Explain Exclusive - Fletcher Barnhill of RONiiA

by: Quinn Cory

Minneapolis-based RONiiA made their way to Milwaukee last week to end their most recent tour which supported the release of “Sisters EP”. RONiiA is a collaborative trio. Nona Marie Invie (Dark Dark Dark, FUGITIVE), Mark McGee (Father You See Queen, Marijuana Deathsquad), and Fletcher Barnhill (Joint Custody, FUGITIVE) started working together in the summer of 2013. Invie and McGee were performing with fellow Minnesotans Polica, and wanted their live performance to be more than just a backtrack. Bringing in Barnhill and his friend Cole Weiland sparked a greater purpose to the music they had been previously working on. Together, they started writing and challenging the style and sounds that they were known for. The combination of the members influences has created a unique sound that is both gloom and pop simultaneously. 

image:  Billy Joe

image: Billy Joe

At the Cactus Club, RONiiA performed an entrancing set, characterized by their dark ambient sound. The group is trailblazing an interactive way of recording. They create demos and choose to perform them live for awhile, experimenting and adjusting the sound based on the response from the audience, as well as their own feelings about the tracks. This establishes how they will record the studio versions, giving their audience a unique experience to their work.

After the group made their way back to Minneapolis, I was given the opportunity to call Barnhill and conduct a phone interview. The first attempt to get in touch with Barnhill was unsuccessful. While I waited to leave a voice message, a non-traditional message initiated. It was Barnhill playing the Miles Davis song ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ on piano, in the style from the rehearsal version of the tune from the record “In a Silent Way”. The message was mysterious and haunting, leaving a lasting impression before I even began speaking with Barnhill. 

Once we finally got in touch and I inquired about the voice message, Barnhill was happy to explain the recording.

It’s Miles Davis. I play in a surf band (The Ventures Coverband) and we were learning some songs from Sketches of Spain, and I found out about the complete In a Silent way recordings. I found this version of a It never entered my mind in one of the rehearsals that he did for the actual record. It was so different than the original. The way it was practiced. If I like something, I try and find it on the piano. It’s like a coping mechanism for me.

What is your role in RONiiA?

I play the synthesizer, keys. My role is to fill in the gaps and play the strings and baselines and stuff. Writing is a super collaborative. One of the things that makes this project exciting is when we get in the studio and be making songs, all of us together. It’s really rad. We all have our own things to bring to it. In terms of production Mark is a mastermind. A lot of times it starts with him. He’s making beats all of the time. We all put our heads together, figure out what the song needs, then start transforming it into another direction.

How did you form this project?

Nona is from the band Dark Dark Dark. I think she was looking to just do something a little bit different and Mark reached out to her about making some tracks. I think there was very low pressure for the project, just an experimental kinda thing. It was 2013 I think, Nona had just bought her first synthesizer, a little MicroKorg. It was around that same time, in between Dark Dark Dark tours that she would make music with Mark. For both of them, it was a strong creative connection, and a cool project that didn’t really have a destination yet. I got involved because we are homies with the Polica crew, and they asked Mark and Nona to open for them. In order to play the parts live, they asked my friend Cole and I to flush out the band performance aspect of it. Then later that winter we started writing together, things clicked & we began stepping into the realm of that first record. We finished writing and recording those songs throughout that winter of 2013 and 2014. 

I feel lucky having done it. The songs were non-traditional, you know ? They were long and moody. It was exciting to work on such experimental songs and have it come out as a LP on a label that we look up to. There were no expectations, really, and in the end it turned out beautiful. We got to tour the world and it inspired us to push the sound and keep it moving. Dream come true really .

Are you still living in Minneapolis?

Mark was living in Venice Beach for the winter. But we are all back from the summer right now. 

What are you currently working on?

We just put out the EP so we are going to tour in support of that EP up to Canada and see friends in New York in May.

volume 1

volume 1

Now that we are in it, being with people who are all about writing songs, it’s a continual flow. We have another song or two in the works. One that we are already playing at shows, sort of workshopping it before recording. It’s a cool process that we found while we were touring last year.Coming home from tour we are always excited to get in the studio and continue making stuff. So to keep our momentum, we started the mix tape series. We would write a song or two for those tapes, & fill the rest of the space with tracks from our other friends who are also making music.

Is that where you get content for these then?

Yeah totally, the first song was the song ‘Run’. We wanted to bring it on tour with us. The tape is a collection of a bunch of homies in Minneapolis and we asked them to contribute a track. The second one is all friends that we met from touring Europe. We will take those songs and put them out as a rough demo version, but then play them at shows a bunch and tweak them a little bit, then later recording the song is really easy. We have the cassettes physically with us when we play shows and they are also available on our bandcamp.

You would say that you are continually experimenting and writing as you go along, then.

