Interview Courtney Barnett: ‘I Don’t Like New Things. It’s Scary’

Australia’s fastest rising star Courtney Barnett is further away from home than ever before. But she’s only looking ahead.

On ‘Anonymous Club’, a song from her debut double EP ‘A Sea Of Split Peas’, Courtney Barnett sings about sweet neighbourhood things. “Turn off your phone, man / You’re amongst friends and we don’t need no interruption.” Themes hark back to home, Melbourne. It’s where Courtney and her band first started out, years after the 25-year-old first started playing in local hangouts. Things are very different now. This double EP of hers - it’s still gaining momentum, more chatter by the second. Without dramatically declaring the present day to be crunch time, she’s at something of a crossroads. Blazin’ Squad aren’t invited.

‘A Sea Of Split Peas’, which is being treated by a fair few as her debut, first reared its head in early 2013. Since then it’s gained a two-for-the-price-of-one-type re-release, and it’s about to get another in the States through Mom + Pop. If Courtney felt immune and unattached to the songs by now, it’d be foolish to damn her. But here she is, making her second visit to the UK, playing the same songs containing the same stories. Tales range from ‘Avant Gardener’’s weed pulling gone wrong tragedy to ‘Lance Jr.’’s did-I-just-hear-that line “I masturbated to the songs you wrote.” In person she stops and starts mid-sentence, goes back, returns to her thought, shuffles in her seat a few times. It’s like a car doing a fifteen-point turn. On record, she’s direct and assured, confident and witty. It’s helped make her a minor star.

Before all this, she was releasing music on her own label Milk Records. She admits it’s been a little uneasy - “at first” - to give ownership of these songs to other people. “I don’t like new things. It’s scary,” she says. “[But] I, as Milk Records, would never know how to do anything in London. I mean, you probably could but I’m too lazy.

“We definitely spent a lot of time finding the right match and the right people, people that understood me and the general vibe of what we do. I reckon that’s when it gets weird, when you start working with people going ‘Yeah we’re gonna make Courtney Barnett iPhone covers, is that cool?’”

Home is still a subject she visits more times than anything else in conversation. She’s based in Thornbury, an area just outside of the city hubbub of Melbourne. “We formed a total circle,” she says, when referring to the bunch of friends who’d form bands and swap members and play songs in pubs.

Back in October ‘Yeah we’re gonna make Courtney Barnett iPhone covers, is that cool?’, home couldn’t have felt more distant. She took to her first proper trips abroad (“I’d never travelled before, except to New Zealand for a funeral once. Not really a fun holiday…”) and wound up in New York as one of the city’s most talked about new artists during CMJ. As it happened, her first experience with jet-lag provided the first new material for an album she’s hoping to record in April. I was just lying awake all night for the first three days. I watched the sun come up and I was like ‘This… sucks’. So I wrote a song based on that.”

She’s quick to deny that new material’s going to be centered around the ‘We’re on tour’-type vibe, all empty beer cans and petrol station toilets. Still, her songs are always observational - every one’s a true story, by her claims - so it’ll be difficult to not have the whirlwind past few months documented in full detail.

One aspect that’s shifting is a full-band routine. When recording the two EPs, everything was firmly in place. But being on the road with three blokes (“we’re like brothers”) has had its benefits. “We’ve been touring so much as a band and I just feel so comfortable with those guys now. I’m not scared to show them my quarter-written songs… Any criticism is fine,” she says. “Although they’re way too nice to be mean.”

Clearly looking firmly ahead to the sessions in April - she’s using the same Melbourne space as before, no change there - she doesn’t talk about music in the first person; she’s always keen to bring the band in. Bones Sloane (bass) and Alex Hamilton (drums) make up the line-up. Bones is into punk, Dave’s a Beatles fan and Courtney likes “whatever.” Together they help coin a sharp but not overly savage take on rock’n’roll. “It’s different from three guys who are into punk. Because that’s gonna sound like punk,” Courtney dryly states. “ I always find it interesting when everyone’s own individual personality is stamped on the music. So it’s never me going ‘This is my sound. This is what we need to do. If you’re gonna be in my band, we have to do it like this.’ Because that would be shit.”

Without strictly shaking off the old material and throwing it into a ditch - they’re great songs, for starters - the next step for Courtney Barnett is there to be taken. “I’ve been writing heaps,” she professes in her Aussie twang. And despite admitting that a life spent thousands of miles away from Melbourne is “surreal” and “overwhelming”, she’s just penning songs. “I try not to think about that stuff. No worries.”

Taken from the new, free DIY Weekly, available to read online or to download on iPad now.

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