Courtney Barnett at The Stanley Hotel
Photo: Joshua Mellin
Courtney Barnett Talks Life, Music And (Almost) Everything
When it comes to telling it like it is, Courtney Barnett has nerves of steel. Across three full-lengths, including 2018's Tell Me How You Really Feel, the Australian singer-songwriter has unpacked a host of complicated ideas throughout her wry folk rock.
There's the danger of ambition, on display in "Avant Gardener" where after a near-deadly asthmatic attack, she moans, "I should have stayed in bed today.". There's suburban ennui: See "Depreston," where she considers the benefits of a two-car garage. She even tells off detractors on recent track "Nameless, Faceless": "He said, 'I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup/And spit out better words than you'/But you didn't."
But when it comes to the topic of ghosts, she admits that it's easy to freak herself out, even though she likes to consider the idea.
Barnett's open mind is an asset, since we're sitting at The Stanley Hotel, an Estes Park, Colo., resort that's believed to be one of the most haunted locations in the U.S. Whether or not it really has a spirit population is always in question. Given the building's history, which includes an explosion in room 217, multiple post-death sightings of the founder's wife, Flora Stanley, and inspiration for both Stephen King's "The Shining" and "Pet Cemetery," it's easy to believe there's some kind of strange forces at work.
But rather than ghost-hunt, Barnett has come to The Stanley Hotel to perform as part of a tradition of small-crowd concerts dating back to Houdini performing illusions for a clutch of society women.
It's a small room for the GRAMMY nominee, who has also performed on "Saturday Night Live," "ellen," "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" and a host of summer festival stages. But Barnett admits that part of the goal of her solo tour was to stretch herself by performing in interesting spaces.
Before she could charm the crowd with her left-handed guitar and seemingly endless display of quips, Barnett tells the Recording Academy about her supernatural near misses, finding the words to fight inequality and how she's still learning to tell people how she really feels.
In honor of the fact that we're sitting at The Stanley Hotel, do you have any good ghost stories?
Not major ones. The last town that we stayed [in], I felt I actually had like a little ghost feeling. It was weird. I just like, I was shot up in bed at 5 a.m. both mornings and I felt like someone was in the room, which has happened a few times in my life, but not that many. So when it happens, it is a really particular thing. We watched half [of] The Shining last night. I think in the lead-up to playing here, I started researching it to see what it was all about.
What one thing, if removed from your life, would make you go as crazy as Jack Torrance from the film?
The connection to people is probably a big one. I think it would probably send me into some sort of crazy.
Do you get to invest in the Melbourne community when you're home?
Home time has been pretty minimal in the last five or six years. But yeah. I have a record label [Milk Records] in Melbourne, which I started six or seven years ago. And so, that has grown and has local bands and a few that aren't local. So that keeps growing and ticking over as we put on shows and put out records and all that stuff. When I'm home, I go out and see lots of shows.
Your label, Milk Records, recently opened a storefront.
We did it as a pop-up store in December in the lead-up to Christmas. And then we built a little stage and we had some semi-acoustic performances, and now we're just seeing how it goes in a bit more semi-regular way. I love it. I think it's really nice. People can come in and look around, and people can do shows. And when people are visiting from out of town, I want to make it so they can pop in and play if they want to and sell some records. Milk Records has somehow created this really amazing community of people who love music and just really want to share with each other. It's just a really special thing.
Because I'm now picturing you as a Nick Hornby-style record shop owner, what are the top five albums or songs you're currently listening to?
What I've been listening to? We've done some really good albums on this tour. I started making a list the other day of new songs, like the new TORRES. Paul Simon. Elizabeth Cotton. Julee Cruise. These are all just random songs.
I think it's nice to listen with focus, not like background kind of music, because I ended up doing that a lot, and if I'm at Melbourne at the Milk warehouses [and] there's something on the background, we don't listen to it properly. So it's nice just putting headphones on or putting a record on and sitting and listening to it.
Where do you fall between optimism and pessimism?
