Courtney Barnett Told Us How to Stop Writing Terrible Poetry and Land a Record Deal
We talked to the Australian singer about art school and why trying to write good songs just leads to writing bad ones.
When I finally wrangle a time to get the Australian-based singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett on Skype, she won't talk much. Known for her sly, slow-rolling guitar jams that ramble through the subconscious with pun-laden fervor, in conversation Barnett is initially closed off and dry. The New York-based independent label Mom + Pop just signed Courtney in the US, and when I spoke to her recently she was taking a day off between teaching her band new songs and heading into the studio to record them.
Barnett racked up attention in late 2012, when she began releasing EPs on her own label, the simply named Milk! Records. Then, combining her two initial EPs into one full-length release, Barnett earned international accolades last year for the aptly titled The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. During a year that nearly turned a blind eye to indie rock and instead favored electro-pop infusions, Barnett unabashedly rolled right through, bucking trends without even realizing it—or caring, for that matter.
Earlier this week she put out the video for "Anonymous Club," one of the tracks from last year's record. The black and white visuals, presented to look like old-fashioned film, are weird and wild, and they offer a good look into the quirky psyche of a brand new but deeply compelling songwriter. Barnett said her new record should be out late this year. In the meantime, she's touring the US, including a few dates with Phosphorescent. As she opened up, we discussed the way quick comparisons to Bob Dylan and Lou Reed both irk and inspire her, as well as the idea that after enough shitty writing, most of us will finally write something we feel proud of. Her honesty and frankness is refreshing in the realm of the media-trained, and laughing with her about the pun of "Avant Gardener" was especially fun.
Photo by Leslie Kirchhoff
How did you get started doing music, and how did that evolve into making these two EPs and starting your own label?
I started playing music when I was about ten, and then I started playing live shows maybe when I was 19. I was at art school and writing a few little songs on the side, and then I went to a few open mics and started playing shows. Over the years I just kind of wrote songs in my down time and recorded them on my computer at home.
What was your art school like? Did that lead to the initial EPs?
It was awesome. I do photography and a lot of drawing, so I went there for visual art. It was around when I was 18 or 19. It was the University of Tasmania in Hobart. It was kind of like a separate little campus for the fine arts courses. But I moved to Melbourne after Hobart and started off playing acoustic guitar and singing. When I made the first EP I kind of demoed all the songs at home. I’d recorded it multi-track, and I played every instrument and made the songs that way. But then I took it to some friends and showed them and taught them all the parts. And then we recorded the first EP together.
It seems like a lot of female artists are into the electro-pop aesthetic, and I love that you’re doing the garage rock sound right now.
I hadn’t really noticed the electro-pop thing. I think there’s a lot of garage rock definitely around Melbourne. I definitely don’t feel like I’m doing something really different and avant-garde or anything. I kind of don’t keep up with the other music, except for what’s around me, what I see at the pub and stuff. I think things just go through those cycles, and when there’s too much of it people decide they don’t like it at the moment. And then it goes onto the next thing. It’s a weird little cycle, it’s like fashion.
You mentioned avant-garde and that made me think of “Avant Gardener.” That song is why I wanted to listen to your music because I loved the pun so much.
(laughs) I can’t even remember how I came up with it, but I just thought it was so funny. Which, you know, it’s not really that funny. I just thought it was a good title and it was quite representative of the song itself. A bit tongue in cheek. It’s a pretty serious thing but told as a lighthearted kind of story. In my mind the title kind of reflected that.
Do you identify as being avant garde?
No, I don’t really identify with any kind of movement really. I went to art school, and I kind of try to follow a lot of art and read a fair bit about stuff. So those words are flying around, and it’s kind of fun to poke fun at them a bit sometimes.
People compare you to songwriters like Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, what do you think of that?
