Courtney Barnett. Learn it now because it’s soon to become a household name. In the space of a couple of years, the Melbourne alt-country rocker has gone from penning lyrics and doodling sketches in a journal, to sharing said words and images to audiences worldwide. She’s made music out of suburban banalities and mindless procrastination, and it’s never sounded so compelling before. Her debut American tour in February sold out shows left right and centre with another run in the States around Coachella Festival. With a shaky phone line, Courtney talks to Jake Wilton from a wide, dusty field in Perth about her recent shows with Billy Bragg and her passion for drawing and designing her album covers.
“I really respect [Billy Bragg’s] songwriting, I love his music, I respect his ideas and just really admire him as a musician. He’s not someone I’ve listened to a lot growing up, but in the last few years, I’ve cottoned on.”
Speaking to me all the way from Perth, where Courtney is set to play her first headline shows in the region as a band, “It’s pretty f**king far away from Melbourne,” she tells me about her recent time in the US. Taking her band along for the ride, the very aptly titled Courtney Barnett & the Courtney Barnetts, she rarely thought that her charming songs about Twisties and canned tomatoes would appeal so well to that market.
“It’s uh, been crazy! Our first time overseas as a band and to sell out all of these shows in America and London – it’s something I never thought would happen. It’s insane. [The audiences] were very vocal about their appreciation. Sometimes you get crowds that stand there and nod their heads; you can’t tell if they’re interested at all. Sometimes people don’t do anything and you don’t know what they’re thinking. But the Americans were really vocal; bopping and dancing around and singing along, coming up afterwards and tell us that they loved it. That was pretty cool.”
“I haven’t technically released anything [overseas] but everyone has got the double EP on iTunes or the Internet. The actual release, the hard release of the vinyl, is set for April but the majority of people hear everything anyway – that’s the beauty of the Internet, I guess.”
Having possession of the vinyl edition of Courtney’s double EP release myself, The Double EP: A Sea of Slip Peas, which combines her debut release in 2012 called I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Farris and the eponymously quirky How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose from last year, it’s the hand drawn artwork that gives the physical record its magnetic personality. The intensely DIY cover and inner sleeves of the vinyl are adorned with doodle-like sketches that raise more questions than they answer about the double EP’s lyrical content and Courtney’s idiosyncratic persona itself.
“The front cover is an appropriation of that really famous Japanese screen print. I guess it’s an outlet in its own way. I keep a journal with all the little pictures and sketches in there as much as I keep all my lyrics.”
“Pictures are almost one-liners, for me – you know Leunig, the cartoonist, I love him! I could never do what he does, but if I had someone to aspire to in my ideas of the artwork, it would be him. He has those clever, witty one-liners within a picture, which I think is so hard to do, as well as keeping it so simple.”
Courtney’s music may have that Australian stamp of approval, with clear-cut influences of the Go-Betweens, Neil Young and Dick Diver, but it’s the universal language of her lyrics that speak to demographics worldwide. She writes of heartbreak and growing up, but also dives into her naïve, yet wonderfully edgy side and writes about a hypochondriac gardener who’s also heavily under the influence, “My throat feels like a funnel / With weet-bix and kerosene.”
“I spend a lot time refining the lyrics because they’re as much about the idea of that particular story. The melody, or the music side of it, I don’t spend as much time on it; I wait until it comes naturally. You can work on lyrics and play around with them by mucking around with syllables and stretching out sentences, but I don’t really know how to do that music-wise; so I wait until a melody is right. Sometimes I sing words over and over, like a chord progression, until a melody appears, which is probably not the best way to do it but I really don’t know how else to write melodies or music. I don’t really know how to properly do that side of it. Both are as equally as important to me.”
Wrapping up the conversation due to a gradually malfunctioning phone line, we head the discussion towards our recent great, inspirational reads. While I mention mine to be a re-read of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Courtney tells me of a book she’s just reached the tail end of that concerns an Australian musician very dear to her heart.
“The last book I finished was Paul Kelly’s book How to Make Gravy, which was amazing. I read a Go-Betweens book at the same time which was a sort of biography of the band. [Musician biographies] can be a bit risky because they can be a bit too self-indulgent or they can just be boring or poorly written.”