Comfort In Sound
In rooms filled with flashing lights and swarming bodies, each transcending into a moment, culture appears. And from that culture comes thinkers and creators who want to extend, develop and hone until it evolves once more into its next moment. People like Georgia.
"When I saw The Black Madonna for the first time three years ago, it changed my life." Georgia Barnes recalls. "She's the best DJ in the world, you know? It's not that she's technically doing all these things. She's just taking you on this journey, and it's just like you're never going to be on it again. That's it."
It's near the end of 2019. All around London, Christmas decorations are popping up, and the drawing to the close of a decade is nigh. Since 2010, the now-29-year-old Barnes has been to university, studied ethnomusicology, and released her self-titled debut album in 2015, and at this point she's on the precipice of releasing her second album, Seeking Thrills, after finding traction amongst the Radio One A-list.
Down a quiet street, beneath a coffee shop, Barnes sits welcomingly in a nook befitting a wine cellar and immediately offers me the seat directly next to her. In amongst the furore that she's currently living thanks to the heightened success, every moment is fleeting. Still, when you're in it with Barnes, she exudes London warmth, repeatedly apologising for eating her lunch during our interview, and ensuring nothing else exists around it.
It's this warmth which also exudes from the music she creates. From the innate mindset of Barnes lies the understanding of what we, as people, yearn for. Taking and piecing together all she's experienced, and understood; it's as selfless as it is selfish.
The most basic of these ideas is thus; we, as humans, need to feel something. We need to know that something is happening. That tectonic movement of bodies on a dancefloor while a beat pulsates, overriding any natural rhythm that's biologically keeping us alive - for those moments we are lost to the noise. That's where Barnes found her understanding.
Her journey has been trying to bottle this lightning for us all to lose ourselves, and through this selfless act, she's found her own higher understanding of what it is to be everywhere while being nowhere. It's the heartbeat across the emotional beacon that Seeking Thrills symbolises.
One of the more prominent words that appears during our conversation is "escapism". Evidently, Barnes is someone who's honed in on the psychological landscapes she's trying to cater.
"There was definitely an aim for it to sound good on dancefloors. And for it to sound good when people put it on their speakers or put their Air Pods, or whatever they do," she says. "That they're just transported to like this place, for them, where they can feel like they can express themselves."
When it comes to figuring out where this began for Barnes, she doesn't have just one moment that she signals the beginning of her understanding of music and its higher power. Seemingly, the steps from self-confessed "wildcard" session drummer to predominantly sober brainchild of her creation haven enabled this discovery.
"I mean, I've had a lot over the years, you're talking to someone who's basically a complete music geek!" She says with a hearty laugh. "But since I can remember I've just loved music. So there were a few pinpoint moments. Specifically, one was not so long ago - about maybe four years ago now."
Regaling a story of a trip to Berlin Barnes took with her girlfriends for a 30th birthday like it was yesterday, her assumption was they "were going to have a completely hedonistic sort of weekend in Berlin and take loads of drugs and whatever you do,"
Before this, the purification of Barnes was in full swing; "I'd stopped drinking and was getting my life together - talking about my health. Drinking was sort of negative force in my life for a couple of years, and so I knocked that on the head."
"We went to see my friend's boyfriend DJ, then we went on to the Berghain, and then on to Panorama - I was completely sober," she continues. "And I just had this moment; I was on the dancefloor, it was the first time of just 'This is fucking amazing!'
"I don't think I'd had that before. I'd always gone into clubs with the idea of just like... drink! You know; blah blah blah, make out with this guy, go home with this guy. Dance for a bit and then blah blah blah - and then wake up with a hangover."
It's literally in Barnes' DNA to root something out of the physical sensations of dance music. Her Dad, Neil Barnes, a founder of '90s electro-duo Leftfield, ensured she understood just what it is to feel those moments of sober clarity.
"I've grown up with this idea of what it is to dance and listen to music." She says. "I was brought up with the emphasis on bass and drums, and what that does in a physical sense. But standing on that dancefloor suddenly it all made sense to me, I kind of had an epiphany or something like that, and it was just like 'This is so important'."
Engraining this importance on a cultural level is what makes artists like Barnes intrinsic to cultural moments. They've found something that matters, and they know it needs to be cherished, and even as the tide does change, raising that conversation helps keep the ideas alive.
"This is such an important part of culture. Imagine if you just stripped all of this from humans, they'd feel so shit!" She loudly exclaims. "It's so inclusive as well; you don't have to look or be a certain way; you can be whoever you want to be on this dancefloor. It was a really important moment; I think it suddenly clicked to me that that was the direction of the album, I was striving to create more of an accessible sound."
This pivotal moment to Barnes' next steps, creating the knowledge of what she needs to furnish while the music she holds so dear is the medium, would be nothing without the spaces themselves. These places are where the heartbeat of these ideas live. Places like Berghain, amidst a brutalist industrial complex, sits the kingdom of ravers, dancers, and intrigued minds alike; not a purposeful space, but adopted.
