Courtney Barnett: Gardening at Noon
Courtney Barnett is not a slacker. It’s 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and she’s already heads-down in her home office in Melbourne, Australia. “Got up early, getting lots of stuff done,” she tells me over a Skype connection clear enough to reveal the sniffles of her hay fever.
This industriousness is noteworthy because it runs counter to Barnett’s accepted persona, one that’s undoubtedly influenced by the lyrics on her A Sea of Split Peas double EP. The reception to that release has kept Barnett on the road for the past year (“I never thought we’d get so much traction that we could continue to tour Europe and the US with a band like this”), including her first-ever overseas experiences.
Barnett is just returning from “holiday,” which turns out to be no more than a couple of days’ downtime she tacked onto some New Zealand dates. “I’m not really a holiday person,” she confides. “When I go away I’m just writing anyway, but it’s nice to get away from emails and stuff.” Despite her travels she’s also managed to keep her Milk Records label running. “I can keep it going online with a great team of friends and young people looking to get to know the music industry, just like I did when I was 18 or 19.”
Courtney Barnett’s breakout song from A Sea of Split Peas is “Avant Gardener,” an unassuming ditty that doubles as an ideal summation of her charms. Atop some light psychedelic guitar Barnett unfurls a stream of consciousness tale of a gardening mishap that I’ve read described as both allergic reaction and panic attack. “It was kind of both, actually,” she explains. “I got a creepy rash in the garden, then when I couldn’t breathe I started freaking out. Even the doctors aren’t sure what it was.” The ordeal landed Barnett in the hospital for a night, but within a couple of days she was back at her post as a bartender – a job she only gave up early this year when Split Peas took off.
Another standout track, “History Eraser,” recaps a meandering crush dream with a humorous whimsy (“in the cab ride home I’ll sing you a Triffids song,” her newfound beau promises) that recalls Robyn Hitchcock. Barnett has also drawn comparisons to Eleanor Friedberger for her circuitous narratives but she’s unfamiliar with ’90s indie darling Barbara Manning, whose homespun charm and timeless quality also strikes me as a close cousin.
Though she tours as a quartet Barnett also relishes the challenge of playing solo (which she did earlier this year on a tour of her native country with Billy Bragg), which she calls terrifying in a positive sense. “I get so much more nervous playing solo – with a band you can hide behind the wall of sound, and you feel safer with friends. You feel more naked, emotionally vulnerable. It’s terrifying, but a good thing if you don’t let it mess with your head.”
Also this year she performed a cover to cover solo rendition of INXS’ Kick, a one-time shot for a Don’t Look Back-style concert series staged by a Melbourne record store. Coincidentally that touchstone Australian album was released the year Barnett was born, yet it holds no particular importance in her musical upbringing. “I bought the vinyl a couple years ago- – it wasn’t really part of my growing up. I kind of missed it, I didn’t have anyone showing me what the good music was.” Barnett grew up more into Nirvana – another artist dating to her toddler years – and Jimi Hendrix, courtesy of her father.
When pressed for more contemporary influences Barnett falls largely silent, other than to namedrop countryman guitar troubadour Darren Hanlon, who made a mini-Stateside splash in the late ’90s. “He’s one my biggest musical heroes and we’ve just become friends over the past couple through mutual friends – which was weird because I had been so obsessed with him. He was just staying at my house the last couple days.”
Barnett managed to carve out some recording time with her band in April (“we spent eight days in a studio around the corner from my house morning ’til night, then headed straight out on tour. We were wrecked by the end of it”) for an album that should be out in early 2015. Barnett just completed the cover art during this home spell – it’s her sketchwork that also graces the cover of Split Peas. Technically speaking one might consider the forthcoming release her proper debut album – Split Peas is actually an amalgamation of two EPs recorded about a year apart and combined for overseas consumption. However, Barnett is laying claim to no such milestones. “I don’t know if the new one feels more like an album than those. But some people take a year making an album, so this would be their album.” She offers that the new songs sound “a bit heavier, but the idea is the same – the stuff going on inside my head.”
While working a few of the new songs into their set, Barnett and crew are still touring primarily on the Split Peas tracks. “Most people haven’t seen us before, so it seems crazy to jump to the new material that no one even owns.” Nonetheless, she says these two-year-old tunes have “totally evolved. I didn’t really realize it until I heard some videos or live recordings. They’re louder, grungier, a bit more certain – which I think is kinda cool. When we recorded (the EPs) I had only shown the songs to the band like the day before. That’s what I like about those recordings, that no one really knew what we were doing, you can hear people just figuring it out, which is a nice thing to capture.”
Barnett also really appreciates the diversity of her audience. In the States Barnett seems to have struck a chord with the college radio crowd as well as the Sirius XMU/NPR set, but she reports that the composition is similar in Europe and Australia as well. “I love that it’s not all 25 year old boys. We have the weirdest, most diverse crowd everywhere – young, old, in-between, I see fathers bringing their daughters to the shows.”
So, do these strike you as the unfocused ramblings of a slacker? Barnett shrugs off the characterization. “I don’t feel I’m particularly slack. It’s funny that writers have just gone with that – they all feel the need to label people. People like to create their own idea of who’s singing their songs.“ To be fair, Barnett’s songs carry the air of autobiography and “Are You Looking After Yourself?” is built around a parent’s fitful inquiries to a layabout young adult offspring. But it’s not among her better known tracks, and somehow those same themes have been ascribed to songs like “Avant Gardener.” “It’s funny how people project ideas. I’ve read it called an ‘unemployment blues.’ There’s absolutely no place in that song where I mention being unemployed.” Sure, the song opens with Barnett waking up on a Monday morning with time on her hands, but “don’t people have night jobs?”
If “Are You Looking After Yourself?” was indeed autobiographical, it doesn’t seem Courtney Barnett’s parents have anything to worry about.