The Many Sides of Courtney Barnett

Ryan Reed on May 23, 2015

Courtney Barnett is a walking paradox.

In conversation, the 27-year-old Australian singer-songwriter is a woman of few words, operating at one speed: impossibly chill. But in her songs, she can’t stop talking. Barnett is the art-punk equivalent of an observational comedian, finding humor and pathos in the seemingly irrelevant minutia of modern life, including swimming pools, California bungalows and an apartment’s off-white ceiling. She cemented that approach with her 2013 breakout tune “Avant Gardener,” a half-mumbled tale of mundane yard work that climaxes in a panic attack. “The yard is full of hard rubbish,” she deadpans over a sleepy guitar strum. “It’s a mess, and I guess the neighbors must think we run a meth lab.” Later, after said neighbors phone the paramedics: “I’d rather die than owe the hospital/ Till I get old.” There’s a good reason Barnett is so succinct when she shoots the shit: She saves the most important bits for her music.

That idiosyncratic worldview has always been Barnett’s calling card—the singular charm that impressed critics on her first two EPs, 2012’s home-recorded I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris and the following year’s How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose. But with her debut LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, the Aussie finally learns how to frame her schizophrenic lyrics with muscle and melodicism.

The music hype machine works at lightning speed in the 21st century—a band can go from garage-dwelling chumps to indie-festival royalty to Next Big Thing within a couple of whirlwind months. Barnett’s rise to indie stardom is the quintessential example of this, but it’s worth noting the dogged “try anything once” fearlessness that got her there. She grew up in the Northern Beaches of Sydney, soaking in jazz and classical music with her ballet-dancer mother and artist father. She started fiddling around with the guitar at age 10, hacking out Nirvana songs. Then at 16, the family moved to Hobart, Tasmania, which left the teenager a bit restless. This is a recurring feeling best expressed via her stop-gap track “Pickles from the Jar”: “You’re from Adelaide, I’m from Hobart/ I say ‘Hugh,’ you say ‘Grant’/ I say ‘pot,’ you say ‘blunt.’” Next came a brief stint at the Tasmanian School of Art—but she couldn’t escape the sensation of feeling misplaced.

“Plenty of confusion. I was just a 20-year-old kid, and I was bored with where I was and what I was doing and who I was with, and I just moved towns,” Barnett says of shifting to her current home base, Melbourne. “And when I moved towns, I had to quit uni and start something new.”

The change of scenery did her good. Paying the bills as a bartender, Barnett started collaborating with local musicians in a handful of projects. She performed “white noise” (translation: guitar) in the abrasively lo-fi post-grunge outfit Rapid Transit, which self-released an EP in 2011. (“We were cloned from toxic gutter waste,” reads the band’s still-lingering SoundCloud bio.) Firmly engrained in the local scene, she served a two-year stint in country-psych band Immigrant Union, a project co-founded by Dandy Warhols drummer Brent DeBoer. But her most significant collaboration—with singer-songwriter Jen Cloher—extended beyond music. The two are currently a couple, despite their 11-year age difference (a fact they sweetly disregard in a dreamy co-written tune, “Numbers”).

All the while, Barnett was quietly plugging away at her own material—and her distinct persona proved too formidable for a sideline gig. In 2012 and 2013, through her newly established Milk! Records label, she released her first two EPs—both recorded with a gang of friends she dubbed “The Courtney Barnetts.” The tunes turned heads on the local Melbourne scene with their snarky observational style, but Barnett’s true champion was New York indie label Mom + Pop, who re-packaged the two EPs as one stand-alone set that same year—exposing the blank-faced charm of cuts like “Avant Gardener” to British and American audiences. The accolades came swiftly: Pitchfork’s “Best New Music,” CMJ Music Marathon standout and many others. Suddenly, a 20-something—who’d rarely set foot out of Australia—found herself a darling of the international music press—earning lofty comparisons to fellow Aussie Paul Kelly and mid-‘60s Bob Dylan, and landing high-profile spots at Coachella in 2014 and this year’s Bonnaroo. The bartending job, needless to say, was put on the back burner. And after years spent strumming in the shadows, Barnett was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, ready to prove her worth on a proper full-length album. 

