Q&A: Courtney Barnett On Her Much-Delayed Debut Album And Possibly Quitting Her Day Job
Considering the amount of love and affection that’s been showered on Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett for the past few months, it seems kind of insane that her excellent debut, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, is only now getting a proper physical release here in the States. The record (if you haven’t managed to hear it already) is a 12-song exercise in masterly exposition — a bunch of story-songs that run the gamut from detailing a panic attack while gardening to masturbatory confessionals, all tossed off with the kind of casual aplomb that would be annoying if the songs themselves weren’t so insanely catchy. I called up Barnett at home in Melbourne just as she was about pack her bags and fly out to California with her band to play Coachella. We talked about her new/old record, and what she plans on doing next.
STEREOGUM: I know that The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas is finally about to get a physical release in the States, which must be so odd. People have been writing about it and listening to it since at least last October, but now there are all these new fans discovering it for the first time. It must be strange for you to still be talking about it.
COURTNEY: It’s a funny little way that things have happened. But I guess there’s a lot of people in the world, and they can’t always hear things at the same time. Just like people are always discovering Bob Dylan or whoever. But it is weird. I just want to record this album and create new things and people are like, “So, tell me about this song from two years ago.”
STEREOGUM: At least people are loving it. I have probably listened to your record more than anything else in the past three or four months. I really love it.
COURTNEY: Aw, thanks.
STEREOGUM: So you’re about to start recording your new record. Are you at the point now when you’re essentially dying to make something new?
COURTNEY: Oh, so much. I can’t wait. We’ve been rehearsing all week. Or not rehearsing, but trying to finish songs, basically. Getting everyone to figure out their parts and all that. It’s been so nice jamming with the band and jamming on new songs. We keep it pretty loose when we go to the studio. I don’t like things being too perfect, too polished. It should be close to it, but not perfect. The magic take should be the one you accidentally record.
STEREOGUM: Are you working with basically the same people you were working with for the EPs? Like the same players?
COURTNEY: Between the two EPs there were actually, like, 20 players because I was just asking friends to play some stuff and showing them the song. The band is a pretty solid three-piece now with a fourth member, my friend Dan. He does lots of guitar and piano. He comes on tour with us sometimes. It’s a much more tightly knit, consistent sound now.
STEREOGUM: That must help, recording-wise, to have been playing with these guys for a while.
COURTNEY: Yeah, totally. Dave, my drummer, and I have been playing together since the very start. We kind of just understand how we work and how we make music. It’s a nice thing.
STEREOGUM: I know it’s too soon to say much about it, but do you feel like, vibe-wise, these songs are similar to what you were doing on the previous EPs?
COURTNEY: Yeah, slightly. It’s a bit of a mixed bag. Some of them are ultra-poppy and some are really heavy, but that kinda happens within the EPs too, I suppose. There was a moment when I kind of freaked out and went, “You can’t have this ultra-pop song next to this heavy lyrical and musical thing. They just don’t fit together.” But they do. The album is essentially just songs that I’ve written over the past year so it represents where my mind has been over the past year, and it’s unrealistic to think people stick to one wavelength. It’s got the ups and downs that everyone has — the emotional, life things. So I guess it’s interesting when you look at it that way. I’ve never really done an album that covers a whole period of time. I’m just learning a lot of things. It’s interesting.
STEREOGUM: A lot of people really responded to the narrative nature of your songs. Do you find yourself still working within that vein? The sort of storytelling?
COURTNEY: Yes. A lot of the new songs are very storytell-y, that narrative thing, which at times can just be the end of me. I get this great idea in my head and then, for some reason, I’ve got the whole story in my head but I just can’t write it lyrically. Or I can write the first verse and then — like one of them, I’m still trying to finish writing the lyrics to because I know exactly how it should go in my head but sometimes it’s just so hard to translate it into words.
STEREOGUM:: I’ve read several interviews with you where you talk about being a little taken by surprise that there was this groundswell of interest in what you were doing. How has this past year been for you? I’ve assume you’ve been traveling a lot.
COURTNEY: Yeah. We traveled a fair bit. I’ve definitely been away from home a lot, but we’ve done some pretty amazing things overseas and within Australia. It’s been really good, but it’s definitely been overwhelming.
STEREOGUM: Did you have a sense when you were younger and just starting to play music that this is what you would do — that you would be a songwriter and play in a band as a life pursuit?
COURTNEY: It’s definitely what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in a band and make music and make art. I wanted to be an artist when I was little. But you grow up with everyone telling you that you can’t be a musician or an artist because it’s an unrealistic career. Not in nasty way, but it’s generally a pretty true statement. So I definitely grew up thinking I really want to do this, but I’m probably going to have to keep working at the pub or get an office job.
STEREOGUM: How long were you a bartender?
COURTNEY: Since I was 18. I kind of just officially quit the other week because I’m away for four months. At this very moment I’m a professional musician. But who knows, at the end of the year when we’ve got off-time I might go back to work.
STEREOGUM: That’s so funny. I’ve been a bartender for years. Even though I might only work once a week, I can’t make myself quit totally. Just having the tiniest toehold in a bar that will let you come and work sometimes gives you a slight sense of security.
COURTNEY: And going there and getting staff prices. (Laughs) And also my pub is a great venue. As a staff member you can get free tickets to all the shows.
STEREOGUM: People often talk about your work as being really reminiscent of early 90s indie rock. Today I saw someone had posted your Lemonheads cover, which made me think about it. Did you grow up listening to that era of music? Was that stuff super-influential for you in a literal way?
COURTNEY: Yeah. I grew up with Nirvana and a few other bands, but basically that was it. My brother and I only had a handful of CDs, and Nirvana was the main bunch of them. I only got into the Lemonheads a couple years ago, which is funny because it is that same kind of era. I’m pretty helpless with music. I think it’s good to discover things in your own time and I hate being told what to listen to. I’ll listen to the exact opposite of what someone tells me to listen to just because I’m stubborn, I guess. I just prefer to discover things in a really natural way and without all of those preconceptions. If I showed Nirvana to some kid now and was like, “You know this is one of the greatest bands ever. Every year they get number one song and number one album on all those ‘best ever’ song lists and stuff. You’ve got to hear them, you’ll love them!,” the kid listens to them with all of that pressure. You know what I mean? You should just listen to things and then make up your mind.
STEREOGUM: I know that you’re going to be playing a lot of festivals thus summer, but what will the rest of this year be like for you?
COURTNEY: It will be real busy, I guess. It will be fun. It’s mostly a big adventure to me. I never really traveled except for these last little trips over to America. We’re about to go for three months. That’s the longest I’ve ever been away from home. It’s a total adventure for me.
STEREOGUM: Three months is a long time to be away from anywhere and living out of a suitcase. It’ll be fun, though. Do you have a sense when the new record will be done?
COURTNEY: I think sometime at the end of the year. It’s a bit loose at the moment. We’re just recording and hearing what they sound like and then we’ll keep going there.
Courtney Barnett’s The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas is out now on Mom + Pop.