When Barbarossa (né James Mathé) presents his most delicate songs, it’s when he shines the brightest. His sparkling new single “Always Free” opens with a lilting piano melody that breathes life into each instrument with each new measure until it finds itself percolating with staccato synths against a soaring synth backdrop. With a defined and tangible hook, “Always Free” embraces its delicate melody while enveloping itself into a majestic swirl worthy of Memory Tapes.
Seemingly effortless and weightless, as if the song was a flitting melody that just found its way into the recording booth through a crack in the door, the track may be wispy and atmospheric, but it wields a gale-force hook that can bowl you over if it catches you offguard.
“’Always Free’ started with the riff,” Mathé says about the rather humble origins of the song. “Much of my songwriting comes from just noodling around on the piano or a synth and, I guess, trying to catch my unconscious off guard. That riff really came from nowhere but once I had that, the rest just fell into place.”
Working with electronic guru Ghost Culture whose own indie electronica permeates the track through the spectral synth washes and rhythmic beats, the song recalls Air’s cinematic masterpiece Pocket Symphonies had it been merged with Roosevelt or M83’s midnight dance beats. The seamless blending of organic instrumentation with electronic flourishes showcases Mathé’s craft more evidently, separating him from the coy strains of melancholic new age, marking him safe from the indie dog whistles of Bon Iver or even Asgeir.
A marked departure from his subdued and darker previous album Lier, “Always Free” sparks a sunnier outlook that shines a little light into the nervous brooding about being a father that colored his previous record. “Don’t be alarmed by the waves in the water / Don’t be alarmed, they are stepping stones / And if it was calm, there’d be no evolving / Don’t try something, just let go,” he opens the song, signifying a sort of newly-embraced zen-like outlook on life.
“It is about me reminding myself that I always have access to freedom from my thoughts if I can find stillness and am open to change,” he says, reflecting on how adult responsibilities have changed him for the better. With his priorities shifting and fatherhood really starting to grow on him, he seems to be finding that balance a little more easily now. “I really struggle with this daily, but sometimes a song/film/book/my kids or a conversation might remind me just how simple it can be to just let go of trying to control the outcome and get out of my comfort zone. That’s where the good shit is… it’s in those moments.”