Music Features

Before They Were Famous: Craig Barnes and the Greatest Song of All Time

When I was in college, I lived out my musician fantasies in the best way a talentless person can: helping out with a student-run record label. We called it Obedient Pony, and every semester we'd put out a compilation of the campus' heaviest talents. I'd slap together a screen-printed CD holder (that's my ridiculous artwork in the aforelinked article), and we'd throw an "album release party" as if we had any idea what we were doing. We had stickers and buttons that I still haven't thrown away. It was fun, and the poorly-produced music was actually really solid, even looking back a decade later. 

Craig Barnes and I met really early on in college, probably over our shared love of claymation-based computer adventure games and, as I recall, arguing over "the exciting part" of every Radiohead song. He was always prominently featured in every O'Pony compilation, particularly since his Belle & Sebastian inspired chamber-pop band (devoted to a visiting Japanese professor, naturally) "took off" in our little utopian Midwestern bubble. That band eventually morphed into Miniboone, a fairly successful four-piece that's shared stages with acts such as the The B-52s, Art Brut and Real Estate (and even had a track featured on Dumb and Dumber To, though I think he'd prefer to keep that under wraps). It's a solid band doing solid work, and you should absolutely check them out. But this article isn't about Miniboone. This article is about a strange and beautiful collaborative songwriting challenge that I saw popping up on my Facebook feed about six months back. 

Every month or so, Craig posts a call for submissions of sorts, asking his friends to pick a genre, (almost) any genre, and he'll in turn do his best to create a hit from scratch. Call it musical crowdsourcing or just savvy social media networking, but the results invariably astonished me. Not only did he push his limits far beyond the indie-rock ubiquity that we'd melded with years ago, but he was churning out tightly produced, infectious pop songs of every sub-genre that struck me time and again as something different and special.

Craig told me that the songwriting project started as a way to untether himself from writing only indie rock, to use his singing voice in new ways, to learn how to work with other people's voices and ideas, to become more malleable as a songwriter and producer, to bug his friends and have another excuse to hang out with them, and hopefully, maybe, one day, to strike it big. I wanted to spotlight him here, before he gets famous. Because he will, and we’ll all say we knew him when. So, on the coldest winter night in years in the American Northeast, two college friends caught up on their dreams.

Gabbie: I'm pretty overwhelmed by the '80s synth that's blowing up my speakers, Craig. My first and most pressing question for you has to be this: when exactly did you decide that your biggest career goal was to retroactively score John Hughes movie soundtracks?

Craig: Haha...I haven't quite reached John Hughes heights yet. But, I started with the '80s style pop tunes because it was the first music I started making on my computer that actually sounded good and unique, and fit with my voice. I bought a bunch of MIDI instruments and sampled instruments and a lot of it sounds terrible, but after sorting through all the garbage, these sounds spoke to me. My voice doesn't work well with wub-wubs and other dubstep presets.

Gabbie: I do notice a pervasive synth/electro sound on most of your tracks. Is that mainly due to your current limitations? There's no special kinship with '80s pop? I ask in part because it seems that the crux of this project is -- or has become -- collaborative. Do you tailor the musical style to the singer du jour?

Craig: The musical style is tailored to the singer du jour. I put out a call on Facebook to friends saying I wanted to write songs for them, any genre. The less familiar I am with the genre, the better the challenge. So Joe Reichel suggested a jazz song for instance. Sarah-Violet Bliss said she was listening to Lorde a lot. Clare McNulty sent me a bunch of folk tunes she was listening to. And then, a couple of the songs I forced onto people because I wrote them on my own, and I didn't think my own voice worked for the song. I do like '80s pop a lot, I'm 30 years old so it's right up my nostalgia alley… but it's just one genre of many that I like.

Gabbie: That's actually a good place for me to segue into another, more serious, foundational question -- how did this project come to life? Did you always envision it as a musical crowdsourcing of sorts in order to hone your talents, or do you have bigger plans? Are you training to become that Swedish powerhouse that writes for Britney Spears and her ilk?

Craig: "That Swedish powerhouse" is Max Martin and right now he has the third most No. 1 hits of any writer of all time, right behind Paul McCartney and John Lennon, so I hear.

Gabbie: Can I take that as a yes?

Craig: Well, I will say this: when I was fifteen years old, and I first took up guitar lessons, I made a bet with my mom that by the time I was thirty, I would be a household name as a musician, as big as the Beatles. Whoever lost the bet had to eat a plate of brussels sprouts. So I lost the bet. But I haven't eaten the brussels sprouts yet.

Gabbie: I think it's probably a good thing that brussels sprouts are delicious. A gastro-pub staple these days.