Judging by the analytical stream-of-consciousness feel of her lyrics, it’s easy to picture Barnett obsessing over that heavily anticipated next move. And though she admits to feeling “a little bit” of self-imposed pressure, she makes it sound like no big deal in retrospect. “The more I dwelled on it, the more I realized it wasn’t the most important thing,” she says. “I got over it. It’s hard to tell, but those thoughts definitely enter your mind. At the end of the day, the songs are for myself and nobody else, so it doesn’t matter.”

The way Barnett nonchalantly reflects on the process, you’d think she banged out her long-awaited debut album between an afternoon of cartoons and casual joint rolls. But she’s actually been finished with the album for an entire year—and if anything, she’s frustrated at the delay.

“It is [annoying], but there were plenty of reasons for it,” she says. “And one was that we were still touring the first one. I didn’t want to release the [double EP], come home from touring and go out straight away again to tour this new album that we’d released while we were away. I wanted a bit of time to myself.”

Working once more with her usual backing band (guitarist Dan Luscombe, bassist Bones Sloane and drummer Dave Mudie), Barnett hit a Melbourne studio with producer/engineer Burke Reid, who’d previously worked with Luscombe’s alt-rock band, The Drones. The change in creative atmosphere was significant for Barnett—a step up in every aspect from her early days of modest home recording. 

“The studio is hidden among a bunch of factories and warehouses, and across the road is a primary school,” she says, describing the set-up. “Inside is simple and spacious: a kitchen for cooking healthy meals, a coffee machine, a control room with a huge couch for listening. And, most important, there is a large live room with a trickle of sunlight coming through a high window, and fairy lights for evening mood-making.” 

The cushy benefits of proper studio time are obvious, but Barnett was adamant that her creative process remain consistent. To that end, it was crucial having The Courtney Barnetts behind her for support. “Dave and Bones have been in the band for ages and have always been involved,” she says. “And Dan, who helped produce the album, kind of came onboard for the second EP. He’s a friend of mine, and I asked for his input. I asked him to remix it when I ran into some problems with mixes. When I was talking to him about the album, he suggested Burke. So I still don’t feel super comfortable with suddenly working with complete strangers—I like to have some kind of connection.”

The way Barnett nonchalantly reflects on the process, you’d think she banged out her long-awaited debut album between an afternoon of cartoons and casual joint rolls. But she’s actually been finished with the album for an entire year—and if anything, she’s frustrated at the delay.

“It is [annoying], but there were plenty of reasons for it,” she says. “And one was that we were still touring the first one. I didn’t want to release the [double EP], come home from touring and go out straight away again to tour this new album that we’d released while we were away. I wanted a bit of time to myself.”

And once again, Barnett’s lyrics suggest there was real anxiety boiling under that chilled exterior—at least while she was writing the album. “I must confess, I’ve made a mess of what should be a small success,” she speak- sings on the explosive “Pedestrian At Best,” which evokes the booming clatter of In Utero-era Nirvana. “But I digress, at least I’ve tried my very best, I guess/ This, that, the other, why even bother?/ It won’t be with me on my death- bed, but I’ll still be in your head.”

That squalling track exemplifies Barnett’s evident maturation on Sometimes I Sit—both as a singer and as a chaser of bold sonic shapes. Reid’s propulsive engineering gives every power chord and kick drum a sharp sheen, emphasizing the manic confusion in Barnett’s snarl.

“That was one of the last ones I finished, kind of an afterthought,” she says. “I’d been kicking around the guitar riff for ages but couldn’t come up with lyrics. We recorded the music, and I wrote the words one night after the studio and came in the next day to record the vocals. I think it’s the result of being in the studio for eight days, just that cabin fever and losing your mind a tiny bit. It jumps from story to story and situation to situation, so it’s a bit of a confusing one to follow. But it has a lot of energy, and a lot of negative energy comes out of it, which is a good thing.”

That “negative energy” cuts through frequently on Sometimes I Sit—like on the jangly bitch-slap “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” or the warped classic-rock chug of “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York),” on which she laments a “love line…entwined with death.” But the mood varies from track to track, as Barnett explores romance and angst as a wide-eyed yet world-weary adult.

