Ben Barnes is best known for playing an imperiled prince in the Chronicles Of Narnia, a soldier turned underworld leader in Marvel’s The Punisher, a louche businesman in Westworld, and the nigh-invincible general at the center of Netflix’s gorgeous fantasy drama Shadow And Bone.
With the release of his first EP, Songs For You, only days away, you might say he’s stepping into a new role, that of singer-songwriter. But Barnes has been immersed in music for more than half his life: As a teen, he performed in Frank Sinatra tribute concerts and Stevie Wonder soul nights before joining the National Youth Music Theatre. He grew up playing the drums, which landed him a gig in a West End musical adaptation of Bugsy Malone.
Barnes says when he realized he “couldn’t really be [a] Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles,” he knew he still wanted to be involved in music somehow. The actor began to take on roles in movies that explored different musical genres, performing everything from the “postmodern, New Romantics/Bowie stuff” of Killing Bono to the Cole Porter-era jazz of Easy Virtue to bluegrass of Jackie & Ryan. There was also a very brief stint in a U.K. boy band that, if nothing else, taught Barnes the importance of figuring out what he really wants to say with his own music.
And Songs For You (whose title is inspired by Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,” though the Donny Hathaway cover is the actor’s favorite) is as expansive in its sentiments as its sound. Working with producers John Alagia and Jesse Siebenberg, Barnes makes a confident debut with this buoyant ’70s throwback that’s brimming with strings and brass and soaring vocals. The earnestness of songs like “11:11" and “The End” belies the polished production—though it’s an EP, Songs For You is no half-measure. Barnes looks ready to join modern-day crooners like Michael Bublé.
The wait has been worth it for Barnes, who never strayed far from his musical roots. The A.V. Club spoke with the actor, who’s been filming an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities, about reaching new heights of creativity during a pandemic, what he learned about authenticity from being in a boy band, and the movie musical he’d star in.
The A.V. Club: During the pandemic, a lot of people have taken up a new skill or hobby. But you’re starting a new career. How did it feel to embark on such a journey at such a time?
Ben Barnes: I think during the pandemic there was a lot of identity crises and people kind of just thinking about coming out of all of this, having a bit more freedom again and the ability to hug people and sit in front of the people that we care about. “What do we want to talk about?” “Who do I want to be going forward after this?” Especially in times of crisis, when all of our mortalities are kind of brought closer to us, it makes you question what you want to do going forward. What do you want to prioritize?
I’ve always loved music. I’ve wanted to create something of my own and share it for more than 20 years. I’ve thought about what I’d want to sound like and what it is I’d want to say, given that opportunity, and realized that I can make that opportunity for myself at this point. In my teens, I would do Sinatra tribute concerts and Stevie Wonder soul nights. Later, I played different characters who sang in films, but all the while never wondering, “What do I sound like? What do I say? And what do I say when I find out?”
As an actor, one of the best compliments you can get is, “I didn’t recognize you in there at all. I didn’t feel any of you in this.” But as a songwriter, singer, or musician, you want the opposite reaction. You want, “Oh, I feel you in this. I can feel what you’re feeling. It makes me feel something about my life or whatever, because there’s a purity or directness to it that is just kind of real and raw.” That’s what I wanted. It’s done now, and that’s a relief.
AVC: You started in musical theater, and have also been in several movies where music was key: Easy Virtue, Jackie & Ryan, Killing Bono. But now that the live-action movie musical is back in a big way, is there one you’d like to be in?
BB: They’ve done a lot of them already that were some of my favorites, like Les Miz and Into The Woods. I know they already made a Jesus Christ Superstar [movie] in the ’70s, but I think the music in that is pretty epic and there’s maybe a slightly more modern take on that somewhere. That would be cool. I’m sure there are lots that I’m not thinking of, but that’s one that I know hasn’t been done in a long time, at least.
AVC: The music video for “11:11" features Evan Rachel Wood, and was shot by Lee Toland Krieger, one of the directors from Shadow And Bone. Was it important to you to work with people you know for your first music video?
BB: Yeah. One of the first interviews I did [about the album] was sort of saying, “Are you worried about being this actor-slash-musician?” “Are people going to think, ‘stick in your lane?’” But I thought it would be cool to link what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years to what I’m doing now. That, for me, was getting co-stars from shows to be in the videos and trying to have a bit of a narrative and bit of acting and storytelling from that point of view.
