On the Road With Courtney Barnett: Collecting Snowglobes, Gendering Music & More

Pooneh Ghana
Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett’s tall frame ducks as she walks into a green room tucked in the back of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Bandshell. The room is lined with lighted vanity mirrors and adorned with photos of artists like Sufjan Stevens. Wearing all black and drinking a cup of coffee, she slouches down on the futon in the room and readies for her last interview of the day. Later that night, she’d headline the venue.

It has been three years since Barnett broke out as an alternative-rock crossover success. In that time, her 2015 debut album earned her a Grammy nomination for best new artist in 2016, and she has played Lollapalooza, Coachella and Saturday Night Live. Still, the 30-year-old Australia native admits that she gets stage fright. “It shows you care,” she says.

In the midst of a promotional tour supporting her second release, Tell Me How You Really Feel, which arrived in May and reached No. 4 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart, Barnett is serene. “I get the laid-back-stoner misconception,” she says. But, “I’m not a stoner.”

Now, after her summer tour leg wrapped at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in late July, and before a North American fall run kicks off Sept. 29, she is heading back to Melbourne for a different sort of respite: “It’s time to go [home].”

What’s the best thing you’ve bought on the road?
There was a while where I was collecting snow globes. It just got too hard. There were a couple of times where I got stopped at security with them because there’s too much liquid.

When you were first started out, what was it like securing gigs versus now?
I moved to Melbourne and didn't play music for a while because I didn't know where to go. I didn't know anyone. I just worked full time and started meeting people through pubs. I worked in a pub that had live music and I met other musicians, and I was like, "How the fuck do you get a gig?" I would just cold call venues and be like, "Give me a gig." They'd be like, "How many people can you bring?" I was like, "At least 15 friends." They were like, "No, that sucks."

Growing up, were you ever consciously trying to find, or listen to, more women in rock?
I was into male-dominated bands, and I don’t think I ever thought, “I can’t do that,” which is good. I didn't even discover a lot of female-fronted bands until later. I watched The Punk Singer [about Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna] a couple of years ago, and even that was a new level of discovery for me, because when I was growing up I was listening to Nirvana and all that. [I never knew about] the Riot Grrrl stuff -- Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. Everyone discovers stuff at their own speed and their own pace. It exists forever and it'll always inspire different people at different times, but I always think how different my life could’ve been if I just had [exposure] to different music.

Why do you think some people are eager to put a gender on music?
It’s complicated because there are levels of people who are clueless, and people trying to be helpful and trying to magnify that exposure idea. But it’s hard to come up with any sort of solid answer, because it [alienates] people -- a “female guitar player” versus a normal guitar player, which is a man, I guess? The way that different groups of people are described or talked about or sexualized is endless, but it’s definitely better the more people talk about it and become aware of what’s offensive and unnecessary.

Your latest album is titled Tell Me How You Really Feel. Are you good at saying how you feel?
When I grew up we just got the internet, and chat programs like ICQ and MSN. I would chat with my friends, and with my crushes and boyfriends. But in a way, I feel like it lowered my communication skills or something. It made it this barrier, this distance. [Now], I hate phone calls and voicemails. They make me anxious.

Why might it be easier to express yourself through music?
I think that there's that level of it not being spontaneous. I mean, music is still spontaneous, but [after] having worked on songs for years they're comfortable. It takes me a while to figure out what I want to say and to understand [it]. I wish I could just be eloquent and be able to express myself, but I really struggle. It's really frustrating. I read a poem at my brother's wedding [early last year] and even that wasn't easy. I just fucking fall apart. And in my head I was like, "Don't be nervous. All you're doing is make other people uncomfortable. Just be cool." And I wasn't.

You’ve said you’re a people pleaser. How did you grapple with that on this album?
It's that idea of not wanting to cause drama. I grew up in a really quiet family. [I have the] kind of personality if you get sat at a table at a restaurant that is near a window and it's cold, I would be like, "Oh, it's fine." And there's different layers of that, the resentment that comes. I think a lot of this album was exploring those things and exploring anger and frustration and where it comes from. There's a line in "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch" that says, "I get most self-defensive/ When I know I'm wrong." I feel like it made sense for everything in my own life. But then in the world of hatred and people just being so threatened and scared of things they don't know about, it's natural defense mechanism. I was really dwelling on a lot of that stuff.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 11 issue of Billboard.


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