From pizza delivery girl to Jimmy Fallon: Courtney Barnett's star is on the riseMusic
Courtney Barnett: ‘‘I don’t feel I know everything — or maybe anything — about myself.’’
"I hate going anywhere," admits Barnett, sitting down to an organic vegetarian lunch on Fitzroy's Brunswick Street in Melbourne. "I'm really excited to travel and play all these different places, but if I had it my way I would stay inside, maybe go to the back garden or walk around the corner to the shops. That's it."
Many of the references to people and places in Barnett's music can be geographically pinned to in and around her local shopping strip, High Street in Thornbury in Melbourne's inner north. However, the intimate has started to become universal with a growing fanbase that's expanding quickly in North America and now Europe even as she hits unexpectedly quick milestones at home such as a forthcoming run of sold-out shows at Richmond's Corner Hotel and the Oxford Art Factory in Sydney.
Success shouldn't be an issue for Barnett's ego, however. "I'm self-deprecating – I spend a lot of time telling myself that things are OK, as opposed to having to tell myself to get over things," she says.
"I don't know anything else other than what goes through my head," notes Barnett, and her songs suggest that's a great deal. One of her best compositions, the urgent History Eraser, is an extended suburban fever dream – "I touched on and off and rubbed my arm up against yours," she sings, experiencing attraction on public transport, "and still the inspector inspected me" – that builds to a delirious level of whimsy and social observation.
The song has four verses, but Barnett originally wrote 30 of them over three days when she retreated to Hobart to stay with her parents and get away from outside distractions. Barnett is often labelled a slacker, both for her nondescript demeanour and laid-back outlook, but she's matter-of-fact about dedicating herself to songwriting when required and working her way through the subsequent touring.
It would be more accurate to say that she's unimpressed by the totems of success. In April, Barnett made her American network television debut, playing her breakthrough single Avant Gardener to the 4 million viewers of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. It signified Barnett's elevation far beyond her contemporaries and was greeted by many here as the occasion for a victory lap. Barnett was not one of them.
"Not to sound like I'm ungrateful, but it wasn't my goal in life to do that," she says. "We're a very success-driven culture, which is such a downer at times. Even if you don't think that way, you're forced to think that way. Everyone is trying to subconsciously out-do everyone else."
Barnett hasn't had that mentality since she was a competitive tennis player as a teenager. She grew up in Mona Vale on Sydney's northern beaches, the younger of two children to a ballerina mother and graphic designer father. Barnett was "the biggest tomboy" in ballet class, throwing it in for tennis at age 10, which she played with a temper she inherited from her dad.
At age 16, less her older brother, the Barnett's relocated to Hobart, where she finished high school, started a fine arts university degree, delivered pizza to places she graded on the "I might get stabbed here" scale, and had an epiphany watching Magic Dirt's Adalita Srsen perform at Hobart's Republic Bar.
"Until I was 18, music was a CD that comes from America, and you'll never be able to do it because you're not a famous person that comes from America," Barnett says. "Then there's a women from Geelong, howling and smashing her guitar into the roof. I was like, 'What is this? It's awesome!'"
What's happening now, eight years later, is occurring with Barnett's recently recorded debut album not due for release until March or April of next year. Her current release, the self-descriptive The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas gathers together her early work, and has already sold more than 20,000 copies in North America. Barnett's independent mindset has her licensing her music through Milk Records, the label she runs with her partner, singer-songwriter Jen Cloher.
Retaining control can come at a literal price however. Barnett set the postage cost for buying The Double EP on vinyl (her preferred format) through the Milk Records website at $10, the same figure that they used for Cloher's 2013 album In Blood Memory. But Barnett's two-disc release weighed twice as much as Cloher's, and they made a loss of up to $40 an order on the postage for some of the international sales.
"If I make a wrong decision I worry what might have been. I stress out over very insignificant things," says Barnett. "I have a few fears because I'm a stressful person who worries about everything. I'm worried about general life-wasting and I'm really bad at decision-making."
Nonetheless, Barnett continues to gain career momentum. From mid-October there's two months of touring in North America and Europe, now as a four-piece with addition of previous occasional live collaborator and now album co-producer Dan Luscombe (the Drones), before the focus turns to 2015's debut album. What does it all mean? Mainly less time for her back garden.
"I don't feel I know everything – or maybe anything – about myself," decides Barnett. "You grow up thinking you'll figure out what you want to do and what person you want to be, but right now I feel all right with not knowing."
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