You can spend An Evening With John Denver, An Evening With Silk Sonic – hell, if you live in Springfield, you can even spend An Evening With Philip Glass (“just an evening?!”). Now, Seán Barna is inviting you to take a step beyond the posh halls that usually host these concert soirées and into a “dirty, smelly, divey drag bar” via An Evening at Macri Park, his just released debut album.
To be clear, Barna applies those descriptors to the titular Williamsburg, Brooklyn gay bar with the utmost admiration. After all, he’s spent many an evening at Macri Park, a melting pot of progressive drag that he hails as a “safe space” where you can “find yourself next to a drag queen you don’t know that well on a Monday night, laughing and insulting each other.” (Fittingly, the cover art for the Kill Rock Stars LP shows Barna perched on one of the bar’s stools next to NYC nightlife mainstay Ruby Roo.)
As an unabashedly queer creative in America, Barna is well aware that LGBTQ safe havens aren’t all smiles and kumbayas, though. “You’re safe from the outside — nobody’s going to harass you, in general — but you’re still bringing in all your demons, your sadness, your heartbreak and all of that,” he muses. “You see people deal with that in different ways… people burn out there… but it’s a little family.” Meg Cavanagh, the bartending backbone of Macri Park, agrees: “Sean isn’t afraid to open up on this album and show the many sides of Brooklyn: the good, the messy and the full spectrum of the community you get here.”
Highlights like the propulsive, harried “Sleeping With Strangers” and the introspective, minimal “The Lonely” on this queer song cycle detail the electrifying but fraught journey toward finding one’s place in New York City. Spanning love, lust, possibility, self-doubt, exhaustion and exhilaration, it’s an album that intentionally places itself in the unflinching Lou Reed tradition of NYC songwriting, where people and places can be as appalling as they are romantic. (The former tune explores how that duality pertains to Reed himself, confronting allegations that he abused his trans girlfriend in the ’70s.)
When Barna was just beginning, one early (and famous) admirer was quick to pick up on the fact that his heartfelt, but never saccharine, alt-rock was building on aesthetics exemplified by the Velvet Underground pioneer. “[Barna’s Cissy EP] reminded me of early ‘70s Lou Reed – you could picture that world, it had color and characters and deeply felt emotions,” says Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz. “The songs on that record were all uniformly brilliant. Even more that, they created a sonic portrait of this whole scene. Suddenly he went from being a talented songwriter to someone who could transport you.”
Duritz’s compliments and support – he brought Barna along as an opener on the Counting Crows’ 2021 tour – is especially meaningful given that the rootsy hitmaker is the reason he started writing songs in the first place. Though the Connecticut-raised musician had been playing drums in “biker bars” since the age of 14, Barna says it wasn’t until he saw the Counting Crows live in his mid-twenties that he began thinking, “Maybe I can write feelings down.” After penning what he describes as “bad poetry” and enduring “nothing” responses to a few open mics, he continued honing his craft and experimenting with his vocal range. Influenced by “growing up around loud f—king Italians” and the falsetto voice he used while talking to the family dog, Barna developed his controlled yet tremulous vocals as he found his artistic “point of view.”
These days, the artist who directly inspired his journey is more than a supporter – he’s a collaborator, too. Duritz appears on six of An Evening at Macri Park’s 11 tracks (either as a featured singer, background singer or instrumentalist), a boon that Barna doesn’t take for granted.
“Somebody that famous and successful and rich – I assume, I haven’t seen his bank account – he doesn’t have to do this. It’s not like, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll get some traction if I play on this.’ He’s excited about music. He’s a special guy.” (Barna readily admits that for Duritz to sing background for him “isn’t easy, because I sing weird.”)
The up-and-comer says the experience was, in a way, deceptively humanizing. After watching Duritz perform several background vocal takes, Barna says he and producer Dave Drago decided that he was “mortal, like us.” But when the Crows frontman sang lead on portions of “Be A Man” and “Sparkle When You Speak,” Barna changed his mind. “At that point Dave and I looked at each other like, ‘There’s the lead singer of the Counting Crows.’ Yet he’s so cool and really chill.”
For his part, Duritz is indeed chill while recalling the sessions. “I didn’t even have to leave home,” he says. “[We] mostly just sit around giving each other sh-t and enjoying hanging out. It’s loose but we’re all pretty good at this stuff by this point. We know how to f–k around and we know how to get things done. Once the tape is rolling, so to speak, nothing exists but the song.”
Barna will bring those tales of An Evening at Macri Park to various cities throughout 2023, starting with an album release party at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right on Friday (May 12). He’s grateful that the 2021 gig opening for Counting Crows helped him “skip a couple steps” in terms of booking venues. “I’m not any more famous than I was before that [tour], but people are more willing to set up shows for me. And it made me better, which is the most important thing.”
Plus, the bar that inspired the album – a linchpin of the Brooklyn LGBTQ scene in many ways — will be toasting him from afar. “He made a beautiful album that can really connect to whatever is happening around you,” says Cavanagh.