I think so, yeah. The road is a nice way to test out new songs. This last tour we were testing out new songs in the moment. That ended up being really fun. We were in Austin and ended up playing this song that is totally unfinished and it was cool that everyone can hang with improvisation and experimental music. A few of our friends in the crowd responded, “what was that last song? you guys were having so much fun.” So, it’s like something that we just discovered, who knows. The style of writing and performing and building songs. It’s shaped by our feelings but also the response from our audience.

Where do you draw inspiration for this project? In the past, you have been involved in performance art and doing residencies. Are you still doing that?

Definitely. We are lucky to live in Minneapolis where there is a huge support for the arts. I think that is a big aspect of how we’ve been getting strange opportunities and have been able to do art in the public realm. I think it’s really important. It’s something that we seek out. It’s a real benefit. For example, Nona and I went to Mexico to compose and live at a yoga studio in Tulum. We recorded some chill music for a yoga practice & performed live for some classes. We were supported by a Minnesota Composers Forum. So, it was an outside-of-the-box weird thing to do. It really enriched our musical lives and changed the music that we make, however you want to look at that. It’s something we are super involved it.

It’s definitely an immersive approach to claim yourself as an artist fully. It seems like a lot of experimentation and pushing yourselves musically, continuing to be innovative.

image:  Gene Pittman

Last summer was super good and I hope we can find another project like this. Mark got a commission from the Walker to do a film score. As a band, we had just toured for months on end and we got to take a break and write a film score. That is something I had done before, but doing it for that project gave us a glimpse of what music life could look like outside of touring. In the digital world that we live in, there is so much music being put to imagery and video content, all the media that we take in. There are so many people playing in bands, and really it’s only inspiring and encouraging. Somehow there is a way to make an artistic and musical life for ourselves.

What was the film?

It was called the Adventure of Prince Achmed. It was a silent film, paper cuts, & some of the first examples of animation. They drew over some of the frames and watercolored over most of the frames. It’s a really beautiful show. The song ‘Hell’ on the EP is totally riffing off of something we wrote for the film.

How does having different mediums to express yourself musically affect your creative process?

Personally, it makes me excited. I think, I could do this everyday. I could wake up and have a cup of coffee and go into the studio and make film scores. It was an enthralling experience. We were all super happy to be working on it. It was really interesting-- when the images are already there, the music just comes from this weird place. It gave me confidence. It was complex and super long. It felt different than just making a fun party track.

What is lined up for the summer?

We just got back from a three week tour, we are going to chill out in Minneapolis for a couple weeks. Nona has some shows with the choir. We all have different musical projects going on. Mark is making tons of rap tracks right now. He has recently collaborated with Sims,Astronautalis, Pos, and Moncelus Boston. We are going to stay here at home-base and play shows and normalize for a bit. Then, go on tour in May and have a fun and busy summer. We are really hoping to open for a cool tour in the fall. I think we have done a lot of tours and booked our own tours. It would be cool to support a bigger band. We did some shows with TV On The Radio last summer. That was rad to have the nice sound systems and big crowds and not plan and scramble to put on good shows.

What’s the Minneapolis music scene like currently?

We just lost our warehouse. So that’s kind of sad for me. But honestly, it’s really beautiful. I try to focus on that. It’s amazing. There is so much music that will never be heard in this town. Just like in Milwaukee I’m sure. In the winter, everyone is creating. In the summer, it’s non-stop, everyone is sharing their work and it’s a really fun and exciting time to be back. The beautiful part about the Minneapolis music scene is that we are sustained by the scene itself, everyone is doing it for the music itself.

Minneapolis seems to have a well established platform for multi-media expression. It seems to kind of create this room for eclectic performance. 

I would say Milwaukee has a similar thing going on, we just met WebsterX. They inspired 'us' beyond belief. They had this message and energy that made you want to participate. It was true to that energy that they were doing something super inspiring, like celebrating kids performing music at Freespace. Seems to me like that group of artists have a vision.

How was playing at the Cactus Club?

It was super fun. We were at the end of the tour, kind of a stormy night. But we loved it. Always down to play a show Kelsey throws together. 

What are you reading?

I just finished Between the World and Me. Definitely Toni Morrison is right on point, everybody should read that book and talk about it. 

What are you listening to right now?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Syko Friend, one of our homies from Minneapolis, she lives in LA now. It’s a solo project. She just put out a tape called Fly Canyon, and it’s really good. I listen to a lot of HTRK, listen to that in the car a lot. We have some friends down in Albuquerque called Reighnbeau. Really dig their production style. We listen to a lot of Country music to be honest with you. Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, that kind of stuff. The Cactus Blossoms are a Minneapolis country band. Two brothers singing harmony, they have a new record out. The new record is great. I listen to it every day.

The Minneapolis music scene has served as a role model for the smaller Milwaukee scene. Barnhill was humbled by this comparison and urged the recognition of the work and efforts being done by the arts scene here. Speaking with Barnhill shed light onto the same struggles and successes that occur in various midwest music scenes. If anything, it brings humanity and encourages us to keep moving forward and creating these communities. 

Special thanks to Kelsey Kauffman, a long time homie to the RONiiA crew, for setting up this connection.