That thematic eclecticism isn’t anything new for Barnett, yet what’s surprising is how she uses the studio to sonically match her lyrical tone—from the symphonic psych- rock atmosphere of “Kim’s Caravan,” with its operatic backing voices and droning distortion, to the intimate acoustic reverie “Boxing Day Blues.”It’s easy to feel as woozy as the protagonist of the psych-punk waltz “Small Poppies,” and you can practically feel the California breeze on the melancholy “Depreston,” in which Barnett reflects on the fleeting nature of human life as she peruses a rental property once owned by a war veteran.

“I see the handrail in the shower/ a collection of those canisters for coffee, tea and flour/ and a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam,” she sings on the latter track, over a clean guitar sway and brushed drums. “And I can’t think of floorboards anymore.”

“Lyrically, it came pretty quickly,” Barnett says. “I wrote it after I came back from the rental house. The person had passed away, and the real estate lady was trying to sell it. It just brought up all these feelings of the disposability of life and how we just move on quickly. I was just sitting in my room, and I’d been listening to a lot of The Go-Betweens. It just kind of fell out of me, that song.” 

A major development on Sometimes I Sit is Barnett’s melodic focus. In the past, her monotone, just-woke-up-from-a-nap vocal approach tended to grate on her wordiest tracks. (“It’s just how I naturally sing,” she says of her style. “I was always really shy about singing, and that’s just how I felt comfortable doing it.”) But there are several honest-to-god hooks on the new LP, which emphasizes clarity over verbosity.

“Boxing Day Blues” ends the album with Barnett’s most emotionally affecting vocal to date—a nursery rhyme croon unfurled with smoky restraint. “I love all of your ideas/ You love the idea of me,” she sings of a mismatched romance. “Lover, I’ve got no idea.” On the opposite spectrum is the pogoing beach- punk tune “Aqua Profunda!,” a rare Barnett track you can whistle after hearing it once.

“When I lived on Easey Street in Collingwood, I used to swim a lot at the Fitzroy pool,” she says of the song. “It can be intimidating as it’s a real hangout spot, and there are always incredibly good-looking people there, sun-baking whilst reading some highly intelligent book. It’s a summer love song.”

Most of Barnett’s songs feel scattered, like fragmented journal entries assembled into analytical jigsaw puzzles. And they’re sort of written that way. “They all came around and grew in different ways,” she says. “Most of them, I imagine, will turn out as songs, but I don’t imagine them as songs when I’m writing them. They’re a bit more like poetry, maybe—just words on the paper. They even read a bit more like stories before they have the rhythm and rhyme behind them. It’s a big mess.”

But the writing wasn’t Barnett’s biggest artistic hurdle on Sometimes I Sit. With a bigger creative team behind her, she aimed to craft grander sonic landscapes—ones worthy of her early musical heroes.

“I definitely spent a lot more time considering [the album’s sonic palette],” she says. “The two EPs were recorded in very different ways—one was at home and one was at a studio with different people with different levels of gear and knowledge and stuff. Which there’s nothing wrong with—I love the way they sound. But with the album, I had a bit more of an idea of what I wanted, and I had chosen to work with an engineer/producer, Burke, whom I admired. It was him and Dan, who’s a good friend of mine. I trust his musical ear. So they had a strong idea of what I wanted and how I wanted it to sound, and we were open to discussing it all.”

But Barnett approaches music from an abstract, internal place, and she had trouble articulating her ambitions from a technical standpoint.

“That was one of the hardest things, and the problem I came up with previously is that I don’t know how to communicate that stuff,” she says, laughing. “I don’t know how to put it into words. We had a special under- standing. I’d show them things I’d like or albums I’d like. Or I’d hit a guitar and say, ‘That’s how I want it to sound like.’ They seemed to kind of get it—just slamming a hand down on a piano or mucking around with pedals and playing chords and just saying, ‘That’s the feel I want for the album.’ We also listened to a bunch of stuff: Television, Talking Heads, a bit of Wilco, Marquee Moon guitar stabs, A Ghost Is Born [quiet-loud] dynamics, [Lou Reed’s] Transformer swagger, the drum fill in [David Bowie’s] ‘Young Americans.’ It’s that ‘out of the chaos comes beauty’ kinda thing.”

You can detect all those influences on Sometimes I Sit, but Barnett never falls prey to excessive hero worship. Ultimately, the most resonant voice on these 11 tracks is her own: a quirky, plainspoken neurosis that cuts through to the heart of our human frailties and insecurities.