Courtney Barnett’s rakishly loose debut album is unabashedly Australian in its sound and lyrics, but her slacker anthems found an unlikely international audience. DOUG WALLEN on how 2015 was the year of Courtney Barnett.
Beyond the ARIAs and the endless touring, it’s all right there in the album title: Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Courtney Barnett has perfected the art of off-the-cuff musing, and when she’s not musing she’s quietly absorbing the details around her, like the handrail in the shower leveraged for unlikely poignancy in her housing-crisis ballad ‘Depreston’.
As far as Australians breaking big overseas, 2015 was undoubtedly the year of Courney Barnett. She dominated the globe, from London to New York to opening for Blur at the Hollywood Bowl. She moved Ellen DeGeneres to gush, “I love her so much” on American TV, and she’s handily scooped up armfuls of awards before the year has even finished: four ARIAs, including one for breakthrough artist; J Award for the year’s best album; and four Music Victoria Awards.
“Who needs mythologised rockers and melodramatic pop stars when we’ve got Courtney Barnett?”
That’s not bad for someone who hand-drew the cover of her album (she won an ARIA for that too) and sang casually about organic vegetables and tall poppy syndrome. But behind the flannel-clad nonchalance, Barnett is one of the hardest-working songwriters in recent memory. She’s been toiling at it for years, first scraping by on no-name Melbourne bills and then, once she had earned a breakthrough with her song ‘Avant Gardener’, keeping at it with a global push. Now that she’s selling out Melbourne’s Forum Theatre for multiple nights, she doesn’t seem much different: still a jumble of wry wit and anxious self-doubt.
Her worn-on-sleeve uncertainties are a big part of why so many people around the world latched onto her music this year, even if they didn’t get half the references or Aussie slang. They understood that someone just as flawed and human as them was stepping up and putting their every strength and weakness into words, whether in the form of deadpan putdowns (“I’m sure it’s a bore being you”), bad-ass threats (“I promise to exploit you”), reflections on solitude (‘An Illustration of Loneliness’), environmental laments (‘Kim’s Caravan’), comic vignettes (‘Aqua Profunda!’) or simply the kind of honest admissions that aren’t usually aired so directly (“I used to hate myself but now I think I’m alright”).
Of course, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact if all these competing emotions weren’t lodged in hugely catchy songs that hark back to the slacker anthems of the grunge era (from Lemonheads to Nirvana). Or if the choruses weren’t just joyous earworms. Or if the lyrics weren’t such fascinating jigsaws of flippancy and frailty. Or if she didn’t seize every opportunity her music offered.
But she does, and when she hasn’t been playing giant festivals and amassing legions of followers on social media, she’s been wearing shirts for her friends’ bands, covering Melbourne’s patron saint of damaged rock ‘n’ roll (Rowland S Howard) for a single on Jack White’s label and taking mates like Big Scary, Fraser A Gorman and Darren Hanlon with her on overseas tours. She’s also managed to find time for an all-star tribute to Patti Smith’s Horses and a stirring revisiting of Archie Roach’s ‘Charcoal Lane’ with Roach himself. Milk! Records, the label she co-runs with her partner, Jen Cloher, has followed suit, releasing strong records from Ouch My Face and other smaller-profile Aussies amid Barnett’s stardom.
But Barnett hasn’t had such a dream year simply because she supports other artists, or because she’s a likeable songwriter, or because her songs speak candidly to people. It’s because she ticks all those boxes yet still seems like one of us. She’s the most articulate representative for voicing what so many of us experience on a daily basis. Who needs mythologised rockers and melodramatic pop stars when we’ve got Courtney Barnett?