On The Ground – In Conversation with Ukrainian singer-songwriter Max Barskih

Ukrainian singer-songwriter Max Barskih is one of the most touring and played artists on Ukrainian and CIS radio stations in the last couple of years. He’s been awarded several awards, platinum certifications for his albums, as well as having been called “Ukraine’s music ambassador to the world” by Forbes.

Since the brutal Russian invasion, Max has switched from touring and working on his music to joining the The Armed Forces of Ukraine. He’s recently left Ukraine on a temporary leave to visit the Billboard Music Con in Vegas, as well as a charity tour in Germany, which is currently underway.

KALTBLUT writer and host of On The Ground, Johanna Urbancik, has caught up with Max for the latest episode of the podcast to talk to him about the massive life change from artist to soldier, the morale in Ukraine and the future of his career.

You can listen to the full interview on Spotify, Apple Podcast or Amazon later this evening, or alternatively, read the shorter Q&A below. The interview will also be available in Russian, translated by Tyhran Sohoian and edited by Kateryna Khotieieva.

KALTBLUT: It must be strange living a sort of “double life” with life going on as usual everywhere in the world, but always having the war in your home country in the back of your mind.

Max: It’s a strange feeling, to be honest. You can’t relax your brain, even if you’re leaving Ukraine. Always thinking about people there and what they’re going through. When I was flying to the conference in Vegas, I came to Poland and kept asking people when the curfew started. I got used to living in that environment. It’s unusual for you at the beginning to see that the world keeps on living a normal life, that everything is fine everywhere. I needed at least a few days just to realise that. Everything that is happening in Ukraine is horrible, and the whole world will have to help Ukraine to get back to normal life.

KALTBLUT: Everyone’s mental health is being ruined through this war. And that’s a factor that is hard yet taken into consideration because the war needs to be won first. Then mental health can really be dealt with. It’s horrible. How do you deal with your own mental health?

Max: It’s very difficult mentally, honestly. I’ve been there since the beginning, so it’s been months of constantly living in stress, fear, danger, and anger. I started getting headaches almost every day and some physical troubles. It’s an aftereffect of the stress that you constantly live through.

The hardest part was probably the beginning when no one could believe anything. People were leaving their homes, and losing their families. I say I’m in a difficult mental position, but I can’t even imagine what the people who lost their loved ones go through

We heard explosions all over the city, and we were watching the news nonstop. We were all in shock, and many people in Kyiv panicked and left. It felt like a real-life war action movie.

KALTBLUT: Can you tell me a little bit about your experiences on the day of the invasion?

Max: So at the beginning of this year, I was on vacation. Then I flew to the United States, and my manager called me and said I’d need to come back for work. I stayed in Ukraine for two weeks and then wanted to return to LA, where I live part-time, but my stay got extended for a couple of days because of meetings. 

I changed my flight to the 24th of February, and on the 23rd, I went to bed around 3 am. At 5 am, I received a call from my sister crying, she said: “It’s happening now”, and I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a dream. We heard explosions all over the city, and we were watching the news nonstop. We were all in shock, and many people in Kyiv panicked and left. It felt like a real-life war action movie.

KALTBLUT: You then enlisted in the army, right?

Max: Yes. I asked myself how I could be helpful because I didn’t feel comfortable just sitting in one place and going through all this stress and fear. I knew that I had wide-reaching social media platforms, which could be helpful. So I signed up for the armed forces. There were lots of different units around the city. I talked to a commander and asked him to teach me how to use a weapon. I started to learn, but they don’t have the time to give you an extensive course. We got an introduction, and then everyone got assigned their roles, and we just did our best to fight back.

What I love about our soldiers and Ukrainians in general, we’ve still not lost our positivity, and we believe in our victory, for sure.

Photo from Max’s archive

KALTBLUT: Did you have any sort of army experience before?

Max: Never, never ever, and I never even thought about that. But you know, there were loads of positive points, because when I signed up my commander gave me some tasks. I noticed that from all the volunteers that signed up, not all of them had their equipment, uniforms, and weapons.

