Interview by Cher Dunn
Courtney Barnett has been living and playing music in Melbourne, Australia for the past five years. This year, she released a wildly acclaimed EP, “A Sea of Split Peas”, toured non-stop in the US and abroad, playing sold out shows and festivals, all while maintaining her label Milk! Records. I caught up with the multi-talented artist and asked her about her start in music, her year so far, Australian artists we should know, and what we can expect for next year.
Wanting to start from the beginning, I first asked Courtney Barnett how she got started playing music and what her early experiences as a music fan were like.
“I grew up in Sydney and then moved to Hobart down in Tasmania.” She continues, “I started playing music when I was 10 in Sydney, and went to my first gigs when I turned 18 in Hobart.” Growing up her early experiences going to shows were a lot like ours, even now. “I started going to heaps of gigs and I’d stand right up the front. I would just get really obsessed with bands and buy all their stuff and try to get their signatures… I really made a connection with certain bands and artists.”
Courtney Barnett’s sound is unlike any other. From her storytelling lyrics to wailing guitar, I needed to know how she found her sound.
“I listened to a lot of different music, you know?” she states matter-of-factly. “So all of the different stuff kind of blended together.” She continued, “When I was a kid we listened to loads of Nirvana, and then I got into bands like the Australian band called Magic Dirt, and PJ Harvey,”. With so many classic musicians as influences, it’s no wonder she is quickly becoming legendary for us, but her influences didn’t stop there. “But then I would listen to my dad’s jazz records and mum’s classical records… and then I started listening to The Beatles,” she states. You can hear in her music that such a vast musical upbringing has helped her to create a sound all of her own.
I recalled finding a video of her on YouTube in the band Immigrant Union. The video was a live acoustic performance with her bandmates Bones and Dave, also in the band. I had to ask about the current band and if she met the them through her time with Immigrant Union.
“Yes I kind of met Bones before that, but yeah pretty much. I joined that band and they were already in it and then we became friends,” she says. Courtney Barnett had been writing her own music and playing solo for five years before she joined the band, and never stopped writing. “I kept my songs pretty separate,” she said. When she finished working with the band she would go home and record her own music. After releasing her EP A Sea of Split Peas, it started getting difficult to juggle both bands, so Courtney left to tour her first EP. Courtney, Bones, and Dave have been touring ever since.
I asked her what her writing process was like, did she set aside time to write? Or did she write as songs came to her? “I normally just do it as it comes or when I have time.” Courtney says then pauses, “I should probably set aside more time to do it!” laughing, she continues, “I haven’t really been able to work like that.”
Courtney Barnett has a lyrical style that is easy to connect with. Her songs really tell a story and build a world of experiences easy to relate to. She told us that most of her songs are from her own experiences, while others are inspired by other outlets. “Most of them are real life. There’s probably a few bits of stuff I’ve heard from friends or just inspired by something else- whether it’s books, music, T.V. or something strange,” she explains.
When we were talking to her, Courtney was in Australia finishing up a nearly sold-out tour, only to come back to the US to headline venues across the country. She has been non-stop after releasing A Sea of Split Peas. I had to ask her about her non-stop year and what she does to recoup between tours and festivals. “Yeah [this year has] been crazy! Crazy good! Yes, very hectic,” she continues “It’s the busiest I’ve ever been in my life.”
Courtney Barnett has not had a lot of time off between all of the touring and festivals she’s been playing this whirlwind of a year. But she let us know what her ideal time off is like. “Just hang out at home, sometimes get out of town go to the beach or the bush or something. Just read books.” Reading isn’t something she does on her time off. She reads many books while touring. “It’s the perfect setting to read, I’m reading that Pussy Riot book. It’s been really cool, good reading that!” she says.
