Melbourne’s Courtney Barnett is being lined up as the face of millennial slackerdom, but there’s more to this complicated character than ennui and a neat way with a lyric, discovers Laura Snapes…
Halfway through Courtney Barnett’s set at Primavera, in May 2014, the Melbourne songwriter addresses the crowd: “This is the happiest moment of my life.” The sun is blazing, the crowd are singing her words back at her, and her girlfriend, fellow musician Jen Cloher, has flown out to see her. It’s the first time they’ve spent together in months, having been hemispheres apart as a result of Barnett’s international touring blitz – both the perk and the pitfall of being one of the world’s most feted young songwriters. A life-affirming kind of day, for sure, but the happiest moment of her life?
“It felt good, I felt pretty happy,” says Barnett, drinking a beer backstage after the performance, following a brief excursion to watch Television play their classic album ‘Marquee Moon’ (during which half a dozen or so fans ask her for photos). “We’ve been touring for six or seven weeks – we’ve never toured before to this extent, on this level, so there’s been serious ups and downs.” This is more like Barnett’s natural level: even-handed and understated, a quality she carries through to her lyric-writing, where she metes out plain-seeming observations that shift subtly between poignancy and humour, barbed with the occasional scathing remark.
Earlier she played a new song, ‘Depreston’, that encapsulates the lot: it’s an account of her and Cloher going house-hunting, forced to explore Melbourne’s deeper suburbs since gentrification has priced them out of where they wanted to live. The house they see exceeds their expectations based on its low price – then the letting agent tells them it’s “a deceased estate… aren’t the pressed metal ceilings great?” Suddenly its selling points don’t matter and Barnett is distracted by the former occupant’s personal effects, the aftermath of a life. “I wonder what she bought it for…” she trails off, acutely aware of her role in life’s cycle, and how it so often exists at the mercy of economics: the old lady lived proudly in Preston, yet now it’s being sold as an area “on the up” to young artistic types who will likely gentrify it in turn.
Barnett didn’t rent the house; the place she lives now is a 10-minute walk from the studio where she and her band have just finished recording her debut album proper. She says that she thinks listeners missed a lot of the themes from her prior releases (two EPs, 2012’s ‘I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris’ and 2013’s ‘How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose’ that she eventually released as one, ‘The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas’, in late 2013), namely allusions to the depression she experienced following a period of unemployment, then the soul-destroying time she spent working in a shoe shop: “I think a lot more people go through that than everyone thinks they do.” So the new material is more overt, she says, confronting the violence in the world that brings her down and makes her cry, and her self-esteem. “There’s a bit of the theme in the new songs of getting old,” she says. “Which, I’m not old, I’m, like, 26, my friends are, like, 30, 40. I don’t think age is really a problem but the majority of it is basically trying to come to terms with yourself.”
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For now she’s trying to come to terms with the record, to stop herself freaking out about whether it fits together. “Some of them are pop songs and some of them are ballads and some of them are fucking heavy. It’s weird to figure out. The album is a general overview of essentially a year of emotions – 12 months of fucking every day, up, down, up, down. I dunno what a normal person has but every day I had a mid-life crisis. I think in that sense it’s representative of that time. I don’t know if people will get that but to me it makes sense. To have a whole album of rock’n’roll songs… It’s cool but… it feels like, are you ever sad? Are you ever sincere? And not that rock’n’roll songs can’t be sincere, but… I dunno.”
Seven months later, in early December, Barnett and her band are in Brighton for their very last date of 2014 before heading back to Australia – where Barnett will join Cloher’s band on tour for a few weeks, and where she’ll stay until her debut album is released in late March. It was originally due out in October, but Barnett was paralysed by indecision about the track listing, the overall title, song titles, the artwork, so it’s only just been mastered and signed off. “And then also, I kind of just wanted a break,” she says as Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’ plays in a French-themed chain restaurant. “We would have come off this tour and started another tour straight away. Instead we got two months at home.”
The album is called ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’, which sounds very ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’: a defensive, deflecting pose against the weight of early expectation that might threaten to crush a career before it’s even got going. Last night Barnett and band supported Metronomy at London’s vast Alexandra Palace and played a few more new songs, including ‘Depreston’ and ‘Pedestrian At Best’, a cynical, self-loathing rampage where she shouts, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you/Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you”. Its frenzied guitars recall Nirvana circa ‘In Utero’, another band reeling at the notion of being known. Today Barnett is wearing a white T-shirt that depicts Kurt Cobain stood in front of a work by the visual artist Barbara Kruger: the words “men don’t protect you any more” mounted into a cinema marquee.
