Love, Death & Flannelette: Inside The World Of Courtney Barnett
Ahead of the release of her debut album Courtney Barnett goes back to her roots with LACHLAN KANONIUK. Photos by CATHERINE BLACK.
We’re sitting upstairs in the Northcote Social Club green room, Courtney sitting and thinking, maybe just sitting, reclined with her grape-coloured flannelette shirt folded neatly on the arm of the couch. The midday sun approaches through the curtain. Her Blundstones rock back and forth on the coffee table, splinters of dirt breaking free from the sole. The pub’s empty. It’s Tuesday morning.
“We love Courtney,” a bartender tells me over the phone the night prior, as we arrange entry before opening hours today. Courtney used to work here, pulling beers behind the bar, right up until Stateside tours beckoned.
I’m surprised to find Courtney upstairs when I arrive. Maybe the bar is a reminder of the old days. Maybe it’s just the green room couch is the comfiest seat in the building. She grabs the last water bottle from the rider fridge and flops back down next to her flanny, apologising for a slight sniffle. “We’ve got a cat at the moment,” she explains. Her hay fever is playing up. Her right hand fingernails spell out the name “DAVE” (her drummer), her left had read “BONES” (her bassist), but it’s no longer legible after being scratched off by guitar strings.
Courtney Barnett is Melbourne – her songs are ingrained with a tremendous sense of place, finding worth in the minute characteristics of the city, parlaying the sharp eye for detail into something universal – but Courtney Barnett is not from Melbourne. She grew up in Church Point, just north of Sydney; “a bit of a tomboy”, her surrounds more bush than suburb. At 16 she relocated with her parents, Cheryl and Ross, to Hobart, sling-shotting around her final destination like an orbital moon landing. She finished high school in Tassie and began university, studying Fine Arts for two years before moving to Melbourne. Courtney’s passion for drawing – “It’s pretty satisfying to come up with a picture that can say more than a whole five minutes worth of song can” – might come from her dad, who dabbled in creative illustration throughout her childhood.
We’re speaking a few weeks ahead of the launch of Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit, the debut album proper, following on from EPs I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris and How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose (both EPs bundled as a full-length international release). On the album, Courtney sings about love and sings about death. At the age of 27, she has a clearer sense of identity, her observational wit now imbued with honest candour. She regales fears both genuine and perhaps fanciful, embraces a social consciousness and, following on from standalone single ‘Pickles From The Jar’, sings more directly about her long-term relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Jen Cloher – who is signed to, and helps run, Courtney’s imprint Milk! Records.
With Milk! comes a potent sense of community, with community being the key to most, if not all, Melbourne bands’ successes in the past decade or so. That sense of community is explicated at a secret preview show in Melbourne’s CBD, “We love ya Court, you’re a fuckin’ legend,” Milk! signee Fraser A. Gorman declares from the stage in his opening set, Cloher looking on from the stairwell and Courtney’s parents making their way to front of stage before their daughter runs through her album live for the first time (with Bones Sloane on bass and Dave Mudie on drums). Some songs are loud, loud enough to rattle the artwork surrounding the perimeter – sketched portraits of chairs, some weird, some wonderfully mundane – Courtney’s visual extension of the album.
Back at Northcote Social Club, a month prior, I ask a mundane question.
What’s with the chairs?
I came up with the album title, which was on this poster I used to see at my grandma’s house when I was growing up. We used to fly to Melbourne for Christmas and stuff. I wanted to name the album after that. Once I had the title I started drawing stuff that would be suitable for the artwork, and I kept coming back to that. It’s not so deep, obviously, it’s just sitting and chairs. When I was growing up, dad collected these old, shitty vintage chairs and [would] do them up. He’d always have them around the house and mum would complain. He’d sand them and varnish them and make them really cool. They were always around, these different, mismatching chairs. It was just drawing from that as well, thinking about that.
What was it like moving to Melbourne, as someone from a bush-y part of Sydney, via Hobart? Did you find your feet quickly enough?
No, it took me quite a while. I moved, and didn’t plan anything. I didn’t have a house, I crashed with friends and ended up paying rent there, in Richmond, near Ikea. Very handy. Then I needed a job, it took me ages. I was really shy and scared. That’s kind of the reason I wanted to move, to push myself into the unknown. I’d been playing gigs around Hobart, open mics, starting to do stuff. When I moved here I took a backwards step and didn’t play live for a year. I was too scared to go anywhere. I went to a lot of gigs, but it seemed like such a clique and I didn’t know anyone. I worked full-time and was miserable. It was retail, but it was full-time and soul destroying.
