Courtney Barnett on Her Big Breakthrough: 'I Wanted to Be Able to Live off My Art'
Photo by Pooneh Ghana
Courtney Barnett is not afraid to put her weak spots on display. "I'm not that good at breathing in," she drawls in "Avant Gardener." "Put me on a pedestal, I'll only disappoint you!" she shouts in "Pedestrian at Best." "I'm sorry for all of my insecurities, but it's just part of me," she shrugs in "Debbie Downer."
But don't let these admissions fool you into thinking that the Australian rocker is anything less than a dynamo. It's precisely this candid self-doubt that's the source of her power.
Barnett comes out swinging on her debut LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Released on March 20, it's a rocky, witty banger of an album that's equal parts upper and downer. The tracks range from an ode to introversion ("No One Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party") to a short story in miniature ("Elevator Operator") to a meditation on suburban malaise ("Depreston"). Recently, Barnett released an animated music video for "Dead Fox" — a politically charged anthem about roadkill and overfished oceans — featuring truck-driving animals, tons of gore, and a cartoon avatar of Barnett herself.
"I said I wanted lots of blood, kind of a bit anime, a bit Kill Bill — really over the top. I'm really happy with it," the singer says, on the phone from her house in Melbourne. She's just finishing up a three-week tour through Australia before she begins a summer-long series of gigs in the U.S. and Europe. She'll be swinging through New York for a three-night stand at the Bowery Ballroom this week; she'll come back around in July for a concert at Terminal 5; all four shows sold out some time ago.
Barnett first came into the public eye with 2013's "Avant Gardener," a dreamy, fuzzy track about a woman having a panic attack while pulling weeds. Like many of her songs, it's funny, affecting, and a little bit weird — and deeply personal. For Barnett, who struggles with anxiety and depression, songwriting is a means to process her thoughts about the world.
"All kinds of things bounce around inside my head, and sometimes it's hard to come to any sort of conclusion without writing it down," she says. "I go off on tangents and get stuck in spirals, and then I get overwhelmed by it all. So I try to break it down into a simpler thing."
The tracks onSometimes I Sit and Think
are as introspective as those on her earlier EPs, with a key difference: They're much louder, with a raw sound that recalls the early days of indie rock. Barnett attributes the change to time spent on the road with her band, and the increase in assurance that came with it — that, and taking her recording sessions out of her sleeping space.
"I recorded my first EP [I've Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris] in my bedroom, so it was super timid and quiet. And then the second EP was a little louder because we went into the studio and got a bit freer. And by the time [Sometimes I Sit and Think] came, we'd been touring and I'd been jumping around onstage, screaming and getting comfortable with myself and with the music. So it was all out," she explains.
And that's not all Barnett's up to. She's a visual artist, too, having illustrated the album covers for Sometimes I Sit and Think and her 2013 double EP, A Sea of Split Peas. She also founded her own label, Milk! Records, which she co-runs with her girlfriend, fellow singer-songwriter Jen Cloher. "I'm one of those people that always has ten projects on the go. I kind of overload myself with ideas," Barnett admits.
Having played guitar and been involved in music, writing, and art since childhood, Barnett relishes the creative freedom that comes with having her own label. Until last year, she was working as a bartender on the side. "Ever since I left home, my life has been a constant struggle for money...balancing having to work some shit job to make enough to live and be able to do gigs and rehearsals."
Barnett pauses when I ask if that's changed at all. "A little bit," she says. "I really wanted to be self-sufficient, so I started my own business. I wanted to be able to live off my art. And I don't know for how long, but that's what I'm doing right now. And it's really satisfying to know that."
And how about that pedestal from "Pedestrian at Best"? Her ascension from obscurity to international fame — at least among the indie-rock set — has been meteoric, a pleasant surprise for Barnett. But in the end, she doesn't really care all that much about what people think of her.
"I just never know what expectations to have, so I try to keep them pretty minimal and focus on the art itself. Like, am I proud of the album, regardless of what people think? Yes, I am, so whatever comes after that is either a happy product of that, or else people hate it, and...whatever."
I can hear her shrug from 10,000 miles away.
Courtney Barnett plays the Bowery Ballroom May 19, May 20, and May 21. All three shows have sold out, but tickets are available on secondary markets.
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