Courtney Barnett vs. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy

Beautiful Ruins

May 20, 2016 Photography by Courtney Barnett Photos by Ray Lego, Jeff Tweedy Photos by Saverio Truglia for Under the Radar Issue # 56 - Best of 2015 - Father John Misty and Wolf Alice
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The last time Courtney Barnett and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy saw one another face-to-face was at the November 2014 Crossing Border Festival in the Netherlands city of Den Haag. At the time, Barnett, riding a wave of buzz behind her joint EP compilation The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas and its hit single "Avant Gardener," was on the cusp of cementing her breakthrough status with the release of her debut full-length Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit in March 2015. Meanwhile, Tweedy, touring with his son Spencer behind their familial LP Sukierae, was still months away from dropping Star Wars, a surprise new Wilco album released for free in July 2015 for their unsuspecting fanbase. Reconnecting over the phone almost a full year laterTweedy from The Loft, his renowned recording studio in Chicago, and Barnett time-lapsing herself from the morning hours of the following day from her home in Melbourne, Australianeither artist recalls their Crossing Border experience with particular fondness, due to its strange mixture of musical performances and book readings.

"I remember you scolded the audience," says Barnett.

"I just thought that crowd was incredibly withholding of their enjoyment," Tweedy says in explanation. "To me, maybe it looks good on paper to put a book festival with a music festival, but we were playing after someone had just read from a book, and so the audience seemed to react the way they would to someone else reading a book. I don't know. You get used to a crowd being a certain way and it was a little bit of a cold shower to have an audience listen to your music as if it were a lecture. Every single song, when it would end, it felt like maybe we had sunk a putt or something and there was a little smattering of applause. It was like a golf tournament. So, yeah, I kind of went off. We were almost done and I just said something like, 'I have to be honest with you. It's been a rough night. I don't know if you guys have enjoyed it. I can't tell.' I felt really, really stupid and I came to the side of the stage and I remember you and your band basically giving me high-fives and basically telling me that somebody had to say it. So thank you for that. You made me feel a lot less stupid, like I had gone off the deep end."

In addition to this mutual reminiscing, Barnett and Tweedy would touch on a number of topics through their hour-long chat, ranging from their respective new works to the development and importance of early musical sketches and ideas. What follows are excerpts of their conversation.

This article first appeared in Under the Radar's Best of 2015 print issue. This is its debut online and is also a slightly extended version of the Q&A. Barnett is the musical guest on the season finale of Saturday Night Live this Saturday night on NBC (the host is Fred Armisen).

Mike Hilleary (Under the Radar): To start things off, how did you each become aware of one another's music?

Courtney Barnett: I've always admired [Jeff's] songwriting, and I only became aware of you in the last couple of years. I was kind of on a road trip and my girlfriend was doing the music for 10 hours and every now and then a song would pop on and I'd be like, "Who's this?" And every time it was a Wilco song. [Laughs] That was my first time listening to the band.

Jeff Tweedy (Wilco): That's really nice. I heard Courtney on the radio actually, and I think my first reaction was, "That's a lot of words. She's singing a lot of words." [Laughs] I always feel guilty I don't write that many words, so through a professional lens there was a little bit of jealousy. Then I got into the records and listening to all of your stuff. I think "Avant Gardener" was the first song I heard. I just loved the lyrical slant. There's a clear voice and it's pretty unusual to hear songwriters these days that have a clearI don't knowalmost a writerly voice. Not that you're always writing in the first person, but it feels relatable and the same person is singing all of your songs. I think that's really great.

Courtney: Oh, cool. Thanks. Well, what are you doing right now? Have you been working today?

Jeff: Yeah, I'm the studio. We're about 90 percent done with the next Wilco record. Just having fun playing around. I don't think there's any hurry to put it out. We're taking our time playing around with it. It's almost done, but there's really no rush. I just put a record out.

Courtney: Yeah, when did you record Star Wars? That only just came out.

Jeff: Well, this record was started around the same time as Star Wars, and eventually we just kind of separated the material into two records that felt like cohesive works. Star Wars was the more playful and rocky, glammy sounding record, and this one is a little more of a fucked-up country record or something.

Courtney: That sounds good!

Jeff: Yeah, better than a not-fucked-up country record I hope.

Courtney: You do lots of producing too don't you?

