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Honey Made’s soul-stirring debut is the feel-good album 2020 needs

Deborah Sengupta Stith
Honey Made's debut album "Brand New" drops on Nov. 6.

Honey Made’s debut full-length “Brand New,” produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, will drop Nov. 6, but in June, the 9-piece funk crew blessed the city with a much-needed ode to hope. In the video for lead single, “So Good,” a trio of soul stirrers sing down this summer’s strife. A church organ ushers the track in as a camera pans over an aerial of the Black Austin Matters mural painted on Congress Avenue while lead singer Willie Barnes delivers a heartfelt sermon on the challenges we’re facing, from COVID-19 to the “modern day revolution” of the Black Lives Matters movement.

“What Honey Made wants to make sure is that everyone out there remembers how to feel good,” he says as the song swells into a glorious chorus, rich with vocal harmony and buoyant blasts of brass.

The track was recorded before the world took a dark turn in March, but Barnes “always had this idea of it staying relevant and changing the lyrics every time we do it to kind of fit the mood and whatever is going on when we play it,” the band’s bass player Lee Braverman said during an episode of Austin360’s streaming show, the Monday Music Mashup. “He kind of came to the band and said, ‘This is a song that the world needs right now. It's not released yet. And there's a lot of things going on very relevant to this song.’”

Though the new arrangement featured in the video reflects on the pandemic lockdown and a long overdue social justice reckoning, it radiates warmth and hard-won joy.

“I mean, what else you gonna do? Especially for the Black community, we've been having strife and struggle, since we got here. And if you just focus on the bad, that's what you're gonna feel,” Chris Barnes, drummer and vocalist for the band said on the Mashup. “I wake up, I put a smile on my face no matter what I'm going through, because otherwise, they — the opposition — they win. So you gotta power through, no matter what the struggle is.”

The song soars with revival meeting realness that is second nature to Willie and Chris Barnes, who are brothers. They were raised in the church and when Chris was three and Willie was six, the family had a gospel group that traveled the church circuit singing the Word.

“Our dad's a pastor, our grandpa was a pastor, (our) other grandpa was a deacon,” Chris Barnes said. “My mom was minister of music. So was our grandma in my grandpa’s church. So we didn't really have much of a choice.”

Though Honey Made is a relatively new project, the nine-man crew has roots that go back several years. The band grew out of the defunct (de-funked?) project, Mama K and the Shades and consists of most of the original players, minus lead singer, Kelsey Garcia who left amicably to pursue solo work.

Most of the songs on the new album were written as Mama K and the Shades songs and were part of the band’s live catalog. “We kind of rewrote them to fit the Honey Made sound once we switched over to Willie singing all the songs,” Braverman said.

The group’s name is a hat tip to Mama K and the Shades’ founder, saxophonist David McKnight, who died in a drowning accident in 2015.

RELATED:Mama K and the Shades channel loss into powerful debut

“Every time, you know, anything good or tasty happened like a solo or a lick, he’d turn around and go, ‘Ooh, honey made,’” Chris Barnes said.

At a Mama K and the Shades show in 2017, the band caught the eye of Steve Berlin, saxophonist for Los Lobos and a prolific producer. When Honey Made was ready to record, Berlin came on board.

It was the first time the band had worked with a producer, and Berlin pushed the group hard.

“It was a lot of fun sometimes and then sometimes it was not fun,” Chris Barnes said with a laugh. Berlin was like “a drill sergeant,” when he didn’t like what he was hearing “he didn't sugarcoat it,” he said.

“He told you exactly what your college professors told you when you were in school. And you took it, and he brought the best out of you,” he said.

“I remember when we were doing the backing horns for ‘Brand New,’ he didn't like the arrangement at all,” Trombonist Donald McDaniel said. “We actually had to rewrite it and come back a month later with something that he enjoyed.”

Braverman, one of the main songwriters in the band, enjoyed the way Berlin’s input helped him evolve the songs. Several songs contain sections that grew from Berlin’s suggestions, he said.

The end project captures the magic of the band, soulful, funky and uplifting.

For McDaniel, the band itself embodies the core messages of their music.

“We're a band of diversity,” he said. “And I think it's also a mirror of what you can achieve with people coming together (with) different musical backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds, different religious backgrounds. We hope that's a model for other people. As a band, we are a mirror of that kind of unity that we're talking about.”