How Courtney Barnett Made One of 2015's Most Clever LPs

Meet the Aussie songwriter whose upcoming debut is one of 2015's most clever LPs

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Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett's debut 'Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit' is one of 2015's most anticipated releases. Gus Stewart/Getty

In the fall of 2013, Courtney Barnett took the biggest trip of her life. The Australian singer-songwriter had just released a collection of witty, charming garage-pop jams called The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, and she was headed to New York to play a series of shows at the annual CMJ Music Marathon festival. "I'd been over to New Zealand once or twice, but never to the other side of the world," says Barnett, 27, calling from her house in Melbourne. "It was superexciting, but it was also pretty overwhelming. Like, sensory overload! I couldn't sleep at night."

In the months that followed, Barnett's popularity in the States quickly grew, helping her nab choice spots at last year's Coachella and this year's Bonnaroo — and making her proper debut LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (due out March 24th), one of 2015's most anticipated indie releases. One of the best songs on the new album, the moody, yearning "An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)," is about her overscheduled CMJ experience. "I lay awake at three, staring at the ceiling/It's a kind of off-white/Maybe it's a cream," Barnett sings in a sleepy deadpan. "I think I'm hungry/I'm thinking of you, too."

Barnett specializes in spinning seemingly mundane thoughts and events into sneakily hilarious stream-of-consciousness lyrics — sort of like a less cryptic Stephen Malkmus, or Jerry Seinfeld with a fuzz pedal. "I like to write about things that would normally be overlooked," she says. Her best-known song to date, 2013's "Avant Gardener," narrates a lazy afternoon that suddenly turns into a spiraling allergy-slash-panic-attack. Another highlight from her new album, the bright, energetic "Dead Fox," finds her in the middle of the 10-hour drive from Melbourne to Sydney, wondering whether her hay fever is about to cause a fatal collision. "Do you ever sneeze when you drive?" she says now. "I do, all the time. It's scary!"

As chill as she often sounds when she sings, Barnett says anxiety is a big part of her life. "It's something I've always suffered with," she says. "When I wasn't working, I would go kind of crazy. These days there's always something keeping my mind busy."

Barnett grew up an hour outside Sydney in a sunny town by the beach. When she was in her midteens, her family moved to comparatively cold, rainy Hobart, Tasmania. "It was actually great in the end, but I thought my life was being horribly ruined by my parents," she says. "I was so miserable. I remember listening to a lot of Nirvana in my headphones and ignoring my parents on the boat to Tasmania."

At age 20, seeking a more happening cultural scene, she moved to Melbourne, where she's lived ever since. Her goal at the time was to become a professional musician, with no plan B. "I'd been referring to myself as a songwriter since high school," she says. "I just wasn't writing any good songs."

After a few years gigging around Melbourne with bands and on her own, Barnett wrote the first songs she's truly proud of: the ones on her 2012 EP, I've Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris (later reissued as half of The Double EP). She explains her breakthrough as a question of loosening up. "The determination to write an awesome, perfect song wasn't there, which is what I had been doing up until then: trying to write a song that everyone would like," she says. "When I stepped away from that need to impress, I wrote a bunch of songs that I liked."

Last year, with the buzz around The Double EP continuing to build, Barnett and her three-man backing band — cheekily called the Courtney Barnetts — got to work on her album, recording at a Melbourne studio around the corner from her house. The new LP's soft-loud guitar dynamics echo her teenage love for Nirvana at times, and the inspiration for the album's swirling psychedelic textures came from a less-expected source. "I kept coming back to A Ghost Is Born," Barnett says, citing a key experience rocking out to Wilco's 2004 LP on another Sydney-to-Melbourne road trip. "I love how it goes from extreme quietness to excruciating noise."

Barnett took her time finishing the album — "It takes me a long time to make decisions," she says — and completed it last spring. Now she's gearing up to promote it with her highest-profile tour yet, including a run of U.S. shows in the spring and summer. "We like playing loud, and kind of rough," she says of her band. "It's going to be really fun."

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit can be pre-ordered here

From The Archives Issue 1228: February 12, 2015
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