CMA Awards 2018

Meet Courtney Barnett, Music's Lena Dunham: 'I Like the Extreme Form of Not Bottling Things Up'

Ramona Rosales
Courtney Barnett photographed by Ramona Rosales on August 1, 2014.

Music fans and critics are heralding Aussie alt-rocker Courtney Barnett as a kind of songwriting Lena Dunham — an unapologetically visceral, totally riveting, precocious over-sharer. “Bottling things up is not ever going to help,” the 27-year-old explains, “so I like the extreme form of not bottling things up.”

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Like Dunham’s, Barnett’s confessions on her full-length debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit, released March 23 on her own Milk Records through indie stalwart Mom + Pop, can seem both personal and universal, as if the singer-songwriter-guitarist has been charged with channeling her generation’s inner dialogues. “I’m a fake, I’m a phony, I’m awake, I’m alone, I’m homely,” she drones on the single “Pedestrian at Best.” “Depreston,” a song about rising house prices in a Melbourne suburb, turns banal details (shower handrails, coffee cannisters) into vivid beauty -- one of the reasons NPR recently declared her the greatest lyricist in rock today. (Ellen DeGeneres introduced her March 16 performance on her show by calling her “one of my favorite new artists.”)

“I put a lot of time and effort into getting the lyrics just right,” she says, revealing a perfectionist streak that belies her laconic, stoner-kid vibe. “If I hear a lyric that I cringe at, I can’t f—ing handle having that on a record for the rest of my life.”

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Barnett was shaped by the creativity of her “pretty arty” parents -- a graphic designer dad and a mom who used to be a ballet dancer. Born in Sydney but raised in remote Tasmania, she started playing guitar at 10 and was in several bands before settling in Melbourne, where she enrolled in art school and eventually took a job at a shoe store. “I was good at it but started hating myself,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘This is f—ed corporate shit, selling overpriced shoes to kids who saved up their pocket money.’ ”

Gigging in Melbourne’s vibrant indie-music scene let her release that anti-consumerist, sometimes anti-everything angst: “It’s weird but when you put the deepest part of you on display, you feel better. You get rid of it.”

In 2012 she founded Milk Records, released two EPs, then teamed up with Mom + Pop to rerelease them as The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Her record artwork and merch feature her own drawings, anchored by her winking humor. “I see it as more of an art project,” she says of her label. “I don’t really know what I’m doing -- and I prefer it that way.”

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It doesn’t seem to be hurting her career. A few attention-grabbing live dates (South by Southwest, CMJ Music Marathon) in 2014 and her frank tunes made her latest LP one of the year’s most anticipated. She unveiled the album with five buzzed-about shows at this year’s SXSW, then headed from Austin to Paris to launch a world tour that will take her to theaters and major festivals (Bonnaroo, Sasquatch) through August.

Even Barnett, who’s as deadpan in conversation as she is on record, can’t hide her excitement over her rising stature. “I used to build things up then get let down, so I’ve learned to have low expectations,” she says. “But this year? It’s going to be crazy."

This story will appear in the March 28 issue of Billboard.