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Before she ever knew him personally, Courtney Barnett leaned on Kurt Vile during a low point in her life. “I was kind of unemployed, and kind of depressed, and just going through this weird time, and for some reason this song just really connected with me,” the Australian singer-songwriter recalled when I reached her last month, referring to the intensely lonely ballad “Peeping Tomboy,” a highlight of Vile’s excellent 2011 LP, Smoke Ring For My Halo.
Barnett bought the record, one of her first-ever purchases on vinyl, based on a premonition that she would like it — she hadn’t heard Vile’s music before. Once Barnett flipped it over to side two, Vile’s meandering folk-rock narrative about a wayward misfit drew her in. She would lay in bed and listen to the song over and over. Later, when Barnett met her girlfriend, Jen Cloher, Smoke Ring For My Halo soundtracked the formative stages of their relationship.
Barnett paid back the favor by covering “Peeping Tomboy” on Lotta Sea Lice, her forthcoming joint album with Vile due 10/13. Recorded in about a week’s time over the course of two Australian summers, Lotta Sea Lice is a delightful segue for two of the best artists currently working in contemporary rock, presenting a loose and lively collection of charmingly low-key and generous tunes that sparkle with ramshackle perfection. Barnett’s deadpan wit is well-matched by Vile’s every-dude vérité, with the former providing some lyrical sharpness to Vile and the latter supplying wondrously frayed guitar solos to Barnett. Together, they already seem locked in like long-time bandmates who complement each other out of second nature.
“I think [our] music’s similar enough — it’s usually sort of melodic, sort of sensitive, or semi-wordy,” Vile said. “Her style of rock is a little different than my style of rock. But this is more of a folk-rock, kind of organic thing. It’s a little bulkier.”
As comfortable as Barnett and Vile sound dueting throughout Lotta Sea Lice, Vile admits to feeling some jitters before their first session. He initiated the project with Barnett, who became a friend after she opened up for him at a gig in Barnett’s hometown of Melbourne. At that show, Barnett passed along a copy of The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, a compilation of early songs released in 2013. Vile immediately was taken by the first song, “Outta The Woodwork” — a darkly melodic mid-tempo number in which Barnett tells off an unnamed patronizing jerk — which he covers on Lotta Sea Lice.
Vile and Barnett subsequently became pals after hanging out backstage at various music festivals, prompting a brainstorm to approach Barnett about recording a seven-inch together. An enthusiastic and prolific collaborator, Vile has previously recorded with the African “desert rock” band Tinariwin, the folk guitarist Steve Gunn, and Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, among many others. But when he showed Barnett “Over Everything” — a jangly beauty about the pros and cons of solitude that he wrote with her in mind — while down under promoting his 2015 record B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down, “I thought my head was going to explode,” he confessed.
“I thought it was great,” countered Barnett, who marveled at the song’s unusual structure, particularly the lack of a chorus. “I’ve got this voice, this weird pop thing in my brain, trying to find the chorus. And then I realized months later that it was such a catchy song regardless of that.”
In the final execution, “Over Everything” plays out like a conversation between two artists comparing styles and methods. While the song originated with Vile, Barnett’s sardonic flair is indelible in her verses, drolly contrasting with Vile’s non-sequiturs. “When I was young I liked to hear music blarin’ / And I wasn’t carin’ to neuter my jams with earplugs,” Vile drawls. Barnett’s reply is characteristically clever: “You could say I hear you on several levels at high decibels.”
At first, the duo thought they would do “Over Everything” and perhaps another song or two. “And then Kurt called up his friends, that day or the day before, to come and play in the band, so it was all kind of very spur of the moment,” Barnett said. “We showed them the song, in the studio, a couple of times, and then recorded it. Everything from then on was kind of like, ‘Oh, why don’t we do another song?'”
Some of the songs on Lotta Sea Lice, like Vile’s “Blue Cheese,” have been knocking around their respective coffers for years. Others, like Cloher’s smoldering “Fear Like A Forest” and “Come Together” by the ’90s alt-rock band Belly, just seemed like they would be fun to play. (A cover of Fats Domino’s golden oldie “Blueberry Hill,” a recent favorite for the roots-obsessed Vile, didn’t make the album but will likely be released at a later date.)
Barnett and Vile never sat down and formally wrote songs together. But they did email each other a lot, and lines from those messages would inevitably wind up in each others’ songs. For “Continental Breakfast,” the album’s funniest and most touching song, it started with Vile as a “fingerpicker” about about their own long-distance correspondence. But the title and some of the lyrics ultimately derived from Barnett’s tossed-off joke about treasuring intercontinental friendships while dining over continental breakfast.
“I walk like a bruised ego along the shore-front property, unknown to me,” Vile sings in one verse. Then Barnett steps in to complete the thought: “But I’m feeling inferior on the interior, don’t you see?”
One of Barnett’s songs, the sweetly descending “Let It Go,” has a similar back-and-forth quality. “My lyrics in ‘Let It Go’ are, ‘What time do you usually wake up?’ and ‘It depends on what time I sleep’ — that’s straight from an email. But it sounds a lot nicer when it’s sung,” Barnett said.
“I feel like Kurt and I are similar emailers,” she added. “I’m really bad at emails. It takes me three months to [write] back. You know when an email is really important and you want to put decent time into it, but then you end up spending three months on it? We’d write these big, long-winded, nonsensical kinds of things.” (Barnett and Vile were considerably less long-winded when asked about their upcoming solo records, though both hinted that they expect to put out new music in the near future.)
When Barnett and Vile tour this fall, they will be joined by a revolving cast of musicians that includes Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney and frequent Vile collaborators like Stella Mozgawa of Warpaint and Rob Laakso of The Swirlies. They expect to play on each others’ songs, though exactly what will be on the setlist is still being worked out. But it promises to be another laid-back and endearing affair for two friends who fit together incredibly well musically. As Vile put it, “Our styles matched.”
Lotta Sea Lice is out 10/13 via Matador. Pre-order it here.