Courtney Barnett: The New Sensation
The rising Aussie guitarist with wonderfully weird tones and an oddball sense of humor.
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.
Barnett recently acquired a lefty Jaguar because she needed a “gritty guitar and tremolo" to recreate some of the sounds from her new album. Barnett is shown here performing during the Pitchfork Showcase at Mohawk Outdoor
during SXSW 2015 in Austin, Texas. Photo by Chris Kies.
Do you bring your own amps on the road?
Not yet. I pretty much just use a Fender—a Deluxe or Twin or DeVille. That's what I've got at home. It's a pretty standard amp and it's not hard to get.
I saw a concert on YouTube of you covering an entire INXS album. Is that some type of Australian right of passage?
No. [Laughs.] I can't believe that's on YouTube. A record store was doing a summer of gigs and asked musicians to pick an album they love and play it in full. I picked that one [INXS's Kick]. It's so '80s—so much production—I thought it would be funny to try and play it solo. I played it with a couple of loop pedals. It was pretty unrehearsed, which is why I'm a bit surprised it's up on YouTube and everyone seems to have seen it. But whatever [laughs] ... it was fun and a good challenge.
You won't be doing a concert of AC/DC or Midnight Oil or something like that?
No. I mean, I love those bands and every now and then we do covers of random songs. But playing an album in full is actually quite a challenge. I didn't realize until a couple of days before when I was learning the songs and I thought, “Oh no, this is a lot harder than I thought it was going to be."
Who were some of your influences growing up?
I listened to Nirvana and Jeff Buckley and PJ Harvey when I was young. And then I discovered Television and Sonic Youth and Talking Heads and stuff like that.
Is that what got you interested in the guitar as well? Or was it more for songwriting?
A bit of both, I think. My influences are from all different places. Television and Sonic Youth guitar-wise, but you know, everyone has their different good parts about them. You pick up different things from different bands.
Frank Zappa famously asked, “Does humor belong in music?" Some of your songs are really funny. What are your thoughts about humor and music? Do you think they go together?
It's totally got a place. I don't overtly try to be funny. I'm not a very funny person, so when people talk about my funny lyrics I find that kind of funny. But I think it's good to be lighthearted. A lot of it is probably sarcastic and taking the piss out of serious situations or using humor or irony to deflect other emotions. It probably borders on subconscious a lot of the time. But yeah, I think there is room for it in music, of course.
It's easy with lyrics to point that way, but do you do quirky things guitar-wise as well?
I do a lot and I think I do it without it becoming trivial or slapstick. Humor in guitar playing is awesome, I reckon. It's up to everyone's own interpretation—it might not even be on purpose. A lot of your own character can come out in how you play guitar. I did a solo on one of Jen's new songs— “Needle in the Hay"—that seems to speak of me a lot in the way I play it.
Did you rewrite and reshape some of the songs in the studio or was a lot of what you brought in recorded as is?
It was basically as we took it in. There were a couple of things we pulled apart a little bit and put back together. We tried a couple of different drumbeats—just as experiments to see how wildly they could change songs. I showed the guys the songs two weeks beforehand. We hired out a rehearsal room, learned them all, arranged them, and when we went in the studio we tracked mostly live. We did a couple of vocal and guitar overdubs and that was it.
And you recorded as a quartet with Dan Luscombe as well?
Are you playing your Harmony guitar on “Boxing Day Blues?"
No, I'm playing a friend's acoustic. I'm playing a right-handed guitar upside down. I thought the acoustic guitar sounded way nicer. I played the rhythm line and Dan did the swirly sounds in the background on the Jazzmaster or something. But the main guitar is the acoustic.
Courtney Barnett and her band perform at NPR's SXSW 2015 showcase at Stubb's BBQ in Austin, Texas. Watch a close-up of Barnett's unique playing technique (no pick!) around 2:15 and 5:00.
So “Boxing Day Blues" is actually harder to play with the guitar strung lefty?
Nah—it's probably easier [laughs]. But the acoustic sounded better, so I went for that. When I play it live, I play it on the electric with a whole shitload of delay. It's a pretty swirly kind of song.
Do you write the lyrics first—trying to craft a song toward the words—or is it more that you have a catalog of riffs, chord progressions, and things you're working with that you try to fuse together?
It's both of those things. I don't have a solid formula. I play guitar all the time and mentally store ideas or record them or whatever. I write all the time. When I sit down I try to piece them all together and see what goes where. Sometimes I just play guitar and start singing over the top of it straight away. I haven't found that one way works better than the other or anything. On “Avant Gardener" and “Pedestrian at Best"—which have been the two singles so far—I wrote the music for both of them first. We recorded them and then I wrote the lyrics and melody over the top of the tracks.
Making It Weird Enough
Australian guitarist Dan Luscombe (the Drones, Paul Kelly) started working with Courtney Barnett about three years ago. He played on her second EP, How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose, which was combined with her first EP to create A Sea of Split Peas. He's all over her new release, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, playing guitar and also as coproducer. “When she was making her second EP she was looking for people to help her record and she was on a budget," Luscombe says. “I had all this recording gear at my place and offered. I just loved her songs and thought she was doing some really good stuff."
Luscombe is responsible for the feedback madness on Barnett's unlikely hit, “Avant Gardener." “That was one of those cigarette packet [micro] amplifiers," he said. “I held it right up to the pickups and recorded that sound with a Shure SM57. It's this tiny mosquito—this thing in the mix that you just want to swat—that feels like it's in front of your face."
A big sound on the new album is an old Boss Vibrato VB-2 that Luscombe found on eBay. “I bought that pedal about a year-and-a-half ago," he says. “I found it on eBay for about $650 USD. It has an amazingly natural vibrato. It arrived from Japan and it was still in the box in the plastic. I took it on the road with me and now it just looks like a piece of shit."
He also created the otherworldly backwards sounds on “Dead Fox." “Originally I played this kind of Keith Richards melodic line," he says. “[Engineer] Burke Reid and I were listening to it in the mix and it just wasn't weird enough. We literally flipped it—we reversed the part—and when it was reversed it started playing this new melody. For the most part the melody was there, but I had to manipulate it a fair bit to get it to play an actual pleasing melodic line, but backwards. It was a kind of happy accident, really."
Luscombe also notes that Barnett has a strong affinity for a no-name delay pedal she uses. “It's just this brown box that says “Delay" on the front. She often has that set at a pretty tight slapback. She likes to leave that on. Burke and I were trying to get her away from that a few times, but that's a sound she really loves."