Cut the Slack: Words with Courtney Barnett

With her profile rising rapidly, Courtney Barnett's debut album has finally seen the light of day. She tells us about finding fascination in the plain ol' ordinary...

Feature by Will Fitzpatrick | 01 Apr 2015

Songwriting does not come easily to everyone. That much is obvious, or else we’d all be at it, but the notion bears repeating: we should never underestimate the simple act of assembling words and melody, especially when that combination presents itself in the manner of an invisible finger, gently squeezing our emotional triggers. There are, however, certain individuals who not only pull this off with aplomb, but also manage to make it sound like the most natural thing in the world; as effortless as breathing and logically straightforward. Some might call it genius, we’d just disingenuously say, ‘lucky bastards,’ while secretly swooning in awe. But you get the point.

Courtney Barnett is one such talent.

Two years on from A Sea Of Split Peas, the EP compilation that quietly announced her arrival on a global scale, the 27-year-old Melburnian has finally released her debut album. Its hefty title – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit – is essentially her approach in microcosm: laid-back, thoughtfully funny and keenly understated. As we speak to her over the phone, immediately post-soundcheck ahead of a secret hometown show, it swiftly becomes apparent that this approach isn’t an artistic device, or even a public face. It’s simply a way of life.

“Most of it’s spot on,” she says cheerfully, when discussing the real-life narratives at the heart of her songwriting. “Obviously told in a story-telling way, but most of it is from experience.” As a songwriter who’s quite happy to open a song with lines like ‘I masturbated to the songs you wrote / Resuscitated all my hopes,’ she’s typically frank. No shrouded meanings, no allegorical distance, just honesty. So how does she decide which subjects merit songs?

“If something has some kind of small meaning or importance… or enough to write it down, or think about it for longer than two seconds, then I assume it’s worth something,” she explains, clearly trying not to overthink the process. “As a songwriter, it’s kind of hard to tell what’s interesting or not.”

"I just kinda do whatever I normally do, and then sometimes songs happen” – Courtney Barnett

But there’s such fascination with the minutiae of everyday life – the banalities, even – that it seems as though everything is interesting to her. Standout track Depreston, for instance, deals with the tedious affair of house-hunting in a dull town, as an estate agent talks up ‘a garage for two cars to park in / Or a lot of room for storage if you’ve just got one.’ Perhaps it’s the languorous beauty of the chord progression, perhaps it’s just Barnett’s warmly conversational delivery… either way, the line prompts more than just a wry grin. There’s a philosophical universality at play here, placing unexpected importance on the trivial; a knack which, we suggest, is central to her art.

“I think so,” she agrees. “Stuff like that seems so unimportant, but it’s funny that everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about, even though it might not be the first thing that you’d think to sing about. Everybody knows that real estate-y, making-something-sound-more-than-it-is kind of lingo. You don’t really think about it, you just kind of recognise it when it’s in front of you. I think I’m just highlighting stuff that you would otherwise ignore.”

This may also explain the charm at the heart of her songs – the authority in her voice comes from first-hand experience rather than contrivance. There have been no situations thus far where Barnett has deliberately wandered into tricky circumstances for inspiration’s sake: “I don’t really try to look for any crazy shit. I’m pretty safe and boring, I feel, most of the time. I just kinda do whatever I normally do, and then sometimes songs happen.”

Hold up, that’s an interesting choice of phrase. Her songs are not written. Like forces of nature, they simply happen. Perhaps it’s this attitude that’s lent credence to the lazy ‘slacker’ tag that’s been applied to her work too often, implying there’s no graft to the craft. “I don’t really get it,” goes her noncommittal rejection of the phrase, and rightly so. “I grew up listening to a lot of 90s indie rock, but I don’t really know exactly what ‘slacker’ is. My musical knowledge is not pinpoint, I just listen to stuff I like.”

If the sound of the album is anything to go by, what Barnett likes is a healthy diet of literate singer-songwriters, classic alt-pop (indeed, she’s often cited the Lemonheads as an influence) and the rickety rhythms of Lou Reed’s purple patch.  When we discuss other musicians, however, she spends a while pondering her favourites before eventually naming Jonathan Richman and Stephen Malkmus – another noteworthy point, we observe. Surely the latter’s lyrics have always been obliquely enigmatic, despite moments of clarity, whereas hers are generally more straightforward…? “Like, they’re narrative-driven or something?” Well, yes, but chiefly they’re easier to understand and identify with than the erstwhile Pavement frontman’s mysterious word sandwiches. “When I listen to him, I hear… not so much subject matter, but wordplay. It’s constantly jumping out. I think I do that a lot, but maybe sometimes it’s not as obvious, so the story sounds like it’s one solid narrative.”

One particularly notable aspect of Sometimes I Sit And Think… is the sense of cohesion; the album’s 11 tracks all flow together much more smoothly than those that composed the EPs – perhaps as a result of being written with a regular group of musicians (Bones Sloane on bass, drummer Davie Mudie and guitarist Dan Luscome), as opposed to transposing solo tracks to full-band arrangements.

“The EPs weren’t really written with a band, but they probably had a bit more time to… you know, marinade. With the album, I only showed the boys the songs about a week before we recorded it.” Was this a factor in the upbeat pacing of the album? “I think it was just the mood that I was in – that kinda frantic energy from drinking lots of coffee and being excited, so some of the stuff came out faster.”

That’s not to say the process was entirely stress-free: “You get in a groove, but you also get that kind of tunnel vision where you start second-guessing what you’re hearing – I had moments where I’d just think, ‘Oh my god, all these songs are shit. We need to get rid.’ Then the next day I’d listen after I’d slept and be like, ‘Wow, this stuff’s great!’ You just get confused.”

As a final thought, it only seems right to mention one of the stand-out moments of Barnett’s 2014, when an appearance on Australian TV show RocKwiz  saw her cover The Velvet Underground’s Sunday Morning alongside a visibly delighted Billy Bragg. A charming performance ensued, with the two singers repeatedly shooting excited grins at each other – clearly enjoying themselves far more than your average just-for-the-cameras collaboration tends to suggest. She laughs when we bring it up.

“We’d just been on tour around Australia with him and his band, and we just kind of talked about what would be good to do as a duet – it’s not so much duet-y, but we both thought it would work quite nicely as a downbeat song. We’d only practised it once or twice, so that’s why we were giggling when we did it. He’s great, I really admire his songwriting.”

Is there anyone else she’d like to perform with? “Yeah, probably, but not wildly. I’m not obsessed with anyone.”

Ironic, perhaps. Plenty of avid listeners are going to be utterly besotted with Courtney Barnett.

Playing Glasgow Art School on 2 Apr and Manchester Gorilla on 4 Apr. Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is out now via Milk Records