Discovery: Courtney Barnett
ABOVE: COURTNEY BARNETT. PHOTO COURTESY OF TAJETTE O’HALLORAN
The wry songwriter Courtney Barnett is experiencing an ascent that seems quick even for our instant-everything culture. To wit: It was only two years ago that she founded the independent label Milk! with musician friends in Melbourne, Australia, releasing the self-produced EP I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris. Less than a year later, in 2013, Barnett released another short collection called How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose, which was then joined with Emily to make The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas by House Anxiety/Marathon Artists as part of an international distribution deal. Together, the EPs don’t represent the songwriter’s proper “debut”—that record is currently in the works, as she discusses below—but there is a palpable cohesion between all the songs, which fashion clever, incisive wordplay atop swaggering slacker rock. Now Barnett is set to re-release Split Peas on Mom + Pop on April 15, as well as to play Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Primavera Sound.
Everyone from Bob Dylan and Lou Reed to contemporaries like Cat Power and Deerhunter come to mind when listening to her work. But the slacker ’90s seem to have the strongest pull on Barnett’s early songwriting efforts, which is why it makes sense that she’d turn to The Lemonheads at some point. And today Interview is thrilled to premiere the video companion to Barnett’s recently released cover of “Bein’ Around,” the lyrics of which are sweet and funny and vivid in a way the rising star knows plenty well. Enjoy the video and our interview with Barnett below.
CURRENT CITY: Melbourne, Australia
SAVORING LEMONHEADS: I like them a lot. I was a bit late to discovering them, as with everything else. I bought a copy of Hotel Sessions last year and re-discovered how good that shit is—especially “Paid to Smile.” I was just so jealous of “Bein’ Around” and wished I had written it, so I started singing it at shows, regrettably having to announce it as a cover. Plus we used to do a band version of “Shame About Ray” because it’s just fun to play. So, yeah, I guess they are important.
LEARNING TO RIDE: I started writing songs when I started learning guitar. They were mostly bad. I remember hearing “Achy Breaky Heart” on the radio and thinking, “I can do better than that.” I played in school jazz bands and tried to start rock bands but nobody was interested. I’ve played in a few bands over the years since then. One was a covers band: We did “Oh, What a Night” and “Billie Jean” and Ace of Base and stuff like that. One was a sort of garage grunge band that I played guitar in. One was a country band that I played slide in. I still play guitar with Jen Cloher’s band. It’s awesome.
PERSPECTIVE STUDIES: It’s pretty surreal, I guess. Leaving the house is a big enough occasion for me, so getting on a plane and flying across the world and playing to a room full of people is just out of this world. But in a time where everybody is in the public eye 24/7, it doesn’t seem like that much of a big deal anymore. I am yet another tiny ant on the planet.
DROPPING ART SCHOOL: I think it was just that “Life’s what happens while you’re busy making other plans” thing. I never planned to be a professional artist—I just want to be a sustainable artist. I guess they’re the same thing if you look at them from a different angle.
STATESIDE FAVORITES: I loved Chicago. I think I was lured in by the beauty of the snow. I definitely grew up with the romantic impression of snow from movies and TV shows—Sleepless in Seattle, etc. But then I realized snow’s actually kind of dirty and wet and annoying after a while. I’ve loved everywhere I’ve been so far. I feel so grateful being in a position where music allows me to travel and experience these things and meet all these people.
LABEL BOSS: It’s just all my mates really, so I talk to them all the time if I’m away. Milk! Records is a pretty low-key venture—we just make art and share it around with people who are interested. I’ve got such a good bunch of friends that we’ve learnt how to delegate. Jen Cloher has become the brains behind the whole thing. She makes cool things happen now—I just do the artwork and get all the credit.
MOVING BEYOND SPLIT PEAS: I’m so happy to be in the studio. It’s good to be creative again—sometimes I feel like a professional email checker instead of an artist. The album is finding its way nicely. It’s a collection of songs from the last year or so. It’s not greatly thematic … Well, I guess it is. If I had a therapist and he or she followed me around taking notes and putting them to music, it’d be like that. Of course all the travel makes an appearance in a way too. I write about the things I see and do and observe, so it’s only logical. It’s mostly more of a scenery thing, though. The lyrics are ideas and feelings set to the background of whatever football stadium I happen to be walking past. Also, I’ve listened to Lou Reed’s Transformer at least once a day every day for the last year, so it might sound like that.
COMMUNITY DOWN UNDER: It’s pretty great! Most everyone that I know does music or art-related stuff, and everyone supports each other in whatever way possible. Melbourne has an amazing community. There’s so much live music, so many options. Groups like Music Victoria and SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) are pivotal in protecting and stimulating that community.
ON APRIL 15, MOM + POP WILL RE-ISSUE THE DOUBLE EP: A SEA OF SPLIT PEAS FOR THE FIRST TIME ON CD AND 2XLP VINYL. BARNETT WILL NEXT PLAY NEW YORK ON JUNE 14 (NORTHSIDE FESTIVAL) AND JUNE 17 AT BOWERY BALLROOM. VISIT BARNETT’S SITE FOR MORE.