Jeff: I do. In fact I've been trying to get in the studio with you a while now. [Laughs] Every time you've come through town I think we've tried to hook up but I've either been gone or you've been busy. I'd love to make some recordings with you at some point. But, yeah I love doing that.

Courtney: Yeah, that would be cool. I remember it's happened a bunchevery time we're there you're away.

Jeff: It'll work out. You've mostly worked with the same people haven't you?

Courtney: Yeah, I mean [Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit] was the first kind of time I've had a producer, but he was my friend. [Laughs] I don't know, I've always been of scared of working with people I don't know, of producers telling you what to do and what they think. The album process was kind of interesting because there was that person having an outside opinion, and it made me think differently and it worked [Laughs] in the long run. With Wilco, how do you guys do it?

Jeff: For the most part we produce it or I produce it and for the last five or six years I've worked with my friend Tom Schick. He used to live in New York and he lives here now and basically works at my studio all the time with either other artists or things I'm producing. With Wilco he's kind of a co-producer. He's just so great and a part of every project to the point where he remembers where things are that we forget about. The way I do it for myself to sort of sidestep the sort of neurotic thinking that comes along with putting yourself out there creatively and being vulnerable, I just work on a ton of stuff all the time. And that way I can put away things and then come back to them and feel like I'm an actual audience of it without remembering what I did. And that feels really good. Some stuff I go, "I don't know what I was thinking. This sucks." And some stuff, you really get taken by it and forget that it was something you did. I think that's the most beautiful place you can end up, where you're just kind of mesmerized by the potential in this thing you generated somehow, and hopefully get swept up in it with enough energy to finish it.

Courtney: That sounds like a good way to do it, because if you're focusing on just the one thing, you go to that weird place where you pick everything apart for the wrong reasons.

Jeff: Right, you go nuts. Our joke is that you start focusing on things that will not affect sales. [Laughs] That's not really what we're concerned about. Basically the point is when you start thinking about what the hi-hat sounds like, you're fucked. You've gone too far and you've lost your mind. Because nobody in the world gives a fuck what a fucking hi-hat sounds like. As long as it doesn't break the bell nobody gives a shit. If somebody does care about it then they work in the music business and they're already so far up their own fucking asses they're never going to like your record anyway.

Courtney: [Laughs] That reminds me of your Tweedy music video for "Low Key" where you're going door-to-door with your record. That's such a good video.

Jeff: Thank you. Yeah, that's the way I feel I've lived my life, going door-to-door trying to sell records. [Laughs] It was mostly filmed on my block that I live on. It was like 100 degrees out and I was wearing this three-piece corduroy suit that was two sizes too big for me and at one point my neighbor walked by and yelled, "Jesus Christ, you really let yourself go, Tweedy!" And I was like, "There's people filming me right now! Don't make me feel more self-conscious than I already feel." That's the only time I've ever had an idea for a video, I think in my whole life.

Mike: As the year has begun coming to a close, what has been a highlight for either of you?

Jeff: Well, for Wilco, it was managing to pull off keeping a record a secret and putting it out for free, and getting to finally not have to do the big rollout for a record was really satisfying. I don't think we'll be able to do it like that every time, but I really felt better about it than I've felt putting a record out in a long time, mostly because I didn't have to do interviews in the lead up to it. Just play the music and let it be heard.

Courtney: Whose idea was that for the rollout of that? Because I thought it was really cool.

Jeff: Well, it was my idea. I was just looking around at bands that have been around a long time and wondering, "When will we not have to do all this bullshit?" [Laughs] You know? Basically I asked my manager and my publicist and the people that work at our record label, "You know what? I want to do an experiment. I just want to see how much of this bullshit you actually have to do and how much it actually matters to do anything. So let's do nothing and see how different it is." And it was really fun. I think almost half a million people downloaded the record for free, and while I think a tiny fraction liked the record, that was awesome. It didn't sell anywhere near as much as it would have otherwise, but that's not what we're in a band for. We're in a band to play music for people, not just sell records. That didn't bother me at all. Basically it wound up working way better than we thought it would because nobody seemed to notice we didn't do a thousand interviews. [Laughs] It didn't matter.

Courtney: It just felt kind of special as a listener. It made you feel a part of something in a different way, like the band was sharing a little secret with you.

