The Big Read
The Big Read – Courtney Barnett: “My goal? To make people realise they’re not so alone”
Courtney Barnett is the allergy-afflicted singer-songwriter whose music mixes ennui and activism. Alex Flood meets Australia’s wittiest slacker-rock star
Courtney Barnett is shaking. The Beast From The East has just hit London and the sun-kissed Aussie singer-songwriter is feeling the effects. “I’m not used to this,” she confesses, from beneath a bundle of black cold-weather clothing. “It doesn’t really go below 15 degrees back home.”
Once we’re down in the warm NME basement, she’s a bundle of energy. Everything warrants a question: the wall-sized Rihanna portrait, the bar, the band playing on the stereo. She even whips out her phone to film the R2-D2-like cleaning bot in the lobby of the building. It’s probably the three coffees Courtney’s downed since 8AM, but she exudes a natural enthusiasm that’s a far cry from her super-chill, slacker-rock image.
Born in Sydney, 30 years ago, Barnett grew up on the beach before her parents moved to Hobart on the continent’s very southern tip. In high school, a racket was her weapon of choice, not a guitar. “I wanted to be a pro tennis player,” she says. “I did competitions, training after school, the whole thing.” What happened? “I started playing guitar at the same time. Mum and Dad could only afford one thing at any one point so I had to choose.” She picked music, and went on to study art at a couple of respected colleges while honing her considerable songwriting talents. Eventually, after a period of unemployment and depression in her early 20s, she hit on a winning formula.
Breakthrough 2013 single ‘Avant Gardener’ was a funny, charming and whip-smart tale about ending up in an ambulance after a panic attack. It stayed on mainstream radio for weeks, before accompanying ‘double EP’ ‘Sea Of Split Peas’ garnered rave reviews. A debut album and lengthy touring schedule followed, but fame always felt strange to Barnett. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you / Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you,” she warned on 2015 track ‘Pedestrian At Best’. Now, five years into her career, I wonder if she feels more worthy of recognition? “No. I don’t think I have any sense of external support or praise or whatever,” she says. “To me, my progress doesn’t create any confidence or expectation.”
Quite the statement, and not an altogether unexpected one. Barnett has been open in the past about suffering with anxiety and on upcoming record ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ it’s obvious she’s working through some stuff. ‘Hopefulessness’ talks about feeling “the weight of the world” on your shoulders, while ‘Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence’ depicts her mental state during writing. When I describe a song about a character who’s miserable all the time, Courtney concedes, “that sounds like all of them.
“I think [anxiety] is a constant in my life,” she says. “I’ve always had a melancholic feeling since I was a kid. It doesn’t really have a beginning and nothing was wrong in my general life. I guess it just crept in.”
Songwriting has proved a good way to exorcise demons – and now that she wants to pass on what she’s learned to her fans. “It’s all about playing with your behavioural patterns and changing negative energy into positive energy,” she explains. “Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I’m small and insignificant and that the best thing to do is take small steps each day.”
What about the new album title ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’? Is that genuine advice? “It’s a bit of both,” says Barnett, twiddling her long, brown locks between finger and thumb. “It can be read in many different ways and I’m open to both interpretations — the earnestness or the sarcastic.”
I want to know how she copes with our frenetic, modern day lifestyle. So I ask her about social media. She says she uses Instagram “a bit” — 154,000 followers and counting — but we agree it’s “definitely overwhelming” and “a stressful information overload”. Her home life sounds much more relaxing.
Courtney lives with long-term partner Jen Cloher on the outskirts of Melbourne. Fellow musicians, the bohemian pair share many of the same interests, like gardening (Courtney’s allergic to grass) and their cat Bubbles (also allergic). When I point out this contradiction she laughs, “I just put up with it.” Next, she describes “long summer walks” with Jen by Merri Creek that runs through “beautiful wetlands” near their house. For Courtney, home is definitely where the heart is.
On the other hand, ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ is littered with political statements and the overriding emotion is anger. Courtney’s often spoken out against sexism in the music industry and in December last year, she signed an open letter calling for action. Centred around the hashtag #meNOmore, the letter featured 300 signatures from Australian musicians and anonymous accounts of sexual assault and discrimination. Has much changed since? “The conversation keeps getting bigger and becoming more open,” she begins. “I see a lot of guys who are being told, straight up and for the first time, that their shit stinks. They have this wash of understanding come over their faces. I think it’s good in that sense, but in Australia one woman is killed a week from domestic violence and 50 cases are reported a day, so there’s still a lot more work to do.”