When did you start here, at Northcote Social Club?
Couple of years ago.
Was that concurrent with gigging again?
Nah I’d been gigging for a few years. I’d worked at other bars before here, and had friends who worked in bars and slowly started meeting musicians who were doing gigs at those bars, realising that it wasn’t the big scary task I thought it was.
When did music come into your life? Was it always present in your childhood? Did you take lessons?
When I was about ten I started playing guitar and convinced my parents to get me lessons. I was in grade 6 when I started getting guitar lessons in Mona Vale. I played in the school jazz band, the class band, played guitar for people at Rock Eisteddfods, or whatever they’re called. All that kind of shit. I’d try and start bands, write songs, but we always did cover songs.
What were your staples?
Back then it was like [Red Hot] Chili Peppers Californication, that was out and hot. It was early 2000s, so a lot of terrible music. I just didn’t know any better. Three Doors Down.
Good Charlotte. All that kind of stuff that was on the radio and everyone knows what it is. It was pretty intense.
When did you start to discover…
I was gonna say Australian rock, but that’ll do.
Before Australian stuff it was Nirvana and Rage Against The Machine. Me and my brother were really into Spiderbait, Ivy And The Big Apples, then there was that bad Good Charlotte period. When I moved to Hobart one person I made friends with, we always sat together in art class, she showed me Pixies and Talking Heads, Television and stuff like that. I thought that was cool. When I moved here I started playing with a guy called Ollie, who plays in The Finks now, he showed me Darren Hanlon and Paul Kelly, Dan Kelly, The Lucksmiths. I slowly started figuring out The Go-Betweens, The Triffids, The Saints, Died Pretty. Just more stuff. It feels like a lot of that only came in the past few years.
Milk! Records was a pretty big, well I dunno about big, but savvy move for an upcoming artist. How did the idea come about? You came to Melbourne and saw these communities, now you have a rich one in Milk.
I did it to release my first EP…
That was 2011?
Maybe? Yeah that sounds right. I didn’t think too future-forward about it. I’d been playing around for so long and trying so hard to get people to let me support them on their shows, not really knowing how stuff works. I just kind of gave up and said I’d do it myself. I had this small, well it wasn’t even a following, people would just ask at shows if I had a CD. I’d feel like an idiot, so I thought “I need to record a fuckin’ CD”. Put a record label stamp on it so it looks professional. I did that, came up with a name.
Regardless of your own success, how does it feel to see the other Milk acts do well – Fraser A. Gorman, Jen Cloher, East Brunswick All Girls Choir. To be fostering that community?
It started off like that, then developed into a bigger thing. People like Jen [Cloher] came on board. She has a different wired brain to me, that actually sees logic and organisation. She adds stuff like that to whatever I already do. Makes it function a lot more, to be able to spread workloads across her and Jen Sholakis [East Brunswick All Girls Choir], who does a lot of stuff as well. It’s nice to see how it’s naturally grown, to do these mailouts. It’s that thing where I can go overseas and people ask about Milk! Records and go “well I like Courtney, I’ll like East Brunnies too.” They’d buy their album, and send little notes saying they hadn’t heard them until seeing the connection. That’s the way it should work. It’s nice when you see it happen.
Do you find it funny, debuting the ‘Pedestrian At Best’ clip across all these reputable sites, when it’s you and your mates dicking around?
That’s the great part of the joke. It’s exactly that.
I gotta say the acting in that clip is actually disconcertingly good.
Well Jen, as she will tell everybody, studied at NIDA. So she’s very proud of her three seconds on camera at the end.
When did you see things taking off. Obviously ‘Avant Gardener’ was a flashpoint, did you see that coming at all?
I dunno. I guess we went over to New York for CMJ, that was the first time we toured outside of Australia. It feels like a lot of attention started piling up after that. We’d been playing around for quite a long time. I dunno how it works.
Your songs have translated really well overseas, and I don’t really think that’s happened in a sincere, non-kitsch way with distinctly Australian culture much before. Why do you think it’s your songs that people have grabbed onto?
I’m not sure; because there is so much great stuff goes overseas. I think a lot of it does get great recognition. Maybe I was just the right person at the right time. Everywhere we fuckin’ went overseas people were talking about Twerps. That’s awesome, that people can make that connection. I think people connect with the authenticity, if people believe what you’re saying, what you’re talking about. Not trying to write songs that will be successful overseas, [my songs are] quite obviously not written that way. It’s this funny reverse, unintentional thing.
