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Courtney Barnett Talks Life, Music And (Almost) Everything

Courtney Barnett at The Stanley Hotel

 
 

Photo: Joshua Mellin

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Courtney Barnett Talks Life, Music And (Almost) Everything

The Australian singer-songwriter 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

GRAMMYs/Feb 13, 2020 - 01:20 am

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. 

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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. 

Has touring with The Ally Coalition and Headcount helped change your perspective? 

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. 

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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.

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Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Larkin Poe On Their Love For Local Snacks On Tour

Larkin Poe

Photo: Jesse Grant/Getty Images

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Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Larkin Poe On Their Love For Local Snacks On Tour

Watch Rebecca and Megan Lovell, a.k.a. Larkin Poe, discuss their favorite parts of touring, which include trying local snacks and connecting with their fans

GRAMMYs/Sep 1, 2021 - 10:44 pm

You know when you're at a party and the food is so delicious, you wish you had a little more room in your stomach? And if the host gives you a little to-go container when you leave, it's the perfect chef's kiss moment.

For GRAMMY-nominated roots rock 'n roll sister duo Larkin Poe, touring with legendary British artist Elvis Costello was a bit like this. As they explain in the latest episode of GRAMMY.com's Herbal Tea & White Sofas, they loved the gourmet cheese he had backstage so much, they'd wrap up leftovers in napkins to snack on later.

In the video above, watch Rebecca and Megan Lovell, a.k.a. Larkin Poe, discuss their favorite parts of touring, which include trying local snacks and connecting with their fans.

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Backstreet Boys Talk GRAMMY Museum "Experience," 'Millennium' Legacy & Touring

Backstreet Boys

Photo: Rebecca Sapp | Design: F. Inomata

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Backstreet Boys Talk GRAMMY Museum "Experience," 'Millennium' Legacy & Touring

As they unveil the interactive 'Backstreet Boys: The Experience' exhibit, we go behind the scenes with the GRAMMY-nominated boy band to look back on their 26 years together

GRAMMYs/Apr 19, 2019 - 02:10 am

On April 8, the Backstreet Boys visited the GRAMMY Museum for a very special evening; the preview night of the newest exhibit there, Backstreet Boys: The Experience. AJ McLean, Howie Dorough, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell all played a part in making the exhibit happen, sorting through old wardrobe trunks to choose which iconic '90s and '00s looks to put on display and sifting through the countless fan photos and homemade memorabilia they've been gifted over their 26-year career.

We went behind the scenes with the GRAMMY-nominated group right after they explored the newly set up exhibit for the first time, as they reflected on who BSB is today, their legacy, having fun in Las Vegas and their excitement for the DNA World Tour. Or, as McLean put it, their "biggest tour in 18 years," in support of 2019's DNA.

"I think [The Experience] is gonna surprise a lot of people, bring back a lot of memories…if you're a fan, this plays homage to you," Carter told us about the new exhibit. "[There's] a lot of things you can interact with, but just really cool things that remind people who the Backstreet Boys are and where we've come from, so it's a cool experience."

Speaking of looking back, the group also discussed the 20th anniversary of their record-breaking album Millennium, which was the best-selling album of 1999.

"Millennium is probably, to this day, one of the biggest album's we've ever had. I think if we weren't on the map by that time in most people's eyes and ears, we were definitely at that point," Dorough said. "I think that itself is what's continued the legacy of the Backstreet Boys."

Backstreet Boys: The Experience is currently on display at the GRAMMY Museum L.A. Live in Downtown Los Angeles until Sept. 2. Learn how and when to have your special BSB experience on the Museum's website.

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Judah & The Lion On Choosing Hope In Tough Times: "Just Talk About It, And You'll Feel Less Alone"

Judah & The Lion

Photo by Daniel Mendoza / The Recording Academy

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Judah & The Lion On Choosing Hope In Tough Times: "Just Talk About It, And You'll Feel Less Alone"

"Choosing hope and choosing a way forward is something that we all have the power to do," the Nashville trio told the Recording Academy at Lollapalooza 2019

GRAMMYs/Aug 7, 2019 - 10:23 pm

Nashville trio Judah & The Lion, a.k.a. singer/guitarist Judah Akers, singer/mandolinist Brian Macdonald and banjoist/singer Nate Zuercher, recently released a powerful third LP called Pep Talks.

Dealing with tough themes like death and divorce, Pep Talks covers some deeply difficult subjects, but it is also the band's way of connecting with audiences, who might be going through their own hard times.

"It's really wild what people are going through in life. People struggle, whether or not they admit it," lead singer Judah Akers tells the Recording Academy at Lollapalooza 2019. "People are going through stuff. And I think that music is such a beautiful way for us to express that. What we like to share is, 'You're not alone in this.'" 

Akers went on, describing the way fans approach him to tell him how the band's music has helped them get through some difficult times: 

"We had somebody the other day who came up to us and say, 'Your song really helped me out. I was wanting to commit suicide, and I listened to it, and I didn't want to anymore.' And I'm like, 'Oh no, dude, it's OK that you're having those thoughts, but go and talk to someone. Express the way that you feel. Somebody that you trust. If you can go to counseling, talk to a friend, talk to a sibling, someone that you love and trust.'

"Nine times out of 10, or 10 times out of 10, in my experience, that person is going to meet you with so much empathy and solidarity. And then you can just talk about it, and you feel less alone in the world. That's what we're trying to do as humans, is figure this sh*t out. Nobody's got it all together. Nobody's perfect. We're just going for it. Choosing hope and choosing a way foward is something that we all have the power to do."

Check out Judah & The Lion's interview in full above. 

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Ziggy Marley On 'Rebellion Rises,' Touring, Kendrick Lamar & More

Ziggy Marley

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music

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Ziggy Marley On 'Rebellion Rises,' Touring, Kendrick Lamar & More

The GRAMMY-winning reggae legend talks about the positive vibes behind his latest project, his admiration for Lamar's 'DAMN.' and more

GRAMMYs/Jun 13, 2018 - 11:01 pm

GRAMMY winner Ziggy Marley still has plenty of fire left in him to spread a message of love for all humanity. On his seventh studio album, Rebellion Rises, which was released May 18, Marley ushered in a new set of songs that not only throw a spotlight on his overall purpose of unity, they also come together to form the album he feels is one of the finest of his career.

With such a rich history to draw from, Marley made Rebellion Rises in the now, with his son Isaiah literally by his side, as evidenced by his presence on the album's cover — Isaiah shows up hand in hand with Marley.

But the galvanizing musical and lyrical material contained within Rebellion Rises is what proves the singer/songwriter is committed to the message initially amplified by his iconic father and proliferated through his own legacy. Songs such as the title track and "Circle Of Peace" on the new album reveal the transcendent messenger Marley has become with lyrics like, "I stand in the circle of peace because only the willing will see their dreams."

Marley has also taken his music and message out on the road, kicking off the Rebellion Rises Tour on June 8 and performing a good deal of his new song — along with some of his and his father's most well-known classics — around the globe before wrapping up back in the States on Sept. 16.

We caught up with the reggae legend right before he headed out on tour to talk about his latest album, how his son has influenced his work, how he prepares set lists for his upcoming shows, his thoughts on Kendrick Lamar, and more.

Rebellion, as it's defined in the dictionary, can take on a negative connotation, as resisting authority, for example. But this album is filled with positive messages, inspirational moments and uplifting passages. Can you walk us through the theme behind Rebellion Rises?

The theme behind the album is really the voice of humanity and also representing humanity, and the rebellion is the awakening of the humanity within us so that we can balance the world with more love, with more unity, less divisiveness, less hate. So that's what we're rebelling for, and that's what the theme of the album is about. We don't want to focus on what we're against; we'd rather focus on what we are for.

I saw an Instagram post where you said that your son, Isaiah, has been a part of the album from start to finish. Can you detail how he played a role?

Isaiah is 2 years old now, so I think he was on tour with me when he was 1. … He has a strong connection to me ... and so he's always around me. So when I was writing the songs, he was there. And he's very smart. He's a very smart guy. So I'm taking guitar and repeat what I'm saying. And then I was taking the photo shoot, he was always in my photos. So he's just a part of this album, really. … He's an inspiration, a little angel beside me, just like being my shadow. So it was cool having him [there] like that.

You mentioned your tour kicking off June 8. With such a growing catalog to choose from, how will you go about picking the set list?

I've been working on that. I'm gonna do a lot of songs from this album, cause this album, for me personally as a listener and not just my ego speaking, but I can be impartial to myself, this album is one of the only albums that I actually can listen to myself, like the whole thing, back to front without skipping or [hearing a song] I don't like. ... I really like this album. I'm planning to do a lot of these songs, new songs on this tour, which we haven't done in the way I'm gonna do it for a long time. The first three songs [are] new songs. … I love them, I love how they feel so I'm working on having most of them on the set list.

I have a set and then I have a master list and then we're like a hundred songs we can pick and choose and see what happens. I have some of my father's songs, which I mix in there. This tour is Rebellion Rises Tour, but in my mind I see it more as a rally for humanity. This is humanity's rally. … This is not about a specific social issue or a specific political issue or religious issue, this is about humanity as a whole and this is the rally for humanity. … I'm really sticking to songs with strong messages that affect and speaks on humanity and what we're going through right now and this album has a lot to do with it.

I read recent piece where you picked your top five albums of all time and one of them was Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. So what is it about Kendrick's music that you think resonated with you?

Honesty. I think honesty and seeing him as being true, not a façade. Some people do their music and then perform, and it's a façade. It's not who they are but the character that they're playing. Kendrick seems true to me. He doesn't seem to be trying to be something else than what he is. I respect that in art and a musician, so that's what I love in music and because of that, because I can sense the truthfulness in that.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask this question. You've won eight GRAMMYs, including three consecutive wins for Best Reggae Album when you've been up for it. Of course we want to know, where do you keep your GRAMMYs?

The GRAMMYs? My wife really manages the GRAMMYs. She's the one who takes care of them and puts them on the fireplace. She takes care of that for me. I'm gonna keep them. I like them. They look shiny still. Them really shiny [laughs].

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