How Courtney Barnett’s Thoughts Became 2015’s Sharpest Debut
Courtney Barnett is slouched in a swivel chair, eating Cheetos for breakfast and bullshitting with her band about differing global connotations of the word “cunt.” “People react very strongly to ‘cunt’ in America,” the Australian-born indie rocker observes. “Yeah!” says her bassist, a wild-eyed dude with caveman hair who goes by the nickname Bones. “We were playing a show once, and I called our openers a bunch of sick cunts — that might have been a mistake. The crowd was like . . .” He falls into an awkward silence and throws around some offended sidelong looks.
Barnett chuckles. “ ’Sick cunts’ means, like, ‘cool dudes’ in Australia,” she explains. It’s around 9 a.m. in Los Angeles, and she’s got on basically the same clothes she wore yesterday: black jeans with a dime-size hole below the left knee, battered Doc Martens and a grungy jean jacket she’s worn more or less constantly since Levi’s marketing reps gave it to her for free last year. (“I don’t have a lot of clothes,” Barnett says.) Pinned to the pocket is a button announcing her solidarity with the Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum, an endangered Australian marsupial. Bones brings up another story of onstage obscenity: the time someone in Philadelphia yelled out “Cocktopus!” for no clear reason, and Bones, seizing the moment, mimed himself jerking off an eight-pronged penis. Which he does again now. Barnett smiles, rolls her eyes and sleepily taps some fluorescent orange dust into her mouth.
This is the touring life of one of rock’s most beguiling young stars and deftest lyricists. Barnett, 27, is a master of small-bore observations that smudge the line between profundity and banality, set atop swaggering garage riffs. The geographies Barnett narrates in most songs are tiny — drinking wine with friends in a living room; regarding cracks in a plaster wall with the interpretive scrutiny of a palm reader; riding the Epping mass-transit line in Melbourne. And yet she somehow makes her world feel improbably big.
Late in 2013, Barnett bundled her total recorded output — two EPs — into a full-length release called The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, which earned rave reviews, got her booked on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and landed her a Coachella slot. Barnett’s breakout hit, the video for which has 1.2 million YouTube views, was a psychedelic romp called “Avant Gardener,” which tells a true story of laziness and front-yard weeding that ends in a near-death experience: Hopes of growing radishes gave way to respiratory distress, a panic attack and an ambulance ride with EMTs. Barnett fills the lyrics with deadpan humor, train-of-thought Pulp Fiction references and clusters of playful rhymes: “I’m breathing but I’m wheezing/Feel like I’m emphysemin’/My throat feels like a funnel filled with Weet-Bix and kerosene.” Suspended within the song’s shaggy-dog haze, however, are deceptively dark themes of thwarted ambition and the paralyzing fear of wasting one’s life.