Coming “Out of the Woodwork”: Courtney Barnett on vulnerability, self-sustainability and returning to PDX

Courtney Barnett plays the Panhandle Stage at Outside Lands 2014.

One year ago, a friend sent me a link to Courtney Barnett’s song “Avant Gardener.” Two months ago, I saw Barnett perform live at the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco. Two weeks ago, I sat down with Barnett over Skype to talk about her upcoming American tour, vulnerability in music, and living as a self-sustaining artist.

By Kaiya Gordon /// Features Editor

Over the past few years, Barnett has skyrocketed to fame, releasing The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas first in Australia and then world-wide, and performing at intimate venues and sprawling festivals alike. She’s young, but savvy––along with her prowess with a guitar and songwriter’s pen, Barnett runs her own Australian label, Milk Records. Her lyrics, which are confessional, strange and often satirical, have been met with international acclaim. 

Barnett’s Double EP was my favorite release of 2013 (or 2014, depending on whether you’re considering the Australian or American release). Now, I’m anticipating her next moves, waiting, like so many other fans, for the impending second album, which Barnett has written, begun recording, but not yet released. What she’s released recently makes me anticipate another album all the more––February 2014’s “Pickles From the Jar” is silly, but the instrumentals really move; “Depreston,” which Barnett has played live at several shows on her international tour, is honest and somber, with soaring vocals and a guitar riff that makes my throat swell every time I listen to it.

Barnett’s person, like her writing, is humble and subtly genius. She makes much out of small interactions, finding the real and the emotional in stories from her friends’ lives as well as her own. Barnett’s got a genuine voice––one that takes music, writing, intimacy, and communication seriously––and an urge to share her creative vision. 

Check out Courtney Barnett at the Wonder Ballroom with San Fermin on November 1. She’s the real deal, and you won’t want to miss it.

The Pioneer Log: How is the Australian tour going?

Courtney Barnett: It’s really great, actually, it’s really nice to be touring here. I feel like we haven’t played here for ages. 

PL: When was the first time that you played in Australia? How old were you?

CB: I think I did my first life, acoustic solo gig when I was like 18. But then I started touring around the country when I was in my early twenties, 22 maybe. 

PL: So has [touring] been kind of non-stop since then?

CB: Yeah, kind of. Because I’ve played in a couple of different bands. So, you know, I was always getting in the car with someone, at some point, and like, driving to Sydney, or driving to Adelaide, playing shows. 

PL: I have a few questions about your new music, if that’s okay. Can you first tell me about writing “Depreston?” 

CB: I wrote it when I was house-hunting, and it was, you know, as house-hunting can be, just really a downer, going around to all these places and just absolutely having no luck and never having enough money. And I remember going to this one house, and the real estate person always talks it up, and does their bullshit, and I just had this moment of looking around this little house, like out in the suburbs, and I started looking at the stuff there instead of what was presented. And their old records were there, and it was like obviously some old grandma’s house. Some of the photos were still on the walls, and crocheted little thingies––and I got really sad. So, [“Depreston is] basically just about that. 

PL: Was it the objects that made you sad? Or them being there, the remnants of them? 

CB: Well, I guess both, but they were representative of the fact that this old lady had lived there, and then passed away, and now they’re selling her house, while all her stuff was still in the house. 

PL: There’s a video of “Depreston” that I particularly love, which is the one by Pitchfork, at Nos Primavera Sound. Can you tell me a little bit about that day, or playing Primavera Sound? 

CB: Yeah, I loved Primavera, I thought that it was amazing. But yeah, that video was just like, we went to someone’s house, that had a balcony, and we just filmed. There’s no story behind it, we were just filming, they just wanted to film something. And we just kind of walked around town, and I was just checking out the area, and it was really beautiful. And yeah, I think they filmed it really cool. The sound’s great. 

PL: Your new [upcoming] album includes other people’s stories, as well as your own. How do you go about collecting stories from other people? What is that process like?

CB: Well I guess everyone collects stories from other people. It’s like when you talk to your friends and you hear their stories and you might retell someone else’s story at a dinner party or whatever. It’s kind of like that. I like just picking up stuff that people do, and then retelling it. And then it’s interesting because when you retell it, to give it authenticity and to give it emotion you kind of have to inject part of your own emotion into it anyway. So even though it’s someone else’s story, it kind of becomes your own story because you have to personify––or you have to inject something of yourself into it. It’s an interesting process, it’s different. 

I like just picking up stuff that people do, and then retelling it. And then it’s interesting because when you retell it, to give it authenticity and to give it emotion you kind of have to inject part of your own emotion into it anyway.

PL: So do you feel more emotional closeness with people after you kind of take on that mode of storyteller?

CB: Yeah, I guess so, in a weird way. It’s a weird concept, I guess. 

PL: Is that a kind of a communication then?

CB: Yeah, well I think that songwriting is a very strong form of communication. And most of the personal songs that I write about myself are my way of communicating with people, with other people, people I’m close to. 

PL: Is there a story that you’ve started retelling for the new album that you particularly like?

