There are writers who create a voice so complete and pleasing that it colonizes your brain, temporarily turning your internal monologue into an imitation of their style. Within three weeks of the release of singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett’s debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, I had a little Courtney Barnett homunculus in my head, free-associating wry observations in an Australian accent as I went about my day.
Barnett’s lyrics tend to meander pleasantly over quotidian subjects—staring at the ceiling from a hotel bed, choosing between organic vegetables and cheap ones—until they settle on a pin-sharp observation or confession attached to a stomping garage-rock hook. It’s a style that seems built for an audience of music bloggers and indie die-hards, but in 2015 Barnett broke out of that niche through the time-honored strategy of making an awesome record and touring like crazy behind it. Now the accolades are pouring in: spots on dozens of critics’ year-end lists; a strong second-place finish in the Village Voice’s Pazz + Jop poll; a nomination for a Grammy Award for best new artist, which she’ll probably lose to Meghan Trainor because hey, the Grammys. Slate talked to her over the phone, from her house in Melbourne.
Gabriel Roth: Let me start with your most recent release, which is the song “Three Packs a Day,” which, if I’m reading it right, is a song about eating too much ramen.
Courtney Barnett: Yeah, pretty much. We call ‘em “two-minute noodles” here.
Do you really have a ramen problem?
Well, yeah—I used to eat those things every day after school when I was a kid. And then when I lived in a share-house in most of my early twenties, I didn’t have much money, so I’d eat them every day, ’cause they’re like eighty cents a packet. I started it as a bit of a joke, but then it turned into a silly, catchy song. It has hidden meanings but it’s up to the listener to decide what it’s about.
A lot of your songs are about those small moments, like eating too much ramen or lying in bed missing somebody. Is there an experience you have when you realize, Oh, this is a moment I could turn into a song?
I try to write them all down when I have that moment. Obviously, a lot of them don’t cross over—in the middle of the night, when you’re half asleep, and… I write down something in my phone, and I wake up and it’s like, you know, “Dogs on concrete … Sunshine.” And you wake up, you’re like: What the fuck? That’s not a good idea! But, you know, those small moments, if you paint them properly, they can represent this beautiful moment, or whatever it was that made you stop and consider it for a second.
How conscious are you about your singing style? How much thought did you put into developing it?
I was always too shy to sing as a kid, and I don’t think I sang until I was eighteen. And when I started performing when I was eighteen I was super-self-conscious, ’cause I never thought I was a great singer. And then probably around the time I was writing my first EP, I just started writing these songs that had a really comfortable, natural, conversational [feeling], because when I was writing I was doing loop-pedal stuff and then reading out my journal until I found something interesting. So I was approaching [singing] in a different way, more as a songwriting method than as a, you know, “I’m gonna try and sing differently” kind of direction. But I was a lot more comfortable and it just felt more “me” doing it that way.
From listening to your records, I feel like I have a little Courtney Barnett in my head, and I have a whole imaginary relationship with her. Do you find that you sometimes have to make an effort to deal with people’s projections of you?
Yeah, it’s a strange thing, isn’t it? Yeah, as a musician—or as a songwriter, I guess, more—I’ve noticed that, people connecting with my songs and projecting onto me ….. It’s been an interesting human case study, traveling around and meeting all these people, and [seeing] what different people think of me, and of the songs, and what people take from the songs, and how they interpret them..
Sometimes it’s hard not to get caught up in it, because … well, for obvious reasons. But, yeah, sometimes those perceptions are false, or not false but just kind of made up. It ranges from, “You’re a god,” or “a goddess,” or whatever people say, to whatever the most negative thing is. And neither of them are true. I’m just me, and trying to figure out who I am. I don’t need other people to project themselves onto me and confuse the situation—I’m confused enough.
Does the attention you’ve been getting—there was the Village Voice poll, and now there’s the Grammy nomination—feel incongruous to the very intimate music you’re making?
I definitely spend a lot of my time feeling uncomfortable with that attention. But it’s hard to tell if that’s just my own insecurity, not feeling good enough for people to like me. I try to just do what I do, without any thought of the outcome, you know, of whether it will be popular or any of that stuff. It’s not really, like, a dream of mine to be a famous person.
So I get uncomfortable with the attention sometimes—which is funny because I’m putting myself in that situation, like “Please listen to me!” It’s funny to make all this effort, to spend all this time going around and getting on big stages and worrying about selling tickets to all these people, and then getting on stage and being nervous and not wanting everyone to look at you. Like—what’s that about? That is some weird fuckin’ backwards psychology stuff.
Presumably, the stages that you’re playing on are much bigger than the ones that you were playing on a couple years ago. Have you had to re-think what you’re doing in performance to accommodate that?
I don’t really change too much. I try to just do what I do and be who I am on whatever stage I am. We probably play, like, more rock songs, party songs, at festivals. People are in a different mood at those things.
When we started doing festivals, we didn’t have a sound guy. There’s three of you, so people, just out of instinct, set you up on the stage to fill the stage in that nice, symmetrical kind of way. And we’d be playing, and we’d be nervous, and on top of that we were, like, fuckin’ twenty meters away from each other, and couldn’t hear each other, and it was really weird and awkward and terrible. So we decided no matter what stage we’re on, we’re always the same distance apart, and we can hear each other well, and we can see each other. So that’s been a good lesson.
I’m a middle-aged person, and some aspects of your music remind me of the music I was listening to in college, the indie rock of the early ’90s. Do you see yourself as working in that mode? And what does it mean for a person in her twenties to be making that kind of music?
Well, people just come to things at different times. I’ve listened to a lot of different music from a lot of different years and genres, and I’ve never really tried to stick to one or another. And my girlfriend is forty-two, and I’ve taught her music [from that time] that she’s never listened to. I’m like, “You don’t know this? What were you doing in the ’90s?”
When people talk about, like, “slackers” and “millennials,” does that mean anything to you?
Not really. I think it’s all kind of bullshit. I don’t really feel like I’m part of any generation. In my head, or in my soul, or whatever, I’m probably a lot older than I am physically. Those are just things people make up to put in the newspaper and stuff. But I did just delete Facebook off my phone ’cause I’m sick of it, I’m sick of that world. So, that’s nice, to move on from that. I was so dependent on it, and that’s where I got my news from and everything. If I had to search something, I’d type it in there instead of Google or something. It’s just a weird little sub-illness that I realize was weird.