Christopher Barnes swears he’s not trying to break your heart. It just happens. It started around the time he was 13 and writing long, sad pieces on the piano that were epic even then.
Twenty years later, as the lyricist and lead singer of Gem Club, Barnes has come into his own as the architect of the trio’s dreamy chamber-pop flush with strings and still some of the saddest, but luminous, melodies you’ve ever heard. Listening to Gem Club’s music, it’s hard to tell who’s more devastated: you or its makers.
“It’s just what I do, but it’s also the stuff I like,” Barnes says recently over a cup of coffee at the Museum of Fine Arts, where Gem Club headlines on Friday. (Tickets were nearly gone as of press time.) He adds that his musical DNA is steeped in emotional artists such as PJ Harvey, Frédéric Chopin, Björk, and most everyone on the 4AD label. “It might just be hard-wired.”
“252,” from the band’s 2011 debut, “Breakers,” suggested he’s right. The song was most people’s window into Gem Club’s watery world, 5½ minutes of one punch to the gut after another: Barnes’s piano kept steady as his voice, swathed in reverb, wrapped around that of fellow singer and multi-instrumentalist Ieva Berberian until they reached a celestial climax. Cellist Kristen Drymala rounds out the lineup, adding delicate but essential textures that play off Barnes’s piano.
Earlier this week, Gem Club released “In Roses,” its sophomore album, which somehow stretches the band’s reach while retaining the intimacy at its core. It’s the group’s first album on the sweetest, most gentle steroid possible, but it took the band out of Barnes’s bedroom, where much of the debut was made digitally. For the new record, they went to San Francisco and recorded at Tiny Telephone, John Vanderslice’s analog studio.
The shift in recording approaches had a greater impact than anyone expected. Suddenly, the virtues of digital – where you can tinker and tweak endlessly, for better or worse – no longer applied. Analog kept them on their toes, but also yanked them out of their comfort zones. Barnes talks a lot about his conscious effort “to let go.”
It’s interesting that in three separate interviews, each member of Gem Club utters those words. There’s a palpable sense – not just in their heads, but also in the songs – that “In Roses” was a leap of faith that turned into a huge step forward.
“I think the first record, even though it might not sound like it, was very carefully executed,” Berberian says on the phone a few days later. “But we were in a different state of mind when recording to tape. You have to do everything straight through without overthinking it. You have to let go of control of your sound and let it happen.”
“With the first album,’’ Barnes says, “the recording process was super microscopic and digital, so I could go over multiple takes and decide what I liked. Recording to tape forces you to look at things in a larger scope, and there was a lot of fear about whether we could pull it off.”
But they did. The songs on “In Roses” go full-screen with majestic orchestrations arranged by Minna Choi and melodies that take unexpected detours (particularly on “Idea for Strings” and “Polly”). In tune with the music and words, Barnes’s vocals are more assured, borne out of deep emotion with a little catch in his throat that suggests he’s on the verge of a good cry.
“The last record was intimate in so many ways,’’ Drymala says, “and you had to lean in to hear it. But with this one, we’re projecting more and I think that’s direction we’re heading in. It’s a lot bigger and warmer than ‘Breakers.’ I don’t think we’ve gone too far away from that, but we did do some reaching, for sure.”
Gem Club’s rise in 2011 was such a product of Internet hype, bolstered by fawning blogs, that many folks in town didn’t even realize the band was based in Somerville. Barnes says he’d like for the trio to be associated with Boston, the way Amanda Palmer and Passion Pit are, but he also wonders if they’ve put in enough hard work around town for such a distinction.
With this new album, it feels – and sounds — like they have arrived as a band worthy of a broad spotlight.
“We used to have to get the sound person to crank everything and put microphones close up,” Drymala says, laughing. “I feel like we’re coming into our own now, feeling more confident in playing fuller and singing fuller and just putting it out there.”