Courtney Barnett Writes All the Best SongsMom + Pop
Courtney Barnett is ignoring me. I don’t know this for certain, as she’s on the opposite side of the planet. But I can sense it. Perhaps it’s just the two-second delay that inevitably occurs between my questions and her answers — Barnett is phoning from her home in Melbourne, Australia — but even if we weren’t 17 hours apart, I suspect Barnett would still be someplace else. After the call, I will feel as if I didn’t really talk to her. No matter how much praise I heap upon Barnett’s fantastic debut LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, she chooses to stay inside her own skull.
I think I understand why: Right now, Courtney Barnett is the best in the world at writing witty, sad-eyed rock songs. And those songs require the accumulation of dozens upon dozens of finely observed details gleaned from the mundane detritus of Barnett’s daily existence. She’s like a journalist embedded in her own life, which obviously makes talking to me redundant. I’ll never match Courtney Barnett for access to Courtney Barnett. She lives her life; she observes her surroundings; she writes those observations down; she surrounds those observations with shaggy-dog guitar-pop; and if the final result doesn’t make her cringe, she allows the rest of us to hear it. That’s Courtney Barnett’s process in totality, and it’s working better and better all the time. But Barnett never stops observing what’s directly in front of her, even when an American reporter is on the line.
Barnett’s superpower (as demonstrated on Sometimes I Sit’s slow-burning acid-blues highlight “Small Poppies”) is being able to look out her window at an uncut lawn and see a perfect metaphor for a malignant romantic relationship that lingers like a neglected household chore. And she can make it funnier than “metaphor for a malignant romantic relationship” might suggest.
“It’s kind of that constant looking and constant listening,” Barnett tells me, in an affectless tone that mirrors her singing voice. “I try to write a lot of it down because I forget otherwise, all of the things we can overlook or brush past. I think sometimes those things deserve a lot more attention than they’re given.”
Barnett sounds weary and a little sick. She sniffles occasionally between attempted sound bites. It’s mid-morning where Barnett is, and I’m guessing she could probably use a few more hours of sleep. Unfortunately for Barnett — since Sometimes I Sit won’t be out for another three weeks — she’s one of the few people with whom I can discuss it. So she’ll have to indulge me.
Sometimes I Sit is an album that you play compulsively — at first because you love it, and then because it refuses to get up off your couch. After you turn it off, it keeps up a conversation in your head, following you around the house and leaving a trail of one-liners and tossed-off revelations. When we spoke, hearing Barnett’s voice on the phone created a weird stereo effect with her lyrics already ringing between my ears. Some of those lyrics are ha-ha funny (“Sunk like a stone, like a first owner’s home loan”), some are clever funny (“I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly”), some are plot points to one of her micronarratives (“I’m saving $23 a week”), and some stand strong like mission statements (“We had some lows, we had some mids, we had some highs”).
A few minutes earlier, I asked Barnett about a song from Sometimes I Sit that people other than she and I have heard, the album’s first single, “Pedestrian at Best.” It is the noisiest track on the album, though Sometimes I Sit is a noisy record, a side effect of Barnett bashing out the songs with her touring band between concert dates last year. “Pedestrian at Best” actually sounds a lot like In Utero–era Nirvana, which wasn’t deliberate but was not exactly an accident, either.
“I wasn’t trying to emulate [Nirvana] that strongly because it would just end in people saying, ‘You copied Nirvana,’” says Barnett, 27, a childhood Cobain acolyte who started playing left-handed guitar at 10. “But I came up with the lyrics, and when I took it to the band, it just became this very heavy kind of song, which was perfect. But it grew from the group out of nowhere quite naturally. We almost made it up on the spot.”
Like any Barnett song, “Pedestrian at Best” is loaded with quotable lines.1 But the lyric I ask Barnett about — the lyric I’m sure all writers will ask Barnett about — is “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.” Barnett confirms that “Pedestrian at Best” acknowledges the reams of hype she’s received from overexcited scribes, but it isn’t just about that.
“It could relate to anything, any circumstance,” she says. “I always think it’s so funny, all that stuff — having super-high expectations of anything is sometimes very unrealistic and will probably result in some sort of letdown, not to sound like a total pessimist. When you create those unreal things, it’s always gonna have some sort of weird backlash effect. But that song’s confusing because I wrote it at the last minute in a studio, and it crosses so many different territories, talking about friendships and relationships and music … it’s not just one solid story line.”
I decide to throw a Hail Mary pass and bring up Raymond Carver, the iconic writer, poet, and fatalist whose short stories about average people doing average things in profound ways remind me a little of Barnett’s work. And Barnett decides to catch my pass, kind of.
“I haven’t actually read him, but I’ve heard of him because my partner loves him,” she says, referring to her girlfriend and fellow Aussie singer-songwriter, Jen Cloher. For a brief moment, I see Barnett standing in the parking lot outside the ballpark of literary pretension. Then she climbs back into her car and drives away.