As Courtney Barnett plans for her upcoming US tour, I asked her about what to expect, and a new member she has added to the band. She explains, “Dan’s played with us a bunch in the past and recorded with us. He helped produced the album we just wrote. It’s going to be released next year.” Trying to hold in my excitement on word of a new album, I listened as she continued, “Yeah, he’s great he’s a great guitarist. We’re playing mostly songs off A Sea of Split Peas, and then a couple of new songs we are busting to play. We kind of still haven’t played in some of these venues so we should probably play some of our old songs.” I laugh, as she explains, “Just very different from last time. With Dan playing with us as well, it’s kind of a different sound,”. This news has me even more excited for the tour. Courtney Barnett’s sound as a three piece was already electrifying, adding another guitar is bound to sound massive.
Courtney Barnett has had such a stunning year, from releasing her successful EP to endless touring. I wanted to know if she was documenting her year, through writing, photography or video.
“I document it through writing a fair bit, I try and do lots of photo and video. I think it’s very important to have that documentation. I’ve got a friend that’s actually making a documentary on part of the Melbourne music scene and she’s been following us around as an offshoot to that. So she’s traveled to some of the places with us. So that’s pretty cool capturing that moment in time,” she said.
Fans will have to wait for this insight into Courtney Barnett’s crazy year. She explained that the documentary will probably not be out for a little while, as her friend is still making it.
Barnett started her own record label Milk! Records. Originally, she started it to release her own music, but now the label has grown to include some of her favorite musicians in Melbourne and collaborative projects with her and friends. “It started slowly building into something else,” she continued, “it’s just grown into this awesome community.” She told us of one of her favorite artists, and friend on the label, “I play in Jen Cloher’s band and we made an album and put it out on Milk. It’s our own little project, helping each other out.”.
With so many Australian artists currently making waves, I asked her some of her favorites we might not have heard yet. “Darren Hanlon, The Drones, East Brunswick All Girls Choir, Beaches, Jen Cloher,” Courtney states, just to name a few. Sharing her vast musical knowledge of great music from now and of the past is enough to give everyone an addition to their record collection.
Courtney Barnett really seems to take control of the whole creative process of being in a band, including creating the artwork for her albums and merch sold on tour. I asked if she had a hand in the creation of the music videos from a concept level and if she thinks she will add any of her artwork to her live shows.
“Oh yeah, I wrote about five videos for the new album. We just did one the other week. I did the ‘Avant Gardener’ video as well,” she said. On adding art to her live show, she told us “Maybe! My friend Celeste Potter who’s an artist she did the ‘Anonymous Club’ video. It’s an animation. We’ve been showing some of that on stage which is kind of cool. It adds a different dimension.”
What is she looking forward to most with the upcoming US tour? “It will be fun to come back again and play different venues, slightly bigger venues which will be kind of scary,” she said. For a musician who has such a high-intensity, electric, mesmerizing live show, there is really no need to be scared. If Courtney Barnett doesn’t win you over with her vocals, slaying guitar and energetic interactions with the band, then you may need to have your pulse checked.
Courtney Barnett’s new album is due to be out early next year. Her US headlining tour with San Fermin begins on October 16th in Atlanta, Georgia and will end in Austin, TX with Fun Fun Fun Fest. Check out her tour dates and music below. You do not want to miss her live!
Courtney Barnett (Facebook)
16th OCT – Atlanta, GA @ The Loft
17th OCT – Charlotte, NC @ Visulate Theatre
18th OCT – Washington DC @ Black Cat (SOLD OUT)
19th OCT – Washington DC @ Black Cat
20th OCT – Philly! @ Union Transfer
22nd OCT – NYC @ Webster Hall
23rd OCT – Clifton Park, NY @ Upstate Music Hall
24th OCT – Montreal, QB @ Caberet Mile End
25th OCT – Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace
27th OCT – Chicago, IL @ Metro
28th OCT – Kansas City, MO @ The Riot Room
31st OCT – Seattle, WA @ Neptune
1st NOV – Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom
3rd NOV – San Francisco, CA @ The Filmore
4th NOV – Los Angeles, CA @ El Ray
5th NOV – Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
8th NOV – Austin, TX @ FUN FUN FUN FEST!!!!