I always would say that I'm an optimistic pessimist, because I think I am pessimistic by nature, but I'm also kind of melancholy and have always been more on that side. But I really want to be hopeful and optimistic. It's like, I don't want to be like a pessimist who's like grumpy about everything. But I can be that person.
Oh, yeah. I think that's been cool. It's such a small, easy thing to invite them and have them; I know that they do so many shows. It's such a simple thing to be able to broaden conversation with people who might not be aware of certain things. It's available and they can chat, or they don't have to.
That's a huge resource I'm sure is missing from many people's lives.
Which is kind of crazy because we think we have access to everything, but it's almost like sometimes I don't know where to look for information. Even though the internet, it like [leads us] to believe that everything is available. But sometimes, yeah, it's an overwhelming kind of overload. And to do all that research yourself is hard. So I think when you find people who are doing really amazing work and have done amazing research, you kind of can look up to them.
If you could change one thing about society, what would it be?
I guess an umbrella term would be inequality. I would get rid of that.
Do you see your music in the same bucket as artists who focus on activism? I know you've been compared to Bob Dylan quite a bit.
I don't feel like I'm outspoken enough. I kind of wish I had the words to be so. But I don't think I've written anything as powerful as some of those people. I think it's just finding the words and finding the voice to be able to say things, which I struggle with sometimes. So I ended up writing around them or, you know, I think it's still there, but in a kind of more symbolic way.
It's funny to hear you say you write around things, because from an outsider point of view, your music is so personal and immediate.
I don't even notice what is behind a lot of what I'm writing. It's kind of hidden to me until later. Sometimes, it's kind of strange to just unpack as time goes on. Two years on from making and releasing the album, I play the songs every day and play them different in different ways. Playing them solo, now there [are] certain words or phrases that, with time and distance and perspective, you just see them differently. I always find that fascinating.
Has there been a song in particular that has gone through that transformation?
Like the song "Need A Little Time" on [Tell Me How You Really Feel]. [When you're writing], you kind of know what you're talking about… but I don't fully know. And with different situations, the words just mean different things. Maybe I'm talking about that person or that person, or maybe I'm actually projecting something onto them and actually talking about myself. Or all of the above, which is also totally acceptable.
How does playing solo change the dynamics of your show and the material?
I haven't played solo in a really long time. I was a bit nervous before the tour started, but I've been kind of, strangely, quite calm and comfortable, and I think the audiences have been really, really lovely... I think I've been just experiencing the songs differently. It's inspired me 'cause it's so much more vulnerable: nothing to hide behind and no wall of sound to hide behind and dark lights to fade into. I can hear the songs again how I wrote them… it's kind of inspired me to write; I want to write better songs.
When the voice in your head is telling you that things aren't good enough or that you're not doing well enough, how do you shut it up?
I think the most useful way is to pretend that someone else is saying it to you and you're trying to confront them. You would never talk to someone the way that you talk to yourself a lot of the time. Trying to look at it in a realistic way with none of those neuroses and hang-ups is hard.
After writing such a direct album called Tell Me How You Really Feel, has it been easier to tell people exactly how you feel?
No, I think it's just a learning process, growing-up process of learning how to communicate with people. I've learned that the outcome gets easier. It's normally not as bad as you think it is, and it's a kind of weight off the shoulders. It kind of uses more energy and it's more of a waste of time to just hold on to things. I guess it's an important thing to learn over time and to let go of those things that drag us down and make us resentful. It all just builds up in your body and you feel it and it's just such a waste of space.
Since you appear on Anna Calvi's upcoming collaborative album, Hunted, what artists would you love to hear covering your songs?
I think that it's such a cool idea. You kind of think like, "Who could do it?" Like in a similar vein, but someone who is from a totally different musical world. I mean it's just endless. [I'd like] someone like Kim Gordon or St. Vincent, or even someone like Dev Hynes [who] could turn [it] into this whole beautifully different, amazing thing.
So, what's next?
I kind of planned to spend most of this year at home writing, and then I accidentally organized a solo tour. I'll probably write, and I might do some kind work on some projects with some people, maybe some collaborations back home. I just kind of want to write and read and be a sponge to the world.