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Courtney Barnett sings short stories

The Australian singer songwriter takes the mundane and makes it magical

Courtney Barnett performs during Splendour In The Grass 2016 in Byron Bay, Australia. Photo: Getty Images
Courtney Barnett performs during Splendour In The Grass 2016 in Byron Bay, Australia. Photo: Getty Images

Courtney Barnett has the rare ability to take run-of-the-mill subjects, sing about them equally mundanely, yet turn them into beautiful, captivating songs you want to hear again and again. On Avant Gardener, a track that featured on a double EP she released in 2013, it’s a Monday morning, and, after surveying her messy yard, she begins to pull weeds out in the hope of turning the patch into a garden where tomatoes and radish will grow on her front steps, and sunflowers will bloom. But then she gets a sudden asthma attack and can’t breathe. By the end of the song, it turns into a deeper malaise of an anxiety attack and depression stemming from the routine of everyday existence.

On another song, Depreston, from her 2015 debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, after her partner says they should search for something further away from the city, the two women are looking for what is presumably their first house in Preston, a Melbourne suburb. An old bungalow that they are checking out becomes the setting for a song that grapples with young adulthood, introspection, and worries about money and death.

Barnett’s songs are like flash fiction. Micro-stories that often begin with innocuous (banal even) lyrics but subtly twist into thoughtful experiences or outcomes. Now 30, Barnett burst upon the world outside her native Australia in 2012, when she got a gig to play at New York’s CMJ Music Marathon, the annual five-day, five-night, non-stop event where more than 1,200 bands play at over 75 of the city’s nightclubs and other venues. By then, she had already begun attracting the notice of taste-making music websites and blogs for several reasons. Her lyrics, for sure, but also her deadpan vocal style, which lies somewhere between spoken-word performance and actual singing, and, imbued with her pronounced Australian accent, manages to be extremely charming. There’s her excellent band as well—Barnett herself is a left-handed finger-style electric guitarist—that infuses a 1990s’ garage rock sensibility into a folk-pop sound. There’s reverb and fuzz and, sometimes, delightful loudness.

In mid-May, Barnett’s second full-length, Tell Me How You Really Feel, came out. With 10 songs topping out at 38 minutes, the new album is moodier, darker and grungier. It’s also quite different from her last album. If Sometimes I Sit And Think... was full of quirky songs that weren’t always sparklingly cheerful, yet were often marked by effervescence, the new album is heavier and more intense. The songs here explore deeper emotions—anxiety, hopelessness and depression, but also anger. She targets misogyny, sexism and the emotional pressures of a more hectic life that has probably come with her own personal success as a musician. In the chorus on Nameless, Faceless, she sings: I wanna walk through the park in the dark/Men are scared that women will laugh at them/I wanna walk through the park in the dark/Women are scared that men will kill them—paraphrasing, in part, a quotation that is attributed to Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, poet, and author of The Handmaid’s Tale.

On another song on the album, I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch, anger spews out like venom: I’m not your mother, I’m not your bitch/I hear you mutter, under your breath/Put up or shut up, it’s all the same/It’s all the same, never change, never change. With Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett shows her more serious, darker side. But even that she is able to make appealing. The music sounds grimier and more in-your-face grunge, recalling storied exponents of the genre such as Nirvana. Barnett sounds more direct and honest about herself—laying bare apprehensions, vulnerabilities and doubt. There is even a song titled Crippling Self-doubt And A General Lack Of Self-confidence, and another titled Hopefulessness.

The 30-year-old has been busy between the two full-length releases. Last year, she and Kurt Vile released Lotta Sea Lice, a collaborative album that was unassuming but gently charming, each complementing the other on nine songs. Vile, whose solo career has bloomed after he quit The War On Drugs, and Barnett are not the most likely collaborators: Barnett is a micro-focused lyricist and Vile has classic American indie-rock credentials. Yet the album they put out is a quiet masterpiece and a soothing listen on a lazy holiday afternoon.

Somewhere along the way, Barnett also found the time to participate in 2016’s Day Of The Dead mega project , a 59-song, five-and-a-half hour Grateful Dead tribute album. Produced by members of The National, several musicians from different genres did their covers of the Dead’s songs. Barnett did a stunning version of New Speedway Boogie, a song whose words lyricist Robert Hunter had written, referring to the mayhem and killing at a disastrous Rolling Stones concert in 1969 in Altamont, where the Stones had enlisted the help of the violent motorcycle gang, Hell’s Angels, to look after security at the gig. Barnett’s characteristic deadpan vocals on that cover version add a chilling dimension to the song, making it one of the best on Day Of The Dead.

The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Avant Gardener’ by Courtney Barnett from ‘The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas’

2. ‘Nameless, Faceless’ by Courtney Barnett from ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’

3. ‘Depreston’ by Courtney Barnett from ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’

4. ‘New Speedway Boogie’ by Courtney Barnett from ‘Day Of The Dead’

5. ‘Continental Breakfast’ by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile from ‘Lotta Sea Lice’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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