She won’t say when or how long for, but there was a time when Courtney Barnett was on the dole. Following the well-trodden path of the struggling musician, Barnett tended bar at Melbourne’s Northcote Social Club for a few years. She played in some bands, including one with Dandy Warhols drummer Brent DeBoer. She most likely found herself unemployed from time to time.
We’re thankful, then, that the struggle inspired the song Depreston, a song she wrote during a recent house-hunting expedition in Melbourne’s inner-north suburb of Preston. The trip invoked memories of the times when she frequented the area.
“I live in Thornbury now [but] when I first moved to Northcote I was kind of sad and just in this bad point,” says Barnett. “I went to Preston once a week to go to Centrelink and it just became this… idea because of that memory.”
“But obviously I love Preston now. I go there all the time. I nearly bought a house there!”
The song, a cut from her forthcoming debut album, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, could easily become one of those loveable Australian sing-a-longs. It’s smart, simple, peppered with local references, and just a little bit cheeky.
Without the context of the mundane process of house hunting, the song’s gentle chord progressions are warm and captivating. But on second listen, you’ll twig. “I can’t think of floorboards anymore. Whether the front room faces south or north. And I wonder what she bought it for.”
No wonder NPR has called Barnett “the best lyricist in rock music today”.
“When I write songs like that I just try and hone in on the smaller details and focus on a small occasion, like that day or that moment, and extract everything out of it,” she says. “Like all the emotions that went through my head, and that I want to go through the listener’s head as well.”
Overthinking and turning her stream-of-consciousness into songs is part of Barnett’s brand. Pedestrian At Best, the first single off the debut LP, sees her rocking out to distorted power chords as she rambles through the yin and yang of emotions: positive vs negative, trust vs doubt, love vs hate.
She sees the tune as “that constant drone inside your head”. “When one idea stems off and goes to another place and it keeps going in a big circle; it would be nice to turn that off every now and then.”
Barnett has confessed her anxieties in previous interviews, and at a glimpse she seems like the type of person who would prefer to set herself up for failure, rather than focus on the success that’s come before her.
Throughout our interview, she prefaces her answers with an “I dunno”, unsure how to give introspective insight on her craft or answer how her life has changed. She’s just living it, day by day.
Keep in mind, though, it wasn’t until the 2013 release of The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas that Barnett began travelling overseas. Now she’s playing major festivals like CMJ, Coachella, and Bonnaroo. In April last year she made her debut American TV performance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Everything is moving at a blur.
“I guess I’m getting used to it a bit more, as much as you can, but of course it’s a weird thing,” Barnett says of her international success.
“[You] grow up watching people on TV, and people on TV are a different world away, [like] in a little box. So it’s a strange thing. But also, when you’re doing it, you realise it’s not such a big deal as what you think or what everyone thinks. It’s like a weird hyper-reality thing.”
These hyper-real moments are building. At triple j’s Beat the Drum concert at the Sydney’s Domain earlier this year, she noted to Facebook how excited she was to perform with You Am I.
“The Domain’s where I went to my first ever gig-slash-festival,” says Barnett now, referring to the all-Australian Homebake festival. “So to be back there how 10ish years later and on stage singing a song with You Am I was a pretty amazing moment.”
The days of Depreston are certainly behind her.
Courtney Barnett’s debut album, ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’, is out Friday, 20th March via Milk! Records / Remote Control Records. She’ll tour the record in May — details below.
Watch: Courtney Barnett – Pedestrian At Best
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit Album Tour
Supported by Teeth & Tongue
Friday, 1st May 2015
The Gov, Adelaide
Saturday, 2nd May 2015
The Bakery, Perth
Tickets: The Bakery
Friday, 8th May 2015
The Metro Theatre, Sydney
Saturday, 9th May 2015
The Hi-Fi, Brisbane
Tickets: The Hi-Fi
Friday, 15th May 2015
The Forum, Melbourne
Pre-sale tickets available from 9am Thursday, 12th February.
Tickets on sale to the general public at 9am Monday, 16th February.
Photos by Ashley Mar