On the surface it might seem like she’s already over the position she’s found herself in, but she insists that’s not true. The album takes its name from a poster in her grandma’s bathroom (which itself comes from an old AA Milne quote) and just felt like a good description of the songs, she says. “And I hate when my friends, if I appear to be upset, if they’re like, ‘are you OK?’ Obviously you like it because it means that they love you, but it’s like, argh!” ‘Pedestrian At Best’ covers at least four different things: a relationship, friendships, the obvious references to her music career, and abiding childhood neuroses about teachers repeatedly telling the bookish young Barnett that she’d do really well. “Maybe I’ve just got, like, some issues of thinking everyone hates me,” she says, drinking red wine. “Actually, I think it’s a lot about that, yeah.”
Any amount of time spent in Barnett’s company proves pretty quickly that she doesn’t do poses; she is utterly sincere and candid (if prone to doubting and then offering counter-arguments to her own answers as she gives them) and particularly on the album, where her procrastination forced her to write quickly. “When I finally got something out it was towards the studio time, so it was rushed and I think that’s what made it really honest, like I didn’t think about it too much. I was just like, fuck, I have to hunker down and say whatever I wanna say, so it came out totally unadulterated.”
In ‘Kim’s Caravan’, the penultimate, and perhaps best song from the album, a dying seal that keeps getting washed up on the beach leads her to contemplate mortality and significance. “We either think that we’re invincible or that we are invisible when realistically we’re somewhere in between/We all think that we are nobody but everybody is somebody else’s somebody…” In lesser hands, being so equivocal could become a hiding to nothing, but through providing these counter-perspectives, Barnett whittles her own: that of a quiet but assertive person trying to grow to like herself, and trying to grow up in a world where attaining so many of the conventional trappings of adulthood – a job, a house, success – depends on your willingness to put yourself first at the expense of humanity and compassion.
Opener ‘Elevator Operator’ has traditional aspirations in its sights as a businesswoman assumes that Barnett’s slovenly friend could only be headed to the top floor of a skyscraper in order to jump off and kill himself; ‘Dead Fox’ and ‘Kim’s Caravan’ look at the way the world values short-term profit over the health of the environment, which sends Barnett spiralling. ‘Small Poppies’ relates back to ‘Out Of The Woodwork’ from ‘The Double EP…’ in its condemnation of a jerk who treats life like a game when she agonises over its every stitch. At its heart ‘Sometimes I Sit…’ is an album in search of balance, honesty and decency between humankind. If there are songs about the difficult situation Barnett has found herself in as a result of all the touring and attention, they relate to the difficulty of being away from Cloher for so long, and ring universally true. “I think I’m hungry…” she sings on ‘An Illustration Of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York)’, a portrait of anxiety-induced insomnia. “I’m thinking of you too…”
“This is the first year I’ve toured so much,” she says. “You go, ‘OK, three months, cool’, then it’s like, fucking hell, that’s a really long time. So for next year, I’ve changed it so it’s like, one month touring, one month at home. There are more important things in life than doing a radio show. It’s not in an ‘I can do whatever I want way’, more a ‘it’s not that important’ kinda way. My health and eternity and relationships and stuff are more important than stuff like that.”
Before she’s even released her debut album, already Barnett is weighing up the purpose and importance of what she does. Just from spending two days with her, it’s clear that she’s the opposite of self-important, and has a practical sense of perspective – as she sang on her breakthrough single ‘Avant Gardener’, “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cos I play guitar/I think she’s clever ’cos she stops people dying”. “I have that conversation all the time,” she says. “The ‘what’s the point of making music’ question. I remember talking to this lady a couple of years ago and I was like, ‘I should be a doctor or doing something worthwhile’, and she said, ‘writing songs can kind of do the same thing, it can help people’. I dunno, I forget how important music can be, that connection and feeling, like you apply songs to yourself and it makes you feel like shit, less alone, or that someone else is going through the same thing.”
Barnett says she has “no fucking idea” whether ‘Sometimes I Sit…’ is the album fans expected of her, not least because she thought people would hate ‘Avant Gardener’, and look how that turned out. “You can’t assume anything so don’t bother,” she says, effusively. There’s no formula, no plan, no assumptions behind her music. “You shouldn’t know how to write a song!” she says. “I think if you know then you shouldn’t know! It’s weird. It’s like when people talk about writing songs for ads, that will get things for syncs, and they talk about freedom and summer and being yourself, it’s like, fuck tha-at! Only idiots connect with that kinda stuff. People wanna hear about real – well, people that I want to listen to my music, they should wanna listen to real stuff.”
Onstage at the Drill festival later that night, Barnett and her band have that end of term feeling. “My name’s Courtney Barnett and it’s our last fucking show of two months!” she yells. “I feel so good right now, I could do another two months!” In the heat of the moment, the balance between over-thinking and instinct is restored.