“I had these songs that I’d written during lockdown that were just me,” he explains. “And I realised, for the first time, this is who I am, whereas before I was trying to do something that was ‘legit’.”
Barnett counts himself as one of the lucky ones during the pandemic. He has friends in music who had tours set for 2020 that have been cruelly snatched away. “I was lucky because we had already spoken with Jon Ollier, who is my agent at CAA, at the end of last year and we had agreed to hold off touring and festivals until 2021.” For George, this year was all about releasing new music and, since he plays and records everything himself, he’s been able to continue as planned alongside his manager Alex Kadis and label AntiFragile, which has enlisted the help of Absolute for three EP releases this year and an album in 2021.
We sat down with Barnett to talk about his story so far, working through lockdown, the importance of independence, and what his future might hold.
Things took off for you when you put a cover of Get Lucky on YouTube and it exploded, right?
Basically, yeah. That was around 2013 but, even before that, I put out an album for free on The Pirate Bay. Spotify and those sorts of platforms were around at the time, but The Pirate Bay was offering their homepage to independent artists for a bit. I don’t know how much it actually supported independent artists rather than being a way of getting people to their homepage to get some ad revenue or something but, at the time, I had an album and a single out. They put it on their site and I think it got around 200,000 views. Then I sold the album through Bandcamp. That was the first time I thought, ‘Ok, maybe I can do this’. Rather than it just being me in my room, people actually wanted to listen to me.
Shortly after that, I did the cover of Get Lucky, which had just come out at the time. I was living with my mum so I did it in her house – recorded all the instruments, made the video and put it on YouTube. Then it blew up and got about 8 million views. Pharrell messaged me and said, ‘I saw the cover, I think it’s amazing, and I was like, ‘Ah, cheers.’
Sure, casual: ‘Cheers, Pharrell…’
Well actually I messaged him every time I had a single out after that and never heard back from him! Blanked by Pharrell!
After that I did a cover of a Kendrick Lamar song and a couple of other things before going on tour with an EP. People at the time were saying I should do a vlog series and I was hesitant because it was never about that for me. I’ve always been a musician; I play lots of instruments and I’ve always been interested in artists. I’ve never discovered music through YouTube or been into personalities. That whole idea just freaked me out, so I took the covers down because I saw them as a representation of all that YouTube stuff. That annoyed my manager, obviously, because we were in the middle of a tour! I saw it as something that was holding me back but I look back now and think that was insane because it was actually the thing that was propelling things forward.
I changed my name to AKA George and did more of an electronic thing, because I was always into production. I moved to London and did some really cool stuff with that for a couple of years – BBC Introducing picked up everything I put out, I played Glastonbury, lots of foreign festivals, and did a lot of touring.
Now, in the last few weeks, I’ve changed back to George Barnett.
What prompted the change?
It was just because of the way this year’s gone. Having been stuck inside and the way the world is, I kind of felt a bit burnt out with trying to be something, if that makes sense. You know, having a stage name and being intensely into the production side of things became unfulfilling. I had these songs that I’d written during lockdown that were just me. And I realised, for the first time, this is who I am, whereas before I was trying to do something that was ‘legit’.
Almost by having the stage name you had created an image that you then felt a pressure to maintain whereas, under your own name, whatever you do is true to yourself by definition?
Exactly. And I think the reason I created AKA George in the first place was because I didn’t feel equipped to just be myself under my own name. I know there are some people who know what they’re doing straight out of the gate, but I’ve always been a late developer that needs to explore every avenue in my head first. That’s what I needed to do here as well. There was a bit of a journey before I realised it was enough to just be me.
It sounds like you’d done quite a lot under your own steam before you signed to a label…
I only signed to AntiFragile early this year. We’re doing a run of EPs. The Bad For You EP came out in March, the Make It Rain EP will come out in August and there’s a third one on the way as well. I’m making that now and it’s the one I feel is truest to George Barnett. I’m not obsessing over the production this time. It’s all about the songs.
How did you meet with AntiFragile and why did you go down that route?
I put a song out called Stone Cold Classic a couple of years ago. AntiFragile’s founder Tom Sarig saw the video and got in touch at the time saying he’d like to do a deal. At that point, me and my manager, Alex Kadis, wanted to stay the course for a little bit longer. We felt like we’d spent a lot of time getting things in order and wanted to build on it independently.
When we talked to Tom more recently, we worked out a deal where the masters will revert back to me after not too long. That was quite important to me because I record everything myself. Because I’ve learned quite a lot over a certain amount of time, and because me and Alex work so closely, between us, we have a strong sense of what we do and don’t want to do. In some ways, the A&R process is really internal for us. I felt weird about doing something that basically meant I would have a load of masters taken off me, but Tom was really good about that. It’s been really good working with them.
Do you think that completely independent way of working is becoming more viable for artists?
Definitely. Especially during lockdown, I imagine if you didn’t know how to record yourself and all the rest, you’d be at a disadvantage. I do think there’s value in learning every little facet of what you’re doing. Some people think, ‘I’m good at this and that’s all I need to know.’ I’ve always been interested in how things are done. Not because I’m a control freak, I just want to be able to talk to people who are better at it than me without them feeling like they have to explain things all the time.
It sounds like you’ve been able to remain productive during lockdown. How have you managed during this time?
Well, at the start of the year, me and Alex set out a plan to release three EPs in 2020 and an album in 2021. If we’d have had live shows booked this year, we’d have found it much more difficult. I have friends in bands whose summer was based around festivals and that’s been taken away. That’s really hard. Luckily, this year has just been about new music for me.
I do miss playing live, though. That’s the thing I know I’m doing right. In lockdown, you don’t see many people and that makes you go a bit mad because you don’t know whether what you’re doing is good or not. I mean, you never really know, but that’s amplified in lockdown and you start second guessing yourself. When I play live, I know what I’m doing and I get that immediate feedback.
What’s your long-term ambition?
I want to play massive venues. I want to play to a lot of people. I’m not really interested in fitting into the music industry, I’m just trying to build my own tribe. And that’s what changing my name was about – connecting to that tribe. I didn’t think people would care that much but the reaction was really supportive and uplifting. People were posting about it and saying, “thank god” and “finally”! I did some livestreams during lockdown and the community that I’ve built in this short time is amazing. I just want to build on that. I’m not really looking at what other people are doing, I just want to look at what I’m doing and make it better all the time.