Jimmy Barnes’s new solo album, Flesh and Blood, is a paean to his family. Written during 2020, a year in which the Aussie rock icon slept more nights in his own bed than any other in recent memory, the record is infused with gratitude for the ties that bind a family and reflections on Barnes’ difficult past and the demons that continue to haunt him.
It’s also a family affair in practice. Barnes duets with his wife of 40 years, Jane, on ‘Love Hurts’, while his son Jackie and youngest daughter Elly-May add vocals to ‘I Move Slow’. His eldest daughter, Mahalia, is responsible for all of the album’s backing vocals and Mahalia’s husband, Ben Rodgers, plays bass and engineered the album. For the album’s closing number, a cover of the American country standard, ‘Tennessee Waltz’, Barnes duets with his middle daughter, Eliza Jane.
The latter is a hint to what Barnes actually spent most of 2020 doing. After Jane expressed interest in learning guitar, the Barnes family rallied round to form the Jane Barnes Band. Under this handle, they’d jump on social media every night and live-stream cover versions. In all, the family learned upwards of 200 songs, the best of which are featured on the bonus DVD that comes with the deluxe edition of Flesh and Blood.
But despite its homespun origins, Flesh and Blood – much of which was written with Barnes’ brother in law Mark Lizotte (aka Diesel) and is dedicated to his great friend, the late Michael Gudinski – contains some of the most affecting and instantly memorable songs of Barnes’ solo career.
Music Feeds spoke to Barnes about the Jane Barnes Band, the album’s thematic intimacy and how writing his memoir influenced his songwriting practice.
Music Feeds: The album had its origins in the Jane Barnes Band covers you shared on social media throughout 2020. How did that start?
Jimmy Barnes: We thought it was a good thing to reach out to a few people who are locked down and can’t see their families or whatever. So we thought we could do a song for them every night. That’s how it started, but I think it was also a way of reaching out to each other – me reaching out to Jane and vice versa.
It became a way of connecting and searching and learning about each other. We were playing songs that my dad used to sing to my mum or Jane’s dad would sing to her mum. These were songs that were part of our DNA, so I thought, “We should make a family record.”
MF: Jane duets with you on ‘Love Hurts’ and your kids are all on the record, but Flesh and Blood still feels like a Jimmy Barnes solo album, albeit one that’s based around what family means to you.
JB: Yeah that’s right. I wrote songs about how much I love my kids, about how I know my kids have my best and my worst qualities. I wrote songs about how my parents must have felt trying to have a relationship in Scotland in 1959 with five kids and no money and violence and alcoholism going on. I wrote songs about lying in bed here at night and it’s half past three and you can’t get to sleep and you suddenly feel like you’re not good enough for your family.
These are feelings that I think most people go through, so I just wanted to write a personal family record that was about flesh and blood and everything that goes in between.
MF: On the title track, you sing about how you’d like to protect your kids from the difficulties you’ve come up against, but that it’s ultimately out of your control. Is that accurate?
JB: It’s about, you could try and guide them and corral them and steer them and mould them into something, but if you’re trying to do that, you’re not really allowing them to be themselves. All you can do is give them the tools, give them the love, give them an education, let them know about pride, let them know about generosity, let them know about fear, and then send them out there and let them do it themselves.
I see our kids as version 2.0 of us, you know? And they’re much more equipped to deal with stuff than I was. Problems I’m unravelling now and dealing with now – because I’m obviously a work in progress like everybody else is – they’ll deal with much faster than I will.
MF: Is it a pretty emotional song for you, ‘Flesh and Blood’?
JB: Oh yeah, it’s very emotional. This all goes back to when I wrote that first Working Class Boy book. I started to unravel my history, my past, my darkness, my trauma, my fears, my love, my loss. In the process of doing that, I opened up myself where I realised that no matter how hard I run at things, I can’t knock them all down. No matter how much I charge and try and do things, things are going to get past me. It was about learning to let go and let things be and not trying to be in control all the time.
MF: ‘This is the Truth’ is another moving song on the album. The lyrics emphasise how familial love can keep you sane and lift you up when there doesn’t “seem to be any lower [you] could go.”
JB: That’s a Don Walker song. Don is like my brother and I’ve been so lucky to be the guy who was chosen to sing some of the best songs ever written in Australia, by Don Walker. I rang him and told him what the album was about and I said, “I need a song from you. You’re my flesh and blood.” Don sent me ‘The Truth’ and I just thought it was a beautiful melody, beautiful lyrics.
Going through relationships, you try and hide things, you don’t want people to see the worst of you, but the thing is, my wife has a saying: “The truth is going to set you free.” Sometimes the truth is the hardest thing to say and if you can say the truth, that’s all you have to do.
MF: You spoke about how since writing your first memoir, Working Class Boy, you’ve been able to open up and work on yourself in a way you hadn’t previously. Are the songs on this album a continuation of this process of self-exploration?
JB: From that point – Working Class Boy – I stopped writing about superficial, I love you, you love me, tell me you love me. I started writing about much more real, much more complex emotions. Some are darker and also some are obviously lighter, because I feel like I’ve had a weight lifted off my shoulders – there was so much stuff that I hadn’t told anybody about before I started writing that book.
So, starting to do that allowed me to open up to myself and face the truth and open up to my wife and kids and face the truth, and that has made me a better person. Because of that, I’m a better songwriter, I’m a better husband, I’m a better father, a better grandfather, better friend. And I honestly do believe that I have not hit my full potential yet – I think I’m getting better every day.