COURTNEY BARNETT: WE’RE IN IT TOGETHER
illustration by rachel merrill
Courtney Barnett has been called the voice of her generation and Australia’s answer to Bob Dylan—and she was nominated for a Grammy, too—but there’s just no possible way to imagine any of that going to her head. Instead, she’s just like you’d think she’d be from listening to her songs, which start somewhere in the dreary part of the every day and discover—with modesty, precision and humor—the kind of meaning you’ll think about for a long time. Her debut studio album Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit is out now on Milk Records and she joined us for a few minutes by phone to talk about her favorite soon-to-be-extinct animal, all the ways in which your brain fucks with you, and why she generally tries to refrain from shoplifting. She performs at the Glass House tonight, April 14, and at Coachella this weekend. This interview by Kristina Benson.
I’ve learned that you are a fan of the the Leadbeater’s Possum, one of Australia’s most adorable endangered animals. I looked them up and the adjectives most associated with the Leadbetter’s Possum are ‘primitive,’ ‘relict,’ and ‘non-gliding.’ Which of those adjectives best describe you and your music?
Courtney Barnett: Ha! ‘Non-gliding’ sounds like a good representation. I never really thought of myself in those kinds of terms.
Is that your favorite endangered animal?
Courtney Barnett: My favorite is the koala. It’s not as endangered—it’s on its way to serious endangerment. They’re so cute!
In ‘Caravan,’ you talk about seeing a dead seal on the beach, and then picking up a flyer about the barrier reef. You know that horrible picture of the polar bear clinging to a tiny block of ice?
Courtney Barnett: No—but I can imagine.
That photo really crystallized how I felt about the environment. I’m wondering if that moment in ‘Caravan’ did the same for you.
Courtney Barnett: Yeah—it was a real moment. I went away down the coast to do some writing, and I guess … I have those moments all the time. There’s not one moment that jumped out, but every couple days it happens, it feels like. But down on the beach there was a feeling of hopelessness—of not being able to do anything. It all came together, and I tried to represent that in that song as best I could.
That song has a real sadness to it—a lot of your songs do in a certain way. It reminds me of Billy Bragg. Some of his songs just seem so tragic, even when they’re hopeful—like what he’s singing about will never happen, and that makes it even worse. As I listen to your record I’m like, ‘She’s right—we’re totally fucked!’ But maybe there’s an optimism I’m missing?
Courtney Barnett: Interesting point cuz I’ve been thinking recently and trying to determine whether I’m an optimist or a pessimist. I feel like even though I’m very pessimistic, I’m optimistic enough to keep going and trying and learning. If you’re not optimistic about the world you live in, then you’re in trouble. But a lot of the songs are still veering to the darker or more pessimistic side. The lightness is that we’re in it together and trying to make sense of it. That’s kind of the most optimistic thing I can think of.
You say we’re all in it together—like ‘Depreston’ is about a house hunt in a city that’s very far away from where I am, and yet I recognized every detail as resonating with my own local experiences. As you’ve been traveling so much lately, are you coming to realize that your songs are more universal than you realized?
Courtney Barnett: I definitely figured that out. I never felt that it was my own struggle—I think I knew that it was universal, but I didn’t know how much it would be picked up on emotionally. So many people connected with it emotionally. And yeah, and it’s extremely universal—we all need food and shelter in whatever level it is. There are two things as humans that we can kind of connect with.
Many of the songs on the record are about things that have happened to you in your daily life. Now I imagine much of your life is preoccupied with band stuff. Is this changing what you write songs about? Or the way you write about living your life?
Courtney Barnett: It’s more about the thought surrounding those moments. It’s hard to explain. I still do plenty of other stuff that’s not those kinds of boring things. But a lot of my songs focus on the little moments anyway. It could be looking out the window of whatever vessel I’m traveling in, and noticing something kind of beautiful out the window and turning that into a whole story of its own. Even though the environment is the same, it’s not really a story about touring—it’s the byproduct of it.
You’ve talked often about how you have a lot of anxiety and have a hard time making decisions. Is touring a good fit for you? I mean—when you’re touring, your job is essentially reduced to one task: getting to a certain place at a certain time.
Courtney Barnett: That’s a good way of looking at it. The brain will find its own way to fuck with you even though it seems like it should be pretty straightforward. I end up creating situations or ideas or developing new OCD things or something turning into anxiety, even though I really don’t want to. I think it ends up coming back at you in a different way, which is kind of a bummer.
You’ve also said you struggled to make the album, and then once you did, you didn’t know how the songs fit together. What did this album need for you to feel like it was really finished?
Courtney Barnett: That’s just the hardest question of making music, I think. For me anyway. I never know what I’m doing or when it’s finished. I’ve always just trusted my kind of instinct, which is hard. You kind of know when it’s not right—if you just keep following that, you’ll get to something that is right.
‘Elevator Operator’ is about someone doing something completely normal—riding the elevator to go to work —but an observer thinks that he must be doing something completely crazy—riding the elevator to go jump off the roof and commit suicide. What was the last time you did something totally normal but another person thought you were about to do something totally crazy?
Courtney Barnett: The underlying theme of that song is judgment. People judge you wrongly based on their own ideas or perceptions. I feel like a lot of the time when I’m shopping, people think I’m going to shoplift. I don’t know why cuz I’m really nerdy and I’d never steal anything from a store. I’d be too scared!
Because you’re too scared of being caught? Or you think stealing is wrong?
Courtney Barnett: Like I’d get in trouble. I must look guilty. Or because I’m a bit scruffy so they think I’m a thief. And when you think someone’s looking at you, you get more guilty-looking cuz you’re trying not to look guilty!
COURTNEY BARNETT WITH ALVVAYS ON THURS., APR. 14, AT THE GLASS HOUSE, 200 W. 2ND ST., POMONA. 8 PM / $25 / ALL AGES. THEGLASSHOUSE.US. AND AT COACHELLA ON FRI., APR. 15, AND FRI., APR. 22. COACHELLA.COM. COURTNEY BARNETT’S SOMETIMES I SIT AND THINK, AND SOMETIMES I JUST SIT IS OUT NOW ON MOM+POP MUSIC / MILK! / MARATHON / HOUSE ANXIETY. VISIT COURTNEY BARNETT AT COURTNEYBARNETT.COM.AU.