It was only a few days after appearing on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon that I had the opportunity to speak to Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett.
The Melbourne-based musician’s profile has been ascending rapidly since her spring 2013 debut album, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. (The aptly titled album was essentially her first 2012 EP, I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris, and her 2013 EP, How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose, merged into one striking compilation). Sea of Split Peas received rave reviews from notable outlets like Rolling Stone magazine and The New York Times. Her deadpan style and droll lyrical honesty quickly drew comparisons to the likes of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed.
TWM: Congratulations on your Tonight Show appearance?
CB: Thank you!
TWM: Is that a stage you ever imagined yourself on? Did that come as a surprise to you?
CB: Yeah, huge surprise. Totally. Totally. Yeah, it’s not somewhere I thought I would be going, that’s for sure.
TWM: And how was the experience?
CB: It was really surreal [laughs]. It was good though. It was just different. I guess it’s kind of fun doing things like that, [things] that are so different, because it kind of makes you think about what you’re doing in a different way.
TWM: You’ll also be here, at NXNE. Have you been to Toronto before?
TWM: Never? This is great!
CB: Yeah. I’m very excited.
TWM: That’s cool. What do Australians imagine Toronto to be like?
CB: I don’t know. I’ve met a few people who have either worked there for a while, or a few who have lived there for a while, and they draw a few comparisons with Melbourne. But I don’t even know. Lots of people just draw comparisons if they’ve kind of ended up in the same kind of area in each town they go [to], I guess. But I’ve got no expectations, so I’m very excited.
TWM: Yeah, we’re excited to see you. So let’s get into your music. You’ve been compared to such great artists and I know you hear this all the time–Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Kurt Cobain. Have you been surprised by any of these comparisons? Are there any artists that come up that you go, “Wow! Where did that come from?”
CB: No, not really. No one’s kind of compared me to a kind of techno musician or something [laughs]. It’s all kind of guitary, singer-songwritery stuff — I guess it makes sense. But, you know, it’s always pretty crazy for people to say…to draw comparisons between those [artists]—those people are religions to me.
TWM: Were those artists an influence on you?
CB: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. But I’ve got a broad range of influences, between musical or lyrical or just general, like, moral [laughs]. Most of the time I make connections with artists or musicians just who I agree with–I like the way they look at the world and approach their art and stuff. Maybe not so much that I love their work but I love the way that they approach what they do. I try to pick up all those different things from lots of different people.
TWM: Besides musicians, are there writers that have influenced your lyrics and your style?
CB: I read so much as a kid and in the last few years I’ve really slacked off my reading. But as a kid I read every single Roald Dahl book. I was obsessed with them. And then I read all of his short stories as well. He’s one person who I really love, even though they’re kids stories. But I’ve read them in the last few years because I just think they’re genius. I think they’re perfect.
TWM: Do you have a favourite story of his?
CB: That’s so weird, we were actually talking about this last night at dinner — I said George’s Marvellous Medicine, one of the kids stories. And there’s adult short stories — I can’t even remember the titles of those ones. But, yeah, George’s Marvellous Medicine was the best. It’s just, like, they’re so dark. They were fucked up stories [laughs]. I love that they’re kids stories because they’re messed up.
TWM: It’s surprising when you look back and realize how many kids stories are messed up.
TWM: I read a Brooklyn Vegan quote about you that said, “What sets her apart is she’s got a sense of songwriting that hearkens back to the creative burst of the late ’60s.” Was the ‘60s a conscious influence on your music? Or something that just happened to filter through?
CB: No. I’m so daft about my music history, I can’t even really remember what bands are from what period. I don’t think it really matters. I like so many different bands from different times and different styles. I think, maybe lots of people do hear those elements in it because that’s the part of music history they like the most, and maybe that’s the part they pick up on. It [my influences] kind of travels all over, I think.
TWM: If you could pick any musician or band, from any era, to do a rendition of one of your songs, which artist would you love to hear do it?
CB:Wow, that’s a good question. Maybe, I don’t know, Patti Smith or something. Yeah.
TWM: Good choice. That would sound cool. Any song in particular?
