Mahalia Barnes – Hanging with Joe & Singing Betty’s Songs!

By Jeb Wright

Joe Bonamassa may be the hardest working man in show business.  Mahalia Barnes may be the best singer too few have heard of in America.  Together, under the guidance of producer extraordinaire Kevin Shirley, they have teamed up to create an album titled Ooh Yea! – The Betty Davis Songbook.  No, not the Ms. Davis with the ‘eyes’, but rather the lesser known ex-wife of Miles Davis, the singer. 

Mahalia is a huge fan of Betty’s and even turned her famous father, Aussie rocker Jimmy Barnes, on to her music.  She turned Kevin on to it too, and he turned Joe onto it, and now they are hoping they will turn on the world to the nasty, funky, rocking and wild music that was created decades ago by Betty Davis herself!

In the interview that follows, Mahalia opens up about her love of Davis’ music and what it was like to work with Joe Bonamassa.  The result is an interview as full of energy and passion as is her love of the music she performs on this album. 

Be sure to check her out at Facebook and discover what Joe saw in her in the first place.  She may be a fan of Betty Davis’ voice, but this woman has an amazing set of pipes of her own.  This writer is sufficiently well versed in Betty Davis now, and appreciates her work, but it is the reinterpretation of the music that has made me a fan of Mahalia Barnes!

Jeb: This is an amazing album that celebrates a forgotten musical soul and it is a breath of fresh air.  But, before we get into that, I want to say you have an amazingly beautiful name!  Is there a story behind it?

Mahalia: Thank you! Yes, there is a story. I was named after Mahalia Jackson – one of the greatest gospel singers ever! My Dad saw a movie called Imitation of Life when he was about seven, or eight years old. In the movie, Mahalia sings in the church. He says he was so moved by her singing that he waited to see the end credits and found out her name, and decided to call his first daughter after her… then kept it a secret so no one would steal the idea.

Jeb: You have a famous pops!  Did you become aware of Betty Davis because of him?

Mahalia: No, actually I introduced him to Betty! He definitely introduced me to a lot of killer music, most of my favorites to be honest, but Betty was an artist I discovered in my late teens through other musicians around me.

Jeb: I must admit I didn’t know who she was.  I saw the title and your picture and it said Joe Bonamassa and I was thinking of the actress… you know the Kim Carnes song…”She’s got Bette Davis eyes.”  Well, I am here to tell you, forget the eyes… Betty had a voice!

Mahalia: It amazes me that more people don’t know about her. She is incredible. Most people say exactly that, “Oh yeah, I know her, Bette Davis eyes…” – quite the opposite really!

Jeb: Before we get into the songs and the making of this album, give us all a quick history lesson on Betty… who she was, and why she needs her songs paid homage to, like you have done here.

Mahalia: Betty was in my opinion one of the heaviest female performers ever. She was briefly married to Miles Davis in the late ‘60s, used to hang out with Hendrix and people like that. Her marriage to Miles was a brief one, and in the early ‘70s she released a couple of the most killer, nasty, raw, funky records ever! I am a huge fan. I love her music and her energy, and I am always amazed that more people aren’t familiar with her work. To pay tribute to her like this was a real honor, a whole lot of fun, and a way to hopefully share her music with more people!

Jeb: Where does the passion that you have for her music come from?  Why her?

Mahalia: I love the raw, gritty, realness. I love the grooves, the bass lines, the funky keyboard and guitar parts, the background vocals, her intensity and power as a lead singer. I love the unapologetic, uncensored lyrics, it’s so free and in your face! I love heaps of artists and sing heaps of people’s songs that I love, but she’s really something unique. I think I’m quite a different artist than her, but she’s influenced me a lot.

Jeb: How did Kevin Shirley hear about this?

Mahalia: I actually played him a Betty song when we were in the studio one day working on a track for dad a couple of years ago. He too had never heard of Betty. Needless to say he loved it! He started going back and checking out her catalogue and really vibing on it. This whole thing sort of came about from that. He came up with the idea.

Jeb: What was Kevin like to work with?

Mahalia: Amazing. He is so good. I don’t know where to start. His ears are unbelievable. He is so passionate and determined, has incredible vision and commitment to his projects. In the studio, he’s so onto everything, and so straight up, no beating around the bush! Straight to the point, which I LOVE and really respect. I’m so in awe of what he does and thankful for the opportunity to work with him.

Jeb: How did he bring Joe into this?

Mahalia: Well, he was also on the session for dad’s record, and I believe Kevin was on tour with him in Europe, so they were checking out the Betty stuff together. When Kevin called to ask if my band and I would be into making a record of her songs for fun, he also asked if we’d mind if Joe played on it too! Of course we were thrilled and jumped at that chance.

Jeb: Had you ever listened to Joe’s music?   

Mahalia: I had listened to a few bits and pieces here and there… enough to know he’s an absolute freak. What an incredible musician. He has collaborated on a couple of things with my dad over the last few years, so that was my introduction to him. Working with him on this project blew me away. He is not only an incredible musician, as I said before, but also amazingly humble, generous, passionate, ridiculously hard working and cool. I am a fan now for sure. I have a lot of respect for him.

Jeb: Hey—idea for next album… you sing a tribute to Joe’s songs.  I want to hear you do “John Henry.” 

Mahalia: Sounds good… I’ll think about that! [Laughter] 

Jeb:  Tell me about you and your band. 

