Singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett lets her lyrics do the talking
In the hours before her recent art exhibition and music performance in downtown Los Angeles, Australian singer and illustrator Courtney Barnett stood uncomfortably by her black-and-white drawings of chairs. Loungers, dining chairs, office chairs, fold-outs: More than a dozen works by Barnett hung on the walls of the Dilettante gallery and concert space.
“This one’s a chair in my house that no one wants to sit on,” said Barnett, 27, pointing to the illustration titled “Strange Wooden Chair That Nobody Sits On.”
Then someone mentioned her musical performance the previous day on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Barnett shrugged, saying it was garbage, “not what I hoped it would be.” Clearly, it was much easier talking about chairs.
But avoiding conversations about her work and in particular her music is no longer a choice for the Melbourne-based artist.
Lyrical free-association. Stream-of-conscious rambling. An artful word salad. Call it what you will, but Barnett’s spill-it-all approach to songwriting has made her first full-length record (out this week) one of the most anticipated indie albums of the year.
An avalanche of raw internal dialogue, hook-heavy garage rock and Barnett’s own deadpan delivery are at the heart of “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.” In Barnett’s hands, self-deprecation and crippling insecurity become charming attributes, and the mundane (cracks in the wall, breathing) funny if not fascinating.
Her debut is easily one of the best albums of the year and certainly the most exciting thing to happen to indie rock since passive earnestness replaced guarded cynicism more than a decade ago.
Yet despite her lyrical facility, finding the right words — or any words, for that matter — appeared to be Barnett’s biggest obstacle in an interview that preceded her L.A. show last week.
She answered questions with long pauses, awkward intense stares and lots of fidgeting. As she looked to the ceiling for answers, her messy brown hair parted to reveal a cluster-of-stars tattoo on her neck, just under her right ear.
“Sorry,” she finally said, making direct eye contact. “I’m not very good at talking.”
Barnett says most people don’t believe she’s shy given the notebook-emptying nature of her music, but she swears she is. “I don’t write my songs with the idea of connecting to other people, but I’m glad that’s happened,” she said.
Judging from her music, conversation flows best in the safety of Barnett’s own head space. Take her recent single, “Pedestrian at Best,” where she sings/speaks her thoughts, no punctuation required: “I want to wash out my head with turpentine cyanide I dislike this internal diatribe when I try to catch your eye I hate seeing you crying in the kitchen I don’t know why it makes me like this when you’re not even mine to consider erroneous harmonious I’m hardly sanctimonious dirty clothes I suppose we all outgrow ourselves I’m a fake I’m a phony I’m awake I’m alone I’m homely I’m a Scorpio.”
Barnett grew up in Sydney, the product of a former ballerina mother and graphic designer father. She started playing guitar and singing as a child. “I always had the music idea in my head but was taught from a young age it’s a very unrealistic career,” she said. “But I wanted to do it, so I set out not to achieve anything.”
She studied at the Tasmanian School of Art and continued to play music, putting out an EP in 2012 with money she borrowed from her grandma. Barnett released it on her own label, Milk! Records, then word of her unique sound began to spread. Last year’s “Avant Gardener,” from her “The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas,” was the record that helped break Barnett beyond Australia.
In the five-minute track, Barnett rambles about the guilt of lazing away in bed all day, and forces herself to be productive. She commits to gardening, only to end up having a severe asthma attack. It’s all documented in painfully funny detail. “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ‘cause I play guitar,” she sings. “I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying.”
“Yeah, it’s a true story,” said Barnett, almost smiling. “I wrote it a few weeks after that happened. By the time I finished that song I was really proud of it but didn’t think it’d be a hit single. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I know this won’t be a hit single.”
Barnett has since performed the aforementioned “Ellen” show, the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and she’ll soon embark on a full U.S. tour that will hit L.A. in May.
“I know a million great musicians, but the amount of them that get success they deserve is very minimal,” she said of all the recent interest around her. “It’s one of those things, no one knows how it works. I’m not the right person to ask about that sort of thing. Really, I don’t even know half the time what’s going on.”
Outside the downtown performance space, Barnett ran into a prototypical L.A. hipster who said he had met her before. It was at a video shoot. Does she remember? Before Barnett had a chance to answer, he power-talked about the many projects he was working on. She nodded. He talked some more about himself. She nodded some more.
Somewhere under Barnett’s quiet exterior, there probably was a lively conversation going on. Perhaps we’ll be privy to it on her next record.
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