CB: Nah, she could pick her own songs [laughs].
TWM: Is songwriting a constant for you or do you go through hibernation periods?
CB: I’m constantly making notes and jotting down things and then if I see a note that I can elaborate on, I write until I can’t write anymore and then I move on to another one, and then come back to it. It’s kind of all over the place. It’s a real messy process.
TWM: When do you know a song is done and you’re ready to go with it?
CB: I guess when I’m not ashamed to show it to someone. I think I know a lot of the time — if I’m singing it to someone and they’re like a close friend or a band member or something, and I’m embarrassed to sing a line or I think it’s a bit of a stupid line or something, then I know that I wouldn’t want anyone else in the world to hear it. I dwell on single words and single lines a lot because I like everything to make perfect sense to me.
TWM: Well, that makes the best writing, when you dwell a bit.
CB: [Laughs] Yeah.
TWM: When you created your independent record label Milk! Records, was it your intention to simply put out your own records or work with other artists as well?
CB: I started it just thinking I’d put out my own stuff, and then as time went on I started putting out friends’ music just because they were kind of in the same situation as me. We’d just play around. We’d put on our own shows, play in each other’s bands and no one really knew what—not that we didn’t have the drive to kind of try and do something, I think we kind of didn’t know what to do. And we were happy, you know, making art for the hell of it and sharing it with a small bunch of people. And then we figured that we might as well combine all of our heads together and maybe we’d become a bit stronger, and it has. It’s been really interesting watching it develop into a bigger kind of community driven thing.
TWM: Many artists put out their own music but its great seeing an artist created label that’s growing and bringing other voices out, especially as your star is rising, it brings a lot more attention to artists and bands that may not get that exposure.
TWM: So you’re currently working on your new album? Or have you completed it?
CB: Yeah, we finished it just before we left Australia a few weeks ago. And, yeah, we’re just doing all the other stuff that goes with it now, like art work, and deciding on song titles, and thinking about videos.
TWM: Does it differ much from your first album? Are there things from the first that you learned from and made sure to incorporate on this one?
CB: Definitely. Some of those songs are over 2 years old, so I’ve definitely learned a lot in that amount of time, and grown a little bit as a person, hopefully, and as a songwriter. They’re still observational everyday things, so it’s pretty similar in a way, I guess. Except that the views, the ways that I look at them is slightly different.
TWM: Do you feel any pressure about coming out with this new album and the expectations that others may have around it? Because when you came out with your first EP’s you were unknown and that has really changed.
CB: Yeah, a little bit. I’d kind of be lying if I said otherwise. But, I don’t know, I try not to care about it [laughs]. It doesn’t really matter. I’m still doing it for the same reason that I started writing songs, it’s for my own, you know, sake. As long as I remember that and I don’t try to please anyone or change anything, I think people will respond to that. They’ll see right through it if you try to change or alter the way you do things to suit other people.
TWM: Yeah, that’s really true. Will your artwork be on it as well [Barnett’s artwork illustrates her first album]?
CB: Yeah, I think so.
CB: I’ve been drawing a lot. I’m trying to think of ideas.
TWM: And will we hear new material at your show?
CB: Yes. Definitely.
TWM: Ok. Cool. So one last question. You’re doing so much touring, when you’re on the road, going from festival to festival, what is in your road survival kit? Actual items and/or traits you’ve utilized to make travelling and performing run more smoothly?
CB: Well, I try and eat really well. At the start of this tour I was sick for quite a while. I took a million vitamins and stuff like that, whether they work or not I don’t really know but they certainly make me feel better about myself. I try and sleep properly even though it’s kind of hard to do. I keep a journal so that I remember everything I do. Sometimes it’s crazy–it’s like, “What did you do in Birmingham, UK?” And you just can’t remember what the show was or where it was. I just write the smallest notes [to myself] and then when I read them I remember—it helps. I’ve got a really bad memory.
TWM: So do I.
CB: Yeah, that’s it. And I always have a book in my bag to read if I ever find myself with down time, which always comes when you’re not expecting it.
TWM: Well, it was great talking to you. I look forward to your show.
CB: Yeah, I can’t wait! See you there.