Q&A: Courtney Barnett on Touring America, Snow, and Her Favorite ‘Sex and the City’ Character
'I'm a pretty grim person,' notes the Australian singer-songwriter, cheerfully
The Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett is 26 years old and has just seen snow falling for the first time: “Looking out of the car window, and it’s actually snowing, like in the movies — it’s a pretty romantic thing.” She pauses in reverie, then snaps back. “Of course, the next day we were driving, and the snow was all brown-black, and the cars were dirty, and you’re thinking, Snow is so unromantic. So I wrote about that in my notebook. A little poem: ‘Snow is dirty and unromantic,’ or something.”
The dichotomy — between the beauty of falling snow and the ugliness of how it settles on a city the next day — seems like a Barnettian concept: sweetness debauched by day-to-day reality. But for her, this is more comedy than tragedy. Her first two EPs, which have just been released in America as The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, contain 12 garage-rock vignettes mostly drawn from real life, but recounted with the dizziness of a dream. In one, an enterprising gardening venture ends in a panic attack; in another, she pays tribute to another singer by confessing that she masturbates to his songs. “Doesn’t mean I like you, man,” she notes. “It just helps me get to sleep.”
Here in Los Angeles, Barnett and her two bandmates — a drummer named Dave and a bassist who is referred to onstage as Brian, but downstairs goes exclusively by Bones — are two months away from playing Coachella for the first time and one night away from finishing an eight-city U.S. tour in which every show has sold out. Despite fatigue from the latter, they play a charming, surprisingly noisy set of music punctuated by two new songs, including one called “Depresston,” because, as Barnett explains, “I recently went house-hunting, and there’s a part of Melbourne called Preston, and house-hunting can be really depressing.” During the set, Dave suffers mild injury, but continues unabated: “Any chicks out there interested in a tough guy?” Barnett asks, stepping to the side of the stage and presenting him like a game-show prize.
At the end of the night, Barnett comes on solo and plays a cover of the Lemonheads’ “Being Around,” reducing us to guests in her living room, content to stay still and be sweet. Afterwards, she gave me two cans of beer and no small amount of her time.
Are you able to write on tour?
I keep a journal and just kind of take notes. I don’t really so much sit down and write songs — I just take a lot of notes, and sometimes I sit down and put them all together. The note-taking is as important as the other bits. But yeah, I’ve been writing loads.
What stood out to you on this trip?
If I write something down, it’s normally just a sharp one-liner. Like, the other day I had an interview, and we were talking about this place in London — this late-night bar that’s always open, and it’s the last place in London you can go anytime of the night, and everyone’s allowed in, blah blah blah. And he went on to say that one of his coworkers got barred from there. It was this juxtaposition — to be barred from this place where supposedly anyone can go, and you can drink as much as you want, so if you get barred from there, it’s kinda funny. Now, I can’t remember the one line, so it doesn’t seem that interesting, but….
Must be a real moment of reckoning once you get banned from a bar like that.
Exactly. It’s a simple thing, but I found it really funny.
You work at a bar, right?
Actually, I kind of quit the other week, just before I left. I basically don’t have any days at home until the end of the year or something. So I’m like, “Hey, I can only work Tuesday this week, is that cool?” and they give me a shift. And then it’s like, “Ah, I can only work Wednesday day the next week? Is that okay?” And they’re like, “Yeah.” But now it’s like, “Well I can only work the first Tuesday of April? Is that OK?” I should just quit and stop pissing them off.
You’ve gotten a lot of international press in the past year. How has your reputation in Australia changed?
I don’t actually know yet. We did a few shows before we left, and they were actually pretty great. Like, we did two shows, and they sold out, but up until then, we hadn’t ever done a sold-out show in Australia, which is why it’s so crazy that we’ve come here and done all these sold-out shows. Up until now, it kinda felt like no one cared.
So the attention surprised you?
Yeah, of course. I mean, at home we’re just another fuckin’ band.
Well I’m a pretty grim person.
But you don’t have reason to be. In Philadelphia, you sold 700 or 800 tickets.
It’s a bit surreal, yeah, but after two weeks, I’m a bit tired.
No moments of privacy. That’s a question: “No moments of privacy?”
No moments of privacy. Yeah. Pretty much. And also, like, every interview feels like a therapy session. Not this one, but. It’s not even the questions or the interviewers, but me learning to understand things.
That last sentence was the vaguest thing you could have possibly said.
I’m just not very comfortable talking about my emotions on a normal, day-to-day basis. So when people ask, “So, why do you write about music?” I’m like [in strangled, mildly anguished voice], “I don’t know! What’s my life about? What am I doing with my life?”
A friend of mine in LA is a PhD student, and she had to interview some video artist, and earlier today she was asking me how to interview someone. I said, “First of all, don’t ask me about interviewing, because I’m terrible at it, but I can say that you shouldn’t ask artists why they make certain things, or what the feeling is behind it, because in all likelihood they’re making the thing because they don’t have another way of communicating.”
I don’t want to ask you what your favorite city was on this tour because you’re not a tourism guide. But was there a city in which you had a perfect moment? Where everything crystallized to a fine point and took on near-cosmic meaning?
Well, I did see snow. [Cue the snow story, and a long discussion of snow, including: the "snow fields" of Australia, the look of horse hooves in snow, and how to eat snow with maple syrup.] Y’know, I really want a Christmas in New York one year, when it’s snowing. Like, it’s Christmas morning, and you have a fight with someone, and you run down the street, and it’s snowing, and you can’t find them. [Laughs.] I want that. That’s all I want from my life. I want a movie moment, and then I’ll be done.
You could plan a trip around that, but you’d need to seed that fight very early. You’d have to create tension probably weeks ahead of time, and then have it boil over at just the right moment.
Do you know Bridget Jones’ Diary?
You need to go home and watch that.
I have a great sympathy for Hugh Grant.
Do you like Colin Firth?
I have no feeling about him.
Who’s your favorite Sex and the City character? We’ve been talking about it all week since we were in New York.
It’s a complicated question because—
That’s what I said.
It’s really complicated. Part of the show’s grace is that you feel like you can be all of them at different times in your life. I’m inclined to say Miranda. I appreciate her plight.
There’s also something I like about Charlotte. Deeply.
I do think every character represents a different part of what everyone considers themselves to be at some point. When I asked everyone this week, everyone said Samantha, because it’s a safe option. I love Samantha, but she doesn’t have the vulnerability or the neuroses of the other characters, so everyone likes to be her.
You didn’t answer Samantha?
I didn’t really come up with an answer.
It’s a hard question.
A fraught question.
Maybe the hardest question I’ve ever been asked.
I didn’t even ask it.
I know. It’s something I ask myself.