Courtney’s continuing the fight in her new lyrics. ‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’ tackles toxic masculinity, while fresh single ‘Nameless, Faceless’ includes a famous Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) quote that she read in a newspaper — “Men are scared women will laugh at them / Women are scared men will kill them,” she drawls over scuzzy guitar and chunky bass. It’s yet more proof that her laid-back, apathetic image is totally false. Courtney is a committed activist who cares deeply about social issues.
It’s easy to see where she gets it from. Barnett’s surrounded herself with strong female artists since day dot. Not least punk legend Patti Smith, an idol of hers. The pair have played several shows together over the past few years, including Smith’s last ever gig down under in January 2017. “Every time I see her on stage it’s beautiful,” beams Courtney. “She’s so committed to every single word and movement. Everything’s connected — the physical, the emotional and the spiritual side of performing. You can’t teach that.”
Not all of Courtney’s inspiration comes from the world of music though. Sport is still a big interest. “I love the Williams sisters!” she beams. “They’re so good! But still, every news article I see about them is fucking gross — full of racism and sexism. You have to be ten hundred times better as a woman of colour. It’s so fucked up.”
Other notable influences include Solange Knowles (“She’s amazing. I love ‘A Seat At The Table’”), Elliott Smith (“Those haunting melodies. Wow!”) and, weirdly, British children’s author Roald Dahl. “His books are all so dark,” she says. “Just look at George’s Marvellous Medicine — he’s literally poisoning his grandma! I love that idea, you know, getting revenge against the old people.” It seems that, despite her love of cats, gardening and long walks in the park, Courtney Barnett remains young at heart — a trait she shares with one of her newest collaborators.
“Kurt Vile is just real goofy,” says Courtney of her long-haired partner in crime. Together they released an acclaimed album — ‘Lotta Sea Lice’ — last year, and toured extensively in the States. But mostly, they just messed about a lot. “We laughed so much,” she grins. “Kurt’s so funny and the more you laugh the funnier he tries to be! He’s got two young daughters and he’s always making them giggle. It’s so cute. He’s so caring.”
Almost immediately after the Kurt & Courtney tour, Barnett jetted back home to join Cloher on stage. They played a pair of raucous December dates on home soil before Courtney was back in the studio, putting the finishing touches to album number two. It’s been a busy year, but who needs a holiday when you’re the biggest Australian recording artist of a generation?
“I don’t like going on holidays with nothing to do. I just feel purposeless,” agrees Courtney. “It was nice being home over Christmas, but I was writing, doing different projects like Jen’s album, the Kurt album, helping run Milk! Records (the Melbourne-based independent label she launched in 2012).” Surely she needs some downtime, though? “Not really. It’s not work work. It’s creative work, which I really enjoy!”
So what’s next? ‘Nameless, Faceless’ has already racked up 350,000 YouTube streams in a month and the album hits shelves in May. Courtney will already be on the road by then, playing stints in USA and Canada either side of a hotly anticipated European tour. Then it’s back to the States in the autumn for one final go at cracking America.
It’s a heavy schedule and one that’s obviously geared towards maximum publicity. But world domination isn’t the plan, Courtney makes clear. “I just want to be able to keep working and growing as a writer,” she says. “ The goal isn’t to reach more people on a superficial level. It’s about making a connection. Hopefully people will realise they’re not so alone.”
Courtney’s still ambitious though, and 100% in it for the long haul. “I’m not sure what I’ll do in my next 60 years of music. I’ll try everything,” she tells me as we wrap up our conversation. “Hopefully I’ll still be making albums when I’m 90. Whether I’ll be touring them is another matter.” With a track record like Courtney’s, you wouldn’t bet against her doing just that.
Barnett on her favourite partners in crime
“Jen and I try to be in nature as much as we can. We have a little garden in Melbourne filled with beautiful native plants. Jen’s the better gardener, but I like it anyway.”
“I remember watching her perform ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ at Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize ceremony. I cried when she was nervous and had to start again. She’s so vulnerable but so strong and real.”
“He likes recording live like me. We had a different band in every day [on Lotta Sea Lice]. But doing it like that with the sound effects in the background helped keep the natural vibe.”