Since even the very best writers of rock songs no longer occupy an obvious cultural context, allow me to fill you in on Barnett’s backstory: She became moderately Internet famous in 2013 when two self-released EPs, 2012’s I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris and 2013’s How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose, achieved wide release in the form of a compilation called The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. “Avant Gardener” was the “hit” — not an actual hit, mind you, but you probably heard about it if you read indie-music sites or listen to satellite radio. It’s still Barnett’s most significant song — it’s the best gateway to her other equally amazing tunes, anyway. Over a steady garage-rock mosey that’s cut with an ethereal, psychedelic guitar lick, Barnett describes an allergic reaction that sends her to the hospital in a hilarious, Can you believe this shit? deadpan. “Avant Gardener” has lines you remember because they’re smart (“The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar / I think she’s clever ’cause she stops people dying”), because you assume they must be true to Barnett’s own life (“I guess the neighbors must think we run a meth lab”), and because they’re universal in a “we’ve all been there as a disaffected twentysomething” sense (“I’d rather die than owe the hospital”).
“I thought it was a great song,” Barnett says of “Avant Gardener,” which represented a creative breakthrough. “I was like, I’m really proud of this song. It’s a new kind of thing. But to be honest, I wanted to make it a single because it was my favorite song, but we were thinking, like, I don’t think people are going to like this song, it’s not very radio-friendly or whatever. It’s long and it doesn’t have a chorus, it’s got too many words.”
Barnett subsequently toured the U.S. and elsewhere, becoming a fixture among the bottom-third, fine-print-size portions of major music festival lineups. When rock critics heard “Avant Gardener,” the adjective they applied to Barnett was “slacker,” maybe because alt rock is the last form of guitar-based music that’s enough of a touchstone to work as an adequate reference point in reviews. But Barnett’s musical reach is much broader: She’s a little bit punk, a little bit pop, a little bit folk, a little bit blues, even a little bit country in the way that Pavement’s “Father to a Sister of Thought” is a little bit country.
“Autobiographical” is another word commonly affixed to Barnett, but that’s not quite right, either. It’s technically true that Barnett writes about her own life, but she’s not a confessional diarist in the traditional singer-songwriter mode. Instead, she manages to be hyper-specific without ever coming off as myopic. Barnett writes around her heartache; she’s more likely to describe in comic detail the ugliness of the carpet in a room where a lovers’ spat occurs than the particulars of the spat itself. It’s a little like how Springsteen wrote about his dad’s used car in order to talk about the American class system on Nebraska.
On Sometimes I Sit, there’s a stunning track called “Depreston.” The lyrics describe Barnett shopping for a new house and touring the home of an old woman who has just died. Remnants of the woman’s former life are everywhere — coffee canisters, a handrail in the shower, a photo of a young man sitting in a van in Vietnam. “Well, it’s a deceased estate / Aren’t the pressed metal ceilings great?” Barnett sings. Between the jokes, she’s grappling with mortality.
“Most of my songs are like that. They’re almost word-for-word of what’s happened,” she says. “The real estate lady was saying all the real estate things, and I realized that the house used to be owned by this old lady and she passed away and her family was trying to sell her house. All of her things were on the mantelpiece and stuff, and I just had a bit of a moment recognizing how life happens.”
Barnett’s career in music began as these things often do — with an older brother’s guidance. He played guitar and introduced young Courtney to her early influences: Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Guns N’ Roses, Jeff Buckley, and PJ Harvey. Barnett started writing her own songs soon after, though she didn’t begin performing them publicly until she was 18.
“It seemed like a fun thing to do, so I started doing it. Just writing songs about stupid things — school, boys, stuff like that,” Barnett says. “It’s hard to think back to what I was thinking about. I probably was emulating other people and singing about things I had no idea about, because that’s what other people were singing about.”
When Barnett was 20, she moved to Melbourne and played in a couple of bands. One played grunge, another was a psychedelic country act. In 2012, she formed her own label, Milk! Records, and put out the Emily Ferris EP. When Barnett was invited to play the CMJ Music Marathon festival in 2013, it was her first time overseas. She writes about the experience in the sardonic “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)”: Barnett lies on her bed after the show (fine if uneventful), it’s 4 a.m., she looks at the wall and pretends “the plaster is the skin on my palms, and the cracks are representative of what is going on.” Then comes the money line: “My love line seems entwined with death / I’m thinking of you, too.”
“It was an overwhelming, big thing — probably because I hadn’t slept in five days. And I missed my girlfriend and, yeah, it was super emotional,” she says. “It was the first time I had been away from my partner, it was the first time I ever had jet lag. It was all these new experiences. That song came out of it. It wasn’t a bad experience, it was just like, sometimes we feel happy, sometimes we feel sad, and that day I felt sad.”
Barnett similarly refers to the yin and yang of her circumstances throughout our conversation. (“Sometimes it’s shit and sometimes it’s fun,” she says when I ask about her ascendant career status.) This is part defense mechanism, part levelheadedness. Barnett is navigating that treacherous portion of any career when you’re freshly aware of an audience that’s awaiting your next move. You have to stay inside your head to keep the world out of it. It might be easier — to quote a previously mentioned rock legend — just to say, “You can’t fire me because I quit.” But it’s not in Barnett’s nature to be so dramatic. She’s content to continue mining gold in the shadows of her mounting expectations.
“What other people think about your songs is not important when you’re writing songs; it just doesn’t matter. It’s not an important element of the process, so I just got over it and wrote songs that I wanted to hear,” she says of the new LP. “I don’t feel like I’m some sort of superhuman songwriter just because I got some good reviews, you know? I think I’m shit some days, and some days I think I’m pretty good, and it just keeps going back and forth.”