I don’t really agree with comparisons in general. I think it gets a bit lazy to compare. But you know, sometimes you've got to do it to paint a bit of a picture to explain to someone. I love both of those artists, [and] I wouldn’t want to argue with it if someone wants to compare me to them. But I like those artists a lot, so I don’t want to be compared to them because I respect them so much. Maybe I just think about it too much. Everyone’s got bad songs, even Bob Dylan. Like ones we might not have even heard! I mean the bad thing with them is they're so famous that every single demo is out… You know voice memos on your phone? If I ever got like Bob Dylan famous and someone released all my voice memos as “The Lost Courtney Barnett Demos” I would be fucking mortified. You know how you just like hum something into your phone when you’re asleep? It’s all that shit! You kind of can’t hide from that. You’ve got to write bad songs. You should write ten bad songs for every good song.
I was reading some of your old interviews about writing terrible old poetry, which I can obviously relate to as someone who is trying to be a writer for a living. Where do you think you saw a shift where you started writing things that you liked? Or have you had that?
That’s such a good question! I always think about that. I think it’s when [I wrote] the songs I wrote for the first EP. That was only when I was like 21 or so, so I’d already been playing for a few years performing solo. Just singing those really terrible singer-songwriter songs. Then I kind of stepped back from myself. I don’t know what the change was. I think I just tried to simplify things and stopped trying to write a “good song.” Because that’s what I was always trying to do, trying to write a catchy song and blah blah blah. Then I was just experimenting, like, 'how about you write a song with one chord that doesn’t have a chorus and see if you can make it interesting?' So it was a bit more of an experiment. And that led to finding my own comfortable voice, which led on to this.
You just signed to the US label Mom + Pop. What drew you to them?
I liked the way they talked about music and about art. I do a lot of my own artwork, so that was important. I released both of the EPs in Australia on my own record label Milk! and then, as they started getting more spread around, Marathon picked it up. We signed with Marathon in the UK, and we were looking for people in America, and it took ages. They were just really kind of supportive and open—open to my ideas. It was just a vibe thing more than anything else. I just felt like they were the right people.
Why did you decide to name your own label Milk?
A few people have asked me that, and I think it’s a combination of things. I was joking with friends about how record labels milk you for all you’re worth, and then there’s that Nirvana song “Milk It.” It was pretty much a spur of the moment thing, and then I drew a picture. Before I knew it, that was the record label.
What are your plans for the new record? You’re heading into the studio this weekend?
We’re recording it in Melbourne just around the corner from my house. We’ve worked in there a few times, and it’s a really good environment. We’ve been working on the songs all week, and I showed the band the songs. They’re all pretty new, and we haven’t really played them much. So I’ve written them and half-showed them, so we’ve just kind of been jamming on them all week. It’s a pretty mixed bag of songs that I’ve written over the last year. There’s some real pop songs and some real heavy, heavy songs. It should be out by the end of the year.
You’re touring the U.S. with Phosphorescent for a few of the dates on the North American leg of your tour, do you know them?
I really like their sound but I’m not that familiar. I told a couple of my friends, and they were super impressed. So that made me stoked.
Courtney Barnett's North American Tour Dates:
06-10 Louisville, KY – Headliners Music Hall &
06-11 Nashville, TN – Exit In &
06-12 Athens, GA – Georgia Theatre &
06-14 Brooklyn, NY - Music Hall of Williamsburg (Northside Festival)
06-17 New York, NY - Bowery Ballroom
06-18 Cambridge, MA - The Sinclair
06-19 Dover, DE - Firefly Festival
06-20 Toronto, Ontario - NXNE Festival
06-24 Minneapolis, MN - Varsity Theater
07-01 Denver, CO - Larimer Lounge
07-02 Salt Lake City, UT - Urban Lounge
07-04 Vancouver, British Columbia - Fortune Sound Club
07-05 Seattle, Washington - Neptune *
08-01 Happy Valley, OR - Pickathon Festival
08-01 Montreal, Quebec - Osheaga Festival Musique Et Arts
08-02 Chicago, IL - Lollapalooza
08-08 San Francisco, CA - Outside Lands Festival
& = with Phosphorescent
* = with Sharon Van Etten
Caitlin is an avant gardener. She's on Twitter - @harmonicait