Music Stars Helping Rock & Roll Make A Comeback: Neal Barnard

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Music is not dogmatic. It is not a lecture or an instruction manual. If it presents too much logic, the poetry is lost. Music works on an emotional level to valid your feelings and your sense of what is right. “We Shall Overcome” did not present legislative language, but it stirred people to action.

Rock & Roll has been extremely popular from the 50’s until the 2000’s. But with the rise of Hip Hop, Pop, and electronic dance music, it has seen mainstream decline. But some observers have cited that Rock & Roll may be on the verge of a comeback. The frustration and turmoil of the past few years align well with the message of angst, protest, and rebellion that rock & roll conveys. In this interview series called “Music Stars Helping Rock & Roll Make A Comeback” we are talking to music artists, music groups, and music producers who are helping Rock & Roll make a comeback.

As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Neal Barnard.

Raised in North Dakota’s cattle country, Neal Barnard grew up studying piano and cello. Barnard started composing and recording songs in the 80s. With a penchant for the avant-garde, Neal constantly writes songs that defy any genre categorization. He chooses unconventional time meters as well, in order to “tilt the song ever so slightly and give you that little jolt between the ears,” as he puts it.

Barnard launched CarbonWorks at a 2016 event at New York’s Metrograph, hosted by Alec Baldwin and Maggie Q. Its line-up included singers from Italy, France, and the U.S., with rock and classical instrumentalists. While this is Barnard’s fourth album, following Pop Maru, Verdun, and CarbonWorks’ 2016 release, he is better known as a medical pioneer who formed the Physicians Committee in 1985 to rally for prevention, nutrition, and higher ethical standards in research. In 2006, funded by the National Institutes of Health, Barnard used a low-fat vegan diet to revolutionize the treatment of type 2 diabetes and has used similar approaches to skewer weight problems, women’s health issues, and other medical challenges. “In music or medicine, we have to look out of the box,” he says. Michael Friedman wrote in Psychology Today, “Neal Barnard has never been one to accept the status quo.”

Next year Barnard and his band CarbonWorks will release Vanishing Act, a 10-track experimental album featuring international vocalists and musicians.

Thank you so much for joining us on this interview series. Can you share with us the backstory that led you to this career path?

It’s been a curious mixture of music and medicine. As a youngster, I trained in classical music. But when the Beatles arrived, music suddenly became assertive, fun, and loud, and my black-and-white world turned to color. Then, as a teenager, I was an exchange student to northern Belgium, where the language, culture, and politics were different from everything I had grown up with, and my brain was suddenly immersed in a bucket of ice water where all my pre-existing ideas were washed away. Over the next few years, I began exploring music and lyrics from other countries and throwing away a lot of what I had grown up with.

As I started medical school in Washington, DC, I felt a need to address some social and ethical issues, particularly the need to end abusive experiments on animals. I launched an organization called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine which rapidly grew, and we took on research studies, educational programs, and lots of advocacy.

Although I was immersed in medical studies, my band was a fixture in the Washington, DC, music scene, and I came to see the power of music and video to bring issues forward. Ideas touch the brain; music touches the heart.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One night many years ago, our band was rehearsing, and I got into a groove on the guitar. It felt great to find one new musical nuance after another and I went on and on, until I eventually looked up and realized that the other band members had really been demoted to accompanists. I had shut out their creativity. I realized that when you go solo, you are only as good as yourself. But when you let each person bring what they have to a creation, it becomes far more than the sum of its parts.

What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?

Some years ago, I was talking with a race driver who said to me, if your race car feels smooth and you are really comfortable on your racing line, you’re slow. If you want to win, you’ve got to push, and you are going to be uncomfortable most the way to the checkered flag. He was right. In medical training, I found that pushing hard, working long hours, and resisting any impulse to take it easy was the right path. Music is like that, too. It pays to push your creativity beyond your comfort zone.

Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?