I’ve got a connection with Lee, who directed the pilot for Shadow And Bone—there’s trust there. An old friend of mine directed the second video that I’m going to put out, because I wanted to put out more than one even though it’s just an EP. I just thought, “Well, I’m enjoying it and it’s fun and I think people will respond to storytelling in that way.” There’s a co-star of a different show that I did who’s going to be in that one with me. I wanted to link what I’ve been doing with what I’m trying to do now.
AVC: There’s something refreshing about that approach—you’re not shying away from your status as an actor in a bid to more “real” or “authentic.”
BB: I think it was more of a concerted effort not to try and pretend to be cooler than I am, actually. [Laughs.] I like that Hollywood glam of that first video. As you say, that is sort of where I’ve come from, and the story I wanted to tell lent itself to doing that. The second video is a bit grimier, but again, it’s not trying to be edgy or cool. The thing that was most important to me was trying to express sentiment through music. That’s what I’ve always loved about every song I’ve ever loved, is that it speaks to me in some way and it’s expressing a feeling, and I know whoever’s singing it has felt whatever feeling that is.
So it’s an attempt to do that. Did I kind of want to put on a tux and stuff? Yeah. But also I’d been sitting at home in my sweatpants for a year and a half like everyone else. So it felt good to set it up that way. Somebody said something about, “Oh, look, it’s a singing James Bond.” But I was like, “Yeah, exactly.” I would rather come across like that than trying to be like, “No, don’t think of me as that.” But also, I’m 40 and I am who I am. This is authentically me. I think people, no matter what age they are, no matter where they’re from or whatever, connect with things that feel honest. This is honest.
AVC: In 2004, you were in a boy band, Hyrise. These groups come in waves, but back then, they were being assembled in real time. Were you able to find a way to express yourself as part of that group? Or was it more a matter of “Let’s just try this?”
BB: Yeah. I think the reason that I have a slight hesitancy and still a little bit feel a bit of embarrassment around that thing is that it was a couple of weeks in my life and I enjoyed doing it and there were great guys in it. I sort of did it as a favor for a management person that I was doing some jazz recording with. And they were like, “We’ve had someone drop out, will you come and do it?” And I was like, “Yeah, why not?” But I think the thing that I do feel a bit embarrassed about is that it never quite felt authentic. It never quite felt like what I was trying to do. But I wanted to be involved with making music so much and I wanted the opportunity.
Even though it was a few weeks, I was like, “Well, maybe I can be like Justin Timberlake.” And he’s gone on to do such incredible stuff that I’d still love to be like Justin Timberlake in so many ways because he’s mega. His 2020 album is, as far as I’m concerned, old soul pop as well.
When you’re an actor coming up, they say, “Take any job, play any character, work on anything, because you build momentum and you do it.” And there’s a truth to it, because otherwise, how do you get started? I felt the same way about the music. But there are young people, like Harry Styles or whoever, putting music out that immediately captures something. It is possible to be authentic even when you’re young. I think that I didn’t have the boldness to sort of say, “I want to make this.” Or I didn’t know what I wanted to make or say or sound like.
It was inauthentic, in a way, to do it, but I wanted to be involved. And not everything we do in life is for the same sets of reasons and has that pure intent. I think that being young is for experimenting and trying things and seeing how they work out. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t done that, I think. Butterfly effects and all that. You just got to own up to it then.
AVC: We’ve all worked a job we didn’t feel passionately about.
BB: Right. Still, I accept that it’s funny to see me wearing my sweatband halfway up my arm and the chain that some stylist gave me. [Laughs.] I’ve got a very silly haircut, and a stupid little goatee here. I accept how ridiculous it all was. But it was all trying to be like someone else, and that was the problem with it.
AVC: I did read that at some point, you decided to only make the shows or movies that you would want to watch, which seems like a very healthy attitude to take. How do you feel that’s informed your work since?
BB: It’s allowed me to just sit with who I am as a person and feel confident that whatever I offer is going to be interesting enough, because I know how passionate and committed I am to everything I ever do and try. So just to have a bit of faith in that. Yeah, telling stories that you feel that you would watch and connect to again, it’s a bit like making music that you like and can be proud of. It’s all the same kind of thing.
