BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
In an era where lip-syncing and digital instruments reign, Courtney Barnett is exactly what you want to hear: A songwriter with an assured, conversational vocal style whose songs burst with stinging guitars at exactly the right moments.
She is from Melbourne, having played shows and released music there on her own record label for years until showing up on this side of the world last October at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York. That appearance, and subsequent tour, helped solidify her as an exiting new voice whose lo-fi minimalism follows in the long tradition of the Velvet Underground and The Drones, the Australian garage rock band whose lead guitarist, Dan Luscombe, also happens to work as her producer.
Released last fall, “The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas” contains “Avant Gardener” — a song about suffering a panic attack while digging into the dirt behind the house. The music’s steely assurance balances a deadpan vocal style, with sharp attention to detail in her words: “The paramedic thinks I’m clever because I play guitar, I think she’s clever because she stops people dying.” All the tastemaker blogs immediately crowed it one of the best songs of last year.
Barnett, 26, plays Friday afternoon at Lollapalooza, her second appearance in town since her inaugural Empty Bottle gig last fall. What follows is a transcript of our recent conversation.
You’ve shifted from playing small clubs like the Empty Bottle to appearing on The Tonight Show and now, Lollapalooza. How have you taken that adjustment.
I’d be completely lying if it wasn’t a weird or a big thing that I’m going through. I’m really quiet and hate talking about myself, so it’s kind of getting used to the fact that people want to know things about me. That seems like such a stupid concept, without sounding too negative.
Why did you start playing music in the first place?
It’s fun and I write songs because it’s my way of figuring out what I’m thinking about or just what I’m going through and sorting out my thoughts. And I love playing live.
Your lyrics are very conversational. They sound like you are just talking to us.
That [style] only happened over the last few years. I kind of wrote a lot before then but I had an idea of what lyrics are supposed to be and I forced myself to write them and never really got anything out of them or felt satisfied with them. So then I started reading words out of my journals – poetry and literally, like a day’s entry about my day or what I had done that day, just as experiments, to see if it would encourage another idea or a melody or more lyrics. But it kind of stuck a little bit it and it started feeling really natural.
Does that inform the music?
Yeah it does. A lot of the music was pretty simple to start off with. I was mucking around with how simple I could write a song. I started making it more in-depth, the music, to kind of match the tone of voice.
The guitars on the record come in bursts between lyrics; they don’t really carry the melody but sound like another voice talking.
One of my rules for recording these songs was to try and make everything a tiny bit [expletive] up — not crazy [expletive] up, but just not quite right. So I didn’t. I tried not to have too many constant riffs or constant melodies. There’s a few, but I didn’t want it to be too melodic in that way and “oh this is the second verse, that riff’s gonna play.” I was trying to play so you didn’t quite know what was going to happen. Because most of the time, I didn’t know what was going to happen.
With the double EP, because it was recorded over a vast amount of time, there’s quite a lot of different guitarists on it. I play guitar, but there’s a lot of different guitarists. I had to tell them, “can you do a guitar solo on this song? Don’t hit any right notes.”
Your music is out on your own record label — What led to you releasing your own music opposed to finding a label to do it for you?
I had been doing gigs for years. I had never recorded anything. People were coming to me after shows [and asking], “what can I buy?” I always felt like an idiot because I didn’t have anything. I just made a platform so that they could buy it. It sounds pretty simple. I wasn’t looking so far forward to try and secure a label so that they could make everyone want to buy my music. I kind of wanted to just do it quite naturally. It was kind of just a small thing … And then it evolved when I started sharing it with friends and added a few friends’ bands. And the less time I have sitting at home to work on stuff, we’ve kind of adapted it and it’s turned into more of an art project. We finished a ten-inch comp record. Just doing slightly different stuff with everyone covering one of the other bands’ songs instead of traditional album releases.
Was getting to the U.S. one of the goals during those days?
It’s always been one of those things. Growing up in Australia, a lot of people think you have to go overseas to “make it,” but it’s hard and expensive and big, so to lots of people, it’s unrealistic, me especially. Having never traveled outside Australia, I just figured I’d never have enough money to go anywhere, ever. Let alone to tour around the world, which is even more expensive than backpacking or whatever. Maybe it’s slightly different these days with the Internet, but it’s hard to comprehend how big the rest of the world is until you go there.
What was your strongest impression once you got here?
I guess being able to go from place to place, day after day, and play to an equally sized room. Because in Australia, there are about eight shows you can do realistically that will make you money compared to I don’t know how many [in the U.S.]. It’s such a huge scale of difference, it’s hard to comprehend. And every town is obviously different from each other and people are different everywhere. But generally with music crowds, you know that people wouldn’t bother going to your show unless they were slightly into you or into something similar to you. So most of the time you have a general idea of what people are going to be like. But then again you never know. And meeting people at shows is one of my favorite things because it paints this great picture of what the place is like.
Do you have a favorite city now?
I’m not just saying this because you’re there, but Chicago is definitely my favorite place. It was the first show and I was super sick. I got the flu. It should have been a really [expletive] show, but it actually was a great show. We had two or three days off, our only bunch of days off, so we got to go around and see the city; it was snowing and it was just nice.
You’ve mentioned that you’ve been influenced by many bands from the early nineties like the Lemonheads and Nirvana.
It’s what I grew up with, so I think it’s just there in my head because it’s all we listened to when my brother and I were kids. He is four year older than me, so it was his era, and I copied what he was listening to. I was listening to it all the time when I was learning guitar, obviously it’s got to be a bit of a staple.
Now that the double EP is out, I assume a new album is next. Where do you go from here?
It’s a bit of a continuation … Obviously exploring new themes. I’ve grown up a tiny bit — well, not grown up, but a year or two on from the last songs. I’ve just been experimenting with songwriting styles and structures and stuff like that, just trying different things basically. We kept it pretty simple and moderately pretty live as well, which is how we do most stuff. A couple of takes and that’s it … I wanted to capture them closer to their source of creation, than kind of milking them out and making them perfect.
The difference is that now you know you have an audience waiting to listen.
It’s unrealistic to say that that thought isn’t there. But I try not to ever write songs thinking about that because, at the end of the day, I write the songs for myself.