By Maya-Roisin Slater
VANCOUVER — It’s morning in Melbourne when Courtney Barnett calls me. She’s sitting in her car, wrapped in a blanket parked in her driveway. It’s raining, cold, and miserable outside. Her house has bad cellphone reception and it’s too frigid to sit on the lawn. Unpleasant circumstances aside, she’s still laughing. This situation could easily be the premise for one of her songs, because for Barnett, tragedy breeds comedy and the specifics of everyday mundanity are spun into relatable tales of heartbreak and triumph in the face of confusion.
The Australian songwriter’s journey with music started as a kid living in the suburbs of Sydney. With a cool older brother and a neighbour willing to trade mixtapes as guiding lights, Barnett started learning guitar and writing music at an early age. At 18 she started performing her solo work, and though she dabbled in collaborating with bands for a while, she maintains throughout she was always doing her own thing. In line with this independent thinking was Barnett’s move to start her own label, Milk! Records, to facilitate the release of her first EP. Now a full-fledged direct artist-to-listener operation, in the beginning Milk! Records was nothing more than a ploy to be heard.
“It was pretty basic. I didn’t really have much money so I just set up a website and released my first EP on CD and digital. Not many people were buying them because not many people knew who I was, but it was kind of word of mouth and it spread a bit, then I had some friends put out some of their music digitally. It was kind of just a store basically. I would say ‘Hey, you’re trying to sell your stuff why don’t you put it here and then maybe when someone comes to shop at the online store they’ll see my stuff next to your stuff or vice versa.’ So that was the kind of idea, power in numbers. And we all did so many shows together around then, it just kind of slowly grew a bit and we started putting a bit more effort into doing different kind of releases,” explains Barnett.
The music scene in Melbourne, which is what Milk! Records primarily supports, according to Barnett is full of casual genius. “I kind of know the ins and outs of bands here, and they’re just great people, often making one-off albums and then moving on, not bothering to tour. Which can sometimes be a bummer because people make these amazing albums and then don’t have the means to tour or they just go back to work and go on with their lives and then this amazing masterpiece just sits there, which if it was toured around the world would probably be like a huge big deal. But it’s kind of nice that sometimes those things are left unturned. I think it’s inspiring being around so much cool music and so many cool attitudes,” she says. Barnett managed to cobble together the means to get her music to other continents. With the help of money raised from localized touring, government arts grants, and labels in New York and London, she’s been touring beyond Australia regularly since the release of her double EP, A Sea of Split Peas. Her songs, which centre around exposing personal pitfalls, show that Barnett is a shy and anxious women. For her, touring was a way of facing her fears, like a kid being thrown into the pool to swim for their life. “I grew in many ways, as a musician, as a songwriter, as a person. I really had to learn some life skills and social skills. I’m very shy and not very good at socializing, but stuff like that really pushed me to have to do it. You have to meet people, you have to do press, you have to mingle with the bands, the other bands are sometimes really nice people. I try to stay open to experiences, I guess you can’t grow unless you push yourself in ways like that. It’s fun, it’s great playing your music in front of anyone, anyone who’ll listen, it’s amazing,” she explains.
Back home after a long bout of touring and summer festivals in support of her debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, released in 2015, Barnett is slowly but surely getting started on her next project.
“I’m trying to make a new album. I just get distracted a lot,” she explains. Barnett hopes to have it out by next year, that goal and many others are sitting on a list for her future. “I’ve always had a lot of things I want to learn how to do,” she says. “You know, learn how to play piano, learn how to speak French, it never happens. But maybe that’ll get better in the next year. I’ll learn how to be a better person, all kinds of things.”
Courtney Barnett plays the Commodore Ballroom April 19.BC, British Columbia, Commodore Ballroom, Courtney Barnett