Courtney Barnett owns the Pitchfork Music Festival. The first time the Aussie rocker appeared on the bill of the venerated indie event in Chicago was back in 2015. Her incredible debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit was only a few months old at that point and she was given a middling, midday slot on a scorching afternoon. Nevertheless, she acted like a headliner, ripping into songs like “Elevator Operator,” and her breakout hit “Depreston” with a ferocity and self-confident swagger that left a deep and lasting impression on anyone who was lucky enough to witness it firsthand.
Three years later, on a far cooler afternoon where rain threatened any second but thankfully failed to materialize, Barnett returned to the scene of what she personally considers to be one of her greatest live triumphs and showed what hundreds of gigs can do for a performer. Uproxx’s Steven Hyden has compared Barnett to Tom Petty, but onstage she’s far more Kurt Cobain, lurching around her mic stand with a Fender Jaguar swaying haphazardly around her hips as she cranks out another discordant solo. Sometimes she doesn’t even sing into the mic head on, instead craning her neck underneath it to slur or roar out a piece of a verse or a chorus. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint YOU!” she barked at us during “Pedestrian At Best.” Not today, anyway.
Many of the songs in her set came from her latest album, a sometimes angry, self-reflective record titled Tell Me How You Really Feel and they’re absolutely fantastic in a live setting. “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” got an intense reaction from the crowd who took glee in shouting the song’s refrain over and over again while pressed against the front barricade and jumping up and down in heady abandon. The biggest impact, however, was felt from her Sometimes I Sit And Think standout “Small Poppies,” after which the audience chanted her name “Courtney! Courtney! Courtney!” in joyful appreciation. She was clearly touched. “Wow!” she said. “That’s my first chant.”
Just hours before melting the faces of several thousand people in Union Park, I had the chance to catch up with Barnett backstage and talk about the experience of writing her latest album, what it was like to tour with Kurt Vile, and some of the best bands that Australia has to offer.
Do you remember your first time playing Pitchfork?
Oh, I had such a fun time at the first time. I think it was three years ago. It was really hot. It’s actually one of my favorite shows I’ve ever done. I’m not just saying that. It was really hot. The sun was coming down on us. It was boiling. I played in shorts which I would never normally do. It was just a really good vibe I remember.
So, the last time you played it was very hot. Today it might be raining. Do you have any stories about memorable gigs in the rain? How do you combat that?
We played a couple stormy ones. We did that Sasquatch festival once. The wind like blew my guitar stands over. I think it blew a cymbal over. I turned around and one of my guitars was just kind of slowly drifting across stage. There’s been a couple of really windy ones, I remember a festival somewhere in Europe where our stage was like totally rained out. There was raining coming down on it and I’m like, ‘Oh. I guess we’re not playing.’ Then they were like, ‘No, it’s cool. You’re going on.’