Judy Barnes plays the soul music of opera

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by Jordan Green

The three core members are quick to acknowledge the confusion that arises when you call your band Judy Barnes and your frontwoman is named Jodi Burns.

There’s no debating that the group is built around Burns, a singer-songwriter and pianist with a finely tuned sensibility for reaching the emotional core of her material. It’s also no surprise that Judy Barnes’ music has an undeniable rock-opera quality: Burns holds a masters in opera from the AJ Fletcher Opera Institute of the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.

But the circumstances that set the stage for Burns to come together with backup vocalist Alexis Siebert and drummer/arranger Tim Nolan go back a ways. Nolan became friends with Alexis’ brother, Andy, and she would often be in the far back seat of the car showing off vocal tricks when her dad picked the teenage boys up from punk shows in downtown Winston-Salem. Both of Alexis’ parents are trained opera singers, and her dad Glenn teaches voice at the School of the Arts. And Glenn Siebert would come to be a mentor to Burns when she moved to Winston-Salem from Ohio to study opera.

Nolan and Burns met in 2009. A musical partnership and romantic relationship ensued almost immediately. Burns asked Nolan to listen to some songs she had written, and he loved them.

“We used to hang out in her apartment making music ’til 3 in the morning, driving the neighbors crazy,” Nolan recalled last week as he sat on the patio at Hoots Roller Bar, where he works. “I was on a huge ’70s music kick at the time — stuff like Todd Rundgren. I came from a background playing in rock-and-roll bands.”

Originally, Burns envisioned a conventional ensemble based on guitar, piano and drums, but as time went on she decided she wanted vocal layering to be at the forefront. The band has had a couple guitarists and bass players — Philip Pledger of Estrangers and Scott Brandenburg are the band’s current guitarist and bassist — but Burns, Nolan and Siebert form the core of the group. Burns and Nolan recruited Siebert in late 2012 when they heard her singing karaoke at Single Brothers, and noticed that she could hit the low notes that are more of a stretch for Burns.

Jody Barnes has attracted a devoted following in the tight-knit Winston-Salem music scene and have played well-received shows in Greensboro and Raleigh. Their melodic sound, with Burns’ voice and piano at the center vaguely suggesting middle-class parlor music of the 1920s, is fleshed out by gently swinging instrumentation. It’s utterly unlike anything else, even in the local indie-rock scene, where many of their friends make music with angular contours, angsty vocals and sonic dissonance.

“The typical reaction when we start playing is for people to freeze in place, mouths open not sure what they think, but they’re pretty sure they like it,” Burns said.

They plan to start recording an album in about six weeks. Nolan said they’ll probably stream it online, in the hopes they can find an investor to pay for a pressing. Five years might seem like a long time to wait before getting around to recording the first full-length album, but it’s not unheard of for Burns and Nolan to keep working a song for two years before they’re ready to bring it to the band and perform it.

“We’ve come into our own in the last six months to the point where we can make the record that we all want to hear,” Burns said.

What connects Judy Burns’ music to opera is the vulnerability and direct access to an emotional core.

“I experience more frequently than I would like a pretty intense sadness,” Burns said. “It’s usually in these moments that I find these melodies. It’s quiet moments where I’m sitting at the piano that the ideas come. It’s hard to experience that alone. Music is a way of connecting.”

Nolan’s role as an arranger is more organic than formal.

“We’ll be watching a movie, and one of us will say out of the blue: ‘What if we had a descending melody here in this song?’” he said. “We’ll jump up and go write it down, and then we’ll go back to the movie.”

Some ideas translate better than others when they take them to the band.

“For someone who is classically trained, I don’t have much of a musical vocabulary,” Burns said. “On this song we do called ‘A Mountain,’ I was telling the guitar player: ‘You’ve got to play like you’re a prince and you flew to the moon and watched the earth explode. And now you’re wondering what you’re going to do.’ And he’s like, ‘What?’”

Burns has been known to make listeners weep, both as an opera singer and as frontwoman for Judy Barnes.

A friend of Nolan’s told him at a bar: “Man, I saw you guys play this one song and I saw this guy crying. Then I started crying.”

The guy she had seen crying was Alexis’ brother, Andy, who was back home for a visit from New York.

Nolan said he knows that classical opera is just as important to Burns as Judy Barnes — if not more — because coming off the high of an opera performance she feels depressed for three weeks, but she’s only depressed for three days after a Judy Barnes show.

Nolan recalled one of Burns’ opera performances when he looked over at Glenn Siebert, and both had tears streaming down their faces.

“Papa Siebs,” Alexis Siebert said affectionately as Nolan recounted the experience.

The elder Siebert also approves of Burns’ foray into rock-opera. Burns recalled how Siebert came up to her after one of Judy Barnes’ gigs and wagged his finger in her face.

“You’re doing the right thing,” he said.