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Third Eye Blind's Stephan Jenkins Teams with Teen Singer 

Wednesday, Jul 1 2015
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Around the time Third Eye Blind released its first studio album in six years, Dopamine, lead singer Stephan Jenkins was also busy working on another project: an EP by the 13-year-old wunderkind Spencer Barnett.

Jenkins had heard Barnett's voice at a family party, and was so blown away that he brought the young singer to a legendary studio and offered the services of his band to provide the backing tracks. When Third Eye Blind performs July 26 at The Masonic, Barnett will play a song before the band's set in front of thousands — a far cry from the parents-heavy crowds he's used to seeing at school recitals.

The family party where Jenkins met the young singer was hosted by the kid's mom, Sloan Lindemann Barnett, a television journalist, New York Times best-selling author — and friend of Jenkins.

"I played him a song, 'All of Me,' which had just come out on the radio and I had taught it to myself," Barnett says. "I was super excited he was here because he's a real rock star and I thought that was so cool." The singer smiles. "I guess he liked it, because he asked if we could record that song and 'Hallelujah.'"

Barnett, who started listening to Third Eye Blind after he met Jenkins (his favorite TEB song is "Jumper"), recorded the two tracks at Jenkins' home studio in San Francisco. The final product confirmed what Jenkins had suspected when he first heard Barnett sing.

"I was like, wait a second, this is a really special voice," Jenkins says. "Forget how old he is, if you just pull the voice away from anything else. it's unique and you can't pin it down. So that was it, this whole thing just came from his voice."

Excited by the demos, Jenkins asked Barnett if he'd like to record a whole EP of covers at Rick Rubin's Shangri La in Malibu. Spending a week inside the studio that's birthed some of music's greatest records, and played host to the likes of Weezer, Ed Sheeran (one of Barnett's musical inspirations), and Bob Dylan and The Band (whose tour bus is still parked outside, where it was used to mix beats for Kanye West's Yeezus), would be exciting for any musician, but for a guy barely into his teens it was incomparable.

"I was overwhelmed. I had like 30 emotions going on at the same time, but it was probably the most fun week of my life — definitely the most fun week of my life, because music for me is about playing with other people and having fun and enjoying the music," says Barnett, who often jams with his dad, an investment banker.

Jenkins is a Bay Area guy, through and through, eager to talk about his favorite local media outlets ("What happened to the Bold Italic?"), underground bands (he hums a tune off a CD by the Bay Area's premier fuzz pop band, Happy Diving), or specialty items around the city's venues ("Those grapefruit drinks at that little shady bar by the Fox go down like candy!"). As a musician, Jenkins has seen it all: He's toured the world, sold millions of records, and been the subject of gossip rags for past relationships with movies stars such as Charlize Theron.

So when asked about recording Barnett's 13 Summers In at Rubin's own magic kingdom, it's unsurprising Jenkins speaks casually. "There's a south swell there in the summer, so if you put those two things together — if I could actually go surfing in the morning and then go work at Rick Rubin's studio for a bargain, I'll definitely take it." But the time he spent in the studio with Barnett went from ordinary to extraordinary when Jenkins realized he was in the midst of a learning experience.

"He re-taught me to really listen to the guitar," Jenkins says of Barnett's light touch. "It made me listen to how I played the guitar. It actually made me go, 'Oh, I could lighten up here.' It's so funny because I've been playing guitar since before he was born and I got some tips from him — but it was all natural. He's a natural musician."

In the songs on 13 Summers In, Barnett's voice paints an emotional landscape with tiny details that would elude most people his age, all complemented by Third Eye Blind's delicate backing and a beautifully rounded, natural reverb. Standout tracks include a patient, emotional version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," and a dark, almost-creepy cover of Bon Iver's "Blood Bank."

On TEB's Dopamine (supposedly the band's last album), Jenkins continues the band's tradition of mixing moody lyrics with pop hooks on the lead track "Everything is Easy," but on "Get Me Out of Here" also steps back and analyzes the life of what Barnett aptly described as "a real rock star." Third Eye Blind's lineup and fanbase have changed in the 18 years since "Semi-Charmed Life" flooded radio waves, but Jenkins' ability to wield hooks packed with nostalgia remains intact.

Like Barnett, Jenkins started his music career young — pulling pots and pans out of cabinets to bang on at 5 before getting the opportunity to better express his rhythmic inclinations.

"When I was a little kid I really wanted to play the drums," Jenkins says. "I had next-door neighbors who had a drum set and they would let me play it. That was a really big piece of encouragement for me, so it's fun to pass that on to a family friend."

Barnett started his musical journey playing piano, but a month later was inspired by the sight of one of his friends playing guitar. "I thought it was super cool to play electric guitar, so I asked my mom if I could start playing guitar and she said sure."

Jenkins says the 13 Summers In project was Barnett's idea, and although his parents support their son's music ambitions they "aren't stage parents." Jenkins chuckles. "I guess I'm the one being stagey," he continues. "But it's a friends and family thing, not a business thing."

Barnett's mom recalls an early conversation with Jenkins:

"The first time Stephan called me about Spencer's music he said, 'I just want you to understand before anything else, he's going to college.' I said, 'Stephan, maybe you don't know me well enough. I can assure you he is going to college.'"

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About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

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Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.

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