Despite every guru's insistence that all we have is the present moment, it is an unfortunate truth in arts journalism that nothing ages faster than the topical. But to that end, sometimes the topical demands to be addressed. Case in point: the Australian bush fires, beamed to the world’s cell phones accompanied by photos of singed koalas and kangaroos silhouetted against the skeletal remnants of buildings, and still smoldering when I reach Melbourne-based indie-rock songwriter and Milk Records chief Courtney Barnett by phone.
First, a brief introduction: Barnett broke to American and European audiences via her lauded 2015 debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, garnering critical adulation for her sharp guitar work, sing-talk lilt, and stream-of-consciousness lyricism that mined the mundane with almost startling clarity (and quite the vocabulary: Barnett is the kind of lyricist who can rattle off the line "Erroneous, harmonious, I'm hardly sanctimonious" without blinking). In the years since, she’s ascended festival lineups, released second album Tell Me How You Really Feel, collaborated with fellow plainspoken songwriter Kurt Vile for 2017’s Lotta Sea Lice, and recorded her own MTV Unplugged special in Melbourne. She closed out her Unplugged with a praise-winning cover of Leonard Cohen’s "So Long, Marianne."
“I was extremely emotional that day,” she remembers. “It was a tough performance for me, but I think that’s good.”
Since then, the fires and her ongoing solo tour have been at the top of Barnett’s agenda. The daughter of a former volunteer firefighter, Barnett coordinated and headlined a pair of benefit shows in Melbourne shortly after the new year that raised some $90,000 AUD; her Twitter is peppered with climate-protest schedules and links to donate to relief efforts. She’s not alone in her efforts, especially among musicians: Nick Cave pledged some half a million dollars to relief efforts, and indie rock’s presiding grill master, Mac DeMarco, recently hosted a music-and-BBQ fundraiser with a sizable lineup including the likes of Pond, Amyl and the Sniffers, and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.
“It’s a mixed feeling of anger and extreme sadness and despair, which I think is pretty across-the-board in the whole country,” says Barnett. “We’ve been doing what we can to help raise money.”
As is increasingly the case in this day and age, the cataclysmic destruction — which, by mind-boggling comparison, dwarfs both the northern Californian and Amazonian crises — is political. Prime Minister Scott Morrison jetted off to Hawaii mid-crisis with all the political finesse of Nero and his fiddle (he’s since made a public apology). Not to be outdone, members of the opposition Labour Party inexplicably decided the time was ripe to express support for the fossil-fuel industry. Somewhat predictably, this was received about as poorly as possible by Barnett and many of her fellow citizens: In a New York Times editorial, novelist Richard Flanagan called Morrison “indifferent to human suffering,” and compared the total mismanagement of the crisis to the Soviet Union’s handling of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Barnett isn’t one to shy from the fire’s political overtones. She points to austerity measures that gutted disaster-relief funding prior to the fires and accuses government leaders of refusing to take responsibility while entertaining outright climate denial. Australia’s violent colonial history is also in play: “We live on stolen indigenous land, and we’ve come in as white people and slowly ruined it over 200 years,” she says.
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As such, realism and fatalism are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from one another. “The really sad thing is that it takes something like this for change to start happening, when it’s maybe too late and half the country has burned and half of our animals are dead and we’re probably going to lose entire species,” she says. “It’s hitting rock bottom and then deciding to make a change. Even those people in power still refuse to take any responsibility.”
In the meantime, Barnett will be watching the aftermath from the other side of the Pacific, having embarked on her first North American solo tour that brings her to the Stanley Hotel on February 8. She describes performing solo as both a step outside her comfort zone and as a way to do something more casual and intimate than usual.
“There’s nothing to hide behind. I don’t do anything fancy,” she says. “It’s refreshing, in a way; it’s a lot more vulnerable. That’s part of the challenge, you know. You can really feel the good and bad parts of the songs when you perform them.”
Courtney Barnett plays at 9 p.m. on Saturday, February 8, at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. This show is sold out.
Listen to Courtney Barnett and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.