Courtney Barnett: The Unlikely Rock Star

Music Features Courtney Barnett
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One Monday years ago, Courtney Barnett woke up and decided to do something about her mess of a garden. It was a hot, sticky day in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia, and she had an asthma attack while pulling weeds. Later, when she was working on her second EP, How To Carve a Carrot Into a Rose, she had some music that needed lyrics. So she told the story of her day in the yard without embellishment, delivering dialogue word-for-word and relaying the events of a Monday that was more eventful than she’d have liked, but not enough to have made for the third-tier subplot on a medical drama. Having trouble breathing while weeding is an unlikely topic for a hit single, but “Avant Gardener” would become just that for the then 26-year-old.

There’s a lot about Barnett’s rise from local singer/songwriter to the talk of this month’s SXSW that’s unlikely. Her upbringing in suburban Melbourne for one—the city has produced a few pop stars in Olivia Newton John, Kylie Minogue and more recently Gotye, but the biggest names in rock to come from Australia’s second city are probably the members of The Dirty Three. Her parents listened to mostly jazz and classical records in the house; it was her brother who introduced her to artists like Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana and even briefly played bass in a band.

“I started playing guitar because him and his friends did, and I thought it was pretty cool,” she says during a stop by the Paste house in Austin, Texas, during SXSW. “And then he kind of dropped off and started doing computer stuff. He’s really good at computer stuff.”

She started writing songs pretty early on, but her first foray into music was as the guitarist in a cover band. Her only singing came from solo acoustic performances; she usually stuck to playing guitar in various projects around town.

“I was always so nervous about [songwriting],” she says. “It was a real struggle, but I liked it at the same time. It had some sort of fulfillment, even though it was really crippling. I love playing in bands. I kind of prefer playing in bands, playing guitar, but I love doing what I do now.”

What she’s doing now is causing quite a stir. After releasing a pair of EPs, 2012’s I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris and 2013’s How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose on her own label, Milk Records, she landed a deal with London-based Marathon Artists, the home of fellow Melbourne act Jagwar Ma. It’s a small label, but signing was enough to get her to New York for the CMJ conference in 2013. Other than taking a holiday in New Zealand, it was her first trip outside Australia. She describes the ordeal as “terrifying” but “fun.”

Her songs, with their unexpected observations and surprising poignancy, garnered a lot of attention, and when she released those first two EPs together as The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, the album was picked up by Mom + Pop in the U.S. It made several year-end best-of lists, including a Top 10 spot at Paste. Her catchy melodies plucked out on electric guitar draw the listener into her wry and witty lyrics like “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cos I play guitar / I think she’s clever ’cos she stops people dying” from the aforementioned “Avant Gardener.”

By summer of last year, she was making her U.S. TV debut on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and working on her follow-up to the EPs, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, which she considers her debut album. It was a completely different experience from her earlier recordings.

“Obviously I knew it was an album, so it was bigger,” she says. “We locked in 10 days in the studio to record, and up until then, the first EP was recorded in one day at a friend’s house, and the second one was recorded in one or two days in the studio. So this was like, ‘Oh my god. It’s a long time and a big commitment.’ We had written most of the songs within the last year and ordered them, and we kept it pretty live while recording them.

She also enlisted a producer, Dan Luscombe of Melbourne band The Drones, after mostly figuring things out on her own with the help of an engineer for the EPs. “I never really even knew what a producer was until the album came about and people were like, ‘Who’s producing it?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t even know what a producer is.’ But I really trust Dan’s music tastes, and he’s got a really good ear. I have trouble sometimes saying what I’m thinking, so when people are like, ‘How do you want this to sound?’ I just don’t know what to say. And I think he can kind of read my mind in that way, so that was good, because I don’t have the technical skills.”

The sound ranges from the Nirvana-soaked grunge of “Pedestrian at Best” to the jangly rock of “Debbie Downer” to the indie pop of “Elevator Operator” to the album’s quiet ballad “Depreston.” It’s the latter that she recently played on Ellen to nearly four million viewers. The song, about a teardown on a cul-de-sac in the suburban town of Preston, deals with as unlikely a topic for a hit as her gardening adventures. The narrator goes house hunting and gets derailed thinking about the deceased previous owner. The final refrain “If you’ve got a spare half a million / You could knock it down and start rebuildin’” is a punch to the gut.

At first listen, the loud guitars and lyrics like “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you / Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you” sound like an adverse reaction to all the attention she’s gotten, but talking to her you get the sense that she’s just thrilled to be where she is, touring the world, no longer working the string of jobs from fast food to bartending. “It was kind of tongue-in-cheek,” she says, “the frustrations of some things that were happening. And much of it could have been in my own head, my expectations and what I thought anyone else was thinking. But a lot of [this album] is very much along the same path as the EPs, very internal and general observations and stories about friends and things I do. Pretty simple stories. Always a kind of quest to find the bigger meaning.”

And as for the amped-up rock? “I think that just came from feeling comfortable within the band. We’ve been touring solidly for two years together. Up until then it had been just different mixtures of friends and whoever was around, and we just got really comfortable playing together. We started fucking around and turning up extra loud and I probably bought some new pedals and stomped on them. Things would get louder and everyone’s energy lifted. I think playing nearly every day for however long in a row on tour, everyone becomes such better musicians. It’s incredible. Everyone learns new things and pushes themselves to learn new things, so we all probably grew in that way as well.”

After our interview, Barnett sings her two quiet hits, “Avant Gardener” and “Depreston” backed only by the strumming of her electric guitar. But when she takes the stage of Stubb’s the next night in front of 1,000 people, she and her two-man rhythm section fill the auditorium. It’s an energetic rock show, and her performance earns her the 2015 Grulke Prize for a Developing Non-US Act.

At this point, accolades like that are no longer unexpected. Her songs are confessional with the kind of details that stick with you long after the music stops. Her writing has an original voice, and no matter where that came from or how she got here, there’s nothing unlikely about the way people have responded.