MANSFIELD — Brianna Barnes wants you to leave your preconceived notions about faith and spirituality at the door.
In her debut EP, the Mansfield native seeks to inspire listeners to reexamine their own views about God and open themselves up to experiencing the divine in a new way.
“I kind of wanted the album itself to be an invitation into the wonder and mystery that is available to us,” said Barnes of her upcoming album "Hierophanies: Manifestations of the Sacred."
The album's first single, "Storyteller," drops Easter Sunday at 8 p.m. Barnes hopes to release a second single in May and the rest of the album later this spring. She also plans to return to Mansfield for a concert series in July.
Barnes' big dreams of songwriting and Broadway took root here in Richland County, where she grew up performing in productions at the Mansfield Playhouse and Renaissance Theatre.
After graduating from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, Barnes moved to New York City to purse a career on Broadway. She continued to pursue multiple creative avenues, from performing in regional productions to write and producing her own theatrical works.
Her original musical “Let There Be Light” debuted in 2016. Two years later, it garnered the awards for Best Musical and Best Score at The New York Theatre Festival. She joined her first national tour that same year, playing Lucy in "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
Creating an album had always been on Barnes’ bucket list, but producing a record is expensive and time-consuming. And in the competitive world of the New York theatre scene, time was a luxury Barnes simply didn’t have.
Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly, the industry came to a screeching halt with no return date in sight.
“Before COVID, at the beginning of 2020, I had a friend of mine come up to me while we were both serving in church together and just kind of nonchalantly he was like, ‘Brianna, have you ever thought about recording an album?'" Barnes recalled.
“I don't believe everything happens for a reason. I don't believe that at all. But what I do believe is that beautiful things can be made out of broken things, and I think that is an example of this.”
"Hierophanies" features eight songs written and sung by Barnes. She described her style as a cross between folk rock and singer-songwriter, with a little bit of Americana thrown in.
While the album deals with the topic of faith, it’s not meant to be a typical contemporary Christian record. Rather than assume a listener's point of view, Barnes' music explores the tensions and questions surrounding life and faith, allowing listeners to draw their own conclusions.
“I want my music to be a bridge builder for people,” she said. “My hope for this album is that it reaches the right people and the people that experience the music really do encounter those hierophanies in their own life, and are able to ponder their own story and ponder those big life questions.”
The track list includes two songs from her “Let There Be Light” musical, “Illuminate the Night” and “What’s Your Story.” Barnes described the latter as a call to empathy in a polarized world.
“After the pandemic and the election and just all of the things I think people are really afraid of people that are different than them,” she said. “Empathy doesn't require you to agree with everything your neighbor says, but it requires you to be able to ask your neighbor, ‘What's your story?’”
“The Holy Place” deals with the value of faith in the midst of doubt and struggle. The title track calls the listener to return to a place of childlike wonder, suggesting that perhaps the sacred can be found in the ordinary aspects of life -- that it’s all around us waiting to be discovered.
“Quarantine” delves into a feeling that became all too familiar last year.
“It’s about that feeling of waiting, being stuck. It was inspired heavily by one of my favorite verses in the Bible actually that talks about the Spirit making prayer out of our wordless sighs and aching groans,” she said. “I thought, oh my gosh that is one of the most relatable 2020 verses.”
Barnes began recording the album in October, using funds from a Kickstarter campaign that raised $8,000 in just three days. Ultimately, the campaign generated more than $10,500 -- enough to cover the costs of recording, production and musicians' fees.
"I really had a conviction from the beginning to pay my musician friends their regular fee," she said. "I didn't want them to just do it for free because they were friends, especially in the middle of a pandemic when they weren't getting a lot of work."
Barnes recorded the album at MONOLisa studios with Denise Barbarita, a four-time Grammy winning audio engineer. Alan Silverman, who has worked with artists ranging from Norah Jones to Chaka Khan to Dolly Parton, mixed the album.
The pandemic caused delays in the process, but Barnes has no regrets.
"I'm so happy that we took our time and really made strategic decisions and didn't just rush to get it done, just for the sake of a deadline," she said. "Honestly, this is the most creatively fulfilled I've been in a long time."
Nevertheless, Broadway still beckons.
“I don't think I'll ever have a singular goal when it comes to my artistic endeavors, but it's absolutely still on my list of things I want to accomplish," Barnes said. "I've never felt like I have to choose between singer-songwriter, Broadway actor, worship leader. Whatever is in my hands to do at the moment, I'm going to give it my all."