Mainstream Music with a Positive Attitude
Music Spotlight Interview with Barry Russo, These Are the Days
By Lisa M. Hendey
I live with a fourteen year old who loves to spend his spare time playing his electric guitar and has begun to work on his own original compositions. As a parent and one who spends a lot of time in the car listening to music with my kids, I was thrilled to discover the music of Barry Russo, and particularly his CD These Are the Days.
Barry, along with being an accomplished musician and composer, is a liturgical musician and music teacher. For this, his debut CD, he’s chosen a mainstream approach, recording great tunes with broad appeal. The project is a blast, one parents and their teens can and should enjoy together. This is the kind of musical role model our families need – one who lets the essence of his soul shine through with a fun and positive message.
I had a chance to catch up with Barry Russo and to chat with him about his music, his plans, and that elusive question – how to get your kids to sing in church! I’m pleased to share Barry’s answers, his music, and his great personality with you.
Q: Barry, please start off by telling us a bit about yourself and your music.
A: I lived my entire life in the tiny little state of Rhode Island…and have been a musician since my grammar school years. I’ve worked professionally as a musician since the age of 16. I went to college, figuring I’d do the whole “get a degree to fall back on” thing, and was a psychology major- but it was funny….as all of the other students were nearing graduation and planning graduate school and all that, they would ask me “what are you going to do after you get your degree?”…and my answer would always be, “Be a musician, like I’ve always been.”
But I’m happy that I did complete school. I feel that the more experiences that you have in life, it really helps…as a person…..in everyday life - and definitely as a musician. You have more to draw from.
And praise God, I’ve been blessed in that I’ve never had to do something else to “fall back on.” I have worked steadily both as a liturgical musician and also in the mainstream “gigging” music scene.
I feel that, like anyone, my music draws heavily on the influences I had growing up. I studied classical piano. My favorite material was always the very melodic, “happy sounding” stuff, like the Baroque-era compositions of Bach and Handel and such. I also really liked pop music, especially, once again, very melodic songs, especially when those songs combined catchy rhythms too.
If I was to start naming specific artists and groups that I liked both while growing up and also today we’d be here all day. But basically, in my music and lyrics, I try to capture the themes that influence my life and thinking, as well as the struggles that I have encountered and do encounter. And just as in my everyday life, I try to put a spin of hope in there, because one big thing that my faith journey has taught me is that there is hope. Yeah, I’ll be the first to admit that there are days when that hope seems a million miles away, but I feel that deep inside, I am optimistic- and I try to portray that in my music.
Q: As a Catholic musician, have you made a conscious decision to go the "pop"/secular route with this first CD, These Are the Days and if so what motivated that decision?
A: Yes, I do feel that the decision to go “mainstream” on These Are the Days was intentional. I have written both specifically Christian songs, as well as other material. However, it is important to have a cohesive direction on a project…. So for this project, I chose to record a CD of my more mainstream pop material. I tend to kind of write in that borderline area between Christian and “mainstream,” so a lot of the material that is on my CD still very much comes from a spiritual background. And I was really interested in the idea of being a positive voice in the mainstream music industry, which is so often sending out negative messages.
Q: Without a doubt, as a former "valley girl", my favorite song on the CD was the totally awesome "Child of the 80's" - what was the inspiration behind this song and what kind of a reception are you getting when you perform it?
A: I have always been a huge “80s freak”…..I love the music of that era…when I was in Nashville co-writing with Shay Watson (my friend and producer on the project), he brought up a song idea that a friend of his (Joe Simpson-another co-writer on the song) had once had for an 80s tribute song….Joe pretty much had the chorus in place…Shay felt that if there ever was an artist who would be right for that song, it was me. I was so influenced by that and all. Shay called Joe to get his ok, and then we took it and collaborated with Michael Elsner on the music, and then sat down and had a blast coming up with all those 80s images and references…..in the studio was where we had the idea to do the whole 80s style English sounding vocal thing on the verses…
Of course, this was all before Bowling For Soup came out with “1985.” That song sort of beat us to the punch…but “Child of the 80s” is very different in that it actually parodies the production styles of the era, and also in places pays tribute to three big 80s hits.
When I perform the song live, it generally gets a big reception…of course, it’s one of those songs that you either “get” or “don’t get” and I have at times gotten some funny looks from people.
Q: As a musician, how does your faith shine through when you are writing and performing?
A: I want to portray something positive in my music and its message….hope, optimism, life…..all aspects that are contrary to the “Culture of Death” that Pope John Paul II spoke of…and believe me….the “Culture of Death” is huge in a lot of today’s pop music!
Q: Which song on the CD is your personal favorite and why?
A: Picture a father of twelve children. Now ask him who his favorite child is. Those songs are like children…each unique and special in their own way.
Q: Who are some of your musical influences? What have you learned from them?
A: Uh oh……you went there! I’ll try to sum this up…… OK, in the classical world, I’d say many of the Baroque composers, like Bach, Handel, Clementi, etc. Why? Because I love the melodic style…also, the music “moves” and is uplifting. I’m not into dreary-sounding music.
