Don’t let his hipster’s raiment of tight shirts, skinny jeans, and New Wave ties fool you. Perhaps a crown and cape might be more appropriate. But not in the Village, where Richard Barone makes his home. Still, he’s worthy of such regal trappings. Because, even as he’s speed-rapping, he’s getting an email from a Beach Boy, mentioning the single he produced for Liza Minnelli, discussing his teaching gig at NYU, reminding you he’s on the Board of Advisers at Anthology Film Archives, and planning an album of “lost” songs from downtown, by everybody from Buddy Holly to Fred Neil. Mostly, though, he’s ruminating about his newest project, the upcoming A Circle of Songs. Yes, Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York. But musically, at least, Barone is the King. Even if you haven’t heard of him.
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He was first noticed as leader of the Bongos, a peppy but commercially underwhelming ’80s band, based in Hoboken. Soon after, though, while nobody was watching, the baby-faced Barone took over Manhattan’s music scene in a bloodless coup. In the past few years alone, he’s recorded with that aforementioned Beach Boy, Al Jardine, produced Pete Seeger’s last single, put together a group backing Donovan, penned an excellent rock ‘n’ roll memoir, and recorded a couple of cult-adored solo discs — one with David Bowie producer Tony Visconti. Forgoing sleep, the soft-spoken guitarist has also managed to teach “Stage Presence and the Art of Performance” at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute Of Recorded Music.
But Barone’s best moment might just be coming up.
“On October 16th, we’re starting ‘A Circle of Songs,’ which I’ll be moderating,” he says. “It’ll be held at SubCulture, a hip little venue, where, each month, several songwriters will play their tunes, then talk about them with the audience. New York music essentially began in the Village, so it seems fitting we should hold the Circle there.”
It may be just the event to make this off-the-radar New York legend actually famous. Barone and his guests will play their tunes, then discuss them with the audience. The inaugural show features folkie Eric Andersen, Nellie McKay, and the Roots’ guitarist, “Captain Kirk” Douglas.
How does Barone account for his ridiculously impressive CV, while staying largely out of the public view?
“My first production credit was Tiny Tim,” he says, referring to the crystal-shattering late singer, whose head held more songs than a store full of iPods. “I was 16 when I befriended him, and just thought, ‘Why not?’ One day I simply said, ‘Tiny, I’d like to produce a record for you.’ He said, ‘That’s cool.’ That’s pretty much how I’ve done things ever since.”
Thus began the busy musical life of a guy whose body of work deserves a wider array of fans.
Barone credits the ukulele-playing oddball, Mr. Tim, as his model for the way he approaches his own career. It’s inspiring, even if its eclecticism has made it hard for a mass audience to draw a bead on him.
“Tiny taught me that pop music stretches in all directions,” he says. “As a teen, I had a pretty narrow view of things and was mostly into rock. But Tiny’s knowledge of songs went back to the beginning of recorded sound. He changed that. When you’re friends with a guy who knows tunes from 1878, your thinking evolves. Since then, I’ve stopped labeling music and learned to love it all.”
That love of music and gift for coaxing it out of everyone hasn’t gone unnoticed among rock’s giants, however. Visconti, who produced Barone’s gorgeous 2010 album, Glow, says of his friend, “In musical circles, Richard is well-known and respected. But unlike the ’70s, when everybody, mom and dad, your cabdriver, had heard of David Bowie, pop culture has changed, sadly. It’s harder than ever to get that elusive hit single played on the radio, and that hasn’t helped Richard. But what is radio? It’s YouTube hits and Facebook ‘Likes’ now.
“In any case,” Visconti continues, “Richard can be relied upon to throw a musical party when he performs live. He knows more musicians and singers than I’ll ever know, and he has an unerring gift for picking the right people for the right gig.”
Certainly “Circle” will mine that gift. The night, says Barone, was inspired by legendary New York DJ Vin Scelsa’s “In Their Own Words” series. “We’re both interested in the continuation of varied New York music,” says Barone. “The difference is, I’ll be leading this series. And I think because I’m a songwriter, that’ll give our show a different flavor.”
Barone adds that he hopes there will be no stylistic delimitation. No genre is out of bounds, he says, nailing his own musical life. “Each ‘Circle’ is just going to be about great songs, whatever the genre. In the final analysis, that’s what music is all about.”
The variety series “A Circle of Songs” begins October 16 at SubCulture. Go here for more info.