Interview: Courtney Barnett

Australian singer Courtney Barnett has been attracting plenty of interest with her uniquely honest tales of everyday life and lo-fi style. And while she admits it’s a surprise to find herself earning fans on the other side of the world, her forthcoming UK tour should see her cement her place as one of the most in-demand new acts around. She speaks to David Vincent.

Some would say it’s early morning when Courtney Barnett calls, but the Australian songwriter is sounding pretty spritely. “It’s a quarter to 10. That’s not so early,” she laughs. “But what’s rock’n’roll without coffee?”

She’s stateside for the release of The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, which brings together tracks from her two 2012-13 EPs I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris and How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose. The USA visit coincides nicely with her appearance at Coachella, one of many festival appearances she will be making from here on in. In fact, expect her name to be popping up in plenty of ‘ones to watch’ festival guides.

“It was fun. It’s Palm Springs [in California], near the Joshua Tree, and it’s super-hot. It’s a pretty beautiful landscape, and a nice area to be in for a music festival. I didn’t get much of a chance to see any of the other bands on though as I was running around, doing stuff, so only saw bits. I missed Neko Case, I wanted to see her – maybe next time…”

 Just as in the UK, US audiences have been won over by her appealing mix of laid-back lo-fi slacker indie and autobiographical tales, as epitomised by breakthrough track Avant Gardener, in which she recalls an exchange with a medic while in the midst of an anaphylactic panic attack.

“The response has been pretty good I guess. Lots of people have been listening to it and saying good things about it. I was a bit … ummm … this is the first time we’ve played outside of Australia for a few months, so seeing how your songs connect to people who maybe haven’t heard them before is always something to worry about, but they’ve been working well.”

The daughter of a dancer and screenprinter, Courtney initially had her eyes on a different kind of artistic career.

“I did two years at art college and then I left – so I guess you could call me an art school drop-out,” laughs the singer, who also provides drawings for all her record covers and merchandise. “I quite enjoyed it and I wanted to be an artist, not a musician, but I wasn’t focused enough. I was 20 and wanted to explore. Then I moved to Melbourne – not too far – at the time. I wanted to go travelling, like some of my school friends who, after school, kinda took a gap year, and went backpacking around Europe. But I never had the money, so I ended up working in a shoe store, which was depressing – and writing songs.”

She eventually wound up working behind the bar at The Northcote Social Club, which she calls “one of the best music venues around”. But handing in her notice to pursue her own musical ambitions must have felt somewhat satisfying.

“I just quit the other week because I’m on tour for the rest of the year. It was a live music venue in Melbourne, kinda, in my humble opinion – and I am biased because I did work there for a few years – one of the best music venues around. A whole load of great bands played there and I used to get free tickets and watched them from behind the bar. A lot of them were just local bands, although Pixies played there at one point, but that was before I was there, sadly.”

A clear music buff, she says she’s captivated by the honesty of certain songwriters – something she strives to achieve.

 “There’s no point in doing it if you’re just making stuff up. You might as well be a short story or fiction writer otherwise,” she says. “That’s what I’m attracted to – people’s vulnerabilities, people’s views on things. Writing like that, that’s just naturally how I started.

“The songwriters I admire are people like Jonathan Richman, [Australian songwriter] Paul Kelly, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave…there’s a lot. I guess it’s normal to draw inspiration from all types of music, I don’t just listen to one type of music, it makes for a varied performance, it makes for more sonically interesting things.”

Although The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas only received it’s official UK release in March, Courtney already has her next long-player in the can.

“We’ve just finished recording the new album, a few days before we came out [to the US in April], so a couple of new songs have been creeping into the live set now. Some don’t have titles yet, just shitty working titles I made up in the studio. It’ll come out later this year, and I’ll probably come up with song titles the week before,” she laughs, adding it’s very much a continuation of her EP releases in terms of sound and approach.

“The new album is pretty similar to the EPs. The first EP was recorded in a day, the second in two days, with a bit of overdubbing and stuff. [This new album] is a bit more focused. We had a week-and-a-half in the studio, so we had more time to spend on songs, to get things sounding how they should. It sounds pretty similar because the songs are still written by the same person.”

But before the release, there’s more gigs away from home to contend with – something which Courtney confesses to being blown away by.

“I totally was surprised that anyone had heard the record, of course! There’s like a million musicians in the world, so it’s overwhelming to think that anyone had ever heard my songs,” she says. “I can’t pretend that I’m not surprised.”

Courtney Barnett is live at the Hare & Hounds, Kings Heath, on May 18 with support from Honeyblood. Tickets have now sold out.

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