Australia’s hardest working slacker-rocker, Courtney Barnett has been finishing a slew of festivals and headlining dates on Antipodean shores since the new year began. Earlier this week on Monday, Jan 11, she also released a new single, “Three Packs A Day” on the heels of festival announcements for Coachella and The Governor’s Ball. In the midst of a barrage of awards and accolades, Barnett remains characteristically unfussy releasing her latest song about ramen. Yes the 2 minute noodles.
Barnett’s Australian dates have been somewhat of a homecoming victory lap. The 28-year-old musician’s album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit featured on the Top 10 best album’s list of just about very major music outlet from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork and NPR. She was nominated for 8 awards and won four at the ARIAs which included a Best Female Act award as well as Triple J’s prestigious J Award for Best Album.
To top it off she was nominated for a Grammy in the Best New Act category. And while news feeds had been flooded with other nominees celebrating with champagne as soon as the nominations were announced last month, Barnett was still yet to celebrate when she spoke in an exclusive interview with Examiner weeks after the news.
On the phone from Australia, we asked if she was going to celebrate her Grammy nomination by writing a song about the anxiety of being nominated or just go get some drinks at her local pub? She replied typically with a chuckle: “Probably not write a song about it…maybe celebrate it with some friends… yeah I don’t know, do something.” Anyone familiar with her work, knows this is ideal fodder for great Barnett tunes.
She is known for her stream-of-consciousness style where the minutiae of the everyday is seemingly seamlessly highlighted to amusing effect. Her lyrics illustrate an inner dialogue that is often going on tangents and exploding as her anxiety reaches fever pitch, though on the surface she may or may not appear calm. For example, her panic attack in “Avant Gardener” lands her in an ambulance while her inertia about whether to go out in “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party” – in reality probably found her at the party as she was unable to express her want to just stay home, in bed.
Fans have been instantly drawn to her not only for her self-deprecating humor and clever turns of phrases but also her visceral garage rock melodies. This she attributes to her love for American ’90s bands like Nirvana and Australian independent favorites such as Paul Kelly and Darren Hanlon. In “History Eraser” from her second EP, she sings “In my dreams/ I wrote the best song/ that I’ve ever written/ can’t remember how it goes,” and sets it to rousing garage rock with mellotron and crunchy guitars.
Known for her slackerdaisical drawl on songs such as “Pedestrian At Best” and “Avant Gardener” she half-shouts words but like the term slacker–rock which it turns out requires a lot of work, Barnett is not masking a less-than-perfect singing voice. She is in possession of a truly lovely voice. Listen to her airing the universal woes of house-hunters from Melbourne to Miami in “Depreston” – it’s gentle, earnest, and sonorous.
Watch her sing, Lou Reed’s “Sunday Morning” with Billy Bragg where the voice, bundle of charm and awkwardness has the same effect as watching a fluffy kitten. It makes you melt. Or if you have kids – at least two, it’s akin to watching the younger one in all their chubby innocence, knowing full well that they will grow up, shed the baby fat and slowly but eventually lose that wide-eye insouciance. You want to bottle it!
Barnett has been on the fast-track to fame since her appearance in the fall of 2013 at CMJ. Five months later she was back Stateside at San Francisco’s Noise Pop and then SXSW quickly turning press and music fans to her refreshing and addictive style. Her Double EP, A Sea of Split Peas sealed her status as a darling among the cognoscenti. By the time she released her full-length last year she was doing coveted TV appearances on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Ellen, not to mention in demand at major festivals everywhere. True to form as her name continues to grow in font size on festival lineups, her ego has not.
So it must make her want to break out in hives when journalists from newspapers such as The Observer herald her as ‘the voice of a generation like Bob Dylan was to the Sixties’? “Yes, I just ignore it. I seem to spend a lot of my time ignoring the world around me especially when it comes to things like that. You can’t pay attention to that stuff.” In fact, she wrote a whole song “Pedestrian At Best” about this notion of one day being the most-hyped act and the next, being yesterday’s out-of-favor flavor. In the chorus her weariness is plain to see “Put me on a pedestal/ I’ll only disappoint you,” and in the video, she illustrates this media circus perfectly as 2013’s clown is pulled apart and discarded when 2014’s clown emerges on the carousel.
Yet for all of Barnett’s endearing tendency to shrug off her success and that peculiarly Australian laid-back trait, the fact she once held truly pedestrian jobs such as pizza delivery driver and barmaid, has meant she does not look a gift horse in the mouth. She relishes eking out her living as a musician and having found success with her own independent label, Milk! Records.
“Three Packs A Day” will be released next month on the label’s new compilation album, Good For You. She runs the label with her girlfriend and partner, Jen Cloher and now several Melbourne artists are also in its ranks including Cloher; Oilver Mestitz’s The Finks; noisy art-punks, Ouch My Face; and singer-songwriter, Fraser A Gorman. All are friends and it can be a pretty fun game to spot them in each other’s videos. “Yes, I pretty much enlist all of my friends to be in my music videos and they do the same. I play guitar in Jen’s bands and her last record I also played on.” And all their profiles will now, no doubt grow as well.
Did she have these ambitions for Milk back in 2012 when she did a short business course to prepare for her new endeavor? “The label grew really naturally. It was nice being able to put out my friends’ albums. Then we had this community of people who loved this music and would come out to the shows. It grew from there. It’s also great that I’m in control of that aspect of my art. Every one does this label stuff in their own way. It is hard work and someone’s got to do it.”
Speaking of hard work, back in the day when she used to be a bartender we wondered what was her favorite drink to make? “I always worked in shitty bars so there were no cocktail menus. You just pour the beers or wines. Anything that was a mix drink was too hard. My preference was just pull a bottle out of the fridge and serve,” she laughed.
The trick of course was finding the right work. And having the guts to try her hand at music for real despite the fact that she did not sing live on a stage till she was 18 and it petrified her. A decade later and she has earned herself a seat at the 58th Annual Grammys come Feb 15. In a climate where major labels still wield considerable power and influence, especially in an institution like The Recording Academy, it is no mean feat that a label started in her Melbourne bedroom, has come thus far.
How does it feel for her to be the only truly independent label among the nominees in this Best New Act category which includes James Bay(Republic/Universal), Elle King (RCA) and Meghan Trainor (Epic/Sony)? Did she think this would happen – her unassuming venture begun with the help of a loan from her grandmother? “No. Not really, to be honest I was not thinking about it at all. There are so many people making music I wouldn’t assume myself to be that high on the list.”
Somebody give this girl the award please!