CB: Um, yeah I like all of them [laughs]. I mean, I guess they’re all pretty different, but, yeah I like a lot of them. I don’t want to––I don’t know, I don’t want to give anything away. 

PL: It’s okay if you want to keep them a secret, too. 

CB: [laughs]

PL: You’ve also said that you want to challenge yourself when you write. How has challenging yourself changed since you’ve started playing, and also changed since you started putting music out as yourself, as Courtney Barnett and the Courtney Barnetts? Has it been a process? Can you see a huge difference?

CB: Yeah, I mean I just think to when––even after I started playing, everything is a challenge. Like I was really shy, and even getting up on stage and playing was enough of a challenge. And then, when I joined other bands, I played all kinds of different styles of music, which I knew nothing about, and that’s a challenge. Even being in a band, with different people, and I was friends with some of them but some of them I didn’t know, on a sociable level, that’s a challenge for me because I hate meeting new people, I get really nervous. Playing music can be such a vulnerable process, like making mistakes, and fearing that you’re not good enough, and all that kind of stuff. I mean, that’s a huge challenge in itself. So then, on a songwriting level, [challenging myself is] just trying different things and trying things you wouldn’t normally do, and staying outside the box a bit, like just really pushing yourself to do different things. Then, in doing that, sometimes you discover something different about yourself, or about someone else, or about a different situation––sometimes, you know, you just think it sounds shit [laughs], and you move on.

So then, on a songwriting level, [challenging myself is] just trying different things and trying things you wouldn’t normally do, and staying outside the box a bit, like just really pushing yourself to do different things.

PL: Is vulnerability something that you think about when you think about what makes a compelling story––is there always a vulnerable aspect, or is that just something that happens?

CB: I think it just happens. I think that if you think about it too much, then you try and force something. But I think vulnerability is mostly just honesty. I try to write as honestly as I can, without holding back too much. But I guess if you try to force it, then it just becomes––I think you can kind of see through that sometimes. 

But I think vulnerability is mostly just honesty. I try to write as honestly as I can, without holding back too much.

PL: So what does honesty look like when you’re doing a show?

CB: I don’t know, I mean, all I know from performing is what goes on in my own head. And it’s different every night. And I mean, the other night I played a gig that was like,  was basically crippled with the vulnerability that we were talking about. I guess it’s different all the time, but it was just going through my head and and I was like I can’t believe that all these people are here to watch me, why are they here? I just started really hating myself onstage. And sometimes that happens, I don’t know why, it’s just like, you really doubt yourself, and singing all these songs which––I’m proud of them, and I’m glad I’ve written them, but––I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say, but that’s me being honest in that situation. But then thinking that maybe, everyone hates it. So honesty is kind of both ends of the stick. 

PL: How does having a touring band fit into that, then? Do you feel support from them? Or does it not really affect your interior mindset when you’re playing?

CB: I mean, they’re so supportive of me, and they’re like my best friends, but I guess in a situation like that it’s hard to express, onstage, what’s going on. I mean, sometimes you can tell when people are having a shit time or if they’re having a shit gig, but sometimes you can’t really tell. And that’s the thing––I came off stage, the other night, after having a terrible gig inside my head, and the guys in the band were like, that was the best gig we’ve ever done! So, you never know what’s gonna happen.

PL: What’s your favorite gig in recent memory?

CB: Um…oh god. I mean, the gig we did the next day after that was amazing [laughs]. But yeah, I’ve done––I don’t know, basically the last year has just been full of really incredible, incredible gigs and festivals and big festivals and stuff, so it’s all pretty amazing. 

PL: You spoke a bit earlier about the different bands that you’ve been in, and your relationship to other artists. What is your relationship like with the other artists on your record label?

CB: On the label? They’re basically all just friends. Like, it’s not really a label, label, it’s kind of just us mucking around and it’s kind of like a little project, like a little art project, and most of us have played gigs together for a long time, or we just hang out, and we help each other put out music. I play guitar in Jen Cloher’s band as well, so some of us play in each other’s bands, and The Finks, who are on Milk Records as well, Oliver [the current drummer of The Finks] used to play drums in my band like five years ago. So you know, it’s just keeping that connection in like a little artist community. So it’s cool, we all help each other do stuff. 

PL: Can you tell me a little bit about the recording you did for A Pair of Pears (with Shadows)? I know [that recording] happened in one weekend, so was it just kind of like a party? Or what did it look like?

CB: [Laughs]. Nah, it was in a studio, and basically we just divided the time between the bands. But most people ended up hanging out the whole time. Yeah, it wasn’t like a wild party, because we aren’t wild party animals [laughs]. Everyone just kind of hung out, and some people sung on other people’s songs, and it was just kind of a communal thing. It was an interesting project, because everyone had different levels of songs written. Like I’d written my song in a studio, as a kind of joke, or just kind of, you know, for fun. Everyone did something different. Some people had old songs, or songs that didn’t fit on albums. 

PL: Did your song [“Pickles From the Jar”] change over the course of the recording? Or did it stay the same?

