Back in 2013 I first came across Courtney Barnett when she packaged her two previous EPs, I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris, and How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose, into one long player, and gave it a full UK release. The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas saw this Australian singer-songwriter start casting her spell over overseas listeners with her hazy tales of suburban banalities. In particular, the track ‘Avant Gardener’ was a powerful calling card. An intriguing song initially about the mundanity of getting up on a Monday morning before being inspired by her neighbour to do some gardening, before an unexpected and ambulance-inducing asthma attack takes over, laying waste to Barnett, all detailed in her endearingly lethargic sing-song voice. Even better, the accompanying video features her and a foursome playing tennis, wearing all whites, and playing with wooden rackets.
“The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar / I think she’s clever cause she stops people dying“, she sings. “I much prefer the mundane… I’m not that good at breathing in“. Perhaps that is why she comes across as super laid-back in interview, as opposed to the live stage where an almost wild abandon takes over, as she rocks her way through her ever deepening bag of fantastic tunes.
Whichever way you cut it, Barnett is a big, if somewhat reticent, new music personality in the world of indie-rock. A person whose music tells you much about what you need to know, and yet leaves you questioning, in much the same way she constantly questions herself. It’s a music powered by her dazzling, multi-layered wordplay, and excellent guitar skills, disguising her desire to go through life making as little fuss as possible. Yet, what a fuss that has grown up around her! She’s trying to take it all in her stride though, simply enjoying the fact she can now be afforded the opportunity to make music, play in front of people full-time, and meet like minded souls. The last time she was in the country, in early June, she was playing at London’s newest inner-city festival, All Points East. “It was incredible. It was beautiful. It was huge. There were a lot of people there. I played, then Patti Smith played, and then Nick Cave played. It was quite a dreamy afternoon. They were incredible, really inspiring performances.”
With a three, sometimes four-piece revolving around long time friends Dave Mudie on drums, Bones Sloane on bass, and English musician Katie Harkin on keys and guitar, Barnett has been traversing the globe these last few years. All whilst developing a fanbase, releasing a couple of cracking near-the-top-of-the-end-of-year-album lists in the form of 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, and this year’s Tell Me How You Really Feel, both rapturously full to the brim of powerfully melodic rockers, and that simply wondrous vocal and lyrical interplay.
That first album was nominated for a Grammy and a BRIT, and won the Australian Music Prize and four Aria awards in her home country. However, despite that success, she went through some personal demons, and an apparent lack of confidence when making Tell Me How You Really Feel. The title of that album comes from her typically self-deprecating number ‘Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence’. “I thought it was a great line, and a good album title, because it’s so flexible. It has so many different meanings and interpretations, which mirrors a lot of the songwriting on the album.
“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” she warned on ‘Pedestrian at Best’ from Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Inevitably, as her star has waxed, that warning has largely fallen on deaf ears. However, Barnett was trying to help herself, it seems. Her music making soul mate, and life partner Jen Cloher, apparently said to her that she never told her, or her close friends, how she really felt. Yet, despite her guarded nature, Barnett’s skill is in making even her most specific lyrics relatable, tapping into a generation literate in depression and anxiety, as well as an older crowd reared on the lyrical melancholy of The Pixies and Nirvana, two acts she grew up listening to, as well as PJ Harvey and Jimi Hendrix.
There’s clearly a focus on self-therapy throughout Tell Me How You Really Feel as Courtney explains, “I was really trying to use songwriting to do some work on myself. It’s definitely angry and frustrated and sad, and I was trying to actually feel those feelings, to go through them instead of pushing them away. There’s definitely more vulnerability on that one. I felt vulnerable writing it, even though I knew that, at the time, I was the only one seeing it, and I might never show it to anyone. I was trying really hard to help myself get through something.
“There are two meanings to it. I was trying to find a positive side to that despair. I kept seeing myself as being angry or sad, and wondering what the point of that was. It’s me trying to be hopeful. But there’s a lot of doubling up. Like when you give friends advice and you’re like, ‘Why don’t I ever listen to my own advice’!?”
There’s ‘Sunday Roast’ for instance, a song that typically marries up matter-of-factness, with deeper meaning, a ‘keep on keepin’ on’ pep talk aimed at a friend. Are Sunday roasts an Aussie fave, too? “We had a lot of them growing up, and the last couple of years me and a bunch of friends started getting together and having a nice big communal dinner. We’d swap houses and take it in turns to cook a big meal for each other, or we would bring a big plate of food. That song is about friendship and community, coming together, sharing stories and problems. But, I’m not a very good cook.”
However, she’s very good at writing, and the antiquated relic that is a typewriter helped her get her thoughts down for the album. “I got given this typewriter by an old friend, so I made a goal of writing one page a day on that to get random thoughts out. They have a sound and a rhythm that I really like.” It’s how she gets things down, rather than verbalising things that really matter. “I’ve always shied away from verbalising things, and apologising for even having an opinion. I’ve realised that’s a weird way to be.”
Being in a spotlight, and with an ever increasing amount of people wanting in on the Barnett action, it’s understandable her reticence to play out in public what are essentially private matters. Having Cloher in her life has been a huge help, it seems. Earlier this year she was in Brighton, playing guitar with Cloher, who helps her run the Milk label that Barnett initially set up to release her own material. “It was great not being centre of attention,” she says about playing with Cloher in the relatively intimate Patterns club venue on the seafront. “But I love playing any venue really. It’s an honour to be on stage, when people buy tickets to your show.”
A less commented aspect of Barnett’s career in music, is her (along with Cloher’s) deep and tangible devotion to the DIY spirit of making music. Before they met, Cloher was making music in her own right, and running workshops called ‘I Manage My Music’, aimed at those self-managing their careers. “I set up Milk records to release my first EP, and then we released Jen’s second-to last album (In Blood Memory) on it. She took over as label manager. We do a lot of work on Milk, and release other people’s records, friends of ours. At the moment there’s Loose Tooth, who were on tour with me, who are putting out an album soon. They’re great. And there’s East Brunswick All Girls Choir, who I’ll be taking out on tour in Australia, they have a new album out soon. It’s inspiring working with other musicians, seeing their projects coming to life.”
Completely living and breathing music, last year she released a well-received collaboration with Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice, and following the release of Tell Me How You Really Feel she continues to drip feed new material into the world. Such as ‘Small Talk’ a live-in-the-studio track she recorded during the album sessions. “I like the live sound. Normally we track everything live, and fix things if needed after. But I really like the live sound with mistakes and all. But it just didn’t seem to fit when we were sequencing the album.”
Then there’s a cover she did recently of Elyse Weinberg’s ‘Houses’. A virtual unknown from Canada, who recorded it back in the late 60s, but which didn’t get a proper release until 2015. It features one Neil Young on guitar. “I loved the original, Janet Weiss (drummer with Sleater-Kinney) turned me on to that song. I kind of embellished the guitar solo a bit. Just for my own ego. I tried to make my guitar sound a bit like Neil Young,” she admits.
Living the dream is a cliche often used in jest. Yet, while Barnett has essentially been growing and developing in public, she is at the end of the day a super talented songwriter and lyricist who loves nothing more than making music, and getting onto a stage and performing. In that respect, and despite everything else, she is very much living the dream.