Courtney Barnett's Slacker Sound Masks Her Sly Observations on Life

Courtney Barnett just writes the songs, man.
Courtney Barnett just writes the songs, man.
Tajette O'Halloran

Courtney Barnett tends to find her songs in places no one else is looking.

The Melbourne, Australia, singer-songwriter collects subject matter like a curio shop, her words turning the inexplicable or the mundane into fully formed commentaries and poignant observations on some of life's biggest questions.

The plain, the everyday, the too-weird, and the not-weird-enough all find their way from Barnett's notebooks into songs that are too pure, too honest to turn away from.

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"To write interesting songs, you have to kind of inspect things a bit closer than you normally would, look at things people would normally overlook," Barnett says. "Those are the kinds of songs that I find interesting, the ones that have a different tone."

Talking from Chicago a few days after a repeat performance at New York City's CMJ Music Marathon, where she broke out to an U.S. audience a year ago, Barnett reflects on her rapid rise, the newly recorded album she'll release early next year, and the songwriting that's earned her widespread praise from Rolling Stone, NPR, Pitchfork, and many others.

Barnett's style is encapsulated nicely by "Avant Gardener," the single from her second EP, How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose. Drawing Beck comparisons for her "slacker" style, Barnett writes of an anaphylactic asthma attack that strikes when she decides to weed her garden on a sweltering afternoon. It's a simple story that contains so much more than expected: questions of domesticity, career decisions, fate, mortality, and independence, all full of sharply rendered details and quotable lines: "The paramedic thinks I'm clever 'cos I play guitar / I think she's clever 'cos she stops people dying."

It's a combination of humor and tragedy that have propelled Barnett's deadpan delivery and plenty of guitar hooks. And the song gave Barnett far more mileage than she ever anticipated.

"It's exceeded all expectations," she says. "We played CMJ last year, and that was the first time we'd traveled and found people paying some attention to songs, and since then, we've done a ton of stuff."

Now on her fourth U.S. tour, Barnett struggles to explain the strong connection people find with her songs.

"I'm still trying to figure it out. I just write them for myself, and people connect with them in whatever way and interpret them in whatever way they decide to interpret them, and it goes from there," she says. "I try not to push any sort of crazy idea or message, but my general message gets passed."

That message, in summary, is to deal with the world on whatever terms you see fit, but do so honestly. It's essentially the same thing she's found in favorite songwriters - from Patti Smith to Jonathan Richman to PJ Harvey to Australians like Paul Kelly and Darren Hanlon. "I look for the song, not the label or the box that goes with it," she says.

Barnett treats those songwriters as inspirations rather than influences. She says she's never tried to emulate anyone in particular, sticking to the scattershot method she developed when she first tried songwriting.

"I write in bits and pieces," she says. "I'm constantly writing and then every now and then I sit down and try to pull pieces together. It's a weird process."  

Courtney Barnett's Slacker Sound Masks Her Sly Observations on Life
Leslie Kirchhoff

Barnett keeps all her notebooks and scraps with observations, poems, half-sentences, stray thoughts, and whatever strikes her digging into that raw material for songs. Often, lines shuttle in and out of songs until everything seems to fit right.

"I'm constantly changing like that," she says. "That can happen for a whole year. There's no set time for when a song is finished. I change things until I record it, but even after that, it can change.

"Playing live, you always look at things differently. When we're playing the same song, it inevitably ends up a little different. The basic structure of the song is always the same, but it just naturally changes," she says. "I think that happens with every musician. The point of playing music is to have fun, so you improvise and knock around and change things."

Courtney Barnett's Slacker Sound Masks Her Sly Observations on Life
Liam Cameron

Barnett, 26, began playing guitar at age 10, learning "Smoke on the Water" before turning her attention to Nirvana. After a stint at art school (she hand-draws her album covers), Barnett turned her attention to music, playing in a pop cover group as well as a garage band before beginning to record her own demos.

After last year's CMJ performances, where she was named one of NPR's "Favorite Discoveries," Barnett secured a U.S. record deal, collecting her first two EPs on a full-length record, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, released in April on Mom + Pop. She made her American TV debut shortly after on The Tonight Show.

With The Double EP, coming two years after she initially released the first EP, I've Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris, on her own Milk! Records, Barnett was finally able to begin playing with a steady band.

"Up until last year, the band had always been swapping in and out a lot. I played with friends, and we all played in lots of bands. And some people went off to do tours and other people joined. But in the last year, it's been really solid so we've become more of a real band," she says.

Having grown tight with her band -- Dan Luscombe on guitar, Bones Sloane on bass, Dave Mudie on drums -- Barnett headed into the studio earlier this year in Melbourne to begin work on a new record. The collected EPs felt more like practice to her than any sort of cohesive album, so the upcoming record will be what she considers her proper debut.

"Most of the songs were written in the last year. A couple of them are a little older. There's no real general theme. It's life and death and stuff," she says.

The band recorded mostly live in studio -- "It makes a huge difference because we can feel what each other are doing" -- and Barnett is looking at an early 2015 release for the yet-to-be-titled album.

Nothing about having an audience this time around has changed her songwriting, Barnett says, but the songs do incorporate a lot of the new things that have shown up in her life. So many of those scraps and notebook pages now chronicle thoughts that hit in cities across the United States and Europe, thoughts that bubbled up far from home. But that same candor that produced a hit song from a story about an unexpected ambulance ride served once again as Barnett's creative guide.

"I don't think about it, I just write for myself," she says. "I've never really traveled until the last year, so some of the songs I've written take in a lot of that just because that's the stuff I write, what I'm doing, or what I'm seeing."

Courtney Barnett is scheduled to perform Wednesday, November 5, at Crescent Ballroom.

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