CB: It stayed exactly the same. I mean, we only played it twice.

PL: Oh, wow. 

CB: That recording [on A Pair of Pears (with Shadows)] is probably the most authentic recording of the song. 

PL: And have you played “Pickles from the Jar” on tour?

CB: Yeah, we just played it in Adelaide and Hobart  on the tour, recently. That’s kind of the only time––I mean, they’re the two places in the song. So, that’s all we’ve done, so far. 

PL: What is your strategy for releasing new music on the upcoming US tour going to be? Are you going to start introducing new songs? 

CB: We’re mostly playing stuff off of the Double EP, but we’ve been playing a bunch of new songs, which is really fun. But yeah, I think, most people have never seen us, and would be there because of that Double EP, so it make most sense to me, I guess, to play the songs that people know [laughs]. We’re basically playing songs off the Double EP, plus a few new songs off the new album.

PL: I love your Milk Records artist tee series. Are you friends with those other visual artists as well? 

CB: Oh yeah, the Milk tee shirts. Yeah, they’re friends of mine.

PL: And what’s your approach for when you do artwork––why do you do that? Is it an extension of the songs that you put out? Or something different?

CB: Yeah, it’s just, I like drawing. And I guess it’s kind of an extension, like it’s just another way for me to express stuff. The same as songwriting––ideas, and communication, and just all of that stuff. I just like to include it in with the music, it seems to make sense. 

PL: So, that zine that was released with [The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas] on Record Store Day, you wrote that on tour, right?

CB: Yeah.

PL: So was that when you were in transit, that you were writing it? Or did you just sit down and start drawing? 

CB: Yeah, it’s pretty much just all pictures, so I drew them as we were driving, or as we were flying. 

PL: Do you have any far-fetched goals as a musician?

CB: No, like my main goal is just to keep improving on my own song writing, and to be a self-sustaining artist so that I can keep doing it and keep trying different things. I don’t have any [goals] like, I want to play at this venue or be on this t.v. show, it’s more insular I think.

PL: What does self-sustaining artist mean to you?

CB: Like a job, I guess. To be able to make enough money to live and to make the next album, or to tour. Lots of people have all these crazy amounts of money and they tour and they spend more than then earn and then they’re in debt and then they’re stressing out. I just want to live within my means, you know? Eat healthy food, and spend time with my friends and family, and make music, and try to do something decent, and then die one day.

I just want to live within my means, you know? Eat healthy food, and spend time with my friends and family, and make music, and try to do something decent, and then die one day.

PL: In a while, I hope.

CB: Yeah [laughs]. 

PL: Speaking of food, I heard in another interview that you are actually working on a garden. Is that true?

CB: Yeah, re-planting it. 

PL: What are you re-planting?

CB: Well, that is up for discussion at the moment––I’m trying to plan it all out. But basically, you know, like everything!

PL: What’s everything?

CB: As much as can fit in. Tomatoes, kale went really well last time, because it grows like a weed, basically. We’ve got heaps of fruit trees, already, so basically just like vegetables. Beans, and corn, and everything.

PL: So after this next tour are you going to stay at home for a while, then?

CB: Yeah, over December and January I’ll be home for Christmas, so that will be a nice two months. And that’s our summer [in Australia] as well, so it will be super chill. 

PL: And you’ll be able to eat a lot of kale then too, probably.

CB: [Laughs]

PL: How many songs did you write for A Double EP that didn’t actually make it?

CB: I don’t know, probably a few, but probably for a good reason, like they probably just weren’t good enough. There were a couple of songs that I really loved but they were just so different, like they just didn’t fit in. But I’m sure they’ll be released at some point, down the road. They probably need to be rewritten a little bit. The songs that didn’t make it on just weren’t right.

PL: Do you have a song off of A Sea of Split Peas which is your favorite song? 

CB: Sure. “Out of the Woodwork” is probably my favorite song, but it’s also the most challenging to play, just because it’s so––I mean, it’s not that hard, but it’s probably the hardest to sing, like it’s got some really crazy vocal bits and harmonies and stuff. It’s good, though, it’s good to have that challenge live. 

PL: You were in Portland not that long ago [in August] for the Pickathon festival. Are you excited about anything for when you come back here?

CB: Well, we hardly got to see the city, we pretty much just did the festie and then left. Oh, we did a little bit of recording, actually, in a studio. But we didn’t really get to see the town at all. And yeah, I’m really excited about [coming back] because I’ve got friends who are from Portland and they just always talk about it. 

[box type=”info” align=”aligncenter” ]Courtney Barnett will be playing at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland on November 1st with San Fermin. The event is 21+. Tickets are on sale online and $16 each. [/box]

Kaiya Gordon is a Features Editor of the Pioneer Log. She likes to write stories about pertinent on-campus events, conduct interviews, and talk about food.  Kaiya’s work has been featured in the English Department’s newsletter at Lewis & Clark, at NUCL 2014, and through her internships at Mission Community Market in SF and Immigrant Law Group in Portland. Check out more of her writing on her blog and follow her @aiyakay

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