Being conscious of that and having your two EPs out internationally as a full-length – was maintaining that identity with the album a difficult thing to uphold?
I just wrote like I always do. Lots of people ask me that, and I only started thinking about that after people started asking me about it. If you write to please someone else, I don’t know if it’s just me that can see through it, but I can see through myself. It feels very fake.
Do the words come easy?
Sometimes. A lot of the times, no and yes. It’s all over the place. Sometimes it starts with a good, strong idea then it takes like a year. One of the songs on the album, ‘Dead Fox’, I used to drive to and from Sydney all the time and I just had one idea – taxidermied kangaroos and possum Jackson Pollock. I had those two lines for almost a year, thinking “Oh my god they’re soooo clever! This is gonna be so good!” Then I’d try and write the song and it would be shit, really shit. I dunno what ended up happening, maybe I stopped thinking about it. Then I was happy with how it sounded.
Is the writing part of your brain always idling, looking for inspiration, or do you have to turn it on and off?
I never shut it off. I like puzzles and word games, I always try to rearrange letters into other words, do a lot of, starting with the same letter – what’s it called?
Yep! That’s it. I do it just to amuse myself.
Where does that come from? What kinds of media were you taking in as a kid? I know The Simpsons shaped my brain at an early age.
I think I have a lot of that as well, we watched The Simpsons every night. It feels like you can relate at least one situation every day to a Simpsons episode. I read a lot as a kid, [I was] really into Roald Dahl. I think a lot of that comes across – the way he played with words, the way he wrote slightly twisted, funny-ish tales. I dunno. Just puzzles. Mum and dad used to push us. I’d get books for Christmas instead of computer games and shit. It was probably good in the long run.
Your lyrics get a lot of attention, but you’ve got some sick riffs, especially on the album. Is there a similar process in terms of lyrics and riffs, and composition in general?
It’s a bit different, but it all matches up in weird ways. With the songs, I didn’t muck around with them too much with structure and re-arrangement. Sometimes you piece three riffs together that you think will be three different songs, but they work well together as three different parts of the one song. I definitely stepped up from the two EPs, which were more experiments with structure. I really attempted to write songs, a couple of times, that had a verse and a bridge and a chorus. Which I did, and it was fun to have that change. I tried different things [and] it always comes from weird places.
It’s a loud rock record. Does that come from touring? Or having Bones, Dave and Dan [Luscombe] in there in the studio? Or with Burke [Reid] on the desk?
We did it at Head Gap, which is in Preston. We were in there for 10 days, pretty long days. We had a week before at Bakehouse where I showed everybody the songs.
Were you doing any of them live beforehand?
No… no we weren’t. Afterwards we put them in. I was still writing a lot of the songs. My time management skills are lacking, at times. Showing the band at the last minute. I like doing it that way, capturing that moment. It was a fun process. The first EP, I wrote it all by myself, recorded it all with a band. I wrote a lot of it at 3am when I got home from work, in a sharehouse, so it was very quiet. I think that’s one of the biggest differences between the energy on the first EP, and even the second EP, and now the album. You can hear how timid the first EP is. I did a lot of the vocals at home on the first EP – they’re quiet because I didn’t want people to fucking hear me singing. Then we started playing live as a band and those songs gradually began to change as they were being played by other people, because people were always coming in and out [of the band]. By the time we did the album we were solid. The three of us were solid because we’d been touring so long, and Dan [Luscombe] was just in and out with [his band] The Drones and whatever. He can float in and out with his eyes closed and still play some fuckin’ sick solo. The energy, we got a lot tighter, we had that chance to get really loud. We’d rehearse at The Tote, have a couple of beers, and play as fucking loud as we wanted. It was really fun, as opposed to rehearsing in the back room of our house and having the neighbours come over to complain. It was nice, that gradual rise of rock.
How does Dan coming in and out of the group affect you as a guitarist? You’re a sick guitarist, but do you take relief sharing the load?
It’s been a real eye opener for me. When I got the first band together I always had someone else playing second guitar because I wrote all these lead lines that I liked. We did one tour, the Big Scary tour, and I found myself without a guitarist because everyone was always playing in other bands and I didn’t want to pull anyone away from their other projects. We did that tour, and it pushed me as a guitarist to become better, to hold court as the lone guitarist. It was a really good thing. Then we toured overseas, all these festivals as a three-piece. Around that time Dan was in and out, playing with him gave me ideas and inspiration. It was a good thing to learn.
