In the early ’90s, Frank Barter was gigging as much as he could with his band the Midnights, who played blues, heartfelt rock, and ’70s-style singer-songwriter inspired tunes. There were a lot of gigs to go around, because he was in Seattle right in the midst of the grunge explosion.
“Major labels were everywhere. You never knew who was in the crowd,” Barter says. “We’d rehearse in the same building as some band that was going to be on a major six months later and have a huge record.”
The kind of music that Barter and his band were playing wasn’t exactly in line with what the grunge bands were doing. Still, the general excitement in the city spilled over.
“People were out listening to music. It was a festive city. It was alive,” Barter explains. “I was getting a name for myself. I was playing in front of good crowds.”
All his hard work did lead to a record deal, though not with a major. Paul Hodes, who later became a U.S. congressman for the state of New Hampshire, signed Barter to his small indie label Big Round Records. He knew of Barter from the Midnights, which played covers and Barter originals. But he wanted to sign Barter as a solo artist and focus on his original material.
Big Round Records released two of Barter’s records, Stone Highways (1995) and the follow-up Dreamtown (2000), which found a larger audience.
“It’s sold a fair amount of units and got some airplay. I didn’t have to go get a real job. I could actually live as a musician,” Barter.
It’s been a couple decades, and though Barter—who now lives in Santa Cruz—has stayed active as a live performer, and continued to write, he’s only now putting out his first release since Dreamtown—a new four-song EP on Valley Entertainment called Ready. And Barter is making a big push to get his music out there, tour, and once again build a fanbase.
“I really want to get my music exposed. I want to find my bigger audience,” Barter says. “So many people don’t get the chance to do that. They either stop or the music beats them down or whatever. Life gets in the way. I just kept going and going and going.”
The EP is actually four songs taken from Dreamtown, but remastered and tweaked a bit. Valley Entertainment felt like the best way to introduce Barter’s music to the world would be to re-release four of his best songs. If all goes well, they’ll be putting out some of Barter’s new material—which he has plenty of.
These are songs that are timeless for Barter. One of them, “Graveyard Songs,” is about visiting the grave of his sister who passed away when she was 12 and Barter was 15.
“I was never going to outgrow that. And how that makes me feel, the reason that I go there—it just conjures up memories that are going to be with me forever,” Barter says.
The Valley Entertainment deal came about because Hodes, who remained a friend and advocate of Barter’s music, met Jon Birgé, the president of Valley, and recommended his music to him.
“He had worked with Columbia and Sony for many years, coming up through the Dylan, Springsteen, late ’70s singer-songwriter rock ’n’ roll genre,” Barter says. “He identified with my stuff right away.”
The timing has been great for Barter. About four years ago, he was thinking about putting a serious effort into music again, but then got diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma (a bone marrow cancer). In the fall of 2016, it went into remission. He first talked to Birgé about releasing his music not long after. The whole experience has given him some perspective.
“You just naturally start eliminating things and really concentrating on what you can improve,” Barter says. “The spirit of my music is all about the things that life throws at you. And how to get past that, to keep a view of who you are without losing yourself in those challenges.”
Going through cancer has informed a lot of his new material. But it wasn’t the cancer itself, it was learning about himself in that process.
“I don’t want to write the cancer album. Good Lord. Who wants to hear that? No one wants that album,” Barter says. “This music is about the love in relationships and the struggle to get through it all.”
Frank Barter plays at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 2, at Flynn’s Cabaret & Steakhouse, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $15. 335-2800.