Tony Cummings speaks at length to American-born, UK-based singer/songwriter DEBBY BARNES
The voice of Debby Barnes soars heavenwards in the ancient cloisters of St Mary's church in Thame, Oxfordshire. The concert Debby is giving is to launch her new album 'Messages' and her part-Celtic, part-jazz tones plaintively weave in and out of the acoustic guitar and beguiling fiddle of her accompanists. She sings, "Clinging to the cross and this is how I'll live/Hanging on for life with all I have to give," a dropped pin could have been heard in the audience. In Debby's breathtaking performance, skilfully created art has by a gust of God's Spirit wind become something more - ministry that lifts broken vessels to return, like Debby, to the Lamb of God's place of death. . .and healing.
Before the concert begins I sit and talk with the American-born singer/songwriter about her life and music. For a mother of three grown up children, Debby has already battled against the odds to gain a foothold in Britain's Christian music scene. Her debut album 'Hurry To This Heart' produced a Cross Rhythms turntable hit with the title track while her second release, 'Lay Hold', was picked up for national distribution by Authentic Music. These achievements are amazing when one learns that throughout most of her life Debby has battled against a debilitating illness. Said Debby, "I've had multiple sclerosis, MS, for over 30 years and I've learned how to manage it with as much finesse as I can. But it's a constant reminder that I have to keep things in check by living a lifestyle that's conducive to managing an illness."
Down the years numerous Christians have prayed for Debby's healing. Why does she think she has not received healing from the Lord? "The fact of the matter is I actually believe I have had certain healings as I have been prayed for. I believe I am as well as I am today because of those prayers and the MS remains as invisible as it does because I have received so much healing. But I am neurologically challenged, the myelin sheath around the nerves is damaged. It is 'scarred'. Some of those disappear; sometimes you get more of them. I never sit down and concentrate on why am I not completely healed? When people want to see me healed and pray for me, God is honouring that in some way. Maybe not in the way I want; but I definitely believe I have received healings."
Born and brought up in upstate New York, Debby moved to England with her husband, Ken, and children 15 years ago. Music was always part of Debby's life. "I grew up doing music. I was very musical. I was in the plays and in different groups. I did everything from chamber singing to jazz to solo stuff, to stage work, da da da. I actually went to college for music and theatre."
Debby's mother was a church-goer, though not her father. For Debby it was while at university that a TV programme brought about her spiritual awakening. She remembers, "There was a dancer from the Dean Martin Show on television who gave her testimony. I happened to be ironing in my college dorm room and I was incredibly moved by that testimony. Something happened to my inner spirit. I fell on my knees and gave my life to Christ. I got involved in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at that time and there was no going back. I really felt I had started a journey."
It was not long after this period that she met her future husband. "He was a real Catholic at the time so it was a very interesting pairing. He was at university for political science and theatre so we met in the theatre department." By the early '90s Ken, Debby and family had relocated to the UK. After years of "stuffing music in folders" and praying that someday she would pursue her musical gifts, she became involved with some musicians in Thame. She explains, "I knew them from our small worship group. They had a cover band on the side and they were doing some work in the studio and I was really keen to go to the studio and have a look around. I met Phil Goss and I'm telling you, my spirit leapt within me."
Phil Goss was a much experienced musician who had established a popular recording studio in Ludgershall, Berkshire, Appletree Studios. An idea began to take root in Debby that she should blow the dust off some of her songs and record an album with producer/engineer Goss. The resulting project 'Hurry To This Heart' was released in 1999. Says Debby, "One of the most exciting things for me in recording the album was to pull various local musicians with various gifts into the circle so that we could share the recording experience together. We had all kinds of different people working on a 'mission' towards one goal, to get this thing produced and to tap into whether or not I had anything really I could offer. Was I a singer/songwriter? Were my songs going to move anyone, touch or stir? The only way I knew how to go about that was to do that first album."
'Hurry To This Heart' picked up Christian radio play and Debby was interviewed in Cross Rhythms magazine. A growing number of people were indeed touched by Debby's wistful, thoughtful music. Debby began to plan album number two. In 2002 Debby recorded 'Lay Hold'. Enthuses Debby, "Phil Goss wears a lot of musical hats and he was able to do so much in the studio with my songs, we were really able to develop the sound of the album. The project eventually got picked up by Authentic Music who distributed it nationally, which was a blessing." Debby played some Christian events including the Greenbelt Festival.
Then a visit with husband Ken to Manhattan proved to be a catalyst for Debby in her next initiative, a multi-media event called Ignite. Explains Debby, "Ignite came about because my husband and I had a real awakening after we saw Mosaic Manhattan. They were an alternative type of church in New York City and it was the type of church where they focussed on growing in Christ while doing some cutting edge musical stuff that was outside the usual box. That really excited us. They were presenting the Gospel in new and very exciting ways. We knew that there was a place for a concept like that back in the UK. So we came back with the ideas bubbling in our blood and we decided to start Ignite here in Thame. We prayed about it then approached a couple of people. We didn't know who would bite but the band As If (fronted by Phil Goss) bit. We did a six-month experiment with it in Thame and it was bold and beautiful. It worked out very well. We then decided to experiment with it a little bit in Oxford and that didn't do so well. But then again, it took some time for us to get our arms around Oxford because we had no reference point for working in a big city. So we're hoping to bring a new series of Ignite events back to Thame."
The recording of Debby's latest album, 'Messages', (finally released independently in November 2008) was, as it turned out, a hugely drawn out process. "Some would say interminable," laughs Debby. "There were points, if I'm honest, I never actually thought we'd finish up with it, close it off. I just never knew if we were going to wrap this album up."
All kinds of difficulties, including a flood effecting Appletree Studios and the long time unavailability of fiddle virtuoso Tony Collins (whose dazzling work had previously been heard on the River Dance production and whose playing helped give 'Messages' its strong Celtic flavour), had to be overcome before the album could be released. Says Debby, "My whole life I have wanted to do a Celtic project, something that was rife with fiddle. I remember the first time I saw River Dance, I was going crazy. There is a Celtic animal in me and it will not be tamed. It was always my deepest, abiding desire to do a Celtic project and so I would not go ahead with the third project until Phil could guarantee me that Tony Collins was on board, that he knew what I wanted. I was writing songs conducive to where we could work lots of fiddle around them."
Debby speaks about the album title: "'Messages' is really the mark of who I am. As a singer/songwriter I'm all about communicating and my songs are my messages: those I've received during devotional times. It's been a lovely thing to be able to offer a song like the title track because I believe it is something that God has given me. In fact, I feel he's really given me gifts of each of the songs on the album."
She speaks about one of the album's more percussive tracks, "Stay". "'Stay' is a song that is my personal interpretation of Psalm 51, 'Take not your spirit from me.' It's a little funky but I think it works and it's a real cry. I happen to write quite a few of those cries of David, psalm types of songs. They just work for me. Not that I'm sitting around crying all the time. But 'Stay' is my interpretation of Psalm 51."
But possibly the finest track of all on 'Messages' is "Clinging To The Cross". Explains Debby, "My father had a life-long battle with booze. He found himself in a motel room, drying out and in crisis in his relationship with my mother. He made it through and they came back together, and who was to know he would die three months later? But he died clinging to the cross and not long after his death I wrote that song. I woke up with it on my lips at two o'clock in the morning."
I finish our interview by asking Debby why she carries on putting copious amounts of time, effort and finance into her music making? She says, "I'm offering this to God and his people and I want it to be meaningful. My mission is to move hearts and stir souls. That is it in a nutshell. I'm not out for anything for me. I really want this to be more about God than for me."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.