Seán Barna gets real in Rochester 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KEVIN CONDON
Seán Barna lives in Philadelphia, but Rochester has become a second home for the singer-songwriter, who specializes in music that speaks to the queer experience.

Many of his most fruitful creative ideas have flourished here, including the music on his new rock-pop album “An Evening at Macri Park,” which prominent indie label Kill Rock Stars is set to release on May 12.

He recorded the album in Rochester’s rural suburb of Macedon at 1809 Studios with a voice that carried the wide vibrato of an earnest ’70s folk singer and the expressive cadence of David Bowie.

“Whatever the song is, pain or sadness or nostalgia or hope or whatever is happening, I let that really kind of overtake me,” Barna said.

“As an artist,” he went on, “your only responsibility is to yourself and trying to get your point of view as honest and open as possible. And in those moments, I'm able to do that.”

click to enlarge Barna and Dave Drago, owner of 1809 Studios in Macedon. - PHOTO BY KEVIN CONDON
  • Barna and Dave Drago, owner of 1809 Studios in Macedon.
Barna, 37, is able to do that with the help of his close friend, the bassist and producer Dave Drago, who owns 1809 Studios. Drago said their work together moves swiftly because of the trust they have in each other.

“We provide a safe space for each other and just chase magic around, and (don’t) judge each other,” Drago said.

Ironically, it was their judgment of another artist that brought them together. They met several years ago at Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan during the Underwater Sunshine Festival.

“The real story is we locked eyes in the back of a bar, talking shit about a band,” Drago said. “Everybody in the room was being like a sycophant for this artist that he and I could just see right through, like, ‘No authenticity here. What is this?’ And he and I were the only two people in the back of the room with clearly a look on our faces.”

The friends spoke to CITY together in a video conference — with Barna in Philadelphia and Drago in Macedon.

click to enlarge PHOTO PROVIDED
Barna wore a black baseball cap emblazoned with “cissy,” the name of a previous EP he recorded with Drago at 1809 Studios, and sipped coffee from a mug that read, “I’m your Huckleberry.” When asked what it meant to identify as a queer artist, Barna picked up a second mug with an image of a sloth lounging under a rainbow and the words “gay and tired.”

“I am the very, very least vulnerable version of a queer person on the planet,” Barna said. “I'm a white cis male that can pass as straight easily. I'm not threatened ever. . . . As the least vulnerable type of queer person, I'm willing to put myself out there as much as I can, and challenge people as much as I can.”

Drago said that it’s rare and refreshing to come across a singer who lays themselves bare emotionally and gives it all away in the performance.

“So much modern music is apathetic and guarded,” he said. “And Seán — to his quality and to his detriment — can be nothing like that.”
click to enlarge Barna and Drago (at center) performing live while on tour with the Counting Crows in 2021. - PHOTO BY EHUD LAZIN
  • Barna and Drago (at center) performing live while on tour with the Counting Crows in 2021.
Barna said he sees too many artists impersonating singer-songwriters they admire. They wear the right styles, craft the right lyrics, but lack authenticity, he said.

“There’s something missing, I think maybe it's called heart or something,” he said. “That's probably why I'm not more popular, but it always bothered me. And so what I'm doing is the only thing that I can do, which is be annoyingly myself. And I see people kind of be fake onstage and it just makes me feel like I'm wasting my time. So anything I write isn’t going to be like that.”

Barna kicks off his tour of “An Evening at Macri Park” with a full-band show at Radio Social on May 11. The free show starts at 8 p.m. with special guests Pluck and Cece Vile.

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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