Music

Courtney Barnett Is Hitting Her Rock Star Stride, One Show At A Time

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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.’

Unbelievable. How’d you make it through? I worry about the electricity and the water in those situations. At least as an observer.

I just tried not to touch anything. I tried not to touch the microphone, or touch any of my leads. It was fine.

Borne out you and Tame Impala playing back to back on the bill tonight, what is the rock scene in Australia like these last few years? Some of the best new rock bands are Australian—Gang Of Youths, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, etc.—what’s it like on the ground over there?

The Melbourne scene is amazing, I reckon. I guess it’s different town to town; it’s a big place but I guess it’s kind of little as well in a way. I guess everywhere kind of creates its own thing, like Perth, where Tame Impala are from, there’s an amazing pool of artists from Perth, which is three hours plane ride on the other side of the country. Lots of people don’t go there. Lots of touring bands, so I guess it’s kind of making your own scene. I think Melbourne is just so inspiring.

Any bands you’ve been keeping your eye on lately that people should know about?

Yeah, there’s a band Totally Mild, along with Sanford the Great, Jade Imagine, Miss Blanks, Loose Tooth.

Let’s talk about your latest record, Tell Me How You Really Feel, which came out a couple of months ago. Have you been happy with the reception it’s gotten?

It’s been good, I think. It’s hard to know I guess. It’s hard to not get too caught up in what people are thinking but it seems good. I’ve talked to lots of people after shows who connected with the songs, and it’s good.

How are the crowds reacting to some of the new songs like “Hopelessness?”

Good. I think it’s been interesting because when we started touring this cycle it was before the album had actually come out and we were playing the album in full. I mean it’s not challenging… but you know, it’s like people are like really listening, they’re like, ‘What’s happening?’ Which I like seeing that when I go to a show, so I guess it’s just not getting too paranoid that people aren’t cheering, they’re just listening.

Is it true you wrote all those songs on a typewriter?

A lot of them I wrote with a typewriter, yeah. I write with lots of different things, yeah. That was just another method to make my brain work.

There’s a quote from you I recently read and thought was interesting. You said, “Any song where I’m saying like, ‘You’ or ‘They’ or ‘She’ or ‘He,’ I’m probably talking about myself.”

Yeah.

Do you realize that in the moment you’re talking about yourself or is it a stream of consciousness deal?

I think it’s always a bit different. Sometimes I figure it out over time, or I guess it’s just that kind of empathizing with the emotion and having the thing out to connect with it, to be able to relate to it, but also acknowledging that we all go through the same things. So far I’m kind of witnessing it in someone else, then I can probably relate because I felt it myself.

This album obviously had a darker tones and themes than Sometimes I Sit And Think. Are you in better head space maybe today than you were when you were writing this record?

Yeah, I think so. Well, I mean it’s hard to tell, but I think it was a good freeing exercise.

You recently came off a tour and joint album with Kurt Vile. What was that experience like?

It was great. It was really fun. Funny guy. He’s kind of like a big brother. Yeah, he’s fun to do with. Just goes and does his own thing, or hangs around joking. He’s a good kind of a touring buddy.

What’s something maybe people don’t know about Kurt Vile that you got to experience first-hand for yourself?

I think that he’s just so funny. Lots of people probably don’t know that from snippets of interviews, or songs, or you know even on stage. He’s kind of a bit like me, kind of shy-ish sometimes on stage. Get to sit down, or whatever, but really he’s just one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. And kindest.

You play a Fender Telecaster guitar right?

Yes, but a Jag[uar] more so lately.

What caused the switch?

I had both on the last tour, and then I don’t know, I just got more attached to the Jag.

Do you prefer writing, or playing shows? What brings you more joy?

I think it’s equal parts both. It’s kind of a nice balance. I think I’ve grown to like performing more than I used to. I used to get so nervous and so shy. Kind of sickeningly nervous and now I’m learning how to enjoy it.

One of the most encouraging trends over the last couple of years is the rise of so many great, young women artists in rock. Pitchfork has actually done a great job, giving half of the lineup this year to women like yourself and Lucy Dacus, Julie Byrne, and Julien Baker. How awesome has it been for you to see these young women rising up, strapping on guitars, and hitting some power chords?

It’s fucking rad. I love it. It’s not like amazing women haven’t been around before playing rock and all that stuff. It’s definitely good that there’s an extra loud voice at the moment.

Tell Me How You Really Feel is out now via Mom + Pop. Get it here.

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