Courtney Barnett on Shitty Jobs, Free Food and the Way Her Brain Works

Australia's Courtney Barnett, who's opening for the Decemberists and Spoon at Red Rocks on May 27, may have earned more raves during this still young year than any other artists.

And she's done so in a thoroughly unconventional way.

Barnett's new album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, is hardly the sort of a self-conscious attempt at artistic myth-making that tends to make critics swoon. It's shaggy and shambling, featuring ultra-conventional instrumentation, guitar solos that accentuate passion over polish, and vocals from Barnett that are more conversational than virtuosic.

The lyrics, meanwhile, are an oddball lot whose building blocks include everyday observations and random non sequiturs. Yet they're also funny and evocative and unexpectedly moving...and a whole lot more.

In conversation, Barnett is casual and offhand, responding to questions about the year or so since she was finally able to quit her job as a bartender in a laconic manner that's charmingly show-biz free, even when the topics touch on her newfound acclaim — as they do at the outset of our conversation.

Michael Roberts: I recently stumbled upon the review of your new album in Rolling Stone, and it ended with something like – I'm paraphrasing here – “We're going to be listening to her for decades.” Is that inspiring? Is it intimidating? Or it just kind of stupid?

Courtney Barnett: (Laughs.) I guess it depends on who's taking it totally as the gospel. I'm going to be making music forever. Whether people are listening to it or not, I don't know.

Is there anyone who you're sure you'll be listening to in decades?

Like who's around now? Or people who've come and gone?


I'll probably be listening to the same stuff I'm listening to now, forever. Like, my brother gave me a Jimi Hendrix album when I was a kid and I fucking love it. I still listen to it and I'll be listening to it when I'm eighty.

I understand it hasn't been that long since you were paying the bills working as a bartender. How long has it been since you gave that up to concentrate entirely on music?

I think I left last February.

Do you miss it at all?

Yeah, a little bit, but not really (laughs). I've always been working shitty little side jobs to make money, but I was always trying to get out of shifts so I could go to rehearsal or drive somewhere to play some gig in whatever band I was in. It was fun and I always worked with cool people, but I don't really like serving people alcohol until they get drunk and fall down.

Did you get good material, at least? People have been known to overshare with bartenders.

Kind of. Most of my songs are kind of about myself. But everything helps to get you a better insight into the world around you. It's just like a big, ongoing lesson into how people think and how they act and how their behavior changes in whatever scenario. So it probably helped add to some material.

You're a very observant songwriter. Is there a sort of bell that goes off in your head when you hear something or see something and realize, “That could be a song someday”?

Yeah, probably – something enough to write it down. I don't know if think along the lines of “This could be a great song.” It's more along the lines of “This is an interesting thing. I should keep track of this memory, so I don't forget it.”

One of the nice things about all the acclaim that's been coming your way is the fact that your work is so idiosyncratic. But over the years, there have been plenty of artists who started out idiosyncratic and then the record-company guys sanded off all the rough edges. Have you ever had people in the business who've tried to convince you to stop doing all the things that make you an interesting songwriter in the first place? And if so, was that advice easy to ignore?

I think I've been pretty lucky…. Well, not pretty lucky. I think I've just surrounded myself with people I work with or people I associate with who don't think like that. Or if they do, I think I'm too stubborn anyway to let that happen. I think we just live in a different world, where people who are around me know I'm not the type of person who would change my path to fit whatever somebody wants of me. They can just find someone else if that's what they want.

Is that a quality of yours that's always been there, apart from the music? Are you the kind of person who, once your mind is set on something, it's pretty hard to change it?

I think so. But at the same time, I'm very indecisive. So when I do set my mind on something, I recognize it must be a pretty serious thing (laughs). Other decisions take months for me to get to the bottom of.

What's an example of something you're indecisive about? Is it everybody things, like “What do I have for breakfast?”

It's everyday things, yeah. Like what am I going to order at this restaurant. It kind of stresses me out. And I'm pretty bad at organizing more than one thing in one day. If I'm meeting someone at two and someone asks me to meet at five, then I cancel everything and just stay home.

A lot of people seem to focus on the humor in your music, even though it's a relatively small part of what you do. Do you think there's so much attention paid to it because so much music out there is humorless?

Dunno. I'm sure there's lots of stuff out there that I listen to that's pretty funny. But I can't think of any of it right now (laughs). I don't think I'm really funny-funny. I think people just find the humor in those small little throwaway sentences. Some of them are funny because they're kind of dark but true. Or you see a kind of realness in them, and that's what makes them funny. They're not ha-ha funny.

