Courtney Barnett: I guess I'm still kind of lost
Photo by Leslie Kirchhoff
Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett developed a fast following through clever words and a casually indifferent demeanor. Anticipation since she unloaded the ingenuity of the slacker-noire hit "Avant Gardener" last summer and The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas had its U.S. release in the fall.
The former art-school student has been playing music in different capacities since she was ten years old, most recently psych-folkers Immigrant Union with Brent Deboer of the Dandy Warhols. She never thought her own rambling inner thoughts would travel outside the culture of Melbourne, Australia, but now -- embarking on a huge tour to promote the album in America -- her career has markedly taken off.
Before tonight's show at Varsity Theater, Barnett chatted with Gimme Noise about her narrative approach to songwriting and why she loves David Byrne so darn much.
Gimme Noise: You really exploded onto U.S. radar with the single "Avant Gardener" and you've been out touring for around three months now. Has it been difficult adjusting to a new pace of life?
Courtney Barnett: Yeah. I'd be lying if I said otherwise. Up until a year ago I hadn't even traveled. Going to a new town every day and playing a show every night and then doing it the next day is very different to the life that I live at home. It has not been easy necessarily, but it's been really fun. It took a bit of getting used to but then you get into the swing of it and it's amazing. We played Primavera last night and it was probably one of the best shows I've ever played. The audiences were enjoying themselves so much, which means I was enjoying myself. It was very special.
Some of your band mates are close friends of yours. That must help in processing your personal whirlwind.
Yes. I've never really played music in a different way. I've always joined bands with friends or friends have asked me to join their bands or I just play on stuff. I've never just picked up a leaflet and played with strangers. I really enjoy playing music and normally it just comes around in a natural way, like if a friend is doing something and they want someone to help them. It makes a huge difference being on the road with best friends. You get to experience things together and it makes dealing with change easier.
The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas finally hit the U.S. in October. You've had these songs for a long time. Has it been strange to experience this delayed response?
Yeah, kind of. It's definitely been a very lopsided, things have happened at different times. It's pretty funny that we released some of these songs so long ago but I guess the world is a big place and it takes a while to show it around to everyone. Especially since I never really thought it would reach anywhere beyond Melbourne. It's been good.
You attended art school for a while. How did that environment encourage you as a young musician?
I went to art school straight out of high school. I was a kid and I was kind of lost. I guess I'm still kind of lost because I don't know what I want to do but mostly it was inspiring being around other people who were trying to create things.
At what point did you start writing your own songs?
I wrote lots of songs when I was kid. I started learning guitar when I was 10 and then as I learned more I started writing more songs, well, more making things up. When I started art school I started performing my own songs. I don't know. I never really thought it would get me anywhere; it was more of a try-and-get-better-at-it-as-time-goes-on kind of a thing.
How do you measure that? Do feel you've feel like you've gotten better?
Looking back at some of the first songs that I wrote I'm now able to critique my work in a way i couldn't before. I know more of what I like and what I don't like and what I want to do better and what ideas don't work. That's how I look at it and so I do feel like I've gotten better.
A lot of the songwriting on The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas is hyper-detailed and narrative. Explain that stylistic choice/happenstance.
It's definitely been in the last few years. I can't really remember what I wrote before then. I wrote a lot of puppy love songs but lots of them had that extra edge of detail. I think it's just because I try and cram too much in to a small space. I'm not good at explaining things and so I try to over explain and contextualize.
You're a self-expressed Lou Reed and David Byrne fan. What attracts you to the way that those two communicate through music?
I like a lot of the ideas that they come up with and that they don't seem to be afraid to push themselves or to make mistakes. It's not so much to make mistakes but to try things that maybe won't work just to see what it's like. They explore ideas and try different sounds and styles. I like how they present things in how they sing and how they phrase a lot of their stuff. I just think they're super cool as well.
I understand you're already writing for the next album? In the spirit of the aforementioned values, what new realms will you explore?
I'm actually writing right now for the next, next album. Just before we left Australia we recorded the next album. So it's kind of done but it won't be out until later in the year. I don't really know about it yet, though. Sometimes I don't know what things mean until I really have time to step back and look at them. Some of the songs are so new. I just wanted to record a bunch of new songs. It's not like I've been sitting on these songs for years or anything. I reckon it might take me a year to figure out what some of it means. That makes it sound like it's some crazy, obscure thing but it's not. It's the same general themes and life exploration stuff as the other songs. It's nothing so avant-garde that I'm changing.
So it's not your Metal Machine Music, so to speak.
No, no! But, you know, it's a great experience after touring so much in the last couple years. It was nice to go and actually make music and hash out some ideas and pull songs apart and then put them back together. It was a good process. It just kind of made me want to do another one straightaway.
Are you able to do much writing in the middle of tour? When are you able to focus the most?
I write lyrics a fair bit just at any moment in a book. It works for me because I've been a bit distracted. Writing on the road has been actually a lot better than I thought it would be. I try and get out of the city when I'm at home and go down to the bush or to the beach and sit out near the water and write. It's kind of all over the place. What I have discovered is that if I sit down with the intention to write then not much gets done. You can't force things.
Courtney Barnett. With Benjamin Booker. SOLD OUT. 18+, 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, June 24 at Varsity Theater. Info.
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