Courtney Barnett On Patti Smith, Politics, And Everything In Between

Photo by Xavi Torrent/WireImage
Courtney Barnett and I meet in the restaurant of the Ace Hotel in London on a Saturday morning, surrounded by people starting the weekend with oversized, boozy brunches. Dressed in the rock star standard of white t-shirt and black jeans to complement a majestic mullet and the Wayfarers by her side, Barnett is all for a more low key vibe. She has guitar players’ nails - a sliver of chipped nail polish at the end of each silver ring-clad finger - and a warm face which occasionally reveals a hint of anxiety when talking about herself. This is fitting, of course, given the kind of music the Sydney-born, Melbourne-based singer makes.
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When Barnett first began attracting attention back in 2013 with two new EPs, the word that people kept using to describe her was ‘mundane’. Not in a pejorative way, either - rather, her music is all about tapping into the doubts and fears that define Gen Y, via everyday tales. A case in point is breakout single "Avant Gardener", which was about an anxiety-induced panic attack and melds the folkish swell of a Bob Dylan song with the scuzzy chords of Nirvana and a dash of millennial nonchalance.
Of course, that’s not the only thing Barnett’s known for. Her debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, released in 2015, marked her out as a poet as much as a singer, and one unafraid to plunder psychedelia, '90s grunge and more. Last year’s follow-up, Tell Me How You Really Feel, was a more pithy, introspective deal, told from the perspective of someone whose “friends treat you like a stranger and strangers treat you like their best friend”.
Indeed, her life now revolves around jetting across the world most months - she’s in London to play All Points East festival for a second year running, before hitting the European festival circuit. Before that she was in Athens and also Japan at some point, though she can’t quite remember if it was this year or the end of 2018. Occasionally, though, there’s time to stop and smell the roses. Her eyes widen as she tells me about a trip to Barcelona, taking in the architecture and eating Spanish food. “I rest a lot, try and eat nice and rest and not be too crazy,” Barnett explains. “I kinda had a day off yesterday. It was my bass player Bones’ birthday, so we went to Abbey Road to have a look which was fun, it was busy on the crossing [as they imitated the Beatles’ album cover], there was lots of honking”. She’s been reading, too, not novels, though as “I don't really have the greatest attention span for them … I brought a handful of different books with me like [queer US writer] Eileen Myles’ poetry and I got this book of essays from Zadie Smith, Feel Free - she’s so great but it’s short enough”.
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It’s clear that life is a little manic, especially for someone who has previously described themselves as a “loner personality” who isn’t fully comfortable writing about her own life. Besides her own music, Barnett also runs Melbourne-based record label Milk!, and made an acclaimed album, Lotta Sea Lice, with US slack rocker Kurt Vile. Working with Vile, at least, sounds like a ball. The pair were already friends, and got pals Stella Mozgawa [from Warpaint] and two members of Australian outfit Dirty Three, Mick and Jim, to come and jam with them despite having not heard the songs before they arrived at the studio.
“I don’t think I could make music with someone I didn’t already have that bond with,” says Barnett. “It’s like my band, we’re like a family”. And, as for Milk!, she’s on more of a peer level with her acts than anything else, checking in with them “like a friend” and helping out with the creative side of the label. She likes nothing more than working in the warehouse surrounded by merch and records. On a related note, she took a group of younger female musicians including Julien Baker and Jay Som on tour with her to the US last year, and is at pains to make them feel like part of the family. "On the first day of a tour we’ll all have dinner together and chat,” says Barnett. “I know what it’s like to go on the road with a bigger act and not even meet them.’ Surely this didn’t happen with her idol, punk poet Patti Smith, who she supported and subsequently became friends with. “No, that was amazing, she was so real”. Going against the sentiment of her most famous lyric, “put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”, Barnett adds that “I don’t like putting anyone up on a pedestal but she’s incredible”.
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Despite all of this success, it seems there is more than a kernel of self-doubt at Barnett’s core. “I tried not to Google the review for my last album that much, but sometimes I’m waiting for someone to come along and tell me what the songs mean because I’m too close to them - you need someone more removed,” she says. “Then I read it and I’m like ah, that’s what that meant”. Sometimes, though this anxiety gets worked out directly in her music; on the Margaret Atwood-quoting "Nameless, Faceless", she taps into misogyny (“men are scared that women will laugh at them/women are scared that men will kill them”) while also taking aim at an internet troll (“he said ‘I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you’/but you didn't”). She says she’ll likely be “nervous but excited” performing later that day. “It’s been a year since I was last at that festival so I think I’ll be emotional thinking about everything that’s happened since,” she adds. We don’t dwell on the ‘everything’, though she’s split from her longterm girlfriend, a fellow musician who made appearances on her music, and vice versa.
More generally, Barnett feels an anxiety around the paradox of musicians’ political involvement. She admits she’s only just caught up with the situation back at home, where conservative Scott Morrison has been elected as Australian prime minister, but adds that “it’s not good”. Her cover of INXS’s "Never Tear Us Apart" on an iPhone advert featuring gay couples was subject to homophobic abuse, with the clip later removed from YouTube. And, yet, on the other hand, she knows that “often if you say nothing, you look apathetic, though it’s not that you’re saying nothing, it’s that there’s too many issues to choose from”. But, sometimes it’s worth giving it a go. “Like with Bruce Springsteen, he spoke out against the toilet ban for transgender kids [in North Carolina] … maybe 90% of people who listened to his music went and burnt their CDs, but the other 10% might have thought about what he was saying.”
On stage a few hours later at All Points East, her eyes whirr and a half-smile spreads over her face as she plays her latest single "Everybody Here Hates You", which begins with the lyrics “I feel stupid, I feel useless, I feel insane”, but gives way to a sense of solidarity: “We're gonna tell everyone, tell everyone/ we're gonna tell everyone it's okay”. It’s the essence of Barnett’s music, and herself: even when the going gets tough, and she’s not sure whether she’s getting everything quite right, she’s the friend holding you up through both the mundane and the extraordinary.
Catch Courtney Barnett at End of the Road Festival and Manchester Psych Festival, both in August.
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