Life’s a Breeze
When Courtney Barnett staged an impromptu street show outside London’s Camden Station in August, she and her band played before a huge white billboard bearing the message: ‘Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party’. Part of a wider marketing campaign, identical billboards were installed in numerous spots across the globe. They stood like bold statements of intent for the 28-year-old artist.
“I guess I was trying to say that sometimes we focus on trivial things so much, we miss what’s going on right in front of us,” Barnett tells me a couple of months later. Her billboard slogan (which was lifted from one of her song titles) tapped into the typically Gen Z condition of FOMO, subsequently smashing it to smithereens by swapping post-millennial anxiety with carefree confidence. It’s no wonder that, in 2015, Courtney Barnett’s relatable charm has translated to considerable commercial success.
The Melbourne artist seems to have always had a casually creative streak. Perhaps under the influence of her culturally aware parents (her mother, a dancer, met her stage manager father through ballet), in her teenage years Barnett headed for art school in Tasmania, where she took up photography and drawing. Having played guitar in a few bands after dropping out, Barnett eventually released her debut solo EP, I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferri, in 2012 via Milk! Records, the label which she runs from her front room and on which she’s released records by fellow Melbourne artists such as Fraser A. Gorman, Ouch My Face and her girlfriend Jen Cloher.
Barnett’s sophomore EP, How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose, produced one of her signature tunes Avant Gardener – a darkly humorous tale of an anxiety attack which came on as the result of a horticulture-related allergy.
But regardless of all her DIY grind and subsequent success, Courtney Barnett is forever being allied with the ‘slacker’ tag by the music press. “I’ve never really known 100% what it means,” she admits. “Yeah, I’m probably a slacker at heart, but I work too hard to technically be one. To be honest I don’t really dig tags, they’re in the same box as stereotypes. Although if I did have to have a tag it would be ‘optional: wash separately.”
It’s this breezy humour that wafts through Courtney Barnett’s songwriting. Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit – the award-winning, critically lauded album she released in March this year – is an eleven-song sketch book of vignettes, crafted by an artist who is equal parts wordsmith, diarist, musician and comedian. Barnett pens effortless-sounding, often dead-pan odes to the humdrum, the banal and the small-scale, from the minute character study of the disgruntled worker in Elevator Operator to the universal ennui and dissatisfaction felt by so many of us in our 20s on the aformentioned Nobody Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party.
“I do think I do my best writing when I take myself out of the city and away from distractions and go to the country or something,” she ponders when I ask about the birds I hear tweeting at her end during our phone call. “My surroundings have a huge effect on my songwriting, because my songs are so reflective of the environment I’m in. I try to take snippets from every- where, as it helps build up the whole story. And I try to write every day, no matter what it is. I just scribble general observations.”
Sonically, Barnett’s words are shot through with the instrumental heft of her band, who range between trad college rock (Pedestrian At Best, An Illustration Of Loneliness), blues and country flavoured indie (Small Poppies, Depreston) and zoned-out pyschedelia (Kim’s Caravan). Naturally, her band are her mates. There’s guitarist and album co-producer Dan Luscsombe (also of the Drones) – although he hasn’t been present much this year – drummer Dave Mudie, and bassist Bones Sloane. “Bones and Dave are my best buddies,” she gushes. “We’ve known each other for a while; we used to play in other bands together. They’ve always been really supportive of the songs I write, and they are some of the best musicians I know. We’ve spent the last couple of years living out of each other’s pockets in very close quarters.”
“The success is great, but it’s not gonna change my life. The thing I care about most is writing songs that I’m proud of”
It’s certainly been a non-stop year for Barnett. Riding off the success of Sometimes I Sit… her seemingly endless schedule has seen her generate all kinds of hype at SXSW, tour the world, open for Blur in LA and New York, appear on The Ellen Show and record a single for Jack White’s Third Man Records. Next January, she’ll help mentor at Australia’s first ever Girls Rock music camp; a program seeking to teach and encourage young female musicians aged between 10 and 17. “I am super stoked to be part of it,” Barnett enthuses. “I’ve met people involved in Rock Camp around the US and I thought it sounded like an inspiring project. I wish I had had some- thing like that when I was a kid.”
So with such an intense level of demand that leads into 2016, is she beginning to feel the strain? “Spending so much time away from home is definitely not a good thing for relationships and friendships,” she admits. “Good ones can withstand it, but it still doesn’t change the fact that you’re liv- ing different lives for a huge majority of the year, which is weird. I started cutting a lot of tour opportunities so I could stay home.”
When musicians rise so quickly through the ranks, in this scatterbrain age of discontent there’s the worry they will suddenly find themselves discarded on the heap. In Australia – and other Anglosphere countries – there’s the common term “Tall Poppy syndrome”. It describes the sociological phenomenon where those who are thrust onto pedestals can be cut down just as quickly. Barnett explores this at two different points on her album; in the chorus for Pedestrian At Best, where she wails ‘Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you / tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you…’, to a backdrop of noisy guitar scree and weighty four-to-the-floor drums, and also more directly with the track Small Poppies. Perhaps there’s an element of cautiousness to her humble attitude.
Upon its release, Sometimes I Sit… shifted an impressive number of units, making it to the number 20 spot on the Billboard 200 chart and no.16 in the UK. But unsurprisingly, Barnett seems totally unphased by the stats. “It’s great because it means it’s connecting with people and people are liking it and finding something good in it, but it’s definitely not gonna change my life,” she asserts. What is important to her, then? “As an artist the thing I care about most is just writing songs that I’m proud of and feel like they’ve achieved what they’ve set out to achieve. That can be a difficult task.”
Does she care about the emotional effect her songs may elicit? “I don’t think you can direct the impact your songs have on people. I think that is something that hap- pens once the song is finished because it’s out of your control. You can totally have semi-ideas about it, but it’s ridiculous to know how someone is gonna feel about a song.”
As per usual, Barnett is eager to steeraway from any statements which make her seem egotistical. But with songs which play like mini-audiobooks covering everything from the minutiae of daily life to the bigger questions that keep us awake at night, her songwriting has connected with many people, and in 2015 she felt like an unlikely poster girl for a generation of 20 and 30 somethings looking to make sense of the topsy-turvy world around them. Courtney Barnett’s lyrics may make her sound restless and disillusioned at times, but some- how she finds a way to convince us it’s ok to feel that way too.
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is out now via Mom + Pop