Courtney Barnett is the rare performer who comes across almost exactly like she is in song when she gets off stage. She is witty, sensitive, self-aware, and self-deprecating, comfortable expressing even the most mundane thoughts and ideas right up next to her more profound epiphanies.
On her debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, Barnett has quickly established herself as one of the leading modern troubadours. Songs range from the provocative, in-your-face anthem “Pedestrian at Best,” which challenges the listener to “put her on a pedestal and she’ll only disappoint you,” to the somber, introspective, zoomed-in examination of “Depreston.” With day-to-day sketches that sound like they’ve been cobbled together from napkin scratchings, journal entries, iPhone memos, and random musings, Barnett excels at turning the quietest details into promising clues in her never-ending search for the truth.
I had a chance to speak to Barnett over the phone from her home in Australia, and we talked about everything from her writing process to her ability to examine herself so openly to her preparations for the big summer festivals like Rock the Garden, where she is playing on June 20.
Andrea Swensson: “Avant Gardener” was such a big success. What is the weirdest thing someone has asked you about the lyrics to that song?
Nothing too crazy. I mean, you know, everybody always asks me if it was a real story. Which—I was always tried to make it pretty obvious, that it was.
When you’re writing in the first person and people know that almost everything that you’re saying is actually about you—is it difficult to put yourself out there in that way?
Yeah. I mean, I started writing as a process, or a way to process my own emotions and my own stories and my own communication. you know? It wasn’t so much about considering what other people would think of me or what they would get out of it. Even though, obviously, as I started playing them around town and stuff, you notice that’s kind of what happens. But it doesn’t really completely alter the way I write. It’s kind of the way that it works for me to process those ideas.
Specifically, I was wondering about a couple of lyrics on the new record that really hit me in the gut: “I’m sorry for all my insecurities but it’s just a part of me,” and then there’s another line, “I used to hate myself but now I think I’m alright.” I feel like that kind of process of overcoming your own self-loathing is super relatable, especially for women. What’s that like to go through that process publicly? To think about that and get comfortable with yourself on stage and as a public figure?
Well, it’s actually quite satisfying sometimes to sing—and I never had considered this before, because like I just said, I just write for me, and then it translates into whatever—but the more I’ve been singing these songs, the more it’s actually really quite therapeutic to yell lyrics like that to a crowd of strangers. [laughs] Which sounds like a weird thing to say. It’s probably some psychological thing. I think everyone’s kind of suffering those same kind of things in one way or another.
It must be satisfying to shout “Put me on a pedastal and I’ll only disappoint you.”
Haha, yeah. Well, that’s the most ironic lyric of all.
Do you remember the decision to start writing songs? Was there an artist or a specific song that inspired you?
I mean, I listened to Nirvana, and that was kind of when I was starting to write. And Silverchair, and then I got into Queen. My older brother played in a band with his friends and they would make up songs, and it just seemed like an interesting thing to try. Because I was learning all these songs, and I just wanted to—I think you naturally just want to create your own things.
Do you remember what you wrote your first song about?
Yeah, I think it was just a love song about a boy at school.
I wanted to ask you about putting out music on your own label, and starting Milk Records. Was that important to you, to have that level of independence as you were starting to release music?
Yeah, it was. I mean, it was was super low-key. I had recorded this thing at my friend’s house, and I’d been working on it for like a year in my room. So the actual record label idea was really simple and small at the start. And then after I’d done my first EP and we did a couple of other friends’ things, I just kind of figured out, along the way, that it was really satisfying, having that. It wasn’t so much about control, but just kind of being able to do what you want to do. I guess it’s kind of like owning a house instead of renting it, or something. You get to put your own things in there. And I just thought, you know, I can release plates with my faces on them if I wanted to. Even if nobody would buy them. Just to have that platform to kind of create things and try things, and if you want to be a little bit different and take risks than you can, because you’re calling the shots. It’s an important part of the creative process, to have that direction as well.
So can we expect plates with your faces on them sometime soon?
Hahaha. Well, my friend Celeste, she’s an artist and a musician, she’s been making plates—not with my face on them, but with her artwork on them. I don’t know. I think that’s why it popped in my head.