Mahalia: I love my band. I think they’re the best band in the world. These guys have been playing with me for many years, some I’ve known and worked with since I was in my teens!

Lachlan (clav/Rhodes) and Clayton Doley (organ/piano/wurli) are two of my favorite keyboard players in the world. I think they both have something really special, so much soul and all heart. Dave Hibbard, the drummer, is one of a kind. He is like all my favorite soul drummers rolled into one, with his own thing going on. Franco, the guitarist, is the new guy–it’s been about 8 years or so now… he just gets better and better, so much taste and such a great sound. Ben, the bass player, is my husband. He is also one of the best musicians I know, by far. He is the best. We’ve released a bunch of stuff over the years, we’re about due for a new record of originals, but where we are really at our best is live on stage, that’s where I think we really belong.

Jeb:  Is Betty still alive?  If so, have you heard from her on what you’ve done?

Mahalia: She is still alive. I’m not sure how to find her, or if she’s heard it, but I hope she will. I hope she likes it. Actually, Joe was saying he knows someone, who knows someone, who knows her, so he said he’d try and get it to her somehow.

Jeb: There is a lot of rocking blues and some elements of even hard classic rock on these remakes.  Tell me what Joe brought to the music.

Mahalia: Joe brought some incredible solos, great guitar playing, and some serious weight to the record. He made it fresh and exciting for all of us. We do our thing, and I think that’s captured on the record, but having Joe there really pushed us all a little harder, kept us on our toes and inspired it to go to slightly different places at times. We all love rock ‘n’ roll and blues, so I think it was always going to have a bit of that going on.

Jeb: You could have done this collaboration via email, but Joe flew to Australia to do this.  Far out man!  That’s so cool… 

Mahalia: I know. I can’t begin to explain our gratitude. It’s pretty cool, especially when he works as much as he does. He has to be one of the hardest working touring musicians. His schedule is out of control.

Jeb: Did Joe do the album in three days?  No way!

Mahalia: Yep, we had about 8 to 10 days set aside for the album, but only used three for the band and leads and a little of day four to record back ground vocals. We tracked the whole thing live. I sang in a booth, while they all played in one room. We wanted to make sure we captured that raw energy. It all just felt so good and we got on a roll. Four songs a day, no fix ups, long lunch breaks, early nights, it was such a pleasure, and easy!

Jeb: Let’s talk songs.  “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up.”  Tell me our thoughts on doing that song.

Mahalia: I have always loved this one! It’s just so in your face from the word ‘go’... such a heavy groove and riff. I actually thought about doing this one years ago for my first album, but I was nowhere near ready. For me this is great fun to sing!

Jeb: “Steppin’ In.”  Any thoughts?

Mahalia: This one is again really heavy, they all are, but this has a bit more of a rock vibe to it. We actually did record this on our first record. This is probably the most in my comfort zone as a singer.

Jeb: “He Was a Big Freak.”  What a tune!  How did you approach that, and get the feeling in the studio?

Mahalia: I just had to go all-out. You can’t sing a song like this one and hold back! I was actually slightly nervous about this one, until we started tracking, and then I just embraced it and loved every second of it. It was a lot of fun.

Jeb: My fav….”Nasty Gal.”  You sound SO NASTY on this!!

Mahalia: Why thank you! It is probably my favorite too, actually. It is another one I was nervous for. You really have to commit to sing lyrics this nasty and I really wanted to deliver it not the same as her, but with as much intensity! I love this one.

Jeb: “Anti-Love Song.”  The title says it all.  Did you get to know who Betty was through her songs, like this one?

Mahalia: I think you get to know her through all of her songs, that’s what I like. She is all-in, heart on her sleeve. Free to speak her mind whenever she pleases. Unapologetic. Wild. Lustful. Sexy and real! This was the first Betty Davis song I ever heard, I think. A dear friend of mine, one of my favorite singers, named Tina Harrod used to sing it on gigs.

Jeb: A different side of her and you is shown in “You Won’t See me in the Morning.”

Mahalia: It’s a little less intense than some of the others, but really in control, confident and sassy. I love the groove of the band in this one!

Jeb: Walking Up the Road features Jimmy on vocals… and is that him on guitar?  How cool was that for you?

Mahalia: It was great fun. He literally came into the booth and sang one pass on the outro and it was perfect. I always love singing with him, I mean I’ve learnt almost everything I know from him! No, he’s not on guitar, just Joe and Franco, but I think he really digs this guitar riff. Who wouldn’t?

Jeb: Are you going to hit the road with this?  Play some dates?  I think you should open for Joe and make him play with you before he does his set. 

Mahalia: I would love that so much! Maybe you should push him to get us out. We actually did two exclusive shows in Australia in early February. Joe flew out, again, for a few days just to join us on stage. I had an absolute ball, the shows were killer. Hopefully he has the taste and wants to do some more elsewhere. My band would love to. We will definitely try and get over there one way or another!

Jeb: Last one:  When this was done, and knowing you had so much passion going into this project, what was your reaction the first time you were able to be alone with the finished product, put the headphones on and crank it up?

Mahalia: I was so excited! I couldn’t really believe it, to be honest. Because the process was so fun, easy and quick, I really had no idea what it was going to sound like. I was really happy with it. I can hear how much fun we are all having every time I listen.

Jeb: Any final thoughts on this project?

Mahalia: I am really thrilled to share this with people and so grateful for the positive feedback we’ve received. It’s my first international release, so it’s really exciting for us!