July 30 2014 03:54 PM

Australian singer / songwriter pairs infectious melodies with peculiar anecdotes

Courtney Barnett
Photo by Leslie Kirchhoff

Courtney Barnett shuffles onto stage as if she hopes nobody will notice until she’s already playing. Not a chance; at Seattle’s Neptune Theatre, where Barnett is opening for Sharon Van Etten, the venue is already packed, and the crowd rouses and cheers when the Australian singer-guitarist appears with her band. This is no ordinary act.

Seattle’s taste-making public-radio station, KEXP, has devoted a lot of airtime to the 26-year-old Barnett, especially her breakout single “Avant Gardener.” The catchy rambler, about a severe allergic reaction Barnett suffered in the garden, had music critics falling over themselves, as well. Pitchfork even named it a “Best New Track” of 2013.

“I think it’s hilarious,” Barnett says of the song’s popularity. “It seems to me that ‘Avant Gardener’ is the most un-radio song.”

Barnett, speaking over Skype from Melbourne, where she’s returned for a break before the next leg of her first lengthy U.S. tour, adds that she wasn’t sure anyone would even give her a shot when she first started writing music. So, in 2012, she launched her own label, Milk! Records, and released two consecutive EPs.

“I didn’t think finding a label was a possibility,” she says. “Plus I like to be involved in that part of the process. It’s fun to be in charge of that stuff and do whatever I want to do.”

Barnett’s first EP, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris, put her name out there, but the follow-up, How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose—which includes “Avant Gardener” and the infectious “History Eraser”—landed her international acclaim. She’s since re-released both as The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas on U.S. label Mom + Pop.

“Back in Australia, the local community stations were really supportive,” Barnett says. “They’re the equivalent of your college stations—volunteer broadcasters and stuff. They got behind us a lot.”

Another early advocate proved particularly crucial. Barnett received a coveted artist’s grant from the Australian government to help cover the costs of recording.

“It makes such a huge difference,” she says. “I feel so lucky that we can do that. I mean, it’s not like there’s tons of money just lying around to record songs with. Every dollar counts. I remember the first time I went to America and it came up in conversation. They were amazed that such a thing exists—and jealous!” 

Barnett writes songs that feel like road trips, with scenery that passes by swiftly but is transfixing even when it’s mundane. She’s a master of deadpan delivery, with clever lyrics that range from dreamlike to stolen-and-reassembled snippets of conversation. Her ambling garage rock has hints of folk and country jangle and a serious penchant for psychedelic harmonies and feedback.

In fact, when I tell Barnett that her Seattle show reminded me of my ’90s shoegaze days, she sounded genuinely pleased. “Sick!” she exclaims. Perhaps she’s just relieved not to be compared to Bob Dylan, as happens so frequently.

“The Dylan comparisons can be frustrating,” she says. “I love Dylan, obviously, but it feels like a lazy comparison when people do it. They basically see anyone with a guitar, and, you know, songs: Oh, it’s the electronic Bob Dylan! Oh, it’s the goth Bob Dylan!” 

Barnett, who first picked up a guitar when she was 10, says she grew up listening to whatever her older brother did: Guns N’ Roses, Silverchair, Nirvana. Kurt Cobain is another comparison she gets a lot—Rolling Stone suggested that Barnett was the creative offspring of the late singer and the Moldy Peaches’ Kimya Dawson. Barnett, who’s slight and tomboyish, with shaggy hair and a tour uniform of a striped tee, jeans and Chelsea boots, shares a certain je ne sais quoi with Cobain. She has a knack for pop music but more of a punk attitude. She can bend a turn of phrase around a melody like nobody’s business.

“Sometimes they’re just observational,” she explains of her lyrics, “not really a story, just more of what I see around me. It doesn’t always have a narrative.

“Everyone has influences, and they creep in a bit,” she adds. “Nobody is 100- percent original. You just have to take those little pieces and make your own thing.”

Barnett’s wrapping up her first fulllength album and has been testing a few new songs on the road.

“It’s in a similar vein to our other songs, but musically might be a bit stronger,” she says. “We’ve been touring together for a year as a band, and we’re a lot tighter now. The last album probably had 25 musicians on it, friends who dropped by to help out. This one was recorded with a solid four.”

She’s also overcome her early stage fright. “I used to be a nervous wreck, but after this tour, I’ve become more comfortable,” she says. “I finally feel natural up there.”

Barnett’s touring band—which includes bass player Bones Sloane and drummer Dave Mudie—may be only three strong, but they bring a big sound. Everyone at the Neptune stood rapt and nodding as Barnett wailed, shaking her lowered head and cracking an occasional impenetrable smile.

When the band finished, at least a third of the room cleared out. At that moment, it felt like nobody could follow an act like that.

Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.