Post Overdosing Kickstart: a Conversation with Courtney Barnett< < Back to
Courtney Barnett is completing a year-long victory lap in the U.S., arriving tonight to deliver a headline set at the Nelsonville Music Festival.
She is coming off a landmark year marked by a whirlwind of achievements, high profile performances and critical reception that has catapulted this artist to the forefront of the American popular music radar. Nearly four years since she started her own label (Milk Records) and started self-released her music, Barnett has captured the imaginations and hearts of music fans with a blistering sound that draws on American influences as varied as pioneering 60’s underground troubadours The Velvet Underground through to the 90’s grunge era and components of shoegaze and indie rock.
Hailing from Australia, Barnett broke out of a dispassionate response from her fellow citizens, only to storm into America in 2015 to find a welcome reception. That journey essentially began with a tour that saw a live debut at South by Southwest of her latest album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.
Since the release of her second official full-length, Barnett found herself a critical darling in the music press, landing the majority of 2015 “best of” lists, culminating with a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist (which she lost to Megan Trainor). From there she found herself headlining Coachella, and just last week, Barnett performed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, which came on the heels of her electrifying performance on the season finale of Saturday Night Live just a week before.
Rewind back to 2014 and there was a brief time where Barnett existed as an exciting secret, percolating up from the columns of music critics and becoming a frequent topic of conversation amongst music connoisseurs. It was the direct result of exploring a domestic release of her first two EPs (which came as a combined album The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas). One track erupted with a significant amount of traction, the fervent “Avant Gardener,” introducing a simplified and hypnotic rock groove laden with distorted and melodic explorations of a panic attack. The expectations for her follow up were high, and she and her touring band, a fiery trio made up of Bones Sloane on bass and Dave Mudie on drums (her studio lineup also included Dan Luscombe on guitar) delivered with stunning results.
As Barnett enters into a new phase of this tour, she took some time for a conversation with music journalist, lecturer and creative investigator at Ohio University’s School of Media Arts and Studies, Josh Antonuccio.
Josh Antonuccio: First of all, congratulations on the Saturday Night Live performance a few weeks back. How was that experience?
Courtney Barnett: It was amazing because I’m a fan of the show and a lot of the comedians. It’s a fun environment to be in. Everyone’s happy. Technically this current tour started with Saturday Night Live and I’ve tried to start organizing the rest of the tour from there.
JA: I feel like I have read a lot about how the past 14 to 16 months has been a monumental achievement. In fact, one writer described your SNL set as “finishing your job of conquering America.” What’s it felt like for the three of you to be on the inside looking at the reaction here?
CB: It’s great, it’s always nice when people connect with your music not ‘cause they’re told its cool but because they really enjoy it.
JA: I remember watching your set at the Newport Folk Festival last summer with some other well-known artists from the side of the stage and they were gathered there as music fans, rocking out with everyone else and visibly excited and singing along. It was really cool to see.
CB: I’m always stoked that artists I admire like my music; it blows my f—-ing mind.
JA: What have you heard about the Nelsonville Music Festival?
CB: I’ve not heard much about it to this point and looked up the lineup and it looks awesome.
JA: Talk a bit about the recording and production of Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Was it clear to you and the band that you had an album that was going to connect and literally explode in such a massive way?
CB: I didn’t really have expectations. Every day I kind of changed. I loved it one day then I hated the whole album the next day. I would be worried if I was like ‘this album is going to do so well. Everyone’s going to love it!’ That would be a warning sign to me, that maybe it was all going to fall apart. I got to a point where I was really happy and I loved all the songs, so whatever happened just added to the happiness.
JA: It seems like it took a while for your fellow Australians to catch on to your album, even running news stories about how you were blowing up in America. Was that a strange experience?
CB: I’ve been playing music in Australia for so long. When I started touring in America, it was like brand new thing out of nowhere, but in Australia it was like ‘here’s Courtney again, trying to sing her songs.’ So it was a bit of a slower thing. I don’t know how that works. But you can’t tour as much in Australia as well, it’s a bit harder. In America you can be in a new major city every day.
JA: You draw a lot of the attention from fans and critics, but you also have assembled a killer band with Bones and Dave. Talk about their contribution to your sound.
CB: I honestly think they are the best musicians I’ve ever played with. When I started writing these songs I’d be in my room playing all the instruments and recording onto this primitive thing. So when I finished those songs, I showed them to the band and then it was a slow process because I was doing everything at that point. It’s nice now. I can show them a song and they just totally understand the kinds of sounds I want. It all comes together. I love them. I think they’re the greatest.
JA: Also, every time I see you all perform, it just looks like you are having the best time on stage. Lots of smiles all around and not much pretense to be found.
CB: Our job at the moment is to travel around the world playing music. It’s pretty good.
JA: So, had you all been to the states before the start of the tour for this album?
CB: I’d never been. The first time I came to CMJ in 2013. That was the first time I’d been here. I love it. We’ve got to travel around so much and play so many different venues and we’ve been to a couple of the same towns more than like three times now, it’s great. Everyone’s so excited about music and willing to listen to new things and go with you on your musical journey. It’s inspiring.
JA: So as the tour progressed, was there a moment where the three of you stepped back in awe at the rabid fan base you were accumulating?
CB: It’s been a thing that’s gone over time. We kind of have one of those moments every couple of weeks, when it’s like there’s people lined up around the block or when we do a television thing, sometimes it just kicks to another level. There wasn’t one moment where I was like ‘Oh my God I’ve broken America!’, but its just a slow, gradual thing, I think.
JA: It’s been really cool to see that unfolding.
CB: I don’t really understand how the world works. I just hope people turn up to the shows when we get there.
JA: A lot of times people instantly equate your sound to 90’s grunge, but it’s apparent that you are drawing from a much broader base of American music. For instance, your recent cover of “New Speedway Boogie” on the Grateful Dead Tribute album Day of the Dead, which culminated with a performance of it on Fallon recently. Do you feel like people miss those more indirect inspirations in your music?
CB: I think it’s just easy to project those ideas onto musicians. I just know all the different things I love and where I get ideas for sounds from. There’s definitely the grunge thing. In that song “New Speedway Boogie,” it’s the combination of Crazy-Horsey and bands like the Go Be tweens, real twangy pop style. I think it blends all together and people pick up on it.
JA: Have you been working on new songs?
CB: Yes! I’ve been working on songs for the new album. Just doing that this morning, so I’m excited about it. Brand new songs I’ve been writing them by myself, figuring out how they go and stuff, but we won’t be playing them.
JA: What happens for you all after Nelsonville?
CB: We go home in two weeks and then I do a trip in Australia to play some shows in the desert and then to Europe for a few weeks. Then just go home and live for awhile and see if songs come out of living real life, and then go and record them.
JA: Yes, so what does a typical “Courtney Barnett” day look like?
CB: Get up, go out for a walk, procrastinate a lot, maybe read a book, probably write some songs, play some piano, always got some project that I’m working, or a couple. Normally one to take my mind off the main one. Then maybe I’ll just clean the shed to take my mind off everything else and end up at square one again.
Courtney Barnett performs Thursday, June 2 at 10 p.m. on the main stage of the Nelsonville Music Festival.