Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett is a slacker hero with a secret – she’s an overachiever. Kim Hillyard talks to her about recording with Jack White, her 24/7 schedule and becoming a role model.
Courtney Barnett is describing her recent visit to ex-White Stripe Jack White’s studio in Nashville in great detail. “There was heaps of wacky sh*t in there,” says the 27-year-old. “Cool vintage amps. Pedals. A nice old piano… it was full of real nerdy stuff. And Jack kept offering us food. But we were too excited to eat.”
The invitation from White to follow in the footsteps of Neil Young, Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson and record at his Third Man Records HQ came in June, three months after the release of Barnett’s debut album, ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’.
A short time later she was recording the ‘Blue Series’ 7-inch. Pressed to vinyl and released by Third Man last week, it features a bold sequel to one of her own tracks, ‘Boxing Day Blues – Revisited’, and a hazy, heartfelt cover of ‘Shivers’ by Aussie songwriter Rowland S Howard. “I only decided what songs to do that morning ’cos I always put sh*t like that off,” says Barnett. “But it was amazing! We had whiskey when we finished.”
Courtney Barnett’s angsty cool is a refreshing dose of reality in 2015. Through her low-slung slacker-pop, she champions life’s banalities and celebrates boredom in a world of 24/7 notifications. It’s a bittersweet philosophy, and hordes of fans have climbed on board.
“Put me on a pedestal, I’ll only disappoint you,” she sang on this year’s single ‘Pedestrian At Best’. Jack White’s not the only person ignoring her advice. She admits to having received some pretty intense fanmail. “People tell me stories,” she says. “Heaps of really deep, emotional, personal ones.” Following the release of ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think…’, she slayed US TV audiences with her appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, played Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage, busked in London for her ‘Nobody Really Cares…’ video, covered Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ onstage in Melbourne and supported Blur on their American Tour. It’s all happening hard and fast.
When we speak she’s crashed out at her kitchen table in Melbourne. It’s 10.45pm and she’s only just having dinner (“miso soup and veggies”). How is she handling the heavy schedule?
“The biggest change is that I’ve got a lot more frequent-flyer points! It’s funny, by avoiding a nine-to-five lifestyle, I’ve created a 24/7 one instead. But it’s cool. I used to hate working jobs that meant nothing and were just about earning enough to live. I wanted to create my own job where I could do what I wanted. That’s kinda what I did.”
Over the past few weeks she’s been at home, working out where to go next. To help suss it all out she’s been sorting through her journals and “collecting all the good bits of songs and writing new ones”. About what, she won’t say. The political situation in Australia, perhaps? (At the end of September, the country switched their Prime Minister in a snap party ballot.) “Oh come on! Our government is the most confused f***ing school of idiots trying to run a country. It’s terrifying! Stuff like marriage equality is still seen as a crazy idea to some people, you know? I don’t have faith in any of those people to do the right thing.”
So Barnett’s taking matters into her own hands. Of everything coming her way, it’s an upcoming talk at a rock camp for girls that she’s most excited about. “You give ’em guitars and teach ’em how to write a song,” she says. What will she tell them? “I guess, just… write what you know.”
For all the whisky quaffing in Nashville, Barnett really is most content when, well, sitting and thinking. “When I was a teenager I was nerdy and goody-goody. I read a lot. Did all my homework. Went to the library every day after school. Played a lot of guitar. I had like, friends. But I preferred to hang out by myself.”
Years later she’s still on the outside looking in, more anxious about “what to order at a restaurant” than making her second album. “I’m just happy to not stress about that side of stuff,” she shrugs. “There’s always something else going on. People don’t care that much.”
It’s this kind of perspective that draws you to Courtney Barnett. Unlike the rock gods of yore, she offers up an escapism that is actually attainable. For proof, just ask her where she sees herself in 20 years’ time. “Oh, I don’t f***ing know!” she replies, pausing for thought. “Hopefully I’ll have grey hair and be living somewhere with a cat.”