Branden Barnett first learned about “ghost shirts” while reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano in college, drawn in by the concept of a protective garment that certain factions of the Lakota people believed could shield a wearer from harm – an idea that resonated strongly with the musician at a point in time when things felt particularly tenuous.
“I was feeling very depressed and anxious, and there was a lot of mental health stuff and interpersonal stuff,” Barnett said by phone in late February from his home in St. Petersburg, Florida. “And so I started a band as sort of a protection, and the idea of naming it Ghost Shirt was that I wanted to create a space where things could be more healthy – a protective space for me and my friends.”
Formed in Columbus, the scruffy, heart-on-its-sleeve indie-rock crew made its live debut in September 2008, releasing a pair of albums (Domestique and Daniel, from 2009 and 2010, respectively) and gaining a degree of regional acclaim before Barnett departed for the Sunshine State a few years later. A third album, After the Spark, followed in 2015, and the band has remained sporadically active in the years since, dusting off classic tracks for the odd reunion show, most recently at Big Room Bar in October 2021.
In recent months, however, Barnett found himself again writing the kinds of songs that required the resilient, protective space afforded by Ghost Shirt, coming off a stretch in which he lost an uncle to the coronavirus and watched his grandfather die of Alzheimer’s. This in addition to his own bout with long COVID, which temporarily left Barnett with debilitating neurological symptoms. “I couldn’t get out of bed for a month, and I couldn’t remember how to type and write and all of this other stuff,” he said. “There was just a lot of grief and loss and death.”
Generally, Barnett said he needs time – often years – to process events before he’s able to write about them with needed clarity. But in this instance, the songs arrived with relative speed, helping the musician more quickly metabolize these accumulated hurts. “I think art and writing is one way – one very relatable way – we can digest pain in a way that doesn’t make us fall apart,” said Barnett, who quickly realized the tracks were a less-than-ideal fit for the Sugar Bats, an ongoing collaboration with fellow Floridian Colleen Cherry that he described as “a less heavy interpretation of music.” “And, honestly, there was just a part of me that needed to write about some really upsetting stuff.”
So, Barnett assembled songs about his grandfather dying, and about his fears for the safety of his children, who seemed particularly fragile amid the ravages of a global pandemic, and brought them to Ghost Shirt bandmates Ryan Haye, David Murphy, Samantha Schnabel and Jacob Wooten – all of whom now live in Columbus. This Saturday and Sunday, the band will venture to Franklinton’s Secret Studio to track these fractured songs, the weekend recording sessions following a happy hour concert at Rumba Cafe on Friday, March 3.
“These are the people I call when things are hopeless, or incredible, and our friendship has always been able to bear the peak experiences of life,” said Barnett, who will also perform a solo set at Secret Studio on Thursday, March 2, alongside Columbus treasure Micah Schnabel. “I read somewhere that a song is truly good if you’re ashamed of it, if it makes you embarrassed. And it’s hard to bring in stuff like that if there’s not that kind of relationship, which we have. It definitely creates a space where I can bring really heavy things in, and they accept it. There’s never this moment of flinching or questioning.”
While Ghost Shirt has always played a similar role in helping Barnett process his experiences, he said he now approaches the music with different intentions as a married, 42-year-old father of two than he did as a younger man fumbling his way through post-college life – a gulf he experiences each time he revisits the band’s catalog in concert.
“Those early songs – I’m proud of them, and I’m happy we have them, and that people connect with them – but I am somehow the victim of some kind of relationship fuck up in every one of the songs,” Barnett said, and laughed. “And none of them actually went down that way. None of them. I was probably the bad guy in all of those songs. Looking back, it’s this heartbroken, I’ve-been-wronged, sort of lilting victim mentality that is very compelling because it’s dramatic, but now I just sort of laugh at it. I’m just like, God, I really thought the world and every girl I ever dated was against me, which is just some real early 20s bullshit.”
Barnett gained some perspective on those formative musical years after relocating to Florida, where he’s worked as a psychotherapist for the last decade in a practice dedicated in part to creatives struggling with depression and anxiety. It wasn’t easy, though, with the musician describing the palpable sense of despair that settled in once he moved away from Columbus and a band in which he had experienced some degree of personal success.
“And I started realizing how much my identity and my self-worth was wrapped up in that,” said Barnett, describing himself as an overweight kid with low self-esteem who leaned into forming bands beginning in middle school as a way of “appearing special” to those around him. “So, it took a solid five or six years of chilling out and being a dad to wrap my head around all of it. But I realized I came to music and creativity in a reckless and I’d even say selfish way, where there was a lot of attention-seeking and tumultuous and fast relationships and just using music as a platform to garnish an ego. … Now I’m learning to make music from a less egoic and maybe more helpful and service-based mindset, which is really different from that other thing.”
Not that Barnett doesn’t occasionally feel the tug of the past, even once briefly weighing the idea of a new Ghost Shirt album filled with “a bunch of bangers … about being awesome and having a tumultuous dating life.”
“And then I just couldn’t keep a straight face,” he said.
Instead, as the pandemic moved into its third year, Barnett found himself writing about being a dad, and about watching family members die, and about the sense of disconnect that can settle in once you enter into your 40s, a time when the idea of making new friends can begin to feel like an impossibility.
“I remember having a conversation with Ryan [Haye] and asking him why there weren’t any songs about being tired after putting your kids to bed. … And he was like, ‘Because nobody cares about that,’” Barnett said. “But I care about that. And it’s a real thing, where you have all of these ideas and you want to work on them, but you’re so depleted that you just lay there and stare at your phone and fade out. … And then part of me started to feel defiant. I mean, I understand rock ‘n roll is a young man’s game, and I totally respect that. But I also wanted to make a record that makes sense to me, even if no one else gives a crap about it.”