In the pop world, many groups and artists of past and present. Survivor, Duran Duran, The Hooters, Aha, Howard Jones, Phil Collins, Erasure, Men Without Hats, Men At Work, The Human League, Styx, Toto, Billy Joel, Breathe, Def Leppard, Matchbox 20, The Corrs, Enrique Iglesias, Vanessa Carlton, Gary Barlow, Savage Garden, Kelly Clarkson, Faith Hill, Clay Aiken….I can go on and on……
I also love the music of a lot of today’s contemporary Christian groups and artists, such as Mercy Me, Rebecca St. James, Kutless, Rich Mullins, Shaun Groves, Rita Springer, David Crowder…. once again, the list goes on and on……
I’ve probably forgotten a million here. What do all of the very varied artists share in common? Strong melody and rhythm, strong pop songwriting, great production…It has all influenced me.
Q: I'm going to ask you to put on your music teacher hat for a moment here. It seems to me, as a mother of two elementary school aged sons, that kids stop singing in Mass when they hit a certain age. What can parents and teachers do to encourage participation in the musical aspects of our liturgy without nagging?
A: Well, I can only speculate based on my own experience, but I’d say that this is a common situation. The children at my parish school are the same way. The little children sing their hearts out…then they hit around fifth or sixth grade…and it’s like they lose their voice or something…
The common complaint that I get from the children I teach is that the music at mass is “boring”…that it sounds like “opera”, or “classical”, and they don’t like organ, etc.
What I try to employ is an approach from two directions simultaneously. There is a lot of GREAT Christian music out there that we as Catholics, especially here in the Northeast, are not often exposed to. I mean, I recorded These Are the Days in Nashville, where they have some pretty popular FM Christian music stations, playing music that sounds just like the various styles of today’s rock, pop, hip-hop, and rap. I have been to services in some evangelical Christian churches where the bands and music will simply amaze you….it’s very lively and very good, as well as quite inspiring!
Many Catholic parishes have now taken a similar approach with the Lifeteen program, which involves a full band playing modern-sounding styles at a mass geared towards youth, which is wonderful!
Anyhow, I try to expose the kids to music like this…last week I had a class of fifth graders, and I played them a Praise and Worship song by Kutless, and they really enjoyed it. It definitely creates and environment where then, we can discuss the lyrics and talk about God and faith.
At the same time, before the Catholic traditionalists out there start warming up their letters of complaint, saying that I’m forgetting the basics, let me talk about my second direction……I definitely also teach them the foundations of our Catholic music tradition…..when doing so, I try to explain the history and why we do things the way we do…..I teach them traditional hymns, and even some Latin…last Lent I had them singing the “Agnus Dei” instead of the English “Lamb of God.”
Another important thing to remember is that no matter what style of music we employ at mass, we must also remember and instill in the children that praising and worshiping God is about just that…and not about our own personal level of entertainment. It’s one thing to enjoy different styles that we find inspiring…however, at the same time, I don’t feel that mass is the place for a full blown concert event….save that for the actual concert time…..this applies to whether the musician is playing classical or contemporary, or whatever.
So it’s kind of like walking a fine line….playing music that is inspiring and supports the liturgy without turning it into something that distracts from the sacredness of the liturgy. It’s something that I feel that musicians of all styles and genres have to pay attention to in regards to music at mass.
I am by no means saying that I am successful in getting through to all of them….I will never know if I made any difference….. I don’t think that we should just throw away our 2000 years of musical tradition…but at the same time, I don’t think we should close our minds to incorporating very contemporary styles of music…even if we can’t do it at every liturgy……
It’s my hope with the kids at my church that somehow, the fact that they enjoy some of the music that I introduce them too, that it will encourage them to be more open-minded with me when approaching the more traditional.
Also, one last very important thought……we must remember that we teach by example. In many parishes, there are a large number of adults who also never pick up a hymnal!
Q: For parents who have kids demonstrating an interest in playing rock music, should this be encouraged in our young Catholic kids? How can we help gently lead them toward using the gift of music for positive and uplifting purposes?
A: Yes, yes, and yes!!!! In my music career, I have encountered a variety of musical situations and musicians. Being classically trained myself and sometimes playing in church has at times put me around the “snobbish” classical musician who thinks that rock and pop are nothing but noise. Two big things I teach our kids at St. Peter’s are “respect” and “opinions”. I teach them that even if they don’t enjoy listening to classical, they at least need to respect it’s intricacy and educational value! I tell them that if they play an instrument, that it is incredibly valuable to study classical and jazz too! At the same time, I feel that it is wrong for the classical or jazz purists to dismiss the other styles. Everybody’s got an opinion and taste…that’s what makes the world go ‘round!
There is nothing harmful about rock music provided that the spirit that it is written in is a positive one, and that the lyrics do not promote anything contrary to God. If a person grows to be in a positive place in their life and is a musician, then the music that flows out of them will likewise be that way and used for good purposes. For some, this will happen at 16. For others, 36. For others, perhaps never.
We must never stop trying to lead them in the right direction in all aspects of life.
Q: What's next? Do you have plans to tour or record a new project?
A: Yes, I am planning on extending my performances for These Are the Days, and also am in the process of writing towards an EP of three specifically Christian songs, to hopefully be released sometime early 2006.
For more information about Barry Russo and his CD visit www.barryrusso.com or http://www.catholicmusicnetwork.com/cmn_cd_detail.asp?PRODUCT_ID=50581&REFERER=183
Lisa M. Hendey is webmaster of www.CatholicMom.com and www.christiancoloring.com, a wife and mother of two and a Christian music fan and supporter. Visit her at www.LisaHendey.com for more information