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Interview: Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett is a woman who doesn’t mince her words. She’s a natural storyteller with literal lyrics consisting of day-to-day observations about gardening accidents, masturbation and the people she meets along the way.

At just 25-years-old, she’s forging an independent, self-sufficient path in many ways; starting her own record label and releasing her two EPs, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris and How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose, to critical acclaim in her native Australia.

Now chugging towards international success with an upcoming tour supporting Billy Bragg and re-releasing both EPs as The Double EP: A Sea of Spilt Peas, Sarah Joy touches base to see how things are going for the young Australian.

PlanetNotion: When did you first start playing and performing music?
Courtney Barnett: I started playing music when I was a kid. My big brother and his friends had a band and I wanted to be like them so I learnt guitar. I dabbled all through school in jazz bands and etc but didn’t really like singing in front of people; I was pretty content on guitar. Then when I was about 19, I branched out into the world of open mic nights and sung my own songs and that was embarrassing.

PN:Your lyrics tend to tell stories in quite a conversational voice, have you always written that way?
CB: Nah, I think it took me a while to find that comfortable conversational tone. Up until then everything felt so forced and unnatural; I felt like a big fraud. Now I’m just being me. That’s just the way I think, so it’s the way the lyrics end up on paper.

PN: Are the stories you tell in your songs always true?

CB: Normally yeah! It’s not a waiver that comes with the record though. And anyway, it’s only my version of the truth, which is probably somebody else’s untruth.

PN: Do you have a friend called Emily Ferris and what did she do to warrant a name check on your first EP?
CB: Yeah! She’s one of my best friends, we used to work together at the pub but then she moved to Sydney. I still get to see her when we tour up there though. She’s awesome; that’s what warranted it.

PN: You are quite open about things such as masturbation and smoking weed in your songs, are you fairly comfortable talking about most things?

CB: Nah, I’m pretty secretive and shy and don’t like talking about myself much. Lyrics are a good chance for me to learn how to communicate the things I’m feeling or thinking.

PN: Is there anything you wouldn’t put in a song?
CB: I don’t know. I probably wouldn’t want to put anything in a song that deliberately hurt or embarrassed someone. Songwriting is a pretty strong tool and it should only be used sparingly for that sort of evil. That said, if they really really deserve it…

PN: Are there many artists that inspire your sound?
CB: Plenty – all for different reasons, of course: Nirvana, PJ Harvey, The Modern Lovers, The Kinks, The Beatles, The Saints, The Breeders, The Hoodoo Gurus, The Divinyls, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Patti Smith

PN: How do you go about putting your songs together? What comes first: lyrics or guitar?
CB: It’s just a big jumble of confusion; I never know what went first or how it got there. It’s just a big mess. Most of the time I write guitar parts and store them in the back of my brain, and then mix and match lyrics as they come and see what fits best. Sometimes it all comes at once. Sometimes it never comes. It’s always different.

PN: You’ve set up your own label called Milk. Tell us a little about that.
CB: It’s an independent label that releases my music and our friends’ music. There’s a nice community vibe going on; we all help each other do stuff. It’s mostly about music and not all the other shit that goes with music.

PN: You did a tour at the end of the summer where you played – among other places – in New York. How was that experience?
CB: New York was so fun! We played some really fun shows there and met a whole bunch of awesome people. Then I did a few solo shows in London and Paris. It was the first time I’ve traveled so I was over the moon.

PN: And you’ve just announced that you’re touring in the new year and playing some gigs with Billy Bragg. Are you excited about that?
CB: Real excited! We did two big Australian tours this year (supporting Something for Kate & Big Scary) and I took the whole band and it was awesome. But Billy Bragg I’ll just be solo so it’ll be a real different experience. I can’t wait.

PN: Have you got any plans to come back to the UK?
CB: We are going to be there in February! Just before doing a little tour in the US and then we’ll be back again in May.

PN: You were nominated for the Australian APRA Song of the Year alongside Tame Impala. Do you think being up for awards like this helps artists get a leg up in the industry?
CB: I don’t know about the industry, but it definitely helped with general exposure. I reckon a lot of people who had never heard my name before heard it then.

PN: As we’re coming up to the end of the year, is there anything in particular that you want to achieve musically next year?
CB: Yeah I want to learn how to play some sweet guitar – like Jimi Hendrix sweet. That could take a whole year. And just generally writing better songs and challenging myself as a musician. Maybe I’ll write a whole album of songs with one chord each. (Copyright).

- Sarah Joy

The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas is available now on House Anxiety/Marathon Artists. You can buy it here.

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