I think the most interesting song on the album for me is ‘Small Poppies’. On one level, it’s this hate-letter, like [Bob Dylan’s] ‘Idiot Wind’ or [The Beatles’] ‘Nowhere Man’.
‘Idiot Wind’, fuck I love that song.
“I’m sure it’s a bore being you” That’s a pretty ice-cold line. Is there an actual subject for this?
It’s open to interpretation. Why do you like it so much?
Just because of this underhanded, disarming venom. There are plenty of other aspects to it I’ll get to in a second. Is it introspective?
It’s about something. A lot of it is about me as well.
Even the title, ‘Small Poppies’ – tall poppy syndrome isn’t really around as much anymore. But do you see any semblance of it?
I don’t think it’s as bad [as it was]. People have gotten over that whole thing. I think it’s always gonna be around, I haven’t really copped much of it. It’s not really a direct hit at that. There’s definitely parts of it floating around. I was talking to people on the weekend, it’s a weird part of human nature. People love to bring people down to make themselves feel better, even if they don’t know they’re doing it. Those articles about people who spend all their life trolling, whatever it’s called, doing all that nasty stuff. It’s just weird. I did that in high school for a bit, and I fucking learned my lesson about how fucked it is. I saw how much it hurts people and thought “well, I’m never doing that again”. It’s so intense.
Do you think that dissipation of tall poppy syndrome goes hand in hand with the dissipation of cultural cringe in Australia? People are responding to Twerps in the US, people are responding to your music in the US, which makes more people here realise we have some sick shit happening.
That’s awesome. But people can treat it like a novelty, a one-off, like “there’s something in Australia’s waters this year!” No, there’s always something in Australian waters. There’s always good music here. Believe in the people around you, go to their shows. People spend hundreds of dollars going to international shows and don’t spend ten bucks at The Tote.
Going back to ‘Small Poppies’, “I make mistakes till I get it right.” What mistakes have you made?
Plenty, I guess. I’m an overthinker. I think that everything is gonna be some sort of mistake. I think the point is that you shouldn’t dwell on it so much, you have to make plenty of mistakes to get through life and you try not to make the same mistakes again. That’s the message.
‘Pedestrian At Best’ is the first statement from the album, and there’s a lot packed into it in terms of where you’re at as an artist and what your fears are. Does putting that into a song make it less of a burden?
Yeah, especially the day I wrote it there was all this pent up stuff. It’s obviously mostly about that kind of message, but there’s so much stuff intertwined about relationships and friendships. Lots of stuff. It’s that overbearing talking that goes on inside your head, talking yourself in and out of situations and how things can spiral out of control within your mind so much. It’s good, every time I sing it live it feels like a release. A lot of negative energy comes out in that song.
There’s a lot of love song elements throughout the album. ‘Illustration Of Loneliness’, a wistful song written about being in New York, “our love life seems intertwined with death”. Alongside all these love song elements, there is that mortality.
That long-distance relationship thing.
Before we get onto that, what’s your view on death? Do you think about it often?
A lot of the album alludes to it, or questions it more than before. I don’t really think about it that much. Every now and then, getting older, and a lot of my friends are older than me. It just comes up. ‘Depreston’, about the old dead lady and seeing all her stuff being sold. That kind of unimportance of life. I’ve always had that “what is the meaning of life” shit going on, trying to put it in perspective. Seeing what the point of it all is. Maybe that might be too morbid.
When two musicians date they can have similar personalities and clash. But you’re singing in ‘Pickles From The Jar’ about these polar opposites between you and [your partner] Jen [Cloher]. What’s the relationship dynamic like?
We’re very different people, obviously. But that’s a good thing. The things that are lacking from the way I do things are probably the things I crave. Which is why we’re attracted to each other. Even though it’s stuff you think you don’t like yourself, you’re subconsciously wanting that in your life. Sometimes we clash in that way, but it’s also the perfect match at the same time. Creatively, it works well.
With touring, how do you negotiate that aspect?
It’s super hard. It’s the longest I’ve ever been away from home in general, let alone being apart from her. It’s hard, but we’ve made it work so far.
When did you guys meet?
Ages ago, when I was like 21 or something.
Yeah. But I first saw her when she played Falls Festival in Tassie.
When she was playing?
Yep, when I was like 16.
Before we move on, anything else you want to add about Jen?
People should buy her album.
Being on the road and away from home, how important is your mateship with Bones and Dave?
It’s great. That’s the good thing, we’re such good friends, and we were good friends before we played in the band. That side of things is really good. So many things can be unspoken and still understood. At the same time, everyone is a human, and has certain emotions. Everyone has their weird ups and downs and insecurities. Just learning to be nice to yourself while on tour, and to be nice to other people. Learning that everyone’s not perfect, just being there for people. It’s a total test of friendship, doing something like that. It’s nice at the same time having these wild experiences. Regardless of normal stuff this last year has been this weird, surreal thing of being in new places. Just extreme highs and lows playing these huge festivals to huge amounts of people, to sharing a bed with Bones. Not that it’s a bad thing. Just thinking “I’m sharing a bed with my friend and I wish I wasn’t”, or driving for 10 hours and breaking down. The shit things feel like such a huge blow amongst the good things.
‘Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party’ is a bit of an introvert anthem – are you introverted?
I think I am introverted, but I kind of force myself, or I find myself in situations where I have to not be introverted. I like doing stuff and going to parties and hanging out with friends. But a lot of the time I just like my quiet space.
What’s your relationship with Melbourne now? You’re not from Melbourne and now you’re spending long periods of time away from Melbourne – is it your home?
It just feels comfortable here. I’ve found my proper friends. Through school, you’re friends with people because you’re in the same place. With uni you start meeting new people. It’s the thing of finding your own tribe of people who think the same, who have the same interests and views. That feeling of sameness.
‘Dead Fox’ and ‘Kim’s Caravan’ have these environmentalist messages. Is that something you think about often? A lot of artists have that sentiment, but not many are able to put that into songs.
It’s always been something I think about. I’ve always been a bit scared to share my views. I don’t know why. If people are listening to my music, buying my records, I would want them to be on board with what I’m saying. It really ramped up for me in the last year or so. I really just opened my eyes. And maybe with travelling because I’d never really travelled. People would be like, “Oh, you’re from Australia! That Tony Abbott guy, what’s that about?” and I’d be like, “Ughhh”. It’s embarrassing to have people looking at us from overseas like we’re idiots. There was a period in my early twenties where I got so depressed over stuff and really retreated away from everything and refused to look at what was going on around me. I stopped reading the paper because that would make me more depressed. That made me more detached from what was going on. But that’s an unrealistic way to live your life. You can’t just say “I don’t wanna know about the shit stuff going on in the world, all the wrong things that are happening.” I don’t have an answer; I’m just slowly trying to figure out how to do anything to make anything better.
How do you rationalise it in your mind, being this sort of ambassador in whatever sense for Australia, when things are pretty shithouse here at the moment? Are you proud in any sense?
I’m proud in some ways but not in many. But at the same time, you say things are shit here but there are still a lot of great things here, and I’m grateful to be brought up here and stuff like that. It’s hard for anyone to know what to do. People obviously love their country but are frustrated with the way it’s run. It’s hard. You can vote, obviously, so you vote. I try to help out extra, with The Greens, donating money. I dunno if it helps.
A few weeks ago you had a studio session with Jen [Cloher], Jen [Sholakis, East Brunswick All Girls Choir], Steph [Hughs, Dick Diver] and Jo [Syme, Big Scary]. Was that just a bit of fun? Or is it the start of something else?
That’s our new band.
Yeah, that’s it.
Tell us about it.
I’m not allowed. Strictly no press. We’re anti-press. We said 2015 we’ll try and have something recorded. It’s fun, but who knows what’ll happen.
With the album out in March, plus going back to the States – are you bracing yourself? Or is it the same steady trajectory?
I learned a lot in the past year about touring and what I can do, what my body can do, what I can handle. We’re touring a lot, but we’re home a lot. I want to spend equal time at home. Time being a normal human instead of a crazy thing that performs somewhere different every day.
Can you transition easy? Or do you feel a bit like a zombie getting back to Melbourne?
It just takes time. It’s always different. Even coming off something like Laneway, which is this crazy different world. I try not to get too caught up in it, but I can feel like a bit of a zombie walking around Melbourne after something like that.
I suppose you put some of your fears into your songs, particularly in ‘Pedestrian At Best’. What are your biggest fears as a performer at this stage?
There’s always just a small fear of not being able to write the next song. It all feels like such a fluke. I don’t have any structure or any formula. Sometimes I worry I won’t have anything interesting to say.
Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is due out on March 20 through Milk! Records/Remote Control.