At that time, the government wasn’t yet as organised. Everyone was trying to figure out how to deal with this and how to build the right structure. In the army, I was responsible for providing all this equipment, weapons, and fundraising to support humanitarian aid. Our units were going to Bucha and other cities affected by the Russian invasion.

KALTBLUT: How did your fellow soldiers and the people you were helping react when you showed up? They must’ve recognised you straight away.

Max: Yeah, that’s true. The first moments after I got there, a lot of soldiers were taking pictures with me. The commander was not happy about that. He’s a very strict person. (laughs) For me, those were happy moments because I knew that I could somehow uplift and inspire people, which was the least I could do for them. We had lots of fun there, even though, it was hard. What I love about our soldiers and Ukrainians in general is that we’ve still not lost our positivity. We believe in our victory, for sure. 

KALTBLUT: You have such a big reach on social media, which I think helped a lot with gathering humanitarian aid and resources, donations, etc… But you also have a massive Russian following. Do you roughly know how big your Russian following is, in comparison, and what were their reactions?

Max: That’s true. My Russian following is pretty big. Throughout the last four or five years, I travelled all over Eastern Europe, played lots of shows in Russia and went to many award shows. I even won Best MTV Russia Act at the MTV Europe Music Awards.

KALTBLUT: But doesn’t that offend you a little? You’re not Russian, and you’re winning the best MTV Russia act? 

Max: They used to have MTV in Ukraine as well, but then they decided to collect all the Eastern European countries and call it Russian MTV. I was a little bit uncomfortable with that. I never considered myself Russian. I would just go there to play my shows.

This war shows you how different we are. We have a completely different morale. Ukrainians fight for freedom because we are free people. In Russia, people follow their leader, even though this leader doesn’t give a shit about them.

A few days after the invasion, I decided to talk to my fans, including the ones in Russia. I thought they would have the power to stop it If they united and resisted this war. They could go to the main squares of each major city and protest against this war, the same way we’ve been doing during the Maidan Revolution. But after a couple of speeches and posts, I started to get hateful comments and threats. I slowly realised we could not depend on Russians anymore. I was shocked. So many people seem to support this war. I received so many comments saying “Ukraine belongs to Russia”, “wait for three days, and we’ll be together”, and so many of them were saying Ukraine shouldn’t exist and that we don’t have a history.  There were so many hateful messages from once-beloved fans saying how much they hated me and wished me and every Ukrainian to die. It was horrible. 

I consider myself a  sincere, kind person. It’s hard to make me aggressive, mad or angry. But this whole situation switched me completely. 

I banned my music from all the TV shows, and radio channels and broke all the contracts. And I knew for a fact, I don’t want to ever come to this country anymore. Even though I know there are still good people, I still have some normal Russian friends I speak with. But they’re a minority.

Photo from Max’s archive

KALTBLUT: I’m guessing you had a lot of friends in the music industry as well. Were they reacting the same way?

Max: Yes. Even worse. I was pretty successful in the Russian industry, so everyone was trying to be friends with me. But at the same time, I noticed lots of jealousy. I was never involved in any scandals.

It was crazy for me how people switched and started to hate me. Lots of Russian artists were supportive of Putin’s action. It was awful, because after the massacre in Bucha, some of them posted stuff saying: “Russia never starts a war, Russia always wins the war”, or some other crazy messages in support of Putin’s actions. 

I was so shocked and mad. I DMed lots of these artists. I said everything that was on my mind at that moment. It was very offensive, but I did it, and I don’t regret it. There were a couple of artists who were worried about what’s going on and didn’t stay silent. But they paid the price for that, because they were banned from Russia. At least, there are still people who are against the war. But it’s not enough. Compared to 144 million people, you have probably one or two million smart, intellectual citizens, who, for the most part, have already left because they don’t think there’s a future for them in Russia. They don’t want to be involved in this war.

KALTBLUT: I actually have a friend here who’s from Ukraine. She told me you pulled all your music from the streaming services, and you cancelled all your concerts in Russia. And instead of refunding the money, you donated it to the armed forces in Ukraine.