The boy band thing and doing impressions of other people and whatever, that was in my early acting career as well. I just wanted to do jobs and tell stories and maybe some of them I wanted to be in the movie, rather than a story that I felt connected to in some way. This allowed me to let go of those strings that pull you towards wanting to come across a certain way. We all have those hang-ups. One of the cures for that is to do something which feels completely you, then you can feel good about having done that.
AVC: Now you have an EP, Songs For You, that does represent who you are. But there’s actually a theme of duality, of the sense that we are and feel a lot of things at once. Can you talk about what you were trying to explore?
BB: As people, we’re made up of all our memories and all our relationships and all of our ways we connect with people in the world in the moment. That’s who we are. I think my music is every song I’ve ever listened to, whether that is kind of old school big band jazz or Billie Eilish—that raw kind of new thing, or sort of new school soul, like Daniel Caesar.
Whether it’s the musicals or the kind of like Ben Platt feel—whatever I’ve listened to is in there somewhere. I think whatever’s sitting on the top of each song is going to be what people sort of categorize it as, but there’s me in there. All the stuff that I love is in there somewhere, even if it doesn’t quite sound like that on the surface. So whatever it ends up sounding like, it’s kind of like when you’re making food and you’re not exactly following a recipe, you’re just putting in ingredients that you like, and hope it tastes good to someone in the end.
AVC: Which of these tracks have you lived with the longest?
BB: There’s a song called “Rise Up.” My dad would always stand up at Christmas dinner and read a poem he wrote which would express some of the things we’d celebrated in the year, or maybe some of the things that were hard about the year for my family or whatever. And it would always make me kind of giggle and a bit teary and a bit nostalgic. And I always loved that. I started stealing it and doing it on people’s birthdays or in a time of struggle—just four lines. I don’t know, but there would be something about trying to make it rhyme that would make me really think about what I’m trying to say to that person.
That song started life as a little boring poem for someone who was feeling down, then it became about me as well and boring myself and all of these things. Eventually, I had another look at it and thought, “Well, if I put some chords, I can make it into a little sort of hymnal thing.” It sat in a notebook for so long, then this whole pandemic thing made me build it up into something else. I got this incredible musician, Oliver Krauss, to write and play strings on it, so it sounds like there’s an orchestra—very rich and full of feeling.
AVC: When it’s safe to do so, do you plan to tour?
BB: It’s come up. I haven’t ever done it. I would love to maybe play a smaller thing first to test the water. Because as you said, the one thing that comes along with being known for acting and stuff is that—I’m sure I could go and play some small bar somewhere, but the expectation is different from that a bit. I’d want to do it like I do everything. I’d want to do it for full out, and make it something I can be proud of.
Obviously, I have a day job, as it were, as well, so going back to Shadow And Bone and TV shows and stuff. It’s something that I hope to figure out. It would be a crying shame to do all this and not perform it in front of people and see what that feels like. Even just for me selfishly, it would be a shame to not know what that feels like, to sing a song for people. So I’ll figure it out.
AVC: You have this EP coming out on the heels of this big Netflix show, and a lot more projects in the works. How are you handling the higher profile? And what does it feel like to have this kind of success after being in the business as long as you have been?
BB: Honestly, I love being busy and having a focus and collaborating on storytelling. The high profile thing has always been a bit secondary to me. But it does feel good that people are paying attention to what you’re spending your time and your energy on. I love it when people come up and say, “I watched this and I loved it” or “I heard your song.”
I remember being on a train in New York when Westworld came out. I had gone to see a Jets game and I heard people talking about Westworld. It was a bunch of drunk dudes just being like, “Violent delights have violent ends, man.” It’s exciting to know that your stuff is in the world. So having people sing your lyrics at you is not something I’ve ever experienced, but just seeing people do covers of the song within hours of it coming out, that was new for me. Coming up with the concept for the music videos, and then actually watching the director set up the shots exactly as it was in my mind, was an adventure for me. That was a new, exciting feeling of, “This shot of Evan Rachel Wood in this chair is exactly what was in my head.” I didn’t know what that would feel like. It was kind of overwhelming in a good way.