Isolation Drills: Katie Barbato

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Barbato: In the fall of 2019, I released my 9th album, Long Night Moon. I opened for Lucy Wainwright Roche at Kennett Flash, toured up the East Coast for my album-release parties in NYC and Boston, and was gearing up for more shows, radio promotions and constantly writing when not in my car or onstage.

In February 2020, I played an intimate sold-out show at the Living Room At 35 East in Ardmore with Brett Kull and Michael Ronstadt. It was a magical wintery night, and I left the venue feeling satisfied and excited for the music and shows to come. After all, in a few short weeks, I was heading down to Nashville for a week-long songwriting retreat culminating in my first live show in that city.

I remember standing in my local guitar shop in early March, chatting with the owner about music and life as he finished setting up my guitars for my great adventure. The weather was breaking, and I had a radio interview with Nicole Zell (she’s a wonderful songwriter), who had a radio show at the time in West Chester. Momentum was building with song and springtime hope.

A few days later, I recall standing on a sunny hill in my favorite park with my dog Wilson. The wind was cool and the light-rays warmed my skin. I looked out over the green fields at the pond and could smell the pine trees drifting by. I took a deep a breath in and immediately felt something stirring inside my heart and thought to myself, “Something big is coming.” I went home and decided to cancel my trip down south, and a few short days later, we all began staying home.

I started my days walking my favorite woods, songwriting and shifting gears. A good dose of fear flowed through me at night fall. It was due to our political climate and all of the social injustices that were impacting our society. It would keep me up late into the night. I made sure to stay in touch with friends and family, and I had weekly appointments with my therapist through video chats. Their support filled me with strength and hope, and I will be forever grateful for their love and kindness.

I knew live shows would not be happening anytime soon, and I needed to make a change. I could feel our nation and the world suffering. I began to think about my master’s degree in social work and how I spent 15 years in Philly as a social worker. Over the years, I had worked helping children at a family-strengthening organization in North Philly, counseling adults with co-occurring substance-abuse and mental-health issues in Kensington, as a music therapist in a dementia unit in South Philly, as well as doing some hospice work out in the suburbs. I knew I needed to return to the field to help fight for all the injustice and be of service for those needing support in this great time of need.

I began taking classes at Bryn Mawr College studying cognitive behavioral therapy and prepping for my licensure exam. I posted my résumé online, and before I knew it, I was back in school and working full time, all from home—in my pajamas and giraffe slippers. I worked remotely as a social worker from my “command center” counseling victims who experienced sexual abuse and trauma and helping my clients navigate legal issues.

I had the opportunity to speak with individuals all around the United States. All of the clients I worked with spoke of their struggles during the pandemic, especially access issues to services and basic needs. It was an eye-opening and touching experience to connect with strangers during this time of isolation. 

While juggling school work, and daily activities, I teamed up with Brett Kull and Jeremy Beck of the band Rise Twain to make some music. Rise Twain is my favorite band. I love their new album and can’t wait for their follow-up record to come out. I know every word to their songs, and it’s a dream to play music with them. They are two of my favorite musicians and stellar songwriters. We made two videos, “Live From The Chateau,” that we filmed ourselves on our smart phones. We played on each other’s songs and put together a beautiful snapshot of this time period .We made the first video in May 2020 and the second in July 2020.

I had worked on my last two albums with Brett and knew it was time to begin working on my next album. I had written about seven songs before the pandemic, and another batch arrived during the spring of 2020. This is going to be a special album for me, since it will be my 10th release.

We began pre-production in the spring. In June, I booked time at Catapult Studio in North Wales to track drums with the amazing Jordan Perlson. We spent two days in the studio and finished the drum tracks. Brett is an excellent multi-instrumentalist. He began producing the album at his home studio, and I began cutting my lead vocals.

Michael Ronstadt was in town in August, so he played some beautiful cello parts on four tunes. I am also honored to have Jeremy singing and playing piano on this album. Fortunately, in the studio you can safely social-distance, and it felt really amazing to be collaborating and making music with my friends again. The name of my new album is The Trail Of Us, and it will be released sometime this year. We are almost done tracking and preparing for the mixing and mastering stages.

I played two livestream shows at venues. It was strange, wonderful and interesting to perform to an empty room after not having played in more than half a year. Brett and Jeremy joined me onstage, and we performed a mixture of my songs and Rise Twain songs at the Kennett Flash in Kennet Square in August and the Kelly Center in Havertown in October. Both of those shows feel like distant dreams to me now. 

In September, I made a video for my single—produced by Brett—called “Letter To Donny.” The song is my response to the intense political and social climate we have been weathering. It’s available on my Bandcamp page.

My remote social-work job came to an end in December, and I began focusing on studying for my licensure test and finishing my new album. I spent a great deal of time hiking again in my favorite woods with Wilson. One particularly warm winter’s day, Wilson and I set off on an adventure. We took our normal trails, but we both were in need of some new sites and some fun. We decided to hike off our original path and follow the creek bed.

I found a nice mossy spot for us to rest, and when I looked down, I saw this beautiful painted rock resting in the leaves by the creek. Someone had taken the time to paint a nice ocean scene with the words “The Captain” on it. I immediately laughed out loud and thought of the new song I had just been recording called “Captain Of My Dreams.” I flipped the rock over, and on the back was written, “Stream ‘The Captain,’ by Sarah Krohn on Spotify.” What wonderful, magical and clever promotion, Sarah! And who would have thought another songwriter would find your, “song rock”! I looked up Sarah online, and she is a beautiful, young, talented songwriter from the Philly area. She recorded a new album this past year called, 81. I hope someday to share the stage with her. Check out her new album!

When not hiking or recording, I am busy painting—it helps relieve my anxiety, so I made an art gallery of my works on the third floor of my home—and reading books. Brett and I are starting a podcast called Read It Twice, featuring two friends and a good book. It’s basically our own book club. We started with the epic Stephen King novel The Stand. Brett is a longtime fan of King’s work, and I am afraid of the dark, so it took a little convincing for me to read it. Now, I am a huge Stephen King fan! Stay tuned for the release date of our first podcast. We wrote a theme song and have been having a blast coming up with ideas for each episode. You can follow us here.

My social-work licensing exam is scheduled for April, my new album is almost finished, and Wilson is always looking to go on a great hiking adventure. I am taking the time to care for my mind, body and soul. Some days are easier than others, and there have been some trying times, as I know for everyone. I especially miss my family and can’t wait to give them all giant hugs.

I am focusing on exercising, eating healthy and sleeping well. It’s a full-time job for sure. My hope is that if I start with myself, I will be strong enough mentally and physically to help those in need. I can be there for friends, family and strangers when they reach out for a helping hand. I can start making a difference in my hometown and community. I can spread my hope and love to aid in the healing our world needs.

I am going to start small. I am going to take my time and be mindful each day to walk with love, respect and compassion with every step. May we lift each other up with love and song. May we sing for the joy of all humans as one. May we sing from our hearts a song of healing for our earth. For I am you, and you are me.