Max: Yes, exactly.

KALTBLUT: That’s a very cool move. 

Max: I couldn’t do it differently. If you go through my DMs, you can see some of my fans’ messages from a year or months ago saying, “I love your music, I can’t live without your music”, blah, blah, blah. Then you see recent messages from the same people just saying how much they hate me. 

So yeah, I was thinking okay, Russia’s destroying Ukrainian cities. The least I can do is donate all this money to humanitarian aid and the army. They were shocked in Russia, but I don’t care. I know I’m never going back to this country. This is going to be the price to pay for your actions. If you’re staying silent and aren’t doing anything to stop this war, you are going to help the army in that way.

KALTBLUT: You mentioned earlier that you grew up in Kherson, which is/was mainly Russian speaking.

Max: Yes.

KALTBLUT: Therefore, taking the Kremlin’s logic, you would be one of the people who should have welcomed the Russian army with open arms and were waiting for them to liberate you. How does a lie like that make you feel?

Max: Russia needed a good reason to start this war. They didn’t come up with anything but try to make the world believe they are going to save Russian speakers. We never had issues or difficulties with our languages. I can speak Ukrainian, and Russian and never had these issues with anyone. You’re always free to choose which language you speak. 

That was at the beginning of this war. The Russian government doesn’t care about their citizens. They say that they’re going to save Ukraine, and they’re going to bring this Russian world into Ukraine. This is crazy, because if you see how they treat their soldiers who died in this war. Their bodies were laying on the street for such a long time, and they were resistant to picking them up. They’re hiding the real number of casualties.

Photo by Alina Zelenska

KALTBLUT: I want to talk about your latest release, “Don’t Fuck With Ukraine”, which is in English. You’ve already said you don’t want to sing in Russian anymore. How does this affect your artistry and songwriting? It sounds like you’ll have to start from scratch again.

Max: Yeah, it’s true. I have to start from scratch, I guess. But, I’m grateful to have this experience in my life. I always wrote songs in Russian, some in Ukrainian, but I always also had some demos of English tracks. I released some English tracks before, too. But you know, since it’s not my native language, I first had to learn the language properly, and then translate everything to bring the proper meaning across without it sounding simple.

It’s challenging, but I’m ready for a new chapter in my life. I always dreamt about the European and American industries, to be honest. Right now, I’m trying to help Ukrainians with my music and hoping to support them in any way possible to cope with their emotions. At the same time, I wrote “Don’t Fuck With Ukraine” when I signed up for the Armed Forces to show how brave our soldiers are. 

KALTBLUT: Are you going back to Ukraine after the charity tour in Germany?

Max: Yeah, I have to go back. I have to do some tasks, see the military unit I’m in. There’s lots of stuff that’s planned, and I need to be there. 

KALTBLUT: We can only hope that this will be over soon. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me! It was really insightful and interesting to hear your perspective.

Max: Thank you! I also wanted to say thank you to the country of Germany and every citizen in Germany that helps and supports Ukraine. It’s very important. This has started in Ukraine, but I’m pretty sure he won’t stop there.

Max will be playing a charity tour in Germany starting on the 26th May. Tickets can be purchased here.

29/05/2022 – International Charity Marathon Save Ukraine – Stop War, Berlin, DE
30/05/2022 – Kongresshalle Böblingen, Böblingen, DE
03/06/2022 – Congress Center, Hannover, DE
04/06/2022 – Edel.optics.de Arena, Hamburg, DE

Follow Max on Instagram to keep up to date with the latest info on his music and updates from Ukraine.

Cover photo by @tymurdeina
Style: @luviofficial
MUA: @natastrilchuk
Hair: @stetsjulia
Art-director: @helengadjilova
Producer: @alanbadoev
Photo assistant: @andriiovod
Art-director assistant: Galina Venglovskaya

Johanna Urbancik is the host of the On The Ground podcast, in collaboration with KALTBLUT and Refuge Worldwide. Listen to the podcast here.