Photo by Steve MayedaBack in the day, prophets wailed in the wilderness. History tells us that most people ignored the prophets— until it was too late. Such mystics still walk among us. Take Fullerton singer/ songwriter Mike Barnet. The 28-year-old ranks among the most passionate, engaged and politically astute artists in the county. He's also one of the most talented and most unusual: a dreadlocked African American adopted by a white family, he graduated from a religious college but is now embarking on his own spiritual path. All of that makes it easy to see why this decidedly left-of-center troubadour feels like he's always on the outside looking in on the culture (its opulence, its obsession with status and its bifurcated personal morality) that gave rise to Fox's The O.C. But, the Seattle native says, disenfranchisement ain't so bad: it fuels his fire.
"It's fun to be in a place where you feel like you belong, but where you also always feel like you're constantly observing," says Barnet, sitting in one of the stylish seats in Plush, the Fullerton cybercaf where he performs periodically. "I definitely stand out here. My dreads, my skin color, all of that. It's almost like being a foreigner, but at the same time being assimilated. That helps me to comment on things from a perspective that a lot of people from here might not share."
And what does he comment on? Everything from falling in love and getting your heart broken to the devil getting drunk on Christmas Eve to the seductiveness of the illusion-of-the-day—the various materialisms, patriotisms—or just your own screwed-up life.
"I don't ever want to come off as sounding preachy, but a lot of my songs are definite comments on society," Barnet says. "I try to be aware and write about things that I think are important: the gap between the haves and have-nots, the lack of compassion for the poor or people who are different, or just the fear that so many people have, and how easy it is to buy into whatever bullshit the government, the media, advertisers or whoever try to feed the public."
Irony being irony, Barnet owes a small part of his success to that model of master planning, Irvine. After losing his brain-dead warehouse job, he found himself gigging at a coffee house in the Irvine Spectrum. The head chef at a Marriott hotel saw him and asked if he'd like to play in his restaurant a couple of times a week. And so Barnet began playing for business travelers, the occasional tourist couples, harried suburban parents looking for a quick night out. He teamed up with some fellow North County singer/songwriters and launched True American Records, a label that allows the various performers to pool their fan bases and resources. He's got regular gigs in LA and OC, and while he's not exactly lighting Havanas with hundred-dollar bills, he's supporting himself exclusively by playing music.
Barnet has a couple of CDs out, but they haven't quite captured the energy and passion—or the fun—of his live shows, which suggest some of his obvious influences, like Bob Marley and Richie Havens. His songs are infused with everything from rap and gospel to country, and the kind of spooky folk music Bob Dylan launched his career with. But remember this: no matter how political or intelligent or clever Barnet is, he's also a brother. And that means he's got rhythm, blues and soul, all of which shine evocatively on stage.
More than anything though, Barnet's music is deeply spiritual. You can tell he's seen a lot, but he's also actively engaged in figuring what it's all about. And that seems to be the wellspring for many of his songs.
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Take his signature tune, "Art of Drowning," maybe the best four-minute-and-34-second piece of music ever written by an Orange County songwriter. It tells a few different stories, from the wealthy turning a deaf ear to the homeless ("Some go sleeping in the alley, drowning in the rain/Some go sleeping in their mansion, drowning on champagne") to a crowd of people who complacently accept empty political promises and their place in the world, to a woman who refuses to leave her abusive husband.
"A lot of people think that's a true story, but it isn't," says Barnet. "I was trying to explore how easy it is for people to die of boredom and apathy and hurt, but also examine the way they're living and maybe do something about it."
Doing something about it. Doing something about anything. That's a rare thing for an artist these days to cop to. And it's just one of many different reasons why Mike Barnet's wail in the OC wilderness is worth hearing.
Mike Barnet performs at Fierro's, 211 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-3663. Every Tues., 8 p.m. Free. 18+.