Critical Questions: Richard Barone
A cult classic's 25th anniversary.
In the early-to-mid ‘80s, Richard Barone banged out punchy power pop as the leader of Hoboken heroes The Bongos, but he became a solo artist with 1987's cult classic Cool Blue Halo. Recorded live at New York's Bottom Line, it was a stylistic volte-face - a hushed, predominantly-acoustic record featuring Barone backed by a new band: cellist Jane Scarpantoni, guitarist Nick Celeste, and percussionist Valerie Naranjo. It was years ahead of the "unplugged" craze, and it was surely no accident that when Nirvana played their MTV Unplugged show in 1993, they not only mirrored Cool Blue Halo's chamber-folk interpretation of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold The World," but brought Scarpantoni on board to recreate her haunting cello part. Cool Blue Halo turns 25 in 2012, and Barone's planning an ultra-deluxe box-set reissue treatment, with some fundraising help from the crowd-funding site Pledgemusic, so it seemed like a good time to corner him for some Cool Blue Halo history.
How did the concept and the band for Cool Blue Halo come together?
The way that album came together was so magical. I met Jane Scarpantoni, she was just playing cello at Maxwell's, she was playing at brunch, solo in the restaurant at Maxwell's. I loved her playing so much and asked her to join me. Nick Celeste, the acoustic guitar player, I had just produced his band at the time, it was called In Color. I just asked him, "Why don't we do some shows?" We did a series of small shows in the East Village -- very subtle, just two guitars and the cello. It really felt good and people started to come to see us and we packed the houses.
What led to the concert that's captured on the album?
We got this offer to play the Bottom Line because [New York DJ] Vin Scelsa was doing a series of Sunday night concerts; he was presenting artists that he was playing on his show. The week that we were going to do it, I thought "We need a percussionist," and I had asked around and was recommended to Valerie Naranjo, who played African percussion but also symphonic. We rehearsed just before the concert at the Bottom Line one time, and did that show.
But you were still working with The Bongos when this was going on, right?
I was doing solo shows and Bongos shows and writing for the Bongos and for my own solo work. I liked having that variety. I think they fed off each other in a good way. Some of the Cool Blue Halo songs were recorded by the Bongos also but have never been released. After Cool Blue Halo I got signed to MCA to do another album, and I kind of went off and became a solo artist, and we never went back and finished the unfinished Bongos material.
How did you achieve such a unique band dynamic with the Cool Blue Halo musicians?
Every player is audible 100 percent of the time in a very specific way. That's why Jane got so many phone calls to perform with R.E.M. and Indigo Girls and everyone else you can imagine, including Nirvana, after that album came out, because you really hear her constantly throughout the entire album. Everyone is on that album all the time. That's how we mixed it, it's truly balanced. I think that did make everybody shine. Valerie was then picked out by David Byrne to tour with him, and also she became the percussionist for The Lion King on Broadway and has been on Saturday Night Live for the last 17 years as the percussionist. And Nick has been performing with me ever since.
The album title is very evocative, where did that phrase come from?
The song "I Belong to Me" mentions that...it talks about various things I've seen and done, and at one point it says, "I've seen the cool blue halo forgotten by an angel in my room." We didn't really have a title when we made the album. I thought somehow the vibe of the album was that cool blue halo I was singing about. It was gentler, maybe the best part of me, it was a spiritual side that I don't usually get to go onstage with. Just a year before, I was referred to as "Paul McCartney from hell" in the press [laughs]. So I thought, "I might be Paul McCartney from hell but I could also have a cool blue halo." It was just another side.
I'd imagine you're familiar with the Canadian power-pop band Cool Blue Halo.
Of course, they wrote to me, they said "Oh we love the album, we're gonna call the band that." But the band sounds nothing like [the album] Cool Blue Halo. Now that the Cool Blue Halo project is coming around again, on my YouTube channel, the videos of that group are showing up on my page...I was flattered at the time that they named their band after the album.
You're remastering the album for the new deluxe reissue; were you not happy with the original mastering?
In the last few years I've gotten more involved with how records are mastered, and how recordings can be maximized in mastering, and I just feel like now we can take it closer to what the original tape sounded like. We did that with [The Bongos'] Drums Along the Hudson too, a couple of years ago. It was the first time I was able to get it to sound the way it sounded in the studio when we mixed it.
Jay Frank of the DigSin label first suggested the project to you?
He approached me last year at SXSW. He asked if I was interested in doing a special edition release of the album. His idea was to do an expanded box set that had the original album remastered, but including outtakes, demos, live concerts in other cities, because we toured for two years on Cool Blue Halo all around the world. There's only gonna be 1000 of them made -- numbered and signed. It's a collectible, and it's for people who really want to get the full package. I think it's gonna be a very special one; everything is being looked after very meticulously, it's gonna be a beautiful package. The live album that we're doing [on May 4] at City Winery will be available individually, and the original remastered album will be available, but everything else is only in the box set.
Not only are you revisiting your first live album, you're now teaching a class about live performance at NYU...
I'm a big believer in live performance...my class is called Stage Presence and the Art of Performance...it's about what can happen on stage that can't happen anywhere else. Over the last two years, when my [autobiographical] book, Frontman, came out, they were using that in the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. They asked me to come lecture a couple of times. It was step by step. I was asked to come and grade the seniors on what they call their capstone projects, which is like their final projects when they're graduating. And I was asked to conduct a performance workshop in December. Each of those things went really well, and they asked me to turn that workshop into a 14-week course.
Cool Blue Halo should be required listening for your students - it certainly illustrates the possibilities of live performance.
Almost everything about that album happened on the stage.
|Cool Blue Halo 25th Anniversary Edition|