When I listen to your lyrics, I picture you constantly taking notes, pockets stuffed with napkins with little notes on them. What is your process, as you go through your day-to-day life, of capturing these little details?
That’s pretty close I guess. I’m not super disciplined—like sometimes I don’t write for ages, and then in the van here I was kind of writing. I’m keeping a journal. I try to keep a journal of all my touring just so I remember where I go and who I see and what happens. Songwriting, for me, is as much about documenting my life as it is whatever else, making records or selling records. I love looking back at old diaries and stuff, and just reading what’s going through your mind on a certain day or in a certain moment. And I remember reading back—I have journals from when I was a kid, and you kind of, you either downplay things because you’re scared someone will read it, or you over-write, in case someone does read it. So you can never tell what the total honesty is. And I always find that really interesting, reading biographies and memoirs and stuff of musicians. You always wonder if it’s the complete truth—it’s always someone’s version of the truth, but I don’t know. I just find that stuff really interesting.
I do, too. I wonder, as you go back and review older things that you’ve written, do you find your version of the truth changes?
Yeah, totally. And I mean, I’m still figuring out what parts of my own songs mean months or years on. Yeah. I mean, there’s probably heaps of parts of my songs that are my own versions of truth, and other people are probably like, that’s bullshit.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ani DiFranco, but I interviewed her a couple of years ago and she said something that’s always stuck with me, as a writer. She said, “I write myself into being.” You kind of mentioned this earlier, but do you find that process a way to further understand yourself and what you’re going through?
Oh yeah. I reckon that’s the biggest thing. Like everybody, I guess, I’m on a journey to figure out what life is about, and who I am and what it means, and all those tiny little interesting human traits that we all have, and how they differ. All that stuff is really interesting.
When you talk about being honest in your writing, have there ever been things you’ve written that are so honest that you don’t feel like you can share them?
Yeah, probably. But most of the time, I try to just trust my instinct. If I write something, then it’s obviously an important part of the process or of understanding what it’s about. I figure that if it comes up, then it must have come up for a reason. So I try to kind of honor that. But yeah. You know, keeping in mind people’s feelings and stuff like that. But I don’t know, art isn’t about making people happy, it’s about challenging people. It’s not about people-pleasing all the time. So sometimes you have to just trust that it’s for the sake of whatever.
I was surprised to read that you recorded the album in Preston, which is the subject of one of the songs. It made me wonder, have you heard from people who live in Preston? What do you think the people of Preston think about “Depreston”?
Ohh, yeah. I’ve got heaps of friends who live there. Like, I live right in the suburb next door. I saw a couple of people get on Twitter or something just saying, I don’t know, something along the lines of, “Preston’s not that bad, how dare you,” or whatever. But I think people that have that mentality are kind of missing the point of the story. It’s not really about the place, it’s about the situation. It could have been about anywhere. And you know, the title “Depreston,” it comes from a couple of things, but I was having a really rough time in my life, and I had to go there like once a week to look for jobs through a job agency. So it’s a personal side to the title, as much as anything else.
Musically, I feel like one of the biggest differences between the EPs and this record is that it feels like a really cohesive, tight band. How has your sound developed? And do you feel like you have a stronger working relationship with the musicians that are on the record?
Yeah, totally. Because we toured for a year or two before we made this, so we became tight as a band. And I mean, the biggest difference there is that the first two EPs were made just on the fly, in between working and touring in other bands and all these different musicians and different spaces. Like, we recorded half of it in a house and half in the studio on different days. So it’s just kind of all over the place. Whereas the new album is just like, 10 days, in the studio, with the same people, same environment, sonically, so I think that totally helps pull it together in that way.
The last time I saw you, you were playing a club, and now you’ve started playing all these festivals. How do you approach a show like that? Is it different than when you’re getting ready to play a smaller indoor space?
Yeah, I think sometimes. It’s always kind of different, it’s just different energy in a bigger space, or bigger crowd. But yeah, I kind of never know what I’m doing. [laughs] I just hope that I can play my guitar when I get on stage. And that I’m not too nervous, or whatever.
Courtney Barnett plays Rock the Garden on Saturday, June 20, with Belle and Sebastian, Conor Oberst, Lucius, and thestand4rd. More information and tickets here.