Ryan “RnB” Barber, Julia Sanders and Powder Horns release new albums

MIDYEAR MARVELS: Clockwise from top right, Asheville-based musicians Ryan "RnB" Barber, Julia Sanders and Powder Horns recently put new projects out into the world. Barber photo by Justin Clark; Sanders photo by K.M. Fuller; Powder Horns photo by Michael Lovell Rouse

In the midst of 2020’s darkest days, Asheville-based musician Ryan “RnB” Barber saw an opportunity to uplift those around him.

“With everything going on the past couple years — from the pandemic to civil unrest to the ugly result of politics in the country — lots of musicians were creating projects relating to those matters. You could hear and feel the dark undertones, and understandably so,” he says. “I decided to take a different direction and try to make folks smile, laugh and dance in the midst of the chaos. Music and laughter are medicine, so I’m offering a fat dose of both.”

A self-described introvert, Barber wrote, produced, arranged, recorded and mixed his latest album, Funk Yo Feelins, in his home studio — and says he would have taken that route regardless of whether a pandemic was raging outside his door. The majority of the eight R&B/hip-hop originals are evergreen in their positivity and are not explicitly in response to quarantine. The clear exception is “Stuck in the House,” which was recorded early in lockdown as a comedic solo DIY video, before receiving an upgrade for the LP with a guest verse from local rap icon Agent 23.

According to Barber, he and Agent 23 had multiple conversations during the pandemic prior to the collaboration. “He had so much he needed to get out,” recalls Barber. “So I knew this would be the perfect way for him to release [it].” In his textbook witty style, the MC drops such 2020-centric pop culture puns as Hermit the Frog, Steve Purell, Billy Ray Virus, Lysol Goodman and Mad Vax. He also calls out “Karens,” toilet-paper hoarders and QAnon conspiracy theorists.

Prior to COVID-19 disrupting daily life, Barber felt that he and many of his peers had “started to take a lot of things for granted as far as being a full-time musician in Asheville.” But after seeing that “everything could be taken away in an instant,” his mindset has pulled a 180.

“I’ve been learning to adapt to other things musically, such as trying to be more comfortable with livestreams and trying to learn to play bass [guitar], among other things, to make sure that performing on stage isn’t one of the only things I have to offer that generates income and contributes to the scene and culture,” he says.

Barber and his funk band BoogiTherapi have gradually returned to playing shows as pandemic restrictions lifted. And though he admits that his voice was a little rusty at first, the time away also gave him “lots of energy to dance around on stage and perform.” Getting back in the groove, Barber adds, was “just like riding a bike.” avl.mx/9r8

Greetings from Carrier Park

When it comes to accurate advertising in music, it’s tough to top Julia Sanders’ new EP, Jersey Girl. The Asheville-based singer/songwriter is indeed a native of the Garden State, but the title holds more significance — in particular, the integral role that the work of Bruce Springsteen has played in her life.

Over the years, Sanders has learned to play more of his songs and occasionally joked with friends that she’d eventually record a Springsteen covers album. When the pandemic hit and gave her ample time to follow through on the idea, she recruited musical colleagues to collaborate on six tunes — a mix of personal favorites and ones on which she felt she could put her own creative spin, among them “I’m on Fire” and “Hungry Heart.” But instead of landing a group of fellow die-hard Boss fans, Sanders was shocked to discover that several of them weren’t familiar with the tunes.

“It’s funny,” she says. “He’s so popular and so mainstream on one level and, on some other level, either you grew up with it or you didn’t grow up with it. That’s music in a nutshell, isn’t it?”

Inspired by the lo-fi roots of Springsteen’s landmark 1982 album, Nebraska, Sanders recorded her lead vocal and guitar parts at home with her humble computer-and-microphone setup. With the pandemic at its peak and guest musicians spread across the country, most contributing artists recorded their parts and submitted them electronically. Though for a few of her fellow local Luddites who didn’t have compatible hardware or software, Sanders dropped off equipment at their homes and provided advice on recording.

In the process of crafting Jersey Girl, Sanders’ appreciation for Springsteen grew — namely his ability to write what are essentially short stories, populated by characters whose histories often aren’t the songwriter’s own. While a similar emphasis on fiction has yet to make its way into her original music, Sanders says the experience “has opened up the possibility that you can write more theoretically than just about your life.”

“It seems really freeing and really hard at the same time to do that,” she says. “You can make up anything you want, but also you have to make up anything you want.” avl.mx/9r9

Vision quest

Brett J Kent recently met up with an old friend who at one point asked the local musician, “What new skill do you have?”

With pandemic-related restrictions lifting and people reconnecting after a year-plus of isolation, Kent thinks versions of this question will become increasingly common. It also helps that the longtime bassist has a terrific answer — one wrapped up in the creation of the excellent self-titled EP from his brainchild, Powder Horns.

After Kent’s four-piece rock group Ugly Runner dissolved during lockdown, he wanted to continue playing with bandmates Lowell Hobbs and Eli D Raymer. They knew Kent primarily as a bassist, so when the frontman departed from their other project, the post-punk band Tongues of Fire, they didn’t think to consider Kent for the role because they needed a guitarist.

“So, I went out, took some of my stimulus money and bought a guitar and an amp,” Kent says. “I play guitar in that band now, and I credit them for making me pick it up and learn it.”

The instrumental addition has also proved fruitful beyond Tongues of Fire. After jamming with friends during a hometown visit to Greenville, S.C., Kent figured that if he could connect a few chords, he could “write a song or two.”

“I just started, and it never stopped,” he says, upon his return to Asheville. “I went through this phase where I deleted all my social media and wasn’t showing anybody anything. So I felt no pressure to make anything good — I just started making things.”

The prolific output that’s emerged from that space resulted in Powder Horns, the first project where Kent has had complete creative control. It’s also his debut venture writing songs, singing and playing guitar. Additionally, he plays bass on all four of the pulsing rock songs that form the EP. And while Hobbs (guitar) and Raymer (percussion) contributed to the recordings at local studio The Cat’s Claw and complete the trio in live settings, they’re wholly supportive of his vision.

“I’ve kind of switched my focus from doing things that I think people would like to just doing what I like,” Kent says.

That approach likewise held true with the no-fuss release of the EP, which Kent uploaded to Bandcamp on June 18, purposefully eschewing a social media page. Instead of manipulating people through algorithms, he’d prefer that listeners find the band’s music by more organic means, which he feels will result in a more meaningful connection. avl.mx/9ra


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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