Craig: I actually like them a lot more now than I did when I was fifteen years old. I was smart to make that the crux of the bet rather than, say, eating a giant bowl full of natto. But in any case the story illustrates that since I was a kid, I have been an egomaniac who dreams of wild success. That being said, I'm not good enough to be Max Martin yet, so yeah, I guess you could call these songs training.

Gabbie: That seems very typical of the Craig I've known since college. Megalomaniacal, power-hungry, ruthless.

Craig: Exactly. Always trying to upstage everyone else. In any case, I really like working with other singers, I like trying to figure out how to make their voice work in a song regardless of their talents, and I like to try to mold myself to their tastes. They don't have to be Britney Spears or Ariana Grande to be fun to write for.

Gabbie: I wanted to bring up your wife, the illustrious Marielle Solan. She's a frequent collaborator of yours. You mentioned that she isn't musically trained, but her voice is really something on Pull and Piece of You. I wanted to mention that Pull is really a testament to your growing range. It's nowhere near my cup of tea, in fact I have high school musical PTSD when listening to it, but the singing and production are just excellent.

Craig: Yes, she has a beautiful voice! She's untrained but loves to sing to herself. She's been bugging me to write a country song for her for years. So finally I wrote one for her, Piece of You. And I guess that was part of the inspiration to keep on writing for other people too. Pull is one of the ones I wrote originally for myself, and then decided, this doesn't really work for my voice. I actually did a version of myself singing it and her singing it, and had my friends vote on which was better. Her version got slightly more votes, so I kept it up and took down my version… I get bored working only with my own voice. I'm very limited in what I can do. It works well for the things I'm good at. But there are other songs I want to write that I just can't deliver well enough myself!

Gabbie: I was actually just going to bring that up. I didn't get a chance to listen to your warblier version, as you described, but I suspect I would have preferred it. That's just my own bias against Disney-style tunes, of course.

Craig: I really don't like musicals by the way, but a few of my songs do sound "musical-y" and actually way back when Miniboone released our first EP, someone did describe it as Broadway-esque.

Gabbie: I'm also very curious about the social nature of these songs. Are you finding that you are getting good feedback by pitching your songs to friends? I can imagine that it gets tough being objective, especially when you're writing several versions of the same song.

Craig: Well, so far nobody has outright said that they didn't like something I wrote for them.

Gabbie: I guess that's the joy and comfort of working with friends. But I have to say that, for whatever it's worth, I think this project has been very successful, and I can already see the improvement and risks you're taking over time.

Craig: I don't mind being flogged and insulted, I can't wait until I'm writing with Ariana Grande and she tells me I'm absolute crap, write another one!! But yeah, I don't think I've written a stinker yet. Or at least, I don't post the stinkers.

Gabbie: That is the Kanye approach, I think. And the best approach.

Craig: When I'm still sketching out ideas for a song for someone, I do generally try to give them multiple ideas, and see which one they like best. Like, I have the music but not the lyrics yet. So I do get helpful feedback there, I can see which ideas probably aren't worth pursuing, and the other ideas generally don't see the light of day.

Gabbie: Well, something has to keep your ego in check!

Craig: You're right, it is so massively large.

Gabbie: Which song was the most fun to write? Which one is your favorite, and why is it Cold Snap?

Craig: Haha! They're all fun to write. At some point in the writing process I'm always convinced I've just written the best song I've ever written. And then a few hours later I think it sucks and I should just throw it out. And then later, I like it again, I feel satisfied, but I'm ready to move on to the next one, which will FOR SURE be the best song I've ever written.

Craig: Cold Snap was a song I wrote years ago, hoping it would be a Miniboone song, but it's really too pop for Miniboone. And my production and mixing abilities then were still really bad, so I didn't share it with the world. I wasn't good enough yet. But I redid it a few months ago and now it's in a spot where it kicks ass. It doesn't sound like a demo anymore. I don't feel comfortable posting demos.

Gabbie: I really think it's the tightest track. It makes sense that you've had it rolling around in your brain space for a few years already.

Craig: Sometimes things have to cook for a really long time for them to get good. Or your abilities have to catch up with the thing you hear in your head. Some Girls also took me a year to write. Every few months I kept coming back to it, it didn't sound good enough yet. I didn't add the middle section until a year after I started working on it. And finally it felt complete.

Gabbie: I notice that both of these are songs you sang yourself. Do you find that you question yourself more when you're not collaborating?

Craig: I question myself no matter what. I'm always feeling ups and downs when I'm working on a song. But in general, I'm really lucky because I always get feedback from my wife when I'm still in the songwriting process. I can tell when she's not feeling something. And I ask her to free associate imagery before I start working on lyrics. If she comes up with evocative images, I can tell a song is in the right ballpark, it'll be good. I have her listen to all my songs before I even send them to my singers.