At the risk of sounding a bit odd, my most important teacher was a little white rat. I had rescued her, so to speak, from a lab where she would have been killed, and I kept her in a cage in my apartment. Eventually I opened the cage door and let her explore the apartment. I discovered that, although she weighed all of one pound and would have been an object of fear or even disgust for most people, she actually had a personality of her own. If I was reading, she would pop onto the couch like a puppy and try to get me to play with her. She was extremely hygienic, grooming all the time, and she had little scent glands in her fur that smelled like perfume. She wanted to sort everything. If I had a glass of water, she would painstakingly remove the ice. After all, water is water, and ice is ice in a rat’s worldview. Of course, telling other people that you have a pet rat does not go over very well. But inside that little body was an animal like any other.

Eventually, she developed a tumor, and as it grew, I discovered that most veterinarians did not know how to treat little animals like this. And, of course, most people in a veterinary waiting room can understand having a hamster or guinea pig, but react differently to a pet rat. She deteriorated and finally reached the point where I made the decision to have her euthanized. And the vet who did that did not do a good job either and hurt her quite a bit during her last minutes. As the life went out of her body, I flashed back to suffering that I had contributed to in the past — hunting with my father, driving cattle to slaughter with my uncle, and other things. I decided to stop eating meat and to do what I could to promote compassion for people and animals — even when we do not necessarily understand or resonate with whomever we are trying to help. That theme, calling for compassion, has showed up in my music and in my medical work.

How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you’re working on right now?

We are working to make the world healthier and more compassionate for people and animals. We do research studies, build educational programs, and work with governments for healthier diets.

These issues really lend themselves to music and videos, as you’ll see in “Louder than Words” and “Samurai” from CarbonWorks’ debut album. When the pandemic arose and brought in so much anxiety, we created a music video for children that had calming and cute images of animals yawning and preparing to sleep, and released it in both French and English. You’ll see all of this on YouTube’s CarbonWorks channel.

Can you share with us a story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?

Shortly after my rat experience, a medical school instructor required our class to experiment on and kill dogs to illustrate how various drugs worked. I refused, and later managed to stop these cruel experiments. That opened the door to finding ways to eliminate cruel practices in research, in food production, and other areas, for the benefit of both people and animals.

Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

In 2003, the National Institutes of Health funded our research team to see if a plant-based diet could help diabetes. We brought in a large group of people and helped them change their diets. One was a 35-year-old man who, in the course of the study, found that his diabetes improved to the extent that it eventually disappeared altogether. At the time, that was unheard of. Diabetes never went away, or so we had thought. But this opened the door to a new way of thinking about that disease and many others. It turned out the heart disease can be reversed, and the same is true for other conditions. In a nutshell, the body has the ability to heal. If we can unlock it, it can be very powerful.

Are there three things or are there things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support you in this effort?

It starts with opening your eyes — or your heart — to a few new things. When we discover that animals don’t want to be our breakfast, our coronary arteries agree. And discovering new and healthier foods is like discovering new musical genres. It’s fun and rewarding, and sometimes it changes your life.

Why do you think music in particular has the power to create social change and create a positive impact on humanity?

Music is not dogmatic. It is not a lecture or an instruction manual. If it presents too much logic, the poetry is lost. Music works on an emotional level to valid your feelings and your sense of what is right. “We Shall Overcome” did not present legislative language, but it stirred people to action.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started”?

  1. You have more friends than you think. There are allies in surprising places, and each one will help you improve your game.
  2. You can win faster than you think. It is sometimes surprising to see how quickly social change can occur.
  3. Don’t worry about money. Act, and money will follow.
  4. Life is short. Don’t waste it on accumulating stuff.
  5. Learn to write clearly. If you can communicate, you can lead.

You’re a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The most important thing is to give children healthful influences. Healthful food, caring parents, good schools, and a chance to express themselves safely. Done well, they will grow up healthy and will have a better relationship with the planet and the other beings they share it with.

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? And can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

Every medical student learns Hippocrates’ saying, “First, do no harm.” It applies to life in general. We humans tend to do all manner of destructive things to other people, animals, and the planet, and if we were to implement those four small words, the world would be a different place.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to sit down with Elon Musk. He has enormous creativity and a get-things-done attitude, but has not yet developed a sensitivity to the suffering of animals (or for humans, some might say). He is busily causing quite a lot of suffering through his Neuralink brain experiments, and I would like to encourage him to use his talents for good.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Music Stars Helping Rock & Roll Make A Comeback: Neal Barnard was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.