I was born and raised. So being in Montreal was just about the complete opposite in so many ways from Los Angeles as far as geography and climate goes. I always felt like I was in this kind of torn existential thing. 

There’s that saying, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” But I felt like I didn’t have my cake and I wasn’t eating it. I just felt like I had nothing. That was kind of also a pushing point for me. I was like, I’m going to do this because it’s all I know how to do and I need to do something because I can’t just sit here.


It gave you some kind of purpose. You were able to regain your footing… I know this is a little bit of a different question, but what kind of music do you find yourself listening to the most on a daily basis? And do you think that it’s reflective of your inspirations to create?

I would say I listen to things more like Wish You Were Here, but you know, I like to keep my finger on the pulse of newer bands, and hardcore, and punk. Just because I love it so much. And then also hip hop is an enormous part of my life. It’s pretty eclectic. I know that’s not really a good answer.


No, it makes sense. As a music fan, it makes sense.

Right. I did a drive last night for about four hours and I went from everything from Sam Evian to Gang Starr, and then to this band called Adrenaline. It’s kind of all over the place. Montreal was also probably one of the better places for music out of anywhere in the world that I’ve ever been to just because they also have such an eclectic community of music, and musicians, and bands.

Growing up, some of my favorite bands were from there too. I wasn’t even really looking at that. When I was younger I didn’t really care where a band was from, but like, you know, the older I got, ‘Oh where are they from? Oh Montreal. Where’s this guy from? Montreal.’ Like, Jesus Christ, all these bands are from Canada. And I had no idea. So when I eventually lived there I made some friends and became more involved in that world. The way that they approach music and the way that they view music, just as a whole, it’s a beautiful thing. I think that also helped with pushing Wish You Were Here across the finish line as well.


Would you be able to pinpoint any specific examples on how they kind of approached music differently than people in Los Angeles or Southern California? Or maybe other parts of the country?

Very, very easily I could do that. In Southern California, especially in Los Angeles, everyone is going out there to be something or to be someone. I’m trying not to say that with disdain because you know, who wouldn’t want to try to be a musician? You know, people who are musicians, they love music, but I think that they go out there and they start focusing on the wrong things. Such as the “aesthetics” of their project more so than the songs themselves. People will kind of mold themselves into whatever they need to be if they think that that’s going to make them achieve whatever goal it is they have in their mind. Whereas in Montreal, it’s a cold kind of torn up, grimy city, and people there are construction workers, and they lay cement, and they’re brick layers. It’s a working class city and the way that they unwind is by playing music.

They’re not being in a band, they’re not playing, they’re not getting together for four hours after working a 12 hour shift to “make it”. They’re doing that because that’s what they feel they need to do in their heart and in their spirit. And you know, it’s a fucking beautiful thing. And that’s not to say that there’s not artists in Montreal who are trying to go for it. But I’m just saying, it helps me not look at music like necessarily a career or like I said before, necessarily a commodity, but as something that people have done for thousands, and thousands, and thousands, and thousands of years. And just remind me that this is a necessity to life. I know that’s something that we all know, but I think it gets clouded between the business side of things and the actual creating side of things.

I would always ask the question, ‘So what are you guys going to do with this?’ And they’d be like, ‘What do you mean? We’re just going to practice, we’re going to write songs, we’re going to play some shows locally.’ They work in office buildings and have kids.

To me, that doesn’t make them square. To me that makes them fucking heroes. Music is also a labor though. One of my all time favorite musicians is this guy named Efrim Manuel, he’s from Montreal, and he started the band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. And I was listening to an interview with him, and you know, he says music is labor. It is. It’s people working their fucking ass off to try to make a living, and I think that’s important. He puts so many feelings that I had into words in this interview. He talks about how it bores him when people talk about how they just want to create music that reaches as many people as possible. Or people, they call their music their “art”. That really bores him.

I’ve always felt that way when people were like, ‘Yeah, when I’m creating my art…’ It’s like, I don’t know why, it just sounds so pompous. It sounds like it was a gift that they were given from God when that’s not what it is. You haven’t been blessed with this thing. I mean, some people have, and obviously some people are better at certain things than others. I just wish that more musicians would kind of just keep their heads down and work hard.


You said that music is a labor and it’s also something that you do because you truly love it and it’s a good outlet for you. So you have to have some kind of a balance between your work and your free time. Is it hard to find that balance sometimes?

I don’t think I have it. I plan multiple projects, I run a record label, I manage bands. If I’m not working on my own projects, I’m helping someone else with their projects. So I mean, I like to ride bikes, I like to see movies. So I do those things. But you know, that’s kind of about it.


What advice would you give to musicians who are maybe trying to branch out into a different genre but might be a little bit scared or intimidated to do it?

That’s something I’m learning right now. So I guess ask me in three years, I might have a better answer for that question. But you know, I am intimidated for sure. And I would say that if you’re involved with hardcore and you want to go be a rapper, I say that whatever genre you’re going to end up going into, whether it’s hip hop, or indie rock, or acoustic singer songwriter shit, you need to be involved in that scene. Because I feel like it’s disrespectful if you’re not. You know what I mean? You have to go there. You have to start all the way from zero again. You have to pay those dues just like everybody else.

It’s a completely different currency. It would be like if I went to Japan and tried to pay for things with Russian Rubles. You know what I mean? It’s completely different worlds. You got to keep your head down and work hard. Always. Bukowski said, “Find what you love and let it kill you.” So if you’re not willing to die for the thing that you are doing then question if it’s the right thing.


How do you find that community where you fit in?

Look up the shows, you know. That’s what I’ve done in LA. Go to the venues that they play at because they’re not playing at the same venues as hardcore bands. And go to those venues and try to just be as involved. Show your faith and let people know that guy goes to all the shows. I think that’s important. I think that’s just maybe an ethic. Maybe a lot of people wouldn’t consider that an important thing or sound advice. But I come from hardcore. There’s a saying in hardcore, “six months safe.” And there’s a lot of people who do that. Who come in because it’s trendy for a second and they dip because no longer the cool thing. It’s community, everything’s a community, so be involved in it. And I think that people will accept you.


What does the future look like for Wish You Were Here?

Probably going to do a new single soon. Like I said, I had those songs for so long and I know I just released the record, but I’m going to do a new single, and then going to do some touring. Do a full US tour.


Oh, what? You’re going to do a full US tour?

That’s being planned right now. So hopefully that’ll be announced before the end of the year.


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Emily Kitchin//@DeathNap4Cutie