Most Australians think they know Jimmy Barnes pretty well after his four decades in the spotlight, but the 60-year-old rock singer and Cold Chisel frontman says that’s not necessarily the case.
“Certain people have certain ideas of who I am,” Barnes told Daily Review. “People come up and just want to get shit-faced and drink and I go ‘nah, I haven’t got time — I’m busy’, and they say ‘what do you mean? You’re too good for us now?’ And then there are people who want to fight me.”
The famously hard-partying Barnesy, who at the peak of his substance abuse was drinking two bottles of vodka a day, as well as consuming copious amounts of ecstasy and cocaine, is very different to the Barnesy of today. He’s been sober for well over a decade and lives between Sydney and the sleepy Southern Highlands with his wife Jane.
And, as Barnes says, there just wouldn’t be time for that kind of partying: he’s just completed an extensive summer tour, and this week releases his 16th solo album, Soul Searchin’. In August he’s back on the road touring that album and in September releases his memoir Working Class Boy, which might let audiences know a little more about the real Jimmy Barnes.
“I still get people who have been fans for 35 years and when I talk to them, they go ‘hold on a minute, you’re not Australian; you’re Scottish!'” he says.
As an elder pub rock statesman, Barnes has probably recorded more unofficial Australian national anthems than any other singer, but he spent the first five years of his life in Glasgow before moving to Adelaide. Working Class Boy will follow his early years, from his birth through to the 17-year-old who joined Cold Chisel and, from the back of a truck, “watched Adelaide disappear in the rear view mirror”.
“If you want to write a memoir, you’ve got to be ready to bare your soul,” Barnes says. “There’s a lot of stuff in my life that I’m not particularly proud of, and that’s not even just my own actions. How I grew up as a child, it was very rough — we were starving, it was promiscuous, it was violent, we were abused — there’s all sorts of stuff there that I didn’t really want to talk to people about.”
Working Class Boy is part of a two-book deal with Harper Collins and has been a long time coming. Barnes started writing his life story in the early ’90s, but the computer which held his 30,000-word draft was stolen in France. He then made a second attempt in the year 2000, but wasn’t able to find the right tone.
“I started writing this down wholly and solely for my benefit,” he says.”I started looking back and remembering my life, and as I’d remember one thing it would trigger something else. I started remembering things I had to completely wipe from my memory.
“It was very cathartic — I worked through my life, and it was sort of like therapy. By the time I got halfway into it I realised it wouldn’t be interesting just to me; there’s a lot of people who went through similar things, and it might help some people. A lot of that stuff is what shaped me into the person I am, and the singer I am. The good, the bad, and the very ugly.”
During his teen years, Barnes was listening to the black soul and blues music which would go on to shape his voice and the kind of band Cold Chisel would become.
“We always thought of ourselves as a blues band — we were influenced heavily by Americans, whereas a lot of bands in this country were influenced by Britain. We were listening to Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter — they were my references for blues.”
Cold Chisel is known as the quintessential Aussie pub rock band, with a true rock sound led by Barnes’s balls-to-the-wall screaming vocals, but it has musical roots outside of Australia.
“Being the kind of band that we were, you had to be able to see the soul influences, you had to be able to see Otis Redding and John Lee Hooker. Wilson Pickett, for me — if I could sing like Wilson Pickett or Little Richard … I just wanted to tear the microphone up.”
In 1990, when Barnes had just released his fifth consecutive Australian number 1 album, he took to the recording studio to lay down some of the songs he’d perform at parties or for encores with Cold Chisel, including River Deep Mountain High, and When Something’s Wrong With My Baby. Barnes wasn’t necessarily intending on releasing the songs, but he soon became passionate about a soul album.
“For me, the process of recording it was like a refresher course — I suddenly went ‘that’s what you have to do when you’re singing this sort of song; that’s where you push, that’s where you pull back.'”
After plenty of convincing, Mushroom Records finally agreed to release Soul Deep, which went on to become the biggest album of Barnes’s solo career, going nine times Platinum.
“We played it for the record company, and they said ‘you’re crazy, you can’t release this — you’re a rock singer, you’re going to ruin your market’. It just goes to show, we did it because we loved it.”
Soul Searchin’ will be Barnes’s fourth soul album, but rather than the massive classic hits on Soul Deep, Barnes’s focus is on forgotten gems. He travelled to America’s south to collaborate with some local musicians, including the Memphis Boys, who were the backing band for Elvis in Memphis and recorded with artists such as Dusty Springfield, Neil Diamond and Joe Tex.
While he was recording these new tracks last year, Barnes was shocked to discover that some of his own classics had been taken on by protest group Reclaim Australia to lobby against immigration and Islam.
“I just kept seeing all this behaviour I didn’t believe in — this lack of tolerance, this lack of empathy for people, this hatred, this anger — and I was watching it on TV, and every time they showed it there’d be Working Class Man or Khe Sanh playing. I just thought I didn’t want people to associate that music with what they’re doing.”
In a widely publicised Facebook post, Barnes said that he did not support the protests.
“I wouldn’t like people to be thinking like that, full-stop. But everybody’s entitled to their own thoughts, and this is a free country and part of the reason we’re free is that everybody gets to have their say. But they’re not going to say it with my songs, and that’s all I said.”
Barnes copped plenty of backlash from the group’s supporters, and says he received hate mail and death threats towards his family.
“It got a bit ugly, but I’ve got to say what I feel. I’ve never been the type to sit back and shut up.”
The Soul Searchin’ tour runs through August. Full dates and ticketing information are available here.
Featured image: © Pierre Baroni