Ben Barnes is 40 years old, and after decades of speaking and singing in the voice of others, he finally knows what he really sounds like.
The actor, who has starred in some of our fantasy favorites – from The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian to Westworld to, most recently, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone – is embarking on a new phase of his career, and returning to his original passion: music.
His debut single, the extremely catchy and touching 11:11, was released in September, and his first mini-album, Songs For You, is out on October 15. Ahead of the EP’s release, I was able to interview Barnes about his music.
Songs For You is the result of an often put-off dream. “The truth is I did try to be a singer about 20 years ago, more than 20 years ago,” he tells me over Zoom from Canada, where he’s currently filming his episode of Guillermo Del Toro’s horror anthology Cabinet of Curiosities. “And it was very short-lived, but I really did all the way through my teenage years, I thought that’s what I would sort of end up doing in some way.”
There was the brief and very, very embarrassing time he spent in a now-forgotten British boyband – whenever he’s asked about it in interviews he’s visibly mortified. He also spent time in the National Youth Music Theatre. And he got an opportunity to “sing some jazz with Simon Fuller”, the man who created the Idols TV series format, including the UK’s Pop Idol and the US series American Idol. But it didn’t work out.
“I saw how quickly your dreams can just sort of slip through your fingers like sand and then I started focusing on the acting thing,” he says.
The acting thing did allow him to still do some music, although it meant singing in other people’s voices. He sang in the role of John Whittaker in the 2008 film Easy Virtue (an adaptation of the Noël Coward play), was a guitar-playing train hopper in the romance film Jackie & Ryan, and played the real-life Neil McCormick in Killing Bono in 2011.
“It was always that was my favorite parts of doing this job, being in a recording studio for Jackie & Ryan or Killing Bono or Easy Virtue,” he says. “[But] I’ve always felt a bit of imposter syndrome. When I started out acting, I thought, ‘Well, I’m being hired because I look like a young version of that person or I’m being hired because I can play the drums and they need that for this role or I’m being hired because I can do a sort of impression of a folk singer’.
“And actually I had always had this sort of secret challenge in myself to be, ‘Well, what do you sound like? What do you write about? How do you sound?’ For me, it was something that’s scratched at me.”
In the last few years, Barnes made a move to showcasing his own voice, posting covers on Instagram; simply shot videos of him at a piano playing and singing songs including David Bowie’s Space Oddity, Wham’s Last Christmas and Beyonce’s Love On Top. Looking back, these now seem like a warm-up to giving fans – who responded enthusiastically to his eclectic mix of covers – his own music.
“I think it was a bit of a test for myself,” Barnes says. “Sort of first subconsciously and then quite consciously to be like, ‘Oh, I wonder what people would think if I did this?’ I think that so much of what social media can be, can just be poison. But actually, there’s also a sort of community of support. And you could see if it’s four people who’ve said, ‘Oh, this is great’. And you can see if it’s a 100,000 people who are saying, ‘Okay, when are you going to make your own music?’”
The wisdom of age, and the enforced space of the pandemic, gave Barnes the chance to sit in his own skin and find his own voice, and realize that “it doesn’t matter if what you think you have to say is not necessarily Shakespeare, the feelings are yours”.
“The chords are yours, the words are yours,” he continues. “So own them. And I think that was a good lesson for me. That was the sort of thing which pushed it through for me to be like, ‘I’m okay’. Because I know I’m going to do everything I can to make this something I’m proud of. I know I’m going to push to make the music something I like, to push to make the music videos sort of something that feel honest, all of that. And so just get on with it. And now I feel proud that I did.”
Even still, there was a nervousness when it came to music. However vulnerable acting requires a person to be, Barnes says he’s “always felt it was quite safe to be vulnerable on a set because tomorrow you’ll be something else”. Music required a different kind of vulnerability.
“To me acting is about commitment,” he says. “And I think that’s an amazing lesson that I’ve learned over 20 years that I took to the music, which was to commit, to commit to having it be honest. So the commitment to it was not something I was worried about because I practiced.
“But yeah, it feels vulnerable, lonely. And I think the thing that’s helped me feel it’s not vulnerable is knowing that when people listen to it, they’re going to assign their own characters to it. They’re going to assign that person in their life that has made them feel that way. It’s not about me.”
All the songs do come from Barnes’ own experiences, things he’s felt and seen and heard over the years, which he’s jotted down in notebooks as half-formed lyrics. But he’s aware that with music, there’s a certain handing over to be done.
“It’s funny, there’s all these words, which I’ve never thought about,” he muses to me. “Like you release music and then you share posts, you share video, share stories, share music. These words are suddenly… there’s something about the release. Yes. It’s a release. I’m letting it go. You don’t deliver it, you release music.”
Barnes has seen huge commercial and critical success before, but he says that the album is the first time he really thought “I made something.”
“And I’m not sure I’ve really felt that way before; I’ve had debates over the years about friends, whether they’re actors or artists or creatives or whatever,” he continues. “And I’m not quite sure where I settle on it necessarily.
“But there’s a purity to this. This is mine. I made this out of my feelings and I made this from my heart.”
And he made it with his voice, his real voice, front and center. Ben Barnes is 40 years old and he finally knows what he sounds like, and it’s pretty damn good.
Songs For You comes out on October 15.