Writing, Touring, Art and Life: A conversation with Courtney Barnett
Last week, Courtney Barnett took the South By Southwest festival by storm, playing a whirlwind eight shows in three days. Lest anybody miss the reason why, it was because she had a record immediately on the way, and she wanted to stamp those songs in the consciousness of the music industry folks making the rounds in Austin.
Luckily, we didn’t need a ton of convincing. Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit is out today on Mom and Pop Music, and it sounds tremendous. It’s technically her debut LP; even though many look at 2013’s The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas as a full-length in its own right – and it certainly had the impact of one – that album combined two previously-released EPs, I’ve got a friend called Emily Ferris (2012) and How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose (2013). It also has a breezier, homespun vibe, even on the rock-out moments like “Lance Jr.” and “History Eraser.”
By comparison, Sometimes I Sit is a freaking arrival, a big rock record with catchy hooks and fierce playing from Barnett and her bandmates – Dan Luscombeon guitar, Bones Sloane on bass, and Dave Mudie on drums.
Earlier this winter, I caught up with Barnett by phone while she was still back in Millbourne. She had just finished a run of dates at the multi-city Laneway Festival in New Zealand and Australia, and we talked about touring, writing, the new album and art.
The Key: Doing shows like Laneway when you’re at home versus when you’re on tour in the states or in Europe, how do they compare?
Courtney Barnett: It still feels quite tour-y, apart from the fact that your phone can work and you don’t have to wait till you get to wifi [to check email]. But otherwise, it’s just like normal tour. Waiting around and getting to places early and doing all that stuff. Being in the home crowd is kind of a bit nice though.
TK: This winter you told Rolling Stone about listening to Wilco’s A Ghost is Born when you were on drives in between Sydney and Melbourne. Without me knowing anything about the actual geography of the situation, I got the sense that you were talking about really long rides. Is that the case?
CB: Yes, those are some really long drives. Luckily we were flying on the latest tour. You have to, ‘cause it literally takes a whole day out of your schedule to drive. We’ve definitely done it a lot in the past, though. It’s kind of fun; a bit of a mission. I mean, in America, you can drive only a couple of hours and be in a completely different huge town.
TK: So, the new record. It sounds awesome. I kind of imagine that writing it was a very different experience for you; Emily Ferris came out in 2012, How To Carve A Carrot was 2013, they were combined on The Double EP in 2013, and that’s kind of where it took off and you were on tour for a year and a half. What was it like coming back from that to write this record, knowing “I’m not writing for an EP, I’m writing for what needs to be a full record.” How did it differ?
CB: Well, it wasn’t that different to be honest. It was quite a similar kind of process. The songs are still just collections of ideas and general stuff that happened. I wasn’t really tailoring my writing so it would sit on a longer player. Maybe I started to kind of look at all of the songs I had and if they would fit together and stuff like that, but otherwise, it wasn’t that different for me.
TK: Did you start writing once The Double EP was released in 2013 or did you focus on the whole touring push for a while and wait to get into writing mode later on?
CB: I was just kind of writing all over the place. While I was touring, I was making notes and then when I’d come home, I’d sit down and focus a bit more. I’m not that structured.
TK: What the earliest one was that you wrote?
CB: Some of them were slightly older, like “Elevator Operator” and “Aqua Profunda!”. I kind of started writing them a long time ago and never finished them. I think the last one I wrote was “Pedestrian At Best” and “Kim’s Caravan” maybe.
TK: What kept you coming back with those older ones? Like, did you revisit them in a notebook and say like “Oh, I want to try that again!”?
CB: Yeah, totally. I started them a couple of years ago and I kind of just couldn’t finish verses and stuff like that. I’d get frustrated and put it away, and then kept coming back to it every couple of months. And then songwriting just, you know, pops up. It popped up when I was writing the album.
TK: The album feels a bit more tipped in favor of the rock-out songs versus the slow-burners. Was that an effect of playing with the live band for the past year and a half?
CB: Definitely. It made a huge difference to the energy; we really gel as a band now after playing so much for so long. Plus they’re the kind of the songs I gravitate towards anyway, I think.
TK: So, as much I love the whole rockiness of the album, one of the songs that really stands out for me is “Depreston.” I really like the storyline, learning to newly navigate domesticity but then twisting it with “if you got a spare half-million, you can knock it down and start rebuilding”…which seems to kind of literally and figuratively talk about the ways the past is always there. Did this song spring from a personal experience or actual events? Or is it something more on the periphery than that?
CB: Oh yeah, no, it’s pretty neutral. I went to look at a house and there was a lady who was talking all about it and trying to sell it to us. And then I noticed that all this old lady’s stuff was in there; she’d passed away and the family was trying to sell the house. I just had this kind of reflective moment of life and death and getting old one day and all of your things going somewhere and someone trying to buy your house.
TK: When you’re not on tour, when you’re not in the studio, when you’re just home, what’s a typical day in Melbourne like for Courtney Barnett? Do you still have to work a day job or are you a full-time musician at this point?
CB: At the moment, I am a full-time musician and full-time record label owner so I do a lot of work on that when I’m at home. When I’m not, there’s a whole kind of circle of us who do the other work. But yeah, I just do kind of do house jobs and I’ve got a cat at the moment, looking after the cat, just general around-the-house things. Catching up with friends. I don’t know, there’s always something, I’ve always got ten projects going at one time to keep me busy so I’m always stressing about getting something done.
TK: Along those lines, you do a lot with artwork and illustrations; its on your albums and singles, you did that color-your-own digital zine last year on your website that was really cool, I thought. Beyond that, how does your artwork come into your life? Do you ever exhibit it, or is that something you would like to do at some point?
CB: Well, I’m going to start doing that this year! But yeah I’ve been, I don’t know, maybe not shy, but I kind of just do it for fun and I draw in my notebooks as much as I write. So it’s just another way for me to get ideas across. I really enjoy it, and it paints a picture for a lot of the songs and for me as well. It’s a pretty important part of the process.
Courtney Barnett’s new album, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, is out today via Mom + Pop Music. She headlines Union Transfer on Monday, June 15th; tickets are on sale now and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.