"I think it's a combination?" She ponders on which breeds which in the world of music, culture, and spaces. "I think it's the people, [but] I think it's the space more so than anything. There must be some sort of philosophical explanation. [People are] putting emphasis on spaces everywhere now, DJs, bands, people are striving for different spaces, and I do think that has a big part to play in it.
"Berlin is a city which really puts importance on them. London did, but we are struggling with that, and I think that's a shame. However, you'll never stop the people from finding space and putting illegal raves on," Barnes continues.
"Also, it's about a really good DJ. I mean, I stood on this floor, and I was watching my friend's boyfriend, he's called Gatto Fritto - oh, such a fucking great DJ! It was just choon after choon," she says with concurrent snapping fingers, equally matching her excitement. "And not EDM, it was going back to '80s; exploring soul and funk, mixing them with light and heavy techno. It just took you on this complete journey, and I realised that they're just incredible human beings, DJs. They have this wealth of knowledge and music that goes far beyond, and they're able to control that room in a way that's facilitating everyone's sort of enjoyment. I think it's incredible."
As our conversation continues, between mouthfuls of curry, we fall into thinking of why electronic music has had such a domino effect from its early underground beginnings.
"I think at one point rock 'n' roll was like that." Barnes ponders. "But I think electronic music has just taken on this role, and it's shifted the whole world. With its adaptability and infiltrated so many countries, particularly Europe, and Eastern Europe."
With a seemingly exhaustive knowledge of the socio-political landscape that electronic music has covered, Barnes often comes back to Depeche Mode as not only being influential on a personal level but across also the grander landscape.
"I watched a really interesting documentary about Depeche Mode recently - Jeremy Deller did it - about the phenomenon, and fans being completely fanatical in the countries in the late '80s," she says. "When the Soviet Union dismantled, suddenly Depeche Mode became this symbol of cultural revolution. It's the same in Berlin. When the Berlin Wall came down, Depeche Mode was suddenly heralded as kings of expression."
The underground elements of electronic music were boiling away during these mammoth moments in time, "helping young people slowly find this freedom of expression." But it's the working classes who, for years, have required the escapism in those sweaty halls, and on the bouncing floors, to realise that the world can hold more, even when the drudgery of a job can feel grinding.
"I think it was adaptable, and it became the voice of the working classes." She says reasoning the late-'80s, early-'90s electronic tidal wave that saw the inception of iconic spaces such as The Haçienda in Manchester.
"I think it's an interesting point. We could sit here and talk forever, or you could do a whole paper on the adaptability of electronic music, it's never really given the credit its due." She enthuses, adjusting in her seat, tassels of her denim cowboy jacket ruffling. "It changed the whole face of pop music. I was interested in going back to the originators, and how, amongst all that struggle, did they come up with something so incredible?"
The originators for Barnes are the pioneers of Chicago house music and Detroit Techno. "These amazing underground dark scenes... and how they infiltrated music - it becomes more than just a sort of music scene. It's a social, cultural movement for people who are on the fringes of society to find a community."
The similarity between these two places and our very own UK shores falls back to the ever-relatable working classes. Something Barnes theorises based around the sounds "It's all industrial," she says. "It was very simple. It was talking about a 'promised land'. I think kids, particularly in working-class towns outside of London, related to it because they were like, 'This is what we want!'"
"[Which is why] I think it hit the UK because it was relatable. As a result, you have all these illegal raves that start and all the culture that comes with it. It changes people's lives... changes kids' lives. Especially the working class, they say, 'Well, yeah, there's more to the world than having a job.'"
Another influence that seeped in from Barnes' beloved Chicago house is the lyricism, and what they can hide below the electronic fray. Finding the lyrics to be dark, and concerning not belonging tied well with her love of other explorative artists from outside the electronic genres.
"I've always been interested in lyrics that have a real emotiveness behind them that Kate Bush, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell" She explains. "Great lyricists who looked to that the idea of searching and wanting. And so when I was listening to the Chicago house, I was like, 'Wow, this is amazing'."
The spaces and sounds that consume us when we need them can play a significant role in how we develop, but intrinsically, human's have that want of others. The yearning of love that can encapsulate and hold you tight is natural. Music has been that conduit since the first notes were being written.
"The interesting dance music for me is when the lyrics are about searching and about wanting and are emotive. The great pop songs are also that because they took from Chicago house," Barnes says.
Citing the likes of Madonna, Eurythmics, Pet Shop Boys et al., as "setting this kind of precedent of 'It's okay to sing about wanting for a better environment and a better place'. I think that whole element kind of infiltrated pop music excitingly."
This exploration is partially why Barnes new output is finding a robust new audience. Across Seeking Thrills comes a marrying of beats that echo vividly through clubs, while Barnes sings of love, hedonism, escapism, and just about everything else that aligned during the last few years.
"It's really important to me that the lyrics have an emotiveness. I'm interested in exploring human emotion, and I think mixing that with House was really interesting," she says. "Kate Bush, in particular... I love the way she uses elemental factors within her songs that are looking to the landscapes. [Also] Gothic writing, I read Frankenstein and then placed it in context of the modern day, and you realise that still people basically just want to listen to songs about love, searching, and wanting."
This relatability, and striking the right words at the right moments, all came through the arduous examination of disco music that only the self-confessed "music nerd" could do. "I really analysed [them]," she smiles. "I had these three whiteboards in the studio, and I was writing, and putting all the visual themes the songs were exploring, and [any] interesting words."
Exploration is another crucial facet to the human makeup. Where we're required to understand and thrive in a world that is still being controlled by archaic political institutes, grander ideas can develop by letting cultures immerse and enrich, where we see fit, allowing them to bloom and blossom.
For as long as there's been a musical beat tempering away, with it can comes an enhancer. Anything to make the experience even more powerful. In electronic music, this has become a way to bridge the gap between the self-fulfilling prophecy of transcendence as catalysts.
Broaching into the subject of drugs that surround the culture, a taboo subject that's fallen away over the years, the simple fact that any culture finds a facet aided by chemicals, Barnes has no doubts about the significant, but not pivotal, role they play.
"I mean, the whole idea of ecstasy is it's a heightened sense of life," she explains. "It just goes hand in hand with that music. Disco is almost drug inducing anyway, because of the chords and the BPM relates to the drugs."
"I think, particularly, in the dance scene, it was prominent, but I wasn't so concentrated on that whole drugs element. I was more about the music really, how the music also helps people escape and you know, the music... people usually take ecstasy because there's a really good DJ."
Other reasons for chemical exploration can simply come from the anxiety of being in an environment that's so alien, depending on your experience. Someone such as Barnes, a seasoned understander of the adventure, having now experienced its purest form, has no qualms entering that realm.
"I am slightly different because I have a very personal connection to this music; it almost lives in me." She says, inferring back to her Berlin experience. "The elements that make up dance music are definitely very familiar to me, so it was almost like I was coming home, I feel comfortable on the dancefloor, however, there are spaces where you feel a bit like people are watching, [and you] just need something to… boom," she says with a wide-eyed expression. "But I think when it's a really good DJ, and they're facilitating these happy vibes, positivity, and love, the dancefloors are very much a reflection of that."
Seeking Thrills is where all these notions culminate for Barnes, sealing themselves under a title that boils it all down to two simple words that have been omnipresent in humans since the dawn of man. Having begun to construct the album, and explaining that the songs are reflecting her journey, knowing she was providing a broader service to people came after the fact.
"Seeking Thrills was me trying to seek something when I was sober," she says. "I don't think I can be an artist and not impose some of my personal experiences. I think it's important that artists do that. Otherwise, you just get really bland, boring pop music which doesn't have much meaning at all."
Throughout this self-exploration came her grander idea to dilute it into something that fell to a universal nature. Speaking of this lightbulb moment, she says, "I thought, 'Oh, there's something in that...seeking thrills'. It hit me that actually, it had a bit of a universal theme to it. In this modern day where everyone's working so hard and working for other people, we're trying to survive, and we very rarely check in on ourselves and say, 'Well, what do we need?' What do I need, you know, and what do I need to do? And the idea of going out and seeking something a little bit different; whether it's thrills or some other thing, I think it's an essential element to make us happy."
As with every cultural moment and movement, the individual end must come. Ones that push biological boundaries, through excesses or chasing a thrill that requires more than just meditative dancing, always catches up. As Barnes, through her understanding of sobriety, knows that the darkness that can conceal the peaceful joy will inevitably turn the tables.
So now the thrills have been chased to their furthest point - what's the next manifestation for Barnes?
"I think for me, it's now family." She states with a smile. "I realise that even though I live and breathe music, I've got a try and, you know, settle down and have a family. I'm not getting younger. I'm not a spring chicken. So I've got to I think that's it just striking a cool balance between my life and so I think that's what the next step looks like for me."
Sometimes the lights have to come up on the dancefloor; the darkness can only hide for so long. Hence the third phase of Barnes' life, ultimately, is understanding; which is how the sudden windfall of attention and opportunity hasn't swallowed her whole she's been preparing for this very moment from when she decided to cut back drinking.
"Physically and mentally, I had been preparing for this. After the first album, I was totally unprepared for what happened in terms of the critical acclaim you know - I think I was a bit lost. I decided to get fit and lose a load of weight. Ate healthily - started to take into consideration nutrition, became a vegan and went gluten free." She nods to the vegan curry she's been picking at. "And I think that was me mentally preparing myself really for working hard. What happens when it goes from nought to 60 - you just have to work harder, there's just no time for slacking."
With a few days at home ahead of her before jetting off to Spain, towing her one-woman escapism performance alongside, the Georgia whirlwind keeps on marching to the electronic beat it always has. She'll be out there fulfilling her cultural duty of entrancing crowds around the world to experience the same epiphanic moment that swept Barnes away in Berlin four years ago.