Liz Barnez reflects on a lifelong career making music in NoCo.
LIZ BARNEZ HAS BEEN PERFORMING her signature swamp groove songs—a mix of folk, blues, country, and New Orleans R&B—in the Colorado music scene since moving here from New Orleans in 1988.
At fifty-something, she says a career as a musician hasn’t been easy, but it’s been satisfying. That’s due, in part, to the way she’s come to see her purpose.
She remembers being asked about her definition of success in her twenties. At the time, she answered, “I get to do what I love to do. And I can pay for my life.” Thirty years later, Barnez can tell you success is more complex than merely playing and paying rent—it’s about creating space for connection. “I feel totally successful in that I allow myself to be an artist.” Acknowledging the airy-fairyness of the term “allow,” she says that means always having a flexible day job that leaves room for music at night. It’s being present for songs when they want to be written; playing gigs “without a mask on;” being open enough to share her real story through song so the audience can connect to it.
After 30 years, Barnez is an expert on the FoCo music scene. She played the first New West Fest “before Pat Stryker bestowed her wonderfulness.” She sat in with whomever would let her at venues like Bar Bizarre under the Northern Hotel and Friend’s Saloon (now CooperSmith’s). She also left periodically, to get uncomfortable and be inspired by better musicians in Nashville, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
Having worked both as a performer and behind the scenes for many local organizations (including the Bohemian Foundation), she has some thoughts about what our arts scene could use. It’s not rehearsal space—in short, musicians need affordable housing and health insurance. “We have all these great venues, but musicians need places to live and to be able to go to the doctor when they are sick,” she says. Barnez didn’t get health insurance until she married her partner in 2015.
We could also use more mentoring opportunities, she adds. “There are all these organizations that want to help young musicians get better. That’s great,” she says. “We all need help and support, but there’s a way in which we need to kindly and compassionately say, ‘You’re good for a 16-year-old. Play everywhere you can. But you have a lot to learn, and really, what you need to do is watch these old people play.’” Barnez says she now realizes that at 22, she wasn’t good enough yet to perform at a national level. She doesn’t say it, but it must have been hard to watch other bands get signed and not get that call herself.
And isn’t that the trick of the music business? We want 27-year-olds to show genius-level talent, but don’t get as excited when skill is earned through experience. Success in the arts tends to come in spurts. As a veteran of that cycle, Barnez says she can feel another wave of energy coming for her music career. And this time, she’s clear on what success looks like. —Corey Radman