Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile on “Lotta Sea Lice”

The Laws of Chemistry

Dec 08, 2017 Photography by Danny Cohen Issue #62 - Julien Baker
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A strange sort of math seems to underlie the chemistry of creativity. Any time two great artists are added to each other in equal measures, the product of their union almost always yields something less than what either of them could create on their own. On music's periodic table, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile represent stable elements, two singer/songwriters who have refined their work to the point that they have become instantly recognizable and distinct creative personas. Putting them together in the same equation seems like a formula for too many ideas and not enough space for either artist to fully stretch out. But here, at least, the usual math breaks down.

On Lotta Sea Lice, their nine-song collaboration, Barnett and Vile sound like two artists who have been comfortably sharing the same space for years. In reality, they've only known each other since 2014, when Barnett opened a show for Vile in Australia, then repeatedly found herself sharing festival bills with him as her commercial profile increased with 2015's critically-acclaimed Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. An admirer of Barnett's music himself, Vile suggested that they work together the next time he was in Australia. Recorded over eight days spread across 15 months, the album grew from a planned single to an EP to a full-length, with Barnett and Vile each bringing original compositions and a few well-chosen covers. "I said, 'Let's do one song,'" Vile laughs, "and then there was a whole record."

In conversation, it's hard not to feel like a third wheel when they're together, as they finish each other's sentences, reference inside jokes, and crack each other up every couple minutes. That same easygoing vibe runs throughout the entirety of Lotta Sea Lice, from the laidback sprawl and traded vocal lines of Vile's "Over Everything" to the twinkling guitar lines of Barnett's "Let it Go," winding through raucous covers of Jen Cloher's "Fear is Like a Forest" and Belly's "Untogether." Vile and Barnett even cover songs from each other's albums, with Vile turning her "Outta the Woodwork" into a laconic dirge, and Barnett slowing down and beautifying his "Peeping Tomboy" (here rechristened "Peepin' Tom"). Like one of those unpredictably rough-around-the-edges albums that Neil Young made in the 1970s, it sounds like a set of songs that were thrown together over a long weekend, guided by an internal logic that kept the sound raw and the performances immediate. They didn't need to talk about the album they wanted to make; they just made it.

"That was the magic of it," Barnett explains. "It never was going to be an album. The goal you normally work towards with an album, it wasn't there, so the planning and the thinking wasn't there, which maybe freed us up to do whatever and try different things and not be so locked in. I reckon it was a really happy accident in that way. It was the perfect amount of tears and fun."

Striking that balance is likely the reason the collaboration works. Though both Vile and Barnett wrote songs for the project and with the other in mind, these are not collaborations in the sense that the duo sat down with guitars and a blank sheet of paper and tried to scratch out a new song together. Rather than approaching the album as a statement that had to represent two great songwriters in their prime, they made a musical scrapbook for fun.

"I had never played actual music with you," Vile says to Barnett, "but maybe if we were literally, ahead of time, trying to sit and write all these songsall the lyrics togethermaybe that's where we both have our own personalities. But we'd bring songs to each other and sing lines our own way, and you'd bring material and I'd bring material. It was never a forced thing. It was never like, 'Okay, what's the next line here? This is your line.' It was never like that. Then it probably would have been tragic."

With that, they both laugh. Ask them if there's another collaboration in their future, and they don't hesitate. "I would definitely randomly play with Courtney any time," Vile replies. "We'll always be doing some kind of music together. In some form, always," he says, turning serious for a second. "Even when we're apart."­­

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Fall 2017 Issue (October/November 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

www.courtneybarnettandkurtvile.com

 

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