Returning to Liverpool after a raucous Sound City slot in 2014, COURTNEY BARNETT has the outrageous success of debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit under her belt. Released in March this year, the Aussie singer songwriter’s debut full-length LP has been met with a tidal wave of high acclaim for her observant and acerbic way with words, and rightly so; detailing the miserable and mundane and translating them into gloriously cutting and relatable lyrics is Barnett’s forte, as showcased in lead single Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party. Lauded as much for her lyrics as her riotous live performances, the notoriously self-deprecating Barnett matches her stream-of-consciousness rambling with drawling-yet-punk-spirited vocals and fuzzy, stabbing guitars. Not bad for a self-confessed slacker. Off the back of a worldwide tour that has taken her to the US, Japan and Europe, and ahead of her 1st December show at the O2 Academy, Bethany Garrett caught up with the dry, but somehow still enthusiastic, phenomenon to talk writing processes, Jack White, record labels and the realities of touring.
Bido Lito!: I was reading through some old interviews where you mention writing bad poetry when you were younger – at what point did you think ‘oh shit what I’m writing here actually might be alright’?
Courtney Barnett: It’s kind of a constant struggle, you know I’m always second guessing myself and it’s hard to look at what you’re doing and think ‘is it really good or is it really bad?’ It’s hard to tell the difference. So I just write a lot and then sit on it for a bit and sometimes that makes it obvious whether you hate it or you love it.
BL!: How do you go about writing something – do the ideas just strike you or do you set yourself dedicated writing time?
CB: I’m not that disciplined, I wish I was but I just try my best. I try to write every day but I probably never do. I just take notes you know – I see something, I write stuff on a piece of paper and stick it on my wall and look at it and think about it. It’s a pretty slow process.
BL!: So when you start with an initial idea, how long does it take for it to become a finished piece?
CB: Sometimes it takes years, sometimes it takes a couple of hours, it’s weird. It’s pretty scary cos it’s not like you go to uni and you learn how to do something and you get better at it the more you practice. It’s a constant ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’ and I’m just figuring it out as I go along. That’s kind of the beauty of it, I guess. I feel comfortable communicating in that way too. I don’t like talking about myself too much cos I feel like I’m no good at it, whereas with songwriting, I can sit there and dwell on it and think about it and come up with something. And figure out how I feel, and sometimes that takes me a long time. So I guess it’s like a communication tool for me.
BL!: Your debut album has received huge critical acclaim, has the level of success and the universal approval taken you aback?
CB: Yeah it’s kinda weird. I’m just gonna keep doing what I do, regardless of what people say or what they think. Obviously it’s really nice and really encouraging when that happens, but you can’t base your whole life or purpose just on that approval cos it’s not 100% realistic.
BL!: You’ve just released a cover of the Rowland S. Howard-penned Shivers, which was produced by Jack White and recorded at Third Man Records in Nashville. How did that come about? And what was it like working with Jack White?
CB: It was cool, we were in Nashville doing Bonnaroo festival and he invited us to the studio to do a couple of tracks. Having someone of that kind of experience listening to your songs and liking them is pretty nice. And he was really supportive and open to trying different ideas. It’s intimidating to go into a studio with anyone, never mind someone like that! So it’s nice to have that positive reinforcement with a great label too. I liked that we got to cover Shivers cos it’s such an iconic song in Australia and it’s so huge because Nick Cave was in The Birthday Party and I’m a huge fan. So it was extra scary. But good.
BL!: You’ve got your own record label too, Milk! Records – what made you want to start out?
CB: It just felt like the right thing to do, I didn’t really know how to go about contacting record labels and no one really cared. I’d been playing for ages and it was so hard – I turned 28 in November and I started playing live and writing my own songs when I was 18 so it’s been 10 years. So instead of wasting all my time, I thought I might as well just release it myself to the people who are interested. I think that expecting other people to work hard for you is a really unrealistic thing, especially with not very much money. I didn’t have any money so I just set up a webstore and started selling stuff.
BL!: You’ve been playing live for so long and touring hard the past year especially, what’s life on the road really like?
CB: I think we all hold a very romantic idea of what touring or a rock star or whatever is and I always kinda knew that was stupid. So I never went into it with any kind of expectation. But it’s been great, we’ve had some really fun times. Obviously it’s really hard work but it’s for a good purpose and it’s a real honour to be able to travel and play songs to people around the world.
BL!: So you played Liverpool in May 2014 for Sound City festival, are you looking forward to playing again?
CB: Sound City yeah! I remember it because I was really sick. I was in bed with flu and I was really depressed because I thought I would never sing again and then we played the gig and it was one of the best gigs we’ve ever done and I’m not even just saying. It was in a place called um… with a Z in it. The Zanzibar! It was one of the coolest gigs – people were crowd surfing, it was really sweaty, everyone was jumping around and it was just total rock ‘n’ roll. Yeah totally I can’t wait to play again, it’ll be rad.
BL!: This year must have been pretty crazy for you – have you had any time to write and do you know when you’ll be putting any new material out?
CB: I’ve been writing a fair bit, I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff just… around. I’m trying to lock in some sort of time to record but I don’t really know when. But there’s lots of songs! I’m pretty indecisive so I don’t like to lock things in and make decisions. But, I mean, the songs are there…