Gabbie: You're giving me big ideas for a Project Runway or Iron Chef style reality show, except with songwriting.

Craig: She's like my mentor or something? I've never really watched either show.

Gabbie: Yeah, she can be the Tim Gunn. Basically I'm envisioning a group of wannabe songsters from around the globe. Each week they have a challenge to write a new genre of song for a Real Celebrity Singer™, and they only get eight hours to do it. Michael Jackson's ghost can be the host.

Craig: Great idea, let's do it, you have a lot of connections with Real Celebrity Singers™ via your work as a blogger right?

Gabbie: Yeah, completely. One time I made eye contact with Ted Leo, it was pretty great.

Craig: I would love to see Ted Leo as a pop star. I think Doug tweeted with him once via Miniboone's Twitter, so we can most definitely make this happen.

Gabbie: He does really great covers of Irish ballads and British punk rock. And he totally retweeted me once when I was on my #CalmDownABand kick and came up with 'Ted Leo and the Homeopaths'. I think fame and fortune awaits us both, is what I'm saying. But before we devolve into complete overload and discussion of our ill-fated decision to sing in Oberlin's non-conservatory-affiliated chorus together, let's round this puppy out thusly: what genres are you most excited to try out next? Because I won't lie, I have a lot of ideas.

Craig: I love pop music, I want to do more of it, I like Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira, I want to do something like that, I'm still trying to figure out how to get there. In the meantime I'll probably just try whatever anyone throws at me, because I want to do everything.

I just remembered another instance of my megalomania: in senior year in high school, we had to write short essays on personal memories for English class, and my English teacher asked us to fill out a piece of paper saying how harshly did we want our personal essays evaluated, and what kind of feedback did we want.

And I wrote that I wanted the harshest criticism possible, and I wanted her to answer this question for me: "Why isn't this essay the greatest piece of literature ever written in the English language?" Random story but anyway, that's kind of what I'm thinking every time I write a song: Why isn't this song the greatest song ever written in all of humankind?

Gabbie: Craig, please, your vainglory is well documented.

Craig: Ha ha. As Art Brut wrote in Formed a Band: "I'm gonna write a song / As universal as Happy Birthday / That's gonna make sure / That everybody knows / That everything's gonna be ok / I'm gonna take that song / And we're gonna play it / Eight weeks in a row on Top of the Pops." Ok I'm done.

Gabbie: Ha ha, no, in all sincerity, it's very refreshing to talk to somebody so motivated and eager. I think we may have to mass produce tacky motivational posters of your face, especially since they'll likely be selling for thousands when you inevitably make it big. Don't forget me when you personally slay Paul McCartney to take your seat on his throne. But before I let you go, since you know I'm going to bug you until you let me work with you, how would you feel about some lo-fi Pavement-esque college rock, or something twee, like early Magnetic Fields or Beat Happening (which I think is so fully in your wheelhouse that I'm shocked you haven't done it yet), or a Pixies-inspired track (heavy on the Kim Deal, of course)?

Craig: Ok so actually, I haven't nixed any genre yet, but I kinda get my indie rock needs fulfilled with Miniboone, I don't really need to write any more indie rock songs. So what I would do in your situation is ask you for a bunch of different songs in different genres you like, ask you what you like to sing at karaoke and in the shower, and so on, and then out of that I pick out the genre that I want to do. It's all about ME. I'm Phil Spector, you're Ronnie, what I say goes, and what I say is, you do a Rednex remix of your dad's accordion music! Sorry that should be all caps. YOU DO A REDNEX REMIX OF YOUR DAD'S ACCORDION MUSIC!!! But don't worry, it's really fun to work with me.

Gabbie: Ok, that's upsettingly accurate. And it totally makes sense not to reinvent the wheel that you created with your other musical projects. But if you can't make me live out my nearly decade-long dream of lead singing on a Metric song, I will personally have you "taken care of." And my dad will do the same if he ever finds out that Rednex exist. (I will also accept ABBA or Michael Jackson, who get the most airplay into my hairbrush.)

Craig: THERE you go! ABBA + Rednex. Good combo. I'm hearing the musical possibilities in my head already...

Craig Barnes is a musician living in New York City. He performs with the band Miniboone, and posts his collaborations and personal music at his Soundcloud page. He can be reached for collaboration and soundtrack work at cbstegeman at gmail dot com. He is trying his best to write the greatest song of all time.

NYC quartet Miniboone plays a witches’ brew of caffeinated, kinetic power pop. Their new album Bad Sports will be released on April 21st by Ernest Jenning Record Co.