Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile should have started writing with each other years ago. The pair, two of indie rock’s finest songwriters, have a shared penchant for deadpan humour and wry witticisms – Courtney’s droll observation is riddled through lo-fi guitars while Kurt’s existential bluesy grooves intertwine with American cliche. First starting off as acquaintances (and both deep fans of the other’s work), a combination of creative curiosity and effortless output helmed the spark between the two, leading to their collaborative album, ‘Lotta Sea Lice’.
It’s a dream musical partnership that is obvious, in hindsight; a friendship first founded through mutual admiration, and talent cut from the same cloth. “It’s just one of those things over the years, where we somehow became friends,” says Courtney. “We joked about writing together, and then it happened.” “We were acquaintances and mutual admirers,” adds Kurt. “I was a fan of hers and was so stoked to work with her. The experience caused us to be great buddies.”
‘Over Everything’, the pair’s first single, was first written by Kurt back in 2015 after he imagined singing alongside Courtney. From then, email exchanges with song ideas thrown back and forth between the pair spanned the course of two Australian summers, where Kurt would make visits to a recording studio in Melbourne between tour stops. His hometown of Philadelphia - and the minor logistical issue of Courtney living approximately 16,552 km away in Australia - meant the two couldn’t make their studio visits regular, but in the end, the cross-geographic collaboration ultimately proved an international labour of love.
“I never thought it would be an album!”
The two exchange sardonic life perceptions over folky guitars, the lyrics making it hard for the listener to track down where one stream of consciousness ends and the other begins. The easy-going nature of the two’s spilling of words - where they literally finish each other’s sentences - is reflective of the effortless writing process, too.
“It was real easy,” says Kurt. “We both came with our own choices and songs. With ‘Over Everything’, I had the idea, but I was still writing the lyrics. I had all the lines, but I still didn’t have written them written down when I got there.” The collaboration was initially just limited to that one song, with the goal of releasing just a single split 7-inch. However, after ‘Over Everything’ began taking shape, he knew right away he wanted to make it an EP… at least.
“I never thought it would be an album back then,” admits Kurt. “But at least an EP, so it could be a 12-inch and not get lost.”
The two were incredibly productive in the first sessions, recording a cover of Fat Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’ that didn’t end up making the record. Then, Courtney proposed covering each other’s songs instead.
“She wanted to cover ‘Peeping Tomboy’, so I recorded ‘Out of the Woodwork’ on my own,” continues Kurt. “First it was five songs, and then evolved into more.”
“I think the fact that we didn’t actively plan to make a record together worked,” Courtney adds. “We just planned to make one or two songs. The non-planning helped it.”
“We joked about writing together, and then it happened.”
As mutual admirers of each other’s songs, the swap made sense. Kurt’s act of covering ‘Out of the Woodwork’, she says, was an “inception” of sorts – where a song that she knew so well had taken on a whole new meaning.
“It’s funny hearing a song from a male perspective. ‘Out of the Woodwork’ is about social anxieties. I thought, hearing it from a male perspective, with the ‘she’s easy’ repetition, sounds funny! I’d never noticed it before. It’s supposed to mean ‘she’s so easy to walk all over’ kind of thing.”
“There’s that kind of magic of when you cover a song and you interpret it differently,” she adds. “Even when you listen to music, you always make it suitable to your own life. I find it interesting how that works – so malleable.”
Whereas Kurt tends to start out writing music with lyrics in mind, Courtney does the exact reverse and begins with a melody, fine-tuning the song as it takes shape. “I find it if I don’t have the words it’s hard for me to finish, so it’s best I have the words to sing it on the spot,” continues Kurt. “But Courtney likes to always keep fine-tuning it, from the back, which is awesome. It’s a different version of the same thing. Same results, more or less.”
“The experience caused us to be great buddies.”
The two, Courtney says, worked on songs first individually, before bringing ideas together for more fleshing out. The act of working together to complete a song had the pair calling on the other’s strengths as gifted songwriters in their own right. “Most of the time, we’d be figuring the songs out together,” Courtney says. “it was a slightly surreal process. But it was easy, because I trust him. He was reassuring.
From this, a sense of trust and mutual respect was built that developed from the blossoming friendship. In turn, it made the creative process flow so well. “The trust [in Kurt] as a person and musician was there. They overlap,” she goes on. “The personal side bleeds in. We both get paranoid moments in the studio, thinking everything we do is shit. But the other had to be like, ‘No, it’s great. You’re great.’”
You can hear the influence of Courtney Barnett on Kurt Vile - and vice versa - on ‘Out of the Woodwork’. Whereas the latter is usually more prone to inebriating auras and garage-rock stylings, the record sees him drifting to the concise storytelling so characteristic of Courtney– while the Australian has, in turn, leaned towards the grunge-folk nature of Kurt.
The similarities of the two songwriters both finding beauty in the mundane didn’t go unnoticed. “I love all of his lyrics, and it feels it’s on par with my style,” explains Courtney. “I think he’s got a similar way of phrasing. We’re on the same wavelength. We think slightly the same and just to click. I was a bit scared to get together with him because it’s an intimate process, but it’s come together really well.”
“We’re on the same wavelength.”
By building on the skills of the other, the two had no trouble with laying the foundations of each song down.
“Courtney’s such a strong songwriter and lyricist on her own, I definitely didn’t help her in that way,” Kurt says. “No song was hard to finish. She’s such a great multi- instrumentalist that she even played drums and bass on a few songs.”
The one hiccup that Kurt Vile did have to figure his way around, however, was singing with another accent in mind. Wth his Philly twang, he had to work hard to sing Courtney’s quick and arching “can’t” – while the Australian had to mimic Kurt’s American drawl.
“Because she’s Australian and I’m American, there are certain lines she wrote for me to sing or vice versa,” laughs Kurt. “We would have to change the delivery of pronunciation or slightly change the phrase. We had to sing it in one way or another. So she had to sing the American version of ‘can’t”!”
The two are to embark on a North American tour of their record, backed with an incredible crew that features members of Sleater-Kinney, Warpaint and Kurt’s own Violators. It is a record founded on the most rewarding of partnerships that transcend genre and decade, conceived in the most simplistic and effortless of ways.
“The best part of the experience was actually singing together with Courtney and singing in unison,” Kurt finishes. “It was great.” ‘Lotta Sea Lice’ – about Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile seeking comfort in the everyday, finding solace in the ever-banal and humdrum and creating poetry with the one person who shares your precise vision of the world – is just enough to make you believe in creative soulmates.
Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett’s album ‘Lotta Sea Lice’ is out on 13th October via Marathon Artists/Matador/Milk! Recordings.
Taken from the October 2017 issue of DIY, out now. Subscribe below, or read online here.