There have been only a few hours of daylight in Melbourne, Australia, but Courtney Barnett has long since been up. Despite the halo of slackerdom that follows her around, the 26-year-old singer-songwriter is using this Thursday morning to catch up on news and e-mails that poured in while she slept. “That’s beauty of being on the other side of the world” she says sarcastically. “Not knowing what’s going on.”
She punctuates most of her thoughts with a quick sniffle – the product of self-diagnosed hay fever. Twelve months have passed since Barnett’s The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas became available internationally and set off a wildly productive year, but even if allergies weren’t wreaking havoc on her nasal passages, she still hasn’t had time to stop and smell the roses.
For the past month, Barnett has been back in the Southern Hemisphere, putting the final touches on her proper debut LP – which she hopes to release in early 2015 – and playing gigs across Australia and New Zealand. The time at home follows a year spent crisscrossing the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. She’s toured through Europe and the U.S. several times, almost invariably to sold out crowds and prime festival slotting. All the while, she’s also been operating her upstart Milk! Records, a label that recently released its first compilation, which, of course, has another tongue-twister of a title: A Pair of Pears (with Shadows).
The popularity of Barnett is a strange and wonderful thing to behold. Her lyrics sketch squiggly lined portraits of the mundane – lackadaisical buddies, suburban gardening, sleeping in – and she delivers them in an offhanded, drowsy drawl across arrangements of shambling rock. It’s not the kind of music that projects commercial ambition. It’s a shrugged response to the sentiment Underachievers Please Try Harder. When Barnett sings, “My friends play in bands; they are better than everything on radio,” the joke relies on the idea that you would never find their music on the radio. And yet that’s where Barnett has ended up, and her unassuming and uniquely voiced music has found an audience well beyond it.
“You don’t really write songs thinking about who might hear them,” she says of her success. “But it continually amazes that they have connected with so many different people in different parts of the world.”
What were you impressions of the States?
It was so different from what I pictured. I think that a lot of time, I just kind of pictured New York or something. A lot my friends have said the same thing. You get a picture from movies mostly. You think of America and you think of big skyrise buildings. That the image that I had in my head as a kid.
But this last trip that we did, we got to drive around so much. At one point, we drove through Oregon and up to Seattle, and it was beautiful. I don’t if I was surprised, but I had this weird little kid image of what America would be. [Laughs] It was nice that it was different.
When you’re on the road – or anywhere – are you often jotting down ideas?
Totally. All the time. [Laughs] Otherwise, I forget stuff as well. I write everything down. It’s the best way. You never remember things when you think you will, like when you’re falling asleep and think you’ll remember where you put your keys.
Your lyrics have such specificity of people and places and experiences. Are those always ripped directly from your life?
I try to keep it pretty truthful. There’s always room for embellishment, but I choose not to do that, because then a song becomes a surreal tale instead of just what it is. That’s what I try to do in a roundabout way: Tell a real story. I don’t want to put a whole lot of bullshit in there. It feels like some people do that, and you can see through it. It’s almost like saying that boring things are not interesting. I wouldn’t say that I’ve had a boring life. I’ve had a pretty middle class, normal life. But that doesn’t mean that I have to make up stories to make it seem interesting.
You’re involved in nuts and bolts of the music industry beyond just songwriting and recording. What sorts of realities have you been exposed to in guiding your own career and operating Milk Records?
I learn a million lessons every day, but I never had some crazy romantic idea of the music industry, and I’m glad I didn’t, because I know a lot of people who do and they get totally let down. I just like making music. The industry is OK, but it’s also full of people with their own agendas, as is the whole world. There will always be people with their own agenda trying to make stuff work for them. I don’t mean to sound totally pessimistic about the world. That’s why I’ve tried to make it my deal to do what I think is right. I just want to make it about the music instead of sculpt some weird thing.
I saw a profile where you said, “It’ll take me a long time to figure out what it is that I want to do.” What did you mean by that? It seems like you’ve figured things out.
I’m 26. I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me to do something worthwhile. Playing music is worthwhile, but I’m sure that there’s a stronger message that I can send and do something good for people.
I might have been thinking of my father when I said that. He always makes this joke that he still doesn’t know what he wants to do when he grows up. He thinks it’s really funny because he’s a grown-up and he’s 60 something.
But the point is that whatever area you’re in, we’re all still figuring out every day what our purpose is in the world and how we can make the world a slightly better place. If you think you’ve got everything figured out and know what you want to do, then there’s something slightly wrong, especially at 26.
You wrote on Facebook that your dad approved of “Pickles from the Jar”. Do your parents keep pretty close tabs on you?
I think mom looks at my Facebook page every morning to see what’s happened. But they don’t have Facebook, and she just found out the other week that means that she can’t “like” or comment on things, which she’s pretty upset about. I think she wants to get Facebook, but I hope she doesn’t.
But they look at it everyday to see what’s going on, and they read articles and stuff. They’re pretty cool. They’re always sending me articles and interesting things about music and art. They used to take us to galleries when we were kids.
What’s the status of the full-length?
It’s been a slow process. The day after we finished in the studio, we went and did a three-week tour of America and the UK. It was a slow process of trying to mix it and get everything sounding right. I was doing the artwork too. I take ages to get things done, because I’m a perfectionist freak. I also just put things off a lot. [Laughs] There’s not a rush or anything. I want it sound and look right – all that shit.
I think we’re releasing it early next year. We may put out some songs later this year.
There was a big jump between your first two EPs, which perhaps can be attributed to moving to a proper studio. Do you hear a progression between this record and what’s preceded it?
It’s interesting seeing the progression. But I still haven’t really figured out what it is. All of the different ways that we’ve made stuff has had great outcomes, I reckon. There’s not really any difference between recording in a land room and recording in a studio for me. I like to be comfortable and make it fun. I don’t want to make it too stressful. The studio can be kind of stressful, because you’re worrying about the clock ticking over – like, spending money every minute. That can be kind of a downer.
The very first EP we recorded in a day, and I showed the guys in the band the songs pretty much that day, so it felt like an experiment in songwriting more than anything. I try not to take stuff too seriously. With the last album, I spent a little bit more time trying to figure out parts, and some of the songs were a bit more elaborate. I wasn’t as nervous about showing the guys the songs. I was a bit more sure of myself. I was a bit more sure of my guitar playing and singing. I was scared to sing in front of anyone before. I just felt a bit more relaxed.
The live show has a bit more verve to it. There’s more jamming. It’s more electric. Is that something you want to capture?
That’s exactly right. Like I said, the songs on the [EPs] were played for the first time by the band as we did them. You can hear that slight uncertainty, which I love. I’d hate to have to record after a year of playing songs and they’re all perfect. I like a little bit of offbeat stuff and hearing people being musicians.
But, on the flip slide, I love hearing the songs evolve from two years ago – from the Emily Ferris EP – to now. They sound like totally different songs now, because they’ve traveled. They’ve toured around the world and been played however many times. They’ve slightly changed every day and now they’re slightly different, and maybe they mean something different. It’s kind of cool.
How has it felt being home after such a whirlwind year?
It’s been a really wild year of travel. I had never traveled outside Australia, and we’ve been hard at it, which is definitely pretty different from the lifestyle that I’m used to. But it’s been so fun. It’s been so amazing playing all of these huge places. Even people just turning up to our shows on the other side of the world blows my mind.