Courtney Barnett

Pulp Nonfiction

Jan 22, 2014 Photography by Tajette O'Halloran Issue #48 - November/December 2013 - HAIM
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Last May, Melbourne-based singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett earned an APRA (Australasian Performing Right Association) Song of the Year nomination for "History Eraser," a lyrically vivid composition that she recorded with her band and released on her own label, Milk! Records. Atop garage-rock guitars, drums, and slightly psychedelic organ, Barnett delivers her surreal tale of misadventures in a sing-speak that gives the song a stream-of-consciousness quality. After a few days of writer's block, the lyrics indeed arrived in a flurry, but the task of completing the song was prolonged, as Barnett whittled an estimated 20 verses down to four.

"I spend a lot of my time trying to process what I'm thinking, and what I see, and what other people are thinking," she says. "So it takes me a while to establish my feelings about something."

Barnett, 25, spent her childhood in Pittwater, a coastal town about an hour north of Sydney. She learned to play guitar when she was 10, inspired by her older brother forming a band with neighborhood boys whose taste gravitated to loud, guitar-based acts such as Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix. When she was 16, she moved with her family to Hobart, Tasmania.

"I was trying to start bands all throughout school, but no one else was really that into music," Barnett says. "I was in school bands, like jazz bands and all of that, but never proper bands."

She attended the University of Tasmania to study fine arts but dropped out at 19 and headed to Melbourne.

"I wasn't focusing very much," she says. "I was just hanging out and drinking and not getting anything done with my life, so I moved away for a change of scenery, to meet people and give myself a bit of a challenge."

Around the same time, Barnett began to write what she calls "half-decent" songs and started to perform on her own.

"I played at open mics, and I was so nervous all the time," she says. "I was probably a terrible performer 'cause I'd get the nervous stutter and I couldn't look at anyone. I was just really shy."

This fall, Barnett released The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, a compilation of her first two EPs. One of the highlights is "Avant Gardener," an autobiographical recounting of a life-threatening anaphylactic episode that she suffered while gardening in the heat last December. The track has a murky feel, complemented by deadpan vocals and wailing guitar feedback. As with "History Eraser," the lyrics are a first-person narrative account, this time a true retelling of how she was saved from her shortness of breath by paramedics. In the song, she refers to the scene in Pulp Fiction when Uma Thurman's character is pumped with adrenaline.

"Now I've got an asthma puffer and an EpiPen," Barnett explains. "If you have an anaphylactic response to something, you jab this needle in your thigh. I'm not allowed to do too much gardening, which kinda sucks 'cause I just moved into this house, and we've got a really good veggie garden. But I'm just a bit nervous."

[This article first appeared in Under the Radar's November/December 2013 issue.]



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