The spirit of Courtney Barnett epitomizes punk rock, though her music’s more indie than punk. The Australian singer-songwriter is witty, crass, weird, unabashed, and content to pave her own way through her music, which melds an intensely personal vision out of the kaleidoscopic influences from which she emerged.
Even before Barnett launched her solo career, she was playing with bands that captured her affinity for living on the musical edge, which described themselves as grungy garage music and psychedelic country. Recognizing her desire to have her own career from the start (either that, or no one would sign it), Barnett founded Milk! Records in her native Australia to release her first solo EP, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris. The markedly mature debut led to her getting picked up by Marathon Artists in the UK, who connected her with Mom + Pop in the USA. Her second EP, How To Carve A Carrot Into a Rose, put a spotlight onto her work and received critical acclaim. Overnight, this independent newbie was an indie darling, holding the artistic community in awe through her way with words.
This all came before her staggering first album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. It’s a record as profound as its name, earning her a Grammy nod for Best New Artist in 2016 and propelling her from indie recognition to mainstream significance. The effort that Courtney Barnett puts into each and every song is meticulous: speaking to Vulture in 2016, she described how that album’s opening track “Elevator Operator” took her five years to write, about an experience “her friend Oliver Paul [had] going up Melbourne’s historic Nicholas Building to look out over the city, only to be approached by an upper-class lady who assumed he was intending to throw himself off the roof.”
The imagery she projects in the lyrics of “Elevator Operator” is so vivid that there’s no surprise to me that it was actually based in truth, but still it strikes me that she can pull such a universally metaphorical song out of such a concrete experience. At the same time, she’s also hilarious, putting a smile on the most somber of scenes. There’s a bite to her words, not to mention her specked, off-hand delivery, a mechanism of projection that makes her affable and endearing to the widest of audiences. She eschews guitar picks, preferring to pluck with her fingers, imbuing emotions into each chord. It’s this same ethos which is contained throughout Sometimes I Just Sit and Think…, and really all of her work. Barnett has a rare eloquence where much like Littlefinger, she can take down regimes with an aside (“Sell me all your golden rules and I’ll see if that’s the kind of person that I want to be / If I’m not happy I’ll be glad I kept receipts”).
In 2017, she toured with Kurt Vile, eventually collaborating with him on an entire album, Lotta Sea Lice. Now, Courtney Barnett’s highly-anticipated sophomore album Tell Me How You Really Feel is set to drop on May 18th. The three singles thus far retain the core of what made Barnett such a lovable musician, wrapping simple and relatable emotions in a complex tapestry of storytelling, never losing sight of where she came from (“I was walking down Sunset Strip [Phillips Island, not Los Angeles]”), but also taking a meta look at her rise and where she wants to go next. The weekend before Tell Me How You Really Feel drops, Courtney Barnett will be playing at FORM, a special festival hosted by OWSLA’s Hundred Waters and based in the architectural paradise and art commune of Arcosanti, AZ, an experimental planned community that in some ways reminds me of Walt Disney’s original Epcot vision. I can’t imagine a more fitting place, surrounded by artists and musicians all supporting of each other, to debut the new album. It will be a special and magical moment for everyone present, and serve as a breezy introduction to what the future holds for Courtney Barnett.
Tickets for FORM Arcosanti 2018 are still available, so if you have any inclination, we highly recommend you send it. Dive into the sounds of Courtney Barnett below.