Jeff: It was nice, I thought, to not have an elite group of people to get to hear it first who then shaped the discussion of it, or shaped the reaction. All the reactions were being generated by people that give a shit [laughs], that care about your band in a way because they are a part of it. Absolutely. I think it was nice for everybody to actually feel that, that they're a part of it, instead of reacting to the reaction, which is what happens a lot with records. What was your highlight of the year?

Courtney: Mine was probably releasing my first album. With the amount of touring and big, first-time festivals, and things that we've done this yearit was a big yearI think the main thing was just making an album that I was proud of and playing it everywhere. That's a pretty big achievement for me.

Jeff: Yeah, that's great. That should be your highlight for sure. It's not easy. From the outside, looking at how busy you've been and how people have reacted to your record has really been awesome to see how much people have responded to it. I've been really excited watching your operation grow.

Courtney: For you, is it funny listening to your old stuff? Do you hear a change in your voice?

Jeff: Oh yeah, for sure. Early on I sounded like a little hillbilly that couldn't sing. It's pretty mortifying for the most part. And I used to smoke and my voice sounded pretty raspy for a long period. It's like a fine wine.

Courtney: I've listened to old demos where I soundobviously my voice is differentbut you can really hear this different vulnerability or something. You can hear the different person.

Jeff: Like a bone-crushing earnestness. Weaponized sincerity. Yeah, I'm glad it doesn't totally throw me off. I'm usually pretty happy, if not a bit detached from the person I sound like on old records. I'm happy that I can listen to them and feel no real sense of regret. [Laughs] I don't feel any shame or anything like that.

Courtney: That's a good sign.

Jeff: Yeah, it would be silly to waste too much time feeling ashamed of that, but I know people that feel like they can't listen to themselves even in the studio, which I think is no fun. But yeah, I know what you mean when you say you listen to it a million times a day and it comes out and you don't want to listen to it ever again, because it doesn't really belong to you anymore, once everyone else gets to hear it and weigh in and shape it into something. Their collaboration is engaged then and you're done with it. You can't do anything more. I always say that by the time I'm done recording something, it's really [not] of any use to me anymore. It was the process of making it that consoled me and kept me in a place where I was preoccupied with something beautiful or creative and that'sI mean, I can't speak for youbut that's the reason you do it. It's a pretty healthy coping mechanism.

Courtney: Yeah, that's something I've noticed a lot more this year after making this album. That moment when you kind of open it up to everyone else and it's not really yours anymore. Everyone is welcome to their interpretation.

Jeff: And they ruin it! [Laughs] They most invariably ruin, and you just can't pay attention to it.

Courtney: And then you make the next thing.

Jeff: Yeah. That gives you the fire or thirst for revenge to make another record. [Laughs]

Courtney: Have you ever recorded something that you love so much that you keep it a secret? Does that even work?

Jeff: No, I don't think that would work, because then you get stuck, and then you become the person that's ruining it. I actually do have a lot of recordings that I don't listen to all the time, but when I do I feel like they're my favorite things I've ever done, but I don't know if the world would think that much of them. There are a handful of things like that, but I don't dwell upon them. I always imagine they'll come out on some box set someday or something and the pressure will be off, because it'll just be crazy fanatics buying it and they get what they deserve.

Courtney: There was this Monet exhibition last year in Melbourne, and while they had all the famous water lilies and stuff, towards the end they showed his really late stuff just before he died, and he had went nearly blind, so all of his painting got worse and worse, and I just felt so bad for the artist. Would he want anyone seeing that? And then I thought about it musically, would you want anyone to hear your shitty little voice memos or demos and ideas you have at 3 a.m.

Jeff: I don't know. To me, that's the kind of place you want to be anyway, putting it out there not really sure if it's something you should be sharing or not. To me, any observing ego ruins it. And I meant that seriously, when I said I'd be the one ruining it after a certain point. To me, if you get really deep into the process, then you're not really there anymore. And that's the most joyous place to be on Earth, a disappeared entity in the act of creating. I don't really trust, once my ego gets involved, that I'm going to make any good decisions at all about what is worth anything or valuable. It's all kind of the same thing to me. I could see something that I recorded into my iPhone might be much more valuable to somebody than it is to me or it could be a piece of shit, but I honestly think like that. It could all be about the same thing.

www.courtneybarnett.com.au

www.wilcoworld.net

 

 

 

 



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