Courtney Barnett hated the sound of picks on acoustic guitar, so she developed her own fingerpicking style. Barnett is shown here performing during the Pitchfork Showcase at Mohawk Outdoor during SXSW 2015 in Austin, Texas.
Photo by Chris Kies.
Courtney Barnett seems to be everywhere. The Australian songwriter’s latest release, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, entered Billboard’s Independent Album list at No. 1 and Top 200 at No. 20. She is on list after list of must-hear new artists. She is the darling of mainstream and alternative critics. She is featured in a small army of publications online, in print, on the radio, and on TV. She is touring the world and is slated to play a host of important festivals this summer.
In a word, Courtney Barnett is suddenly ubiquitous.
The rock press is smitten with Barnett’s quirky rambling lyrics, deadpan vocal delivery, and unorthodox songwriting, but her real charm—at least if you play guitar—is that those qualities sit upon a bed of dense feedback, oddball oscillations, and good-old-fashioned-fuzzed-out-hook-driven riffage. Need proof? Check out the relentless fuzzfest of her single “Pedestrian at Best” or the righteous feedback assault amid the otherwise laid-back vibe of 2013’s “Avant Gardener.” Her guitar chops are formidable, if unusual—she doesn’t use a pick but also doesn’t employ traditional fingerpicking—and her guitar-centric approach is fundamental to her sound. “I do my own thing,” she says. “Which is different but still cool.”
Barnett usually tours as a trio—her band features Bones Sloane on bass and Dave Mudie on drums—but in the studio she augments the lineup to include Australian ace Dan Luscombe. “He is a pretty fucking incredible guitarist,” Barnett said about Luscombe’s abilities. Along with Barnett and engineer Burke Reid, Luscombe also coproduced the new album. “I wanted a bit of a different perspective because I spent so long inside my own head writing it all,” she says.
On the road and bouncing from continent to continent, Barnett spoke to PG from a somewhat rural part of the U.K. to discuss her gear, unusual playing style, songwriting, the challenges of playing covers, and the role of humor in music.
Where did you find your Harmony guitar and what’s so special about it?
I found it in this store just outside of Melbourne—I’m left-handed and it’s hard to find guitars. It was the first nice guitar I bought myself. Before then I had an acoustic and a shitty old electric that I got when I was a kid. [The Harmony] was always pretty special, but then I took it on tour and it got a crack in the back. It’s got one of those floating bridges and it just went out of tune halfway through every song. I started playing a bit harder and it just wasn’t right. I keep it at home now and play it there.
Barnett rocks her lefty Telecaster live at The Mohawk during SXSW on March 18, 2015. Fun fact: This lefty can play a regular guitar upside down if she has to. Photo by Chris Kies.
You tour with the Tele now?
Yeah. The Tele was kind of the perfect fix for that. It keeps its tune so good and I just like the tone on it. It’s all pretty simple. I just got a Jag as well—a couple of months ago—and that’s pretty fun to play. Dan plays a Jazzmaster on a lot of the new album and I needed that kind of gritty guitar and tremolo to recreate some of the album sounds.
Is it a stock Jag?
I think so. I got it from a friend. It’s a lefty.
You’ve said before that you can play a right-handed guitar flipped upside down. Why don’t you just do that?
Well, I can play a shitload better on a left-handed guitar. I play averagely upside down. I learned from so many years of picking up other people’s guitars and messing around on them. I probably couldn’t do a very good gig on an upside-down guitar. I could if I had to, but it would be a pretty bad gig [laughs].
Do you experiment with open tunings or do you do most everything in standard?
All of the album is in standard, but for years I’ve mucked around with other stuff—it just hasn’t eventuated into songs yet, or not complete songs. I play second guitar with [Australian-based singer/songwriter] Jen Cloher and she uses really weird tunings. I don’t even know what they are ... just strange tunings. I also used to play slide guitar in a band, so obviously I did then. I mostly played in open G.
And the songs with Jen use tunings she’s invented?
She does weird stuff because she reckons she doesn’t know any names of chords, she just does things by ear. Like those weird Joni Mitchell, strange Sonic Youth tunings—every song’s something different. I never know what she’s doing.When I play with her, I just play second guitar in normal tuning and play lead around her parts.
You have a unique playing style that uses your thumb and fingers. Do you ever use a pick?
No. When I started doing gigs I was doing acoustic songwriter shows. I hated the sound of picks on acoustic guitar, so I never used them—I just developed whatever I do now. I feel like it gives me more freedom to do stuff, though I can probably play a shitload better with a pick.
When you’re playing single-note lines, it looks like you hold your index finger as if it were a pick.
Yeah, that’s right.
What do you use for pedals? I think I saw a Fulltone OCD. What else do you have down there?
I really like the OCD. For ages I’ve had this cheap delay pedal—I don’t know what the brand is—but it’s cool for creating sounds. Before I started this tour I got some new pedals and I’ve been mucking around with a couple of them to recreate some of the many different sounds and levels from the album. I got a chorus pedal, which is really fun, and a kind of Muff pedal. I had a tremolo pedal but I just didn’t like it. It’s hard to switch because I’m doing rhythm and lead together and it’s about keeping that rhythm and consistency going and still being able to do some crazy shit on top of it. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right balance.