“I love board games,” grins Courtney Barnett, drawing out all the vowels in her endearing Melbourne twang. “I like Bananagrams, and Scrabble. Can’t go wrong with Scrabble. But I lose patience when people take ages, it can be a bit of a mood killer…”
No surprise that word games are pretty high up in the eyes of a woman being championed as one of the most exciting songwriters of her generation. Swinging back and forth in a rocking chair upstairs in the dressing room area of The Fleece in Bristol, Barnett is exactly as you’d expect her to be: a little bit shy, with all the dry humour of her latest singles Avant Gardner and Pedestrian at Best. Her debut album proper, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, released last month on her own label Milk! Records, cements her status as a super-talented storyteller and poet. With her slightly cynical view of the world, Barnett’s songs are all witty observation and thoughtful confession. Listening to the new record feels like having a deep conversation with a close friend: there’s comedy, but there’s also pain. Her lyrics are so honest that meeting her person is quite a strange experience, as you feel like you already know her. How to break the ice?
Luckily I’ve had plenty of time to prepare. Barnett and team got stuck on the motorway, delaying their arrival into Bristol by about four hours. I killed the time playing board games with a friend in a nearby pub. So I tell her what we’ve been up to, and we discuss the merits of various games for a little while before moving on to talk about last night’s gig.
“Brighton was really fun. It was our first show of this tour so it was cool. It was a good crowd, everyone was in a good mood.”
You’d expect spirits to be high. They’re fresh from charming crowds across Austin, Texas at SXSW, where Barnett won the Developing Act Grulke Prize. The award, named after the festival’s creative director who died in 2012, is given to artists who are breaking new ground with their creativity and showing the most promise in achieving their career goals. Past winners include Haim and The Flaming Lips.
“Texas was cool!” she enthuses. “It’s a very hectic place. I’ve never been to SXSW before, everyone goes there trying to do their music stuff and there’s a million bands, everyone in the music industry… it was kind of hurting my head a little bit walking round and seeing how much stuff was going on. But we had some really fun shows, I was really happy.”
After a sold-out couple of weeks in the UK, Barnett and co will head back to Australia for a homecoming tour which has just been extended with even more dates across April and May, before they embark upon a string of dates in the US until the middle of June. I wonder what she does to prepare for life on the road. Does she cram in the home comforts?
“Not really! I work from home a lot when I’m at home, I hang out with my friends, and I leave everything until the last minute. Every time I go on tour, I have the panic of running around trying to do everything the night before!”
Working from home involves taking care of Milk! from her front room. She tells me that Jen Cloher and Jen Sholakis are “basically running it at the moment”, while she does what she can over the internet. Cloher is Barnett’s girlfriend of four years, whose latest record In Blood Memory was released on the label in 2013; Sholakis is Cloher’s drummer. The label is home to a handful of Aussie bands and artists, one of whom she’s brought with her on tour.
“This is Frazer A. Gorman,” she introduces him. “We’re putting out his record in June. It was his birthday last night!”
I ask him if he enjoyed himself, opening up their first UK show on his birthday?
“I had a blast. England’s cool!”
“Frazer is my friend from home,” she explains later “and I can’t remember who showed me Spring King but I listened to it and loved it. Everyone gets on really well, it’s cool.”
Spring King are her other support act for the next few gigs, a punchy quartet hailing from Manchester. Pottering around backstage with Barnett’s bassist and drummer, they seem like a happy little tour family already. We remind her of when she supported Metronomy last year with a much bigger band.
“It was really nerve-wracking supporting Metronomy! Their stage was so high, and we were right on the edge, I got vertigo. I spent a lot of the gig thinking, don’t fall off! When I started this project and put out the first EP, I think I had a five- or six-piece band and everything was kind of getting lost. We did most of our touring last year as a three piece. A triangle of…” she trails off into her thoughts. “I don’t know. It’s nice. It happened naturally over time, I was having friends play with me and they were all in other bands, doing their own thing, so now it’s just me, Bones and Dave. I think that affected the sound of the album too.”
I heard that the album was recorded in ten days?
“Yeah, we recorded it really quickly! I like to capture the moment. I didn’t show the band the songs until a couple of weeks before, it keeps everything fresh. You can hear ideas being made in the recordings of the songs!”
But then it took quite a while to actually release it?
“We were touring so much last year, it just made most sense to release it now so I wasn’t putting too much work on myself. But it feels so good to finally release it. Every time you work on something you want to get it out there straight away, but it’s good to have a plan in action and get everything right. I wanted the artwork to be all nice.”
The doodles on Barnett’s record sleeve are all her own. I ask if she had a clear vision of what she wanted. “Well, it all kind of goes together. I chose the orange vinyl to match the artwork on the front. In Australia the records are white. I just wanted to do something cool, because last time I did normal black vinyl, and coloured vinyl’s fucking awesome!”
The hidden track is pretty awesome too, I tell her.
“Yeah! That’s only on the limited edition one, the orange one, and there’s a locked groove at the end of the track. I got that idea from Midnight Oil, an Australian band. I thought it was cool. It seemed like the right song to do it on, because it’s so fucked up at the end.”
Are you putting anything out for Record Store Day?
“I’m doing a 12” of Kim’s Caravan, the big song at the end of the album. And I’m doing a split 7” with Jen Cloher.”
In my head I can hear An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York):
Wondering what you’re doing, what you’re listening to, what quarter of the moon you’re viewing from your bedroom,” she croons; “I’m thinking of you too.”
So many songs on the album seem to reference their relationship. It’s the second time Cloher has come up in conversation, and I can’t help but ask –
Are you missing her already?
“Yeah,” she breaks eye contact for a second, “All the time.”
I change the subject. Have you been writing since you’ve been on the road?
“Yeah, I try to keep writing in my diary, even if it’s really brief, like, what’s happened that day. It just helps… and sometimes ideas come out of those situations. I think in my head I’ve already started like, six new things? But that’s what I always do. I won’t be working on the next record straight away. It’s definitely time to chill a little bit! We’ll be touring… I’ll keep writing… I just take it as it comes…”
It seems there’s no great master plan here. What is so special is Barnett’s ability to take a diary entry of just a normal day, and turn it into a clever pop song, full of humour or heartbreak. With lyrics so honest and personal, I ask if she ever finds the need to censor what she writes.
“It’s hard to tell. I think sometimes your subconscious probably censors yourself a little bit anyway, but the majority of it is pretty straight up.”
I tell her that tomorrow’s gig is cancelled. She’s got the whole day off and the weather’s nice. What does she do?
“Awe-some!” she sings. “I’ll sleep in for a little bit, but not enough to waste my only day off! I would have breakfast somewhere nice, like Eggs Florentine, or maybe some avocado. Then go to a gallery or a little museum, a little somewhere that says something about the town. I dunno! I dunno!!” she grins. “It’s cool finding new places all the time.”
It seems like she’s genuinely having an absolute blast.
“It’s heaps of fun, it’s a really lucky position to be in, to be able to play my music to people around the world, and people turn up to your shows. You want to get your message, your songs, your ideas out to people, so yeah, it’s nice when you go to the other side of the world and people turn up to your shows and sing along to your songs in France or something.”
Barnett returns to the UK in June for Glastonbury and August for Green Man, with plenty more festival appearances yet to be announced. I tell her she’ll deserve a holiday after what’s bound to be a crazy summer.