Much in line with the mass appeal romantic populism she has written into songs for Rihanna, Beyoncé and Britney Spears, Stacy Barthe has a natural knack for punctuating her points with aphorism. On feeling underpaid as a songwriter: “I didn’t have gas to get to the studio. I didn’t have a dollar to my name. I was like, I’d rather do it for me than do it for free.” On teaching herself to sing: “I never took any vocal lessons, I just got in tune with myself.” For Barthe, everything spins motivational, even the darkest death- and addiction-focused material she recorded for her Sincerely Yours EP. Hope always swings up and life’s finest virtue is self-assured, unstoppable forward motion.
Four years ago, while studying English at Saint John’s University in New York and interning at Geffen and Jive, Barthe struck up a Myspace relationship with Chauncey Hollis, who now produces for Kanye West’s GOOD Music under the name Hit-Boy. He’d send her beats, she’d write a song, record it and send it back. During her junior year, Hollis invited her to move to Atlanta and devote herself wholly to music. She accepted, and before long Barthe leveraged former internship contacts to sign her first publishing deal with Motown. “I always had a knack for writing, and luckily I always ended up meeting music people. I figured I would make my way as a songwriter and eventually cross over like Ne-Yo did, like Keri Hilson did.” Armed with an untiring work ethic and a baby doll’s disarming grin, Barthe invested years as a songwriter before a vague disillusionment soured her enthusiasm for putting other’s projects first. Inspired by Natalie Portman’s work-obsessed-to-the-point-of-murder protagonist in Black Swan, Barthe tattooed a black feather on her arm and vowed to change: “On December 6th, 2010 I decided I wanted to lose weight and be serious about my artist career, to be healthy and to see my life through.”
Sincerely Yours, her best work to date, is the result of this prioritization, Barthe funneling professional malaise through love songs and embedding fears about striking out on her own musically within breakup and recovery tropes. “Comfy Little Coffin” is Sincerely Yours’ most urgent song, employing a surprisingly morbid metaphor. It’s just one of those days/ When I just wanna be where no one’s around, Barthe sings over loosely strummed guitar, barely exerting herself. Forever just be alone. She calls for a coffin to crawl into. “Everybody’s shared a similar experience when it comes to love and relationships,” she says. “Who hasn’t been hurt? Who hasn’t been in love? Who hasn’t wanted to be loved?” Barthe thrived as a songwriter giving voice to the everywoman, but here she dares listeners to consider their mortality in a way mainstream R&B rarely does. When she reveals “Comfy Little Coffin” was written following the death of a close friend, sung from the perspective of her friend’s grieving wife, it’s gut-wrenching. The premise stays with you, but subject matter so raw is an unlikely launch pad for an artist who says she’s “practicing for the Staples Center.”
If Sincerely Yours tells the story of Barthe testing the waters alone, her next project, PS, I Love You, celebrates the proud freedom of harnessing her keenest life skill, pushing through. “Once you leave the songwriter world and enter this personal space, that’s when you learn to sing.” One year after her Black Swan resolution, she marks another milestone: “I’m 26 now. In the last year I’ve found my voice not only in music but in the world. I feel like I’ve found my little star in the sky… I’m in a relationship, I’m in love, I’m looking forward to the future. There’s so much to do and sing about, I’m just scratching the surface.” Having heard Barthe sound down, the world deserves to hear her happy.
Stream: Stacy Barthe, Sincerely Yours EP