Jo-Ann Barton is back
The singer-songwriter on the life-and-death matter of her kids and how becoming a parent inspired her new album "Stick and Stones."
Jo-Ann Barton thought nothing could bring her back to music. The New Jersey native had quit the band that bore her name and retired from songwriting, taking a 9-5 job and settling down for the quiet life with her longtime partner Darlene Schickram. But something came along and changed all that: a baby boy. "Twelve years ago my partner and I wanted to have kids. I was petrified because I didn't want them to be picked on for having gay parents. I was terribly afraid," Barton says.
Every parent wants to protect their child, but how do you shield them from society at large? As the deadly fallout from anti-gay bullying made more frequent headlines, Barton became only more afraid. "I never recall kids when I was growing up committing suicide from being bullied," she says. "Society now is much tougher. People are crueler? I don't know."
Barton began writing songs to cope with anxiety about her family's future and, gradually, through fits and starts, her new album Sticks and Stones was born. Sticks and Stones is a concept album about being persecuted, isolated and ostracized, aimed at LGBT kids and the kids of LGBT parents.
Is Sticks and Stones about being gay, about being bullied, about being the child of gay parents and having to cope with the adult realities of discrimination before your time? Barton says yes — and no.
"It's music for everyone," says Barton. "Gay or straight, young or old, anyone who has ever felt like they're against the world. I heard about all these people committing suicide after being bullied; it's disgusting. It broke my heart," she says.
Although the idea for the album was in place as early as twelve years ago when Barton wrote the song "Just Like You" after the birth of her first son, it took a little push from colleagues like producer Max Caselnova to get her serious about the project.
"I don't think she's ever stopped writing even after she retired," Caselnova says. "But you get frustrated when you're plugging away all these years. The music business is tough. You need a lot of luck."
Barton's band mates has long since gone their separate ways, but when she told people about the project she found plenty of help. "Everybody did it for free," Barton says. "All the guys on the CD are straight, the studio guys are straight, but they felt it was a wonderful cause and they wanted to be a part of it.
"One guy I ended up working with was an ex-boyfriend from high school, can you believe it? He's married with kids now, and we collaborated on three songs."
Barton and high school sweetheart Vince Cinardo hadn't worked together since 1992 when their last musical collaboration ended over "management differences", but the album concept resonated with him as with all of the contributors. "I'm sure most of us have felt like the world was against us at one point in our lives," says Cinardo.
Once Sticks and Stones was finished, Barton faced another challenge: how to get it to the people who needed to hear it? Her solution was simply to send it to everyone: GLAAD, It Gets Better, The Suicide Prevention Lifeline, The Trevor Project, Colage, everyone.
Photo: Jo-Ann Barton in the studio
"I reached out to them and they said yes [to an endorsement] without even hearing it," Barton says. "People believed in the project just by what I was telling them. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline, they were freaking out over it." She even plans to send it to Ellen.
Elizabeth Castellana of Colage says that music is the ideal way to appeal to kids who might be jaded about messages from adults. "If it's the drumbeat and not the lyrics, there's something in that that's compelling," she says. "Music is a way of saying something on a non-literal level."
Mark Radice, who worked with Caselnova and Barton recording the album, agrees. "I am always amazed at how quickly children will migrate towards me if I'm playing a guitar or a piano and singing," he says. "Without music I'm just another boring grownup to them."
Barton and her partner have two boys, ages twelve and nine, and Sticks and Stones was written for them, but what's Barton's own experience with bullying? "I was within a hair's length of becoming a bully myself" as a child, Barton says. She recounts memories of terrorizing neighborhood kids until she had a moment of clarity.
"One day they were chasing this girl home and I said, What am I doing, am I crazy?" So she stopped the chase and told her accomplices off. How did they take it? "I got my ass kicked," Barton says.
Well, it's a tough world out there. But at least there are people who are willing to stand up and remind us that we're not in it alone. (joannbarton.com)