For me, what you're describing really comes out in the song “Small Poppies.” You're talking about watching the lawn and thinking it's kind of mean to cut it, and then, all of a sudden, you segue into admitting that you've dreamed about stabbing a guy with a coat-hanger wire. Does that kind of juxtaposition just happen in your songwriting process, where you're going in one direction, and then suddenly it's going in the opposite direction?

Yeah. I think that's just how my brain works. It goes off on big tangents. That song, even though it seems like a wild jump, it's all just kind of as it happened. I've never noticed how that song relates to the album title, “Sometimes I sit and think.” The start of that song is just sitting and staring out the window and something being created from whatever I was seeing. It's kind of a lazy little “small poppies” metaphor with the grass. But then I guess things just naturally go on to the next thought, and that one kind of flowers and it keeps going.

So for you, that doesn't seem like a leap, because you can see all the steps that led to it?

Yeah. And I guess that probably happens all the time, unless I explain every word in all my songs.

Which probably some people have asked you to do. Does it get irritating to feel like you're supposed to break down every single thought and word in your music?

It does, but I understand. Sometimes I listen to other songs and I want to know, “Are you saying it this way or that way?” Or “What is this song actually about?” Sometimes you can't really tell what someone is talking about, or you interpret it a totally different way. I get the interest, and obviously it's good that there's that interest – that people feel that hunger to know what it means. But sometimes, I don't even know what it means.

Like a lot of songwriters with great lyrics, the words seem to get mentioned a lot more than the actual music. Does that seem strange to you? Does it ever make you think, “You know, this song has music, too. There's a band here. There are people actually playing instruments”?

Yeah. A lot of people show an equal interest in the music, but there's definitely been a kind of uncanny focus on the lyrics lately. And the music, I'm stoked on the music that we make (laughs).

Your music is very basic, very simple. Do you see yourself adding more layers and taking more advantage of technology over time? Or for you, do you prefer to make the songs as straight-forward as you can?

It just kind of becomes apparent as it happens. A lot of it's simple because I was trying to strip songs down and see how simple I could make them. Sometimes it gets a little bit boring, I guess, and you want to see how far you can stretch something in the opposite direction. I guess it just depends on my mood when I'm writing and how the lyrics relate. I'm sure I'll probably try a million other things as time goes on. But I've just been focusing on slight simplicity to keep a focus.

Is it easier to tell if a song is really working when it's just you and your guitar, plus bass and drums?

Yeah. That's one way to test it. And I write all the songs just on guitar, with me. So they start out even simpler. Sometimes it's quite interesting to imagine how a five minute song with four chords can still be interesting. But obviously, the dynamic of the band fits together in its own way. And over the years – five years or however long this project has been going – I've played with a bunch of different people, and up to five people in the lineup. Trying to flesh it out and add keyboards and harmonies. So when we stripped it down to a three-piece, it was actually quite liberating to know that you could still make a song work. I guess the song is the signal that it can be okay. That it's still as powerful, if not more powerful, that way. It's a funny little thing.

When you've talked about your influences, you've mentioned a lot of music from the past. Are there really current artists who are influential on you, too, that people might not have picked up on?

There's this band in Melbourne called Dick Diver. I've actually been following them for years, and they've been one of my favorite bands and always been quite inspirational to my songwriting. They're around my age or maybe a little bit older than me. We've just kind of been in close proximity. And I feel like I missed a lot of music when I was growing up, and I'm still finding them.

Is there any older band that you've just discovered? One that's been around for years but you've just realized how good it is?

I think I did that with Sleater-Kinney. I'd never listened to them much before.

That's a band that's never made a bad record.

Cool. I'll listen to every single record then [laughs].

You've been getting a lot of attention lately, but being a critic's favorite doesn't always pay especially well. Has your lifestyle changed at all since the new album came out? Have you been able to splurge on anything?

That's an interesting question. I kind of don't spend money, because ever since I moved out of home, when I was eighteen, and started paying rent, I've got that kind of not-much-money mentality. I've always found a job that paid me enough to pay my rent and have some food, and that's kind of it. I've always been a bit of a scrounger. I've always kind of worked in bars, or my friends have worked in bars. So I get free drinks in places and then I go and see my friend, who gives me free food. I buy my clothes at the op shop [Australian slang for a second-hand clothing store] and I kind of never go crazy on spending money, because I'm not used to having it.

Well, at least you've found a career where you may still get free drinks and free food.

That's one of the advantages some time, isn't it? The old problem of paying musicians with alcohol is probably one of the reasons so many musicians turn into alcoholics.

So when someone tries to pay you with drinks, do you ask for something non-alcoholic?

Nah, I usually just have a beer (laughs).
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts