Interview – Courtney Barnett
– by Shawn Conner
Courtney Barnett hasn’t released a full-length debut yet. But, on the strength of two home-made and self-released EPs, the Melbourne-based singer/songwriter has a lot of buzz going for her at the moment.
One reason for this is the song “Avant Gardener”, a spoken/sung stream-of-consciousness Velvet Underground-style guitar dirge with a number of memorable and disarming lines (the one most often quoted: “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar/ I think she’s clever ’cause she stops people dying”). Barnett also starts off a song, “Lance Jr.”, by mentioning masturbation (as does St. Vincent on a song on her latest album. Is this a trend?) and mentions great Australian band the Triffids (in “History Eraser”: “You said ‘I guarantee we’ll have more fun, drink till the moon becomes the sun, and in the taxi home i’ll sing you a Triffids song!”) Indeed, signs of songwriting talent and a nascent vision pepper the two EPs, which have been compiled for North American consumption on The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. All for a series of songs that aren’t even a real full-length album debut.
The 26-year-old has been in the midst of some epic touring, building more buzz for her early recordings while setting us up for the full-length. We reached her in Manchester, and talked about that and a few other things. She plays the Fortune Sound Club in Vancouver July 4.
Shawn Conner: Has Manchester ever held any fascination for you?
Courtney Barnett: So many cool bands are from here. We were going through the list of them on the drive in. Dave [Mudae, drummer] was losing his shit the other day because Oasis is from here.
SC: What do you consider the music centre of Australia?
CB: I don’t know. I love bands like Midnight Oil and the Go-Betweens and the Saints, Hoodoo Gurus, that kind of stuff. I like the Triffids a lot. I only heard about them a couple of years ago. I’m a bit slow with my music intake. There are quite a few great bands around at the moment. Bands like Dick Diver, Boom Gates, Dan Kelly.
SC: There was a band called The Grates.
CB: They’re cool. They live in Brisbane. They opened a café.
SC: Are your bandmates more nerdy?
CB: Dave reads a lot of biographies, so do I, I guess. But I don’t retain the knowledge like he does. We’re all nerdy in different ways.
SC: Are your bandmates old friends of yours?
CB: I guess we’ve been friends for a couple of years. They were playing in this country band and I was, asked to join as the slide guitarist, so I joined and started touring with them, and the three of us became really good friends. I’d been playing solo for years before that. When I wanted to record my thing, I asked them to come along.
SC: What’s the story on the new album?
CB: We finished it before we left, about six weeks ago. It got mixed while we were away. I think we’ll release it towards the end of the year.
SC: Was there pressure to get it done before this tour? Did you feel you had enough time?
CB: Yeah. I was really keen on recording. We probably won’t get another chance for a long time to have the chance to do it. We had plenty of time. I like to do stuff pretty live, and keep it pretty spontaneous, capture the moment. We were probably only in there for a week.
SC: Were the songs finished? Did you have more songs than would make it onto the album?
CB: I had extra songs I was considering doing, but I don’t think they really fit with this bunch. But I had a few that were also not finished. Sometimes I think, you know, it’ll just be able to happen in the moment. That can be unrealistic. Most of the ones we did were very finished and ready to go.
Video – Courtney Barnett, “Avant Gardener”:
SC: Would you say you’re a prolific songwriter?
CB: Not so much. I probably wouldn’t say that about myself. I take a lot of notes, and write a lot of poetry. A lot of the time I’m a bit too nitpick-y about songs and they don’t normally eventuate.
SC: Are you doing any of the new songs on this tour?
CB: We’re mostly doing the double EP songs. We’ve chucked in a couple of new songs. We’ve kind of never toured here before so most people haven’t really heard the other songs.
SC: There’s a quote from you where you say, “The one thing that captivates me in a song is the honesty of a songwriter.” Who to your mind fits that description?
CB: It’s about displaying that vulnerability, even though you might not want to all of the time. And maybe that’s why people adopt certain personas some of the time. To be vulnerable is to be honest, to show people what you’re scared of and what you’re sad about, all those things which are scary to share with anyone. Not hiding behind words.
SC: Can you think of a lyric you’ve heard recently that had an impact on you?
CB: I’ve been listening to Bill Callahan‘s new record. I don’t know, there were bits in that, which I loved, which kind of stopped me in my tracks. I can’t think of what the lyrics were, they’re just so simple. You don’t expect him to say it. There’s a song on there, I can’t remember which one, but there’s an eagle flying and it’s got a rat in its claw (“The eagle flies using the river as a map/A small animal in its clasp/Alive and enjoying the ride”, from “Ride My Arrow”, Dream River, 2013). That gets me.