WORDS WITH COURTNEY BARNETT
written & interviewed by JAYMZ CLEMENTS for SHK Magazine issue N.05 x 2015
It’s hard not to fall for Courtney Barnett. On her U.S. debut,The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, the tumbling narratives of the plain-spoken 25-year-old Australian make her feel like the fun and sensible — if accident-prone — friend we all know. And it’s a relateability that knows no boundaries; people everywhere are falling for her, with her recent UK and U.S. tours selling out completely, and the buzz surrounding her reaching megaphone-in-a-beehive proportions.
Still, Courtney Barnett is the type more likely to get stung by a bee from that beehive rather than let it go to her head. Whether it’s detailing a mundane Monday and an asthma attack, or ruminating on the doubts, worries and perceived responsibilities of getting older, or simply relating bizarre dream worlds, Courtney comes across as your affable neighbor, or your favorite local bartender (which, fittingly, she was, until recently).
She might be an unlikely star, but that’s her appeal: she has no airs. No pretensions. What you see with Courtney Barnett is definitely what you get. Imagine a likeable Hannah Horvath who thinks self-importance is ridiculous and about as appealing as Toronto mayor Rob Ford dancing naked to a LMFAO song.
The fun of tracks like “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser” lies in their odd mix of psychedelic slacker Pop, Folk, and her almost Hip Hop like delivery… And in the fact that she gives a unique perspective on the insecurities and curiosities that affect everyone. For Courtney, though, those songs act as a way of dealing with her emotional responses to the world around her. And she’s still unsure as to how she’s managed to balance out her inclination for shyness with being a performer.
“I hate talking about myself,” she laments with a laugh, as we sit sit in a Brooklyn bar, looking out into the street. "If I’m at a party, I don’t even tell stories, I don’t tell jokes… I just sit and listen to other people; listen to their stories and laugh at their jokes. I am not the life of the party."
That’s crucial to Courtney’s creative process though: writing songs is her way of “figuring out how I’m feeling: I write it down and it goes into a song”.
That’s why people fall for her. You end up wanting to be friends, hang out and spend time together on a lazy afternoon. Her idiosyncratic storytelling is rooted in observing the world around her, as she takes notes of “pretty much everything I see,” she grins lopsidedly. “I make up a story in my head. There’s three guys walking,” she says, pointing out the window. “What are they doing? Where are they going? What are they thinking? What are their aims for the night?”
“When I get time to sit down and write, I try to elaborate on a one liner or whatever sort of story I’ve made up, or thought about. I can’t express myself to friends, or lovers, or people, or through situations, so I write my stupid little journal entries and then they become songs, and that’s my way of dealing with things,” Courtney laughs.
“So…” she grins. “Instead of telling people how I feel about them, or how I feel about a situation —because I’m too much of a pussy to talk about my feelings — it comes out in my songs. I prefer to do that, sing my songs, whatever, and then shut up.”
That seems a problem for a musician who spends so much time playing to people. “Yes!” she exclaims, eyes wide. “Because then people are like ‘Oh, but you’re onstage singing a song and people are listening to it, soobviously you’re an extrovert.’ I don’t know,” she sighs. “It’s confusing and it’s only getting weirder.”
It’s weird because so many people have responded to her waggish stories of life in Melbourne’s suburbs. Now she’s touring constantly (with her band, the Courtney Barnetts) and receiving exposure from institutions likeNME and Pitchfork. “Yeah,” she drawls. “It’s funny how that stuff happens. I’ve been playing since I was 18, in shitty venues to five people. I got the band together… And it took time. It’s not like this just happened. So, I dunno why it’s happening,” she laughs.
“Maybe ‘cos it’s kinda casual… That delivery, it’s easy to connect with,” she shrugs. “Maybe?”
She’s not wrong. It’s very hard not to smile every time you hear Courtney drawl lines like: “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ‘cos I play guitar / I think she’s clever ‘cos she stops people dyin’,” in “Avant Gardener.” But then the emotional confusion of “Don’t Apply Compression Gently” alongside cunning lyrical moments — such as, “Do you know you’re no good at listening? / But you’re really good at saying everything on your mind,” from the “Out of the Woodwork” track — cut deep.
With plans to record an album in April and release it “later this year” (and more U.S. dates following her appearance at Coachella) the fact that her wry, unassuming personal stories, which suddenly have a wider audience than she ever expected playing open mic nights back in Melbourne, doesn’t worry her.
“I’m in my own little bubble,” she chuckles. “And the more I realize and learn about what’s going, the more happy I am that I do what I do for my own reasons… Not because I want to impress anyone. I was doing what I do before anyone cared about it. So I’ll keep doing that, I think.”
This story was published in SHK Magazine's WEIRD issue.