Courtney Barnett shuffles onto stage as if she hopes nobody will notice until shes already playing. Not a chance; at Seattles Neptune Theatre, where Barnett is opening for Sharon Van Etten, the venue is already packed, and the crowd rouses and cheers when the Australian singer-guitarist appears with her band. This is no ordinary act.
Seattles taste-making public-radio station, KEXP, has devoted a lot of airtime to the 26-year-old Barnett, especially her breakout single Avant Gardener. The catchy rambler, about a severe allergic reaction Barnett suffered in the garden, had music critics falling over themselves, as well. Pitchfork even named it a Best New Track of 2013.
I think its hilarious, Barnett says of the songs popularity. It seems to me that Avant Gardener is the most un-radio song.
Barnett, speaking over Skype from Melbourne, where shes returned for a break before the next leg of her first lengthy U.S. tour, adds that she wasnt sure anyone would even give her a shot when she first started writing music. So, in 2012, she launched her own label, Milk! Records, and released two consecutive EPs.
I didnt think finding a label was a possibility, she says. Plus I like to be involved in that part of the process. Its fun to be in charge of that stuff and do whatever I want to do.
Barnetts first EP, Ive Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris, put her name out there, but the follow-up, How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose—which includes Avant Gardener and the infectious History Eraser—landed her international acclaim. Shes since re-released both as The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas on U.S. label Mom + Pop.
Back in Australia, the local community stations were really supportive, Barnett says. Theyre the equivalent of your college stations—volunteer broadcasters and stuff. They got behind us a lot.
Another early advocate proved particularly crucial. Barnett received a coveted artists grant from the Australian government to help cover the costs of recording.
It makes such a huge difference, she says. I feel so lucky that we can do that. I mean, its not like theres tons of money just lying around to record songs with. Every dollar counts. I remember the first time I went to America and it came up in conversation. They were amazed that such a thing exists—and jealous!
Barnett writes songs that feel like road trips, with scenery that passes by swiftly but is transfixing even when its mundane. Shes a master of deadpan delivery, with clever lyrics that range from dreamlike to stolen-and-reassembled snippets of conversation. Her ambling garage rock has hints of folk and country jangle and a serious penchant for psychedelic harmonies and feedback.
In fact, when I tell Barnett that her Seattle show reminded me of my 90s shoegaze days, she sounded genuinely pleased. Sick! she exclaims. Perhaps shes just relieved not to be compared to Bob Dylan, as happens so frequently.
The Dylan comparisons can be frustrating, she says. I love Dylan, obviously, but it feels like a lazy comparison when people do it. They basically see anyone with a guitar, and, you know, songs: Oh, its the electronic Bob Dylan! Oh, its the goth Bob Dylan!
Barnett, who first picked up a guitar when she was 10, says she grew up listening to whatever her older brother did: Guns N Roses, Silverchair, Nirvana. Kurt Cobain is another comparison she gets a lot—Rolling Stone suggested that Barnett was the creative offspring of the late singer and the Moldy Peaches Kimya Dawson. Barnett, whos slight and tomboyish, with shaggy hair and a tour uniform of a striped tee, jeans and Chelsea boots, shares a certain je ne sais quoi with Cobain. She has a knack for pop music but more of a punk attitude. She can bend a turn of phrase around a melody like nobodys business.
Sometimes theyre just observational, she explains of her lyrics, not really a story, just more of what I see around me. It doesnt always have a narrative.
Everyone has influences, and they creep in a bit, she adds. Nobody is 100- percent original. You just have to take those little pieces and make your own thing.
Barnetts wrapping up her first fulllength album and has been testing a few new songs on the road.
Its in a similar vein to our other songs, but musically might be a bit stronger, she says. Weve been touring together for a year as a band, and were a lot tighter now. The last album probably had 25 musicians on it, friends who dropped by to help out. This one was recorded with a solid four.
Shes also overcome her early stage fright. I used to be a nervous wreck, but after this tour, Ive become more comfortable, she says. I finally feel natural up there.
Barnetts touring band—which includes bass player Bones Sloane and drummer Dave Mudie—may be only three strong, but they bring a big sound. Everyone at the Neptune stood rapt and nodding as Barnett wailed, shaking her lowered head and cracking an occasional impenetrable smile.
When the band finished, at least a third of the room cleared out. At that moment, it felt like nobody could follow an act like that.
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