Indie Interview: Courtney Barnett Talks Nirvana, Pulp Fiction, And Going to Bed Early
By Matt Grosinger on February 23, 2014
Courtney Barnett is a 26-year-old Australian songwriter whose frankness arms her alt-rock songs with the charming, no-bullshit sensibility you’d expect from a close friend. Often wryly funny, Barnett has a cool camp counselor vibe and speaks like you would expect based on her music: concise and to the point. We caught up with her before she made the 15+ hour flight from Melbourne to embark upon her first North American tour in support of her debut double EP to discuss Lou Reed, Pulp Fiction, and not planning for the future. Check out our Q&A with the rising indie rocker, and catch Barnett at the Bootleg Theater in L.A. tonight, February 23.
Where in Australia are you from and what did you listen to growing up?
I am in Melbourne now, but I grew up in Sydney. I lived in Hobart for a little bit in Tasmania. Music wise, I grew up with bands like Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix and other ’90s shit. And then in the last few years I have started listening to Lou Reed, Television, Stephen Malkmus, the Talking Heads, and stuff like that. That has inspired my songwriting.
What book are you going to bring for downtime on your first American tour?
Ah, I was trying to decide what book I should bring, because it’s got to be kind of small to not impose in my bag. I just finished two books over the weekend and I need to make a good decision. I finished a biography on the Go-Betweens, and one on Paul Kelly, which was kind of cool. I love biographies! I can’t get enough of them. I was just saying to someone that I need to read more fiction.
Based on your songs, it seems like you are a pretty frank person.
I am pretty straightforward, frank, and honest — a pretty open person. I guess that comes across in the lyrics. It is sort of the natural way that I write. When you start writing gibberish, it is just kind of the natural thing that comes out.
I recently wrote out an email to someone like that. I wrote it in pieces that didn’t make sense until I was completely finished.
That kind of makes sense. That is how my songwriting is, in a way. I have ideas that I don’t even understand — if it’s a song about a friend or a relationship — and it’s kind of me trying to figure out my feelings until I get to the point where I understand.
What kind of relationship was “Anonymous Club” inspired by?
It was about feeling comfortable around really close friends. It’s kind of like friendships where you don’t have to talk or justify your friendship in those terms. You are just happy being together and that is what makes you feel happy and safe.
Who is the Bob Dylan-looking guy in the “Avant Gardener” video?
That is my friend Fraser A. Gorman. He is a songwriter and one of my really good friends. I roped him into doing the video. That’s just him; he just happens to look a bit like Dylan, and he loves Dylan.
Do people ever compare you to Bob Dylan?
All the time. I like Dylan, but I am not down with comparing that much. I am more of Lou Reed girl than a Bob Dylan girl. I understand why people say that because I use lots of words, but lots of people do that.
Would you consider yourself a nerd in any way?
Yes. I like going to bed early, reading books, and drawing pictures.
Did you draw the Sea of Split Peas album cover?
Yeah it’s the most appropriated bloody image in the world. But yeah I have done all the artwork for everything; I do my own t-shirts as well.
Is drawing a good outlet for you?
I kind of just draw [and write] simultaneously. I keep a journal where I draw or write—it just depends what project I am working on, but I kind of just do it all at the same time.
If you had to dance to one song for the rest of your life, what it would be?
You know in Pulp Fiction when they do the twist contest? I love that song. It’s a good dancing song.
What have you got planned for 2014?
I have written a whole bunch of songs and we are recording in April. And hopefully we will release an album at the end of the year. I am doing this [American] tour and we are doing an Australian tour with Billy Bragg. It will be really fun. And then we are doing a UK tour and then more American festivals. We are pretty busy back and forth.
Do you have any preparatory rituals for your upcoming tour?
No. I have hardly traveled, and this will be the second time I have been overseas. I am not a very good forward planner, so I just hope for the best.