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Need to Know: Courtney Barnett

Mia MacDonald

How the new bard of rock wrote the album we can’t stop listening to this spring

Photo courtesy of Mia MacDonald

Courtney Barnett doesn't just write songs -- she lets you into her world, from her mundane encounters to her deepest neuroses. And the queer Australian indie rocker does so with such witty detail and turns of phrase that while reading the liner notes of her first proper album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, you'll find yourself laughing as much as pondering your own complicated existence.

The sad clown she plays in the video for the record's rollicking lead single, "Pedestrian at Best," is an apt metaphor for many of the LP's tracks: These are droll, charming stories about parties, real estate, and roadkill ("a possum Jackson Pollock is painted on the tar") shot through with musings on loneliness and the fleeting nature of life, and they're delivered in a conversational tone that renders them warm and relatable.

"When I started, I wasn't a very confident singer," Barnett says. "When I'd read my lyrics to try to put them to music, I kinda spoke them until I could find a melody. It's just how I was comfortable performing them." The ironic result of her modesty is that Sometimes I Sit is as self-assured a debut as you could wish for.

We recently caught up with Barnett--who proved to be as matter-of-fact and laconic as the narrators in her songs--to chat about life, death, and lethal wire coat hangers.

I've spent a lot of time with your new record, and it's really enjoyable. You've been touring a lot, so I'm wondering how your travel experiences have affected your songwriting. What's proven to be most inspiring?

Yeah, travel does affect the songwriting. Everything in my life does. I've had new experiences, met new people, had new backdrops for my stories. Everything helps paint the songs, and adds to the whole thing.

Did you write any songs while you were performing in the States? Any directly related to your experience here?

Yeah, one song, "An Illustration of Loneliness," was written in New York, but it doesn't even really touch on the landscape at all. It's more about missing home. I'd written most of the song before I went on my big journeys.

You've said you'd write songs by taking down notes at the bar you used to work at--little ideas as they occurred to you. Have you found your songwriting process has changed now that you've become a fulltime musician?

No, it's kind of the same. Sometimes it's all over the place. There's still really no structure, and I just write a lot of stuff down. When I find time to sit down and look at it, I do.

"Pedestrian at Best," the first song you released from Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Something I Just Sit, manages to be both dark and very funny. The video features this sad clown trying to get folks' attention, and the song itself is kind of a sad clown. It reads to me like commentary on the fleetingness of fame.

Yeah, totally. The fleetingness of fame, but also of friendships and relationships and moments in time. It's about a lot of different things, I guess.

You do get quite personal in your music. Sometimes you're very specific, like in the track you mentioned before, "An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)," about you being homesick. In "Dead Fox," you mention Jen [Cloher], your partner. Are you two still also running your label, Milk! Records, together?


In the first line of "Dead Fox" you sing about her trying to get you to buy organic vegetables. How does she feel about you writing about her?

I don't know. If it was embarrassing or negative, she would care, but it's kind of just a passing statement. And going organic is better for you sometimes. [Laughs]

And the song "Aqua Profunda!"--how much of it is real life and how much is metaphor?

Well, ya know, it's just about having a crush on someone at the swimming pool.

Did that actually happen?

Yeah, years ago. [Laughs]

I was a little concerned about the lengths you went to in order to impress this crush. You nearly drown in the song.

Maybe that was exaggerated a bit. All the songs are open to interpretation. I love it when people interpret things in different ways--as a metaphor or in some obscure way that relates to them. That's the joy of music and lyrics: that you can adapt them to your situation and your life.

Your songs have a very conversational tone. Did you make a conscious decision to tell your stories in a very detailed but very straightforward way?

When I started, I wasn't a very confident singer. When I'd read lyrics to try to put them to music, I kinda spoke them until I could find a melody. Sometimes they stayed semi-spoken. It's just how I was comfortable performing them. I didn't really think about it at all. It was just the most comfortable way for me to deliver the lines.

There are also moments on this album when you take a left turn, in particular on "Small Poppies." Where does this unexpected line about stabbing someone with a coat hanger wire come from?

Oh, that's based on a bad dream, a nightmare. That song has a lot of anger and frustration behind it... Yeah, I don't really quite know how to explain the story behind it. That's why I wrote a song about it--so I wouldn't have to explain it.

One of my favorite songs on the record is "Depreston," which is about a sort of existential epiphany you had while house hunting. Did this actually occur, seeing this estate that left an impression on you?

Yeah, I basically went home and wrote the song straight away. It left a strong impression, of life and death flashing before me.

And you end it by just repeating the line "If you've got a spare half a million, you could knock it down and start rebuilding."It's something a realtor would say, right?

Yeah. It's kind of tongue-in-cheek, you know. Obviously I don't have that kind of money lying around.

Have you found a place to buy yet, or are you still looking?

It's still in the works, but I've got a good place now.

It may take awhile to get that half a million, but you're closer to it than you were two years ago. If you could sum it all up, what story are you trying to tell with Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Something I Just Sit?

I don't know if there is one. It'll probably take me a couple of years to stand back and look at it and realize what it is. It'll become apparent when it's supposed to, I think. I didn't set out with any kind of strong statement in mind.

These songs feel like little keyholes into your life and your thoughts.

Yeah, that's a good way of explaining it.

"Kim's Caravan" was released as a special Record Store Day 12-inch, paired with a gorgeous and intimate recording of John Cale's "Close Watch" as the B-Side. Watch the video for "Kim's Caravan" below:

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