On his new album Strange Desire, Barrie-James O’Neill mines a sense of isolation that might seem pandemic-induced, but the Scottish singer-songwriter says it’s just his true nature shining through on the gorgeous, melodic set, out Friday.
“To be honest, I’ve always socially distanced myself from people,” says Barrie-James, who has dropped his last name. “I enjoy being alone to play guitar and write stuff down and arrange my thinking. If you can learn to be comfortable spending time by yourself then you’ll be fine. There always seems to be a melancholy tone to my songs, even in the happy ones.”
That’s certainly true with “Riverside,” a somber piano ballad featuring former girlfriend Lana Del Rey. The song, as subdued as it is musically, offers an upbeat message of support lyrically, as Del Rey sings, “I’m up a creek and you’re my paddle.”
Similar to the three Barrie-James tracks that appear on Del Rey’s new album, Blue Banisters, “Riverside” was recorded nearly a decade ago, in 2012, and closes out the set. Barrie-James felt it complemented the other songs on the project. “This album needed a song that stood out from the others, and ‘Riverside,’ because of its moody piano sullen sound, made it really stand out,” he tells Billboard.
Barrie-James wrote the song in Glasgow in 2012 — or channeled it. “I wanted to write a piano line that made me weep and the universe gifted me this song,” he says. He and Del Rey recorded it at Los Angeles’ Nightbird Studios in 2012 when they were dating. Leaked versions of the demo have circulated on YouTube since 2015, but the official video of the revamped song premieres below.
For its inclusion on Strange Desire, “I wanted to add pedal steel strings and some guitar to make ‘Riverside’ hit harder. The bulk of this album was recorded live on either the 12-string acoustic or the six-string guitar, so I felt ‘Riverside’ being a piano duet song fit nicely as the closer and Lana’s vocals on it really make it work.”
The album also features “Country 33,” a duet with Vacancy Records labelmate Ashley Campbell, daughter of the late Glen Campbell, that recalls classic country duets of the late ’60s and early ’70s between Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood or Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash — an era before O’Neill was born. Barrie-James and Del Rey previously covered the Sinatra/Hazelwood 1967 hit “Summer Wine.”
“Perhaps being fed music from that era growing up really took its toll on me,” says Barrie-James, 33. “The music back then was purer or maybe people were more into being pure back then.”
Barrie-James is planning a U.K. and European tour next year and wants to add some U.S. dates to his schedule, but, in the meantime, he hopes Strange Desire brings listeners comfort. “My goal with making any album is always to make something that someone out there might relate to or treasure,” he says, “like how I treasure an album if it gives me peace or gets me high or gives me a safe space to just be in.”