‘Badass’ is Courtney Barnett’s middle name. Okay, it’s not. But between head-butting bandmates on stage, her stellar taste in music, and her love of avant gardening and rambles in the wilderness, it may as well be. HATTIE O’DONNELL got to chat with the singer/songwriter and record label founder ahead of her Sydney show.

 

The first rule of music journalism reads: thou shalt not meet thou’s idols because they’re probably a dick. Luckily, Courtney Barnett is anything but. After releasing her double EP A Sea of Split Peas to international critical acclaim last year, you’d forgive her for having a big head, but if her Splendour set is anything to go by, she’s too busy having fun to care much about what anyone thinks. Known for her on-stage antics, which include but aren’t limited to: crowd diving, head-butting her fellow bandmates and just generally shredding, Barnett says they’ve formed a close bond after being on tour almost non-stop for a year: “we’re best friends so we kind of muck around … we do some stupid shit to amuse ourselves”.

Barnett began making music at around 18-years-old, earning her stripes performing at open mic nights. “I started playing music, like learning guitar when I was ten and I’ve been playing since then. I started writing music – writing songs – when I was at uni down in Hobart.”

She draws inspiration from a range of rock and punk classics, such as Patti Smith, PJ Harvey and You Am I, influences that are recognisable in her guitar-heavy, heart-on-sleeve style. But like most of us, she affirms that her taste is more than a little eclectic: “Oh man, I listen to so many different types of music.”Barnett’s Triple J Unearthed profile backs this up, explaining that “she likes to think her music defies genre, but it’s really just an amalgamation of all the music she digs mashed into one.”

Aside from the obvious nod to rock legends, Barnett also – perhaps unexpectedly – immerses herself in more traditional styles too, listening to “heaps of classic music at home.” Having grown up with it, she didn’t always appreciate it: “But you know as a kid I hated it – I wanted to play pop music or whatever, but that’s kind of all [my parents] listened to. Even like The Beatles and shit like that I kind of just found that separately on my own, when I started learning guitar, and other people sort of showed me bands like Led Zeppelin.”

Her style is an unmistakably Australian brand of rock, and she looks up to “quite a few Australian artists, and people who I can connect with, like Paul Kelly. I really admire him and his career. Darren Hanlon and Tim Rogers too.” Patriotism aside, her favourite record of all time is Jeff Buckley’s Grace, but it’s not exclusively a boys club: “I guess you kind of always subconsciously look up to female musicians, like one of the first bands I ever saw live was Magic Dirt in Hobart. And I just thought they were so cool.”

The Melbournite prefers writing from her home city, “even though it can be pretty frustrating,” Barnett says. “I like creating music in the studio and recording and whatever, but playing live is also really fun. It’s hard to compare them because they’re both really different.”

While she isn’t out on tour, in her spare time Barnett is an avant gardener, and she dished out some advice on plants you can grow to impress your friends: “Kale is really good to grow, because it’s really easy … it grows so big, it’s almost like a weed – but it makes you feel so accomplished, so even if you’re shit at gardening and none of your tomatoes are growing and nothing else is working, you can always rely on kale.”

Courtney Barnett recommended some pretty excellent tracks to listen out for, including a few to play when you’re down in the dumps (because sometimes even a green thumb can’t lift your spirits). “Well there’s either when you’re really miserable and you want to stay miserable, or when you’re miserable and you want to try and be happy. So when you’re miserable and you want to be happy, I put on The Kinks’ ‘Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy’. And when I’m miserable and I want to stay miserable, maybe something like Jeff Buckley or Nick Cave, or Rowland S. Howard.”

Not content to be known only for her kickass tunes and gardening prowess, Barnett is also a founder of the record label Milk! Records, on which she released her first EP. “I started it because I wanted to do things my own way, and I didn’t really know how else to do it, so I just did it myself. It’s worked pretty well. It’s kind of like my own little art project and I just do whatever I want to do with it. Like if I wanted to start releasing books instead of records I could do that – there’s no rules. I can do whatever I want.”

The label is all about mates having a space to create together and have fun, and there’s a real community feel around it. Milk! puts on regular local gigs and quadrupled its crowdfunding target for their latest compilation – so people are pretty into supporting home grown independent talent, which is typical of the Melbourne music scene. Tie that to the resurgence of records and retro collecting culture, and it’s a recipe that can’t go wrong. The new Milk! compilation, A Pair of Pears (With Shadows), is out now and features a new song from Barnett called ‘Pickles From The Jar’.

For all the international praise, crazy tour schedules and award-winning she’s been doing, Courtney Barnett remains seriously down to earth – making it easy to almost forget her prodigious talent. That combined with her reputation for killer gigs is a winning combination  – you’d be crazy not to see and hear this local legend for yourself.

 

Courtney Barnett is playing at the Oxford Art Factory on October 8-10. Her debut album, recorded with “a bunch of weirdos”, is set for release in 2015. More of her